by Dave Schunke
Big fish, big teeth and big gear all conspire to make shark fishing an intimidating pursuit. But you don’t have to be Captain Quint, strapped into a fighting chair with a coffee-can-sized reel and a pool-cue rod, in order catch sharks. In fact, with braided line and relatively small high-performance reels that pack a punch, learning how to shark fish is easier than ever before.
Shark Fishing Tackle
Big game tackle has really evolved over the last few years. The size of the equipment that we used to use for striped bass, we now use for school bluefin tuna, and what we used for school bluefin tuna, we can now use for sharks. This is primarily due to today’s thin-diameter braided lines and the changes tackle manufacturers have made to keep up with the braided line. PowerPro 80-pound-test is the same diameter as 18-pound-test monofilament. We can spool 600-yards of 80-pound test braid onto reels that would only be able to hold 150 yards of 80-pound-test monofilament. This allows us to use smaller reels but have the same amount of line that we had on larger, heavier reels.
The advancements in fishing lines have pushed reel manufacturers to produce lighter, stronger, smaller and more powerful reels. The tackle manufacturers have beefed up the drags on the smaller reels to accommodate braided lines and powerful fish. On the Insufishent Funds charter boats, we traded in our large 50-wide reels for much smaller Shimano Talica 25s loaded with more than 600 yards of 80-pound-test braided line with a 50- to 100-yard topshot of 80-pound-test monofilament. This is a difference of almost 3 pounds in the weight of the reel alone! This not only cuts the weight of our outfit in half, but it also gives us the ability to set the hook with much more control and a lot less stretch than when we used straight monofilament. Now my anglers are fighting the fish and not the rod and reel.
The rod advancements have changed dramatically, as well. We are now able to use much lighter rods that have the same line ratings as the older, heavier rods. We use Shimano Terez TZCX66XXH rods which are designed specifically for braided line. These rod and reel combos, partnered with a good fighting belt and harness, have drastically reduced our fight times. That is good for the angler and good for the shark, especially if you plan on practicing catch and release.
Our standard shark rig on the Insufishent Funds is fairly simple. We use 15 feet of 480-pound-test American Fishing Wire multi-strand cable connected to a 500-pound-test AFW Mighty Mini Swivel with 10 feet of AFW 240-pound-test single-strand wire connected to the hook. For our weighted rig, we add a 3-ounce weighted swivel in between the multi-strand and single strand. If drift conditions are faster than 3 knots, we add additional weight to the rig with a rubber band. Mustad 7699d hooks work the best in sizes ranging from an 8/0 for small baits, all the way up to the 11/0 for our largest strip baits.
Where To Fish
Finding the right place to set up your chum slick is critical. When we are looking for a good place to set up, I find it to be a lot like hunting. First, we start with areas of structure – ledges, holes, and wrecks.
Once in these areas, we start looking for rip lines or any disturbances or changes in the surface waters. These can even be slick lines from a feeding frenzy that may have happened before we arrived or may be happening under the surface. Sometimes they can be small pockets of baitfish or flocks of birds in an area. We like to see any of these signs coupled with water temperatures between 65 and 68 degrees.
On the Insufishent Funds, we always drift, in order to cover more ground. Once we set our slick, we are constantly looking for sharks to engage. Sometimes you see the birds that are sitting in the water all of a sudden take flight, or you notice that the bluefish that were hanging out in the slick have all of a sudden disappeared. The birds and bluefish both know not to stick around when a shark comes to visit.
Once we have located a place to fish, we set up two buckets of chum. Typically, we tie one bucket off of the bow and one bucket off the stern. This helps jumpstart the slick and gives us a constant flow of chum. After we go through the first two buckets, we switch over to one bucket set off the midship cleat for the remainder of the day. We use chum bags that are specifically designed for a 5-gallon bucket of chum. In an 8-hour day of fishing, we usually bring six 5-gallon buckets of chum. During tournament time, we bring eight 5-gallon buckets because we chum a little heavier then.
We also bring a 75-quart cooler full of bluefish or bunker to use for chumming. We add in some fresh cut bunker and bluefish chunks to spice up the slick, but are careful not to overdo it. The goal is to attract the sharks, not feed them.
Shark Fishing Baits
On the Insufishent Funds boats, we fish with many of the standard shark baits, such as mackerel and bluefish. These oily baits really attract the sharks. One type of bait that I think is overlooked for sharking is a bunker, live or dead, rigged through the lips. This streamlined baitfish allows for a very easy hook-set. Another plus is that bunker are readily available. You can use a cast net to gather a large number of live bunker. If you cannot find a school of bunker, or just do not want to throw a cast net, fresh or frozen bunker are available at almost every bait and tackle store in the Northeast.
When bluefish are in your chum slick, however, bunker is definitely not the best choice of bait. You will wind up catching bluefish all day instead of sharks! When blues overwhelm our chum slick, we switch our baits to large bluefish fillets. These will usually keep other bluefish off of the baits.
Mackerel is another favorite food of sharks. When we rig our mackerel, we butterfly the bait by cutting out the backbone, which gives it a better fluttering action and makes the hook set easier. This is done by filleting the mackerel from the tail to head on both sides while leaving both fillets attached to the head. We then remove the spine, which includes the tail. Once we have prepped the bait, we hook the mackerel through the eyes or through the bottom lip up to make the bait more streamlined and stop it from spinning.
Adding a skirt over the bait has really worked for us over the years, both as a means of attracting the shark’s attention and of concealing the hook.
On the Insufishent Funds boats, we typically run three baits at a time, and we always have a pitch-bait ready. A lot of the largest sharks we have encountered followed the chum slick right up to the boat. When this happens, we grab the rod with the pitch bait and drop it right in front of the shark. Nine times out of ten, we get an immediate hook-up.
Our two longer rigs are on a shark float with the third bait being a flat-line. Our long bait is set 250 feet away from the boat and is usually our deepest bait at about 50 feet down with the 3-ounce weighted swivel rig. This keeps the bait in line with the chum that is floating down in the water column. The drift speed will dictate if more weight is needed. It is critical to have the bait at the same level as the chum. Once 50 feet of line is let out, we attach a float and send it out from the boat 225 to 300 feet. The middle bait is set out next, 150 feet from the boat at 30 to 40 feet deep. Depending on drift conditions, we use either a 3-ounce weighted swivel for fast drifts or no swivel for slow drifts. The close bait is flat lined just out of sight from the boat, usually with no float and no added weight.
Once the fish takes the bait, we give it a good 5- to 10-second count before we set the hook. This gives the shark time to get the bait set in its mouth. We set the hook by first reeling tight and then giving two hard pumps to make sure the hook is through the thick part of the jaw. Once hooked up, the most important thing to remember is to stay tight on the fish. With braided line, setting the hook and keeping the line tight is much easier than it was with monofilament and its inherent stretch.
When we have a good fish on, we get the motors started in case we need to make a move to keep the fish away from the boat. Sharks are notorious for making sudden lunges for the engines. It is also critical to have flying gaffs or harpoons ready to go before a fish is hooked. Preparation is the key. As soon as the fish is hooked, we clear all of the other lines and move the rods out of the way of the fight.
When the fight is finished, we find one of the most important parts in the end game is to have the boat moving when bringing the shark to the gaff. This is particularly true with large sharks. Everyone on the boat must know what their role is during the gaffing, where they should be standing, and to make sure that there are no limbs in the way of the flying gaff or harpoon rope. When the gaff is set or the harpoon is thrown, the shark will come back to life and can go out of control.
The shark has a “motor” just like our boat – and that motor is its tail. After the gaff or harpoon has been set, our very next step is to get his “motor” out of the water using the tail rope. We use a 15-foot rope with a loop on one end to lasso the tail and then we cleat the opposite end to the boat. The fish is not really ours until it is tail-roped and tied to the side of the boat. We like to leave the fish tied to the side of the boat for up to an hour before bringing it in the boat. The last thing you want is a thrashing shark in your boat! Sometimes, due to tournament weigh-in times, we are forced to bring a shark into the boat before it has been completely subdued. On those occasions, we tie a bucket over the shark’s head. This seems to quiet them down.
Practicing catch and release in shark fishing is pivotal in helping sustain strong stocks for generations to come. It is not unusual for us to bait 20 sharks in a day, and on many of these trips we release all the sharks we catch. When my son, Max, is ready to go shark fishing, I want him to have the same opportunities that I have today, and in order for that to happen, I need to release sharks in a way that is safe for them, and for me.
The best way to release a shark is to use a release stick, a long-handled device that allows anglers to remove the hook from a shark at a safe distance. Release sticks have a metal loop at the end of a pole that can be slid down the leader to the hook. Once the loop reaches the hook, the release stick is twisted or thrust forward to remove the hook from the shark. A mate working alone can use a release stick to pop the hook out of most of the sharks brought to the boat just by using the weight of the shark in the water. Depending upon the hook-set, a mate may need the assistance of a leader man. Only as a last resort should the leader be cut and the hook left in the shark. We need to do everything we can to ensure the survival of the sharks we release.
And don’t forget to bring backup release sticks. Sharks are tough customers and it’s not unusual for a release stick to get bent or broken in an attempt to release
a large shark.
Getting started shark fishing doesn’t have to be complicated to be productive. Use the right gear, keep things simple and be careful when dealing with these apex predators. And most of all, have fun.