I'm really starting to hate my computer.
Last night an e-mail glitch had my inbox frozen up for half
the night. But even when she crashes this bad, I'm itching
to get reconnected as quickly as possible. For among the hundreds
of junks e-mails offering to cure every disease I've never
had, and continual stream of all-too-grim memos from the desk
of NOAA Fisheries, I'm always searching for that diamond in
Maybe the thresher sharks have the baitfish
pinned down somewhere inside Long Beach Harbor. And just maybe
someone is e-mailing to tell me where I can find them.
Though these inshore threshers are for the most part juvenile
fish below 100 pounds, they do offer some great light-tackle
action for those willing to put forth the effort to find them.
However, since these fish are only pups, I believe it is our
duty as sport fishermen to release them in the best possible
condition so that they can grow large enough to spawn.
Very little is generally known about threshers,
and the information we do have is often conflicting. That
being said, here are the facts the scientific community seems
to agree on. We encounter three species of thresher sharks
along the West Coast: the bigeye thresher (Alopias profundis),
the pelagic thresher (Alopias pelagicus), and the common thresher
(Alopias vulpinus). The bigeye primarily inhabits the deep
waters off the shelf and is rarely seen by the likes of sport
fishermen, while the latter two species congregate and hunt
prey in the inshore waters. In the Pacific, threshers are
distributed from British Columbia down to the Baja Peninsula,
and everywhere in between. I recently had a tag return of
a thresher I originally released off Malibu, Cal., that was
recaptured off the Tortugas, nearly 500 nautical miles away!
The most identifiable feature on a thresher
is its sickle-like tail, which is usually as long as the rest
of its body. Threshers use their tails to herd and then stun
baitfish before eating them with their relatively small mouths.
Because they dwell in deepwater, we know the bigeye thresher
has the ability to feed in total darkness. There is some evidence
the other thresher species feed at night, however, every time
I have tried to convert our daytime fishing to nighttime,
be it slow-trolling or chumming, I have had zero success.
I have caught fish up to 200 pounds inshore
and in Long Beach Harbor, but most commonly these threshers
range from 30 to 100 pounds. Many scientists believe males
reach sexual maturity at 150 pounds and females do so at 200
pounds, yet some recent data indicates males may actually
be larger than females when they are first able to reproduce.
Threshers have a very low reproductive rate. They are capable
of rearing only two pups every year, which makes them extremely
susceptible to over-fishing. Fish that have not yet reproduced
are considered 'pups,' and these pups make up the majority
of the inshore sport and commercial catch. This is why inshore
commercial fishing can be so devastating to thresher shark
populations'99 percent of what they land has not yet had the
chance to breed even once.
THE SHARK HUNT
Though available year round, thresher action peaks in the
fall and spring. We have caught them in water temperatures
as low as 58 degrees and as high as 72 degrees, yet we find
most threshers in 64-degree water. Water color and quality
have always been top topics in sharking circles, but I have
witnessed wide-open bites in both trash-laden water emanating
from the Los Angles River and red tides. Rather, the presence
of baitfish and a place to shoal them seem to be most critical
variables in thresher location.
Threshers primarily subsist on baitfish like sardines that
they herd in the nearshore waters. Since their location is
so dictated by bait movements, they are often here one hour
and gone the next. When you find one thresher, there are usually
plenty more in the vicinity, and we have spotted as many as
20 threshers one day inside Long Beach Harbor, including any
we saw free-jumping. While working with another boat, we have
tagged and/or released 10 threshers in Long Beach Harbor one
day, and 13 off Malibu on another.
Nearshore waters hold more bait than offshore, and the known
hotspots seem to be where the shelf comes in close to shore,
providing the sharks with an ample supply of food and place
to corner it. For threshers, the farther they can push the
bait up onto the beach, the better off they are, as the bait
has no place to get away. Certain times of the year, offshore
locations like La Jolla, Dana Point, the Hospital, and Newport
Canyon attract large threshers, however, most of our efforts
are in waters of 100 feet or less.
These fish are always on the move, and without having a good
idea of where they're gathering before you leave the dock,
you've got a better chance of finding a needle in a haystack.
This is why networking plays such a vital role in my thresher
strategy. I have a small, tight-knit group of anglers I trade
information with. Each is extremely experienced and dedicated,
and when they tell me they have, or have not, seen action,
I can trust their reports. I also have the cell phone number
of almost every bait supplier up and down the coast, and I
keep tabs on the commercial halibut fishermen that work inside
Long Beach Harbor. I watch the Internet like a hawk, and when
the halibut fishermen start talking about a 'mystery' fish
that spooled them, I know the threshers are in town. I honestly
believe 99 percent of finding is networking, and if you're
not giving dope, don't expect to get it back when others locate
GET ON THE BALL
With a general idea of where to find 'em, I hit the water
equipped with my pair of Fujinon 14 X 40 stabalizing gyroscopes,
constantly scanning the coastline for any fishy signs and
watching the meter for bait. Some signs are obvious, like
a free-jumping thresher or the black, crane-like grebes diving
for baitfish, but others can be as subtle as three inches
of thresher tail slicing through the water or a fish oil slick.
To be successful, you first have to understand how threshers
feed, and only then can you use this behavior to your advantage.
When they encounter a school of bait, these sharks will run
the baitfish down in much the same way porpoise do, trying
to wear them out and pin them down before actually feeding.
When the threshers are really moving in their initial effort
to herd bait, it can be almost impossible to get them interested
in your hooked offerings.
Eventually, though, the bait will become tired, at which
point you can get your boat right on top of the bait ball,
and they'll actually stay with the boat in an attempt to find
shelter. When that happens, we can dip net all the bait we
want and put it in the livewell. I can't stress how important
it is to stay right on top of the bait ball once you've found
it. Usually, the sharks have the bait pinned down in one little
place, and once you mark that spot, that's usually where you'll
get all your hits.
Wherever the birds are working, that's where you should be
working. If you don't see birds diving, tails sticking up,
and fish jumping, you might as well go back home. The bait
is constantly on the move, the birds are constantly on the
move, and for this reason I choose to slow-troll rather than
drift, which would severely limit my ability to stay on top
of the fish.
Appropriate tackle for slow-trolling includes Shimano TLD
5's, 10's, and 15's spooled with 20-pound test monofilament.
A popular setup among anglers is a 10- to 15-foot, 100- to
120-pound test monofilament leader tied directly to a 2/0
to 4/0 J hook, which is rigged through a sardine's nose. We
really don't have a problem with the sharks biting through
the monofilament leader, but if you'd rather be safe than
sorry, another option is a 10-foot, 60-pound test single-strand
To help get the bait down, I'll attach a 1- to 3-ounce torpedo
sinker to the leader, about 10 feet up from the sardine, with
a rubber band looped through the eye of the sinker, and then
around the leader. Hopefully, this rubber band will break
once a thresher grabs the bait and takes to the air, leaving
you with an unimpeded fight.
Two hookbaits are usually plenty for slow-trolling, and I'll
put a sardine 60 to 100 feet back on each side of the boat
with the clicker on and a very loose drag. Occasionally, we'll
drop a short line up the middle about 20 feet back, and it
can be an awesome sight when a fish slams this bait right
off the transom! Half the time the thresher will just come
up and eat your offering, but the rest of the time it will
first slap the bait with its tail in an attempt to stun it
before feeding. When this happens, I give them about 30 seconds
to come back and finish what they started, and after they've
gotten the bait in their jaws, I give them another three to
five seconds to munch before putting the reel in gear. Using
the above method, I achieve a 90 percent mouth hook-up ratio
on these sharks.
Sometimes the shark will hook itself during this initial
tail slap. If that happens, you're in for an equally tough
battle (minus the jumps of a normal mouth hook-up), but the
only way to get them to the boat is to reel them in backwards,
basically drowning the shark from the reverse water flow over
its gills. On my boat I do everything possible to avoid this
scenario since I release all sharks, and it's always preferable
to release them alive. Out of the 100 or so threshers I've
caught in the past two years, only five have been tail-hooked
in this manner. I attribute this to slow trolling speeds of
1-1/2 to 2 knots and loose drag settings, which allow the
shark to slap the lure without getting hooked, then still
have time to come back and eat. As a bonus, I also get the
most bites and have the best hook-up ratio at these speeds.
Whenever I've taken the speed above 2 knots, my hook-up ratio
decreased by as much as half.
While we're on the subject of tail-hooking, I strongly oppose
drag-and-snag fishing where the angler intentionally trolls
big, heavy lures or baits rigged with double hooks and the
reel engaged in hopes of snagging the shark by the tail on
its initial attack. I consider fishing for threshers to be
a sport, and I take pride in my hunting and catching abilities.
But when you're doing the drag-and-snag, in my opinion, you're
not giving yourself very much credit as a fisherman or relying
on your skills--you are just being an opportunist.
If you hone your hunting skills, read the water, and present
the bait correctly, you give the fish a fair chance. To me,
that's what the whole sport is about. In addition, when guys
around me are dragging lures, I typically catch seven fish
to their one. Why? Because the bait I am using is literally
what the threshers are feeding on at the time.
TAGGING & BRAGGING
Even if you are planning to release the fish you catch, as
we do with most sharks we catch on my boat, there are a few
extra steps you can take to ensure the fish you let go will
actually live to fight another day.
First, there are two schools of thought regarding light tackle
and its impact on a shark's ability to survive post release.
Many argue that catching a fish on light tackle wears it out
to the point of exhaustion, and thus increases its chances
of mortality after you turn it loose. Having experimented
both heavy and light tackle, I tend to take the view that
heavy tackle is actually worse on the shark since it devastates
the fish and allows the angler to bring it in too quickly.
Envision the effects of a long, slow jog versus running as
fast as you can up a steep hill. Put a shark through the hard
sprint with heavy tackle and your chances of that fish going
into capture shock increase dramatically.
As far as handling fish boatside, be aware that their gills
are extremely sensitive. If you grab a thresher by the gills,
or worse yet, hit the gills with the release or tag stick,
you could have just killed the fish you were preparing to
release. Also be careful not to accidentally place a tag in
the shark's color line, which is the area where the brown
on their back blends into the white of their bellies (or with
makos, blue to white). This is where the fish's main artery
is located, and if you accidentally place a tag here, it will
bleed to death in a matter of minutes.
Never rush through the tag-and-release or struggle to take
a shot while the fish is still going crazy. Have a crewmember
grab its tail while the tag man holds onto the leader, and
give the fish time to calm down boatside. Heck, I even pet
them! With the shark docile and its dorsal fin pointing straight
up (never tag a shark that's on its side), I stare at the
dorsal and aim to put my tag just below it.
Now it's time to remove the hook, and a release stick works
great and is pretty easy to use. If you're using short leaders,
you can place the rod in the rod holder, which gives the perfect
line angle for removing the hook when you have the release
stick properly positioned in the hook bend. As a precaution,
try to aim the release stick away from the inside of the fish's
mouth so it can't flip and hit its gills or any organs.
Since I've been counting, I have caught close to 100 threshers
and 2,000 makos. Thus far I've gotten one return on the threshers,
five on blue sharks, and 28 on the makos. I boast a 5 percent
tag return rate on mako sharks--compared to the average 1.5
percent return rate--and there is no doubt in my mind this
is a direct result of the extra time and care I take with
these delicate fish at boatside. Enjoy this great fishery,
and let's make sure our children have a chance to enjoy it
as much as we do!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Keith Poe, known as the 'Shark Tagger' by fishermen on the
West Coast, is a 42-year-old Southern Californian with a passion
for sharks. This Redondo Beach resident owns a residential
remodeling business in the South Bay area, but when he is
not at work, you will find him fishing for sharks. Keith has
become renown for promoting responsible fishing and focuses
his efforts on reversing the decline in shark populations.
Since 1995, he has been one of the top taggers recognized
by the in the California Department of Fish and Game, and
has also won the AFTCO captain and angler award every year
back-to-back for the most threshers and makos tagged in the
Pacific. He has leadered the only two IGFA apex predator line
class records released alive--the first a 46-pound thresher
caught on 6-pound test, and the second a 22-pound mako caught
on 4-pound test.
Keith is associate producer for Inside Sportfishing, a member
of the West Coast advisory panel for The Billfish Foundation,
and an advisor for United Anglers of Southern California.
He also speaks at fishing clubs and tackle shop seminars around
the state, and he frequently takes fishermen and members of
the media fishing to teach the importance of tag-and-release.
Since the termination of the California Department of Fish
and Game tagging program, Keith has started up his own tagging
program, Tagger International, and currently has 50 taggers
enrolled. For free tags or to learn more about the 'Shark
Tagger,' visit his website at www.sharktagger.com
or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.