The Shark -- Alaska's Toughest Fish
by Andy Mezirow, Crackerjack Charters: Seward, Alaska fishing
The Salmon shark is fast becoming the ultimate challenge in saltwater fishing in Alaska. The scientific name of the Salmon Shark is Lamna ditrpois. The family of sharks LAMNIDAE includes all of the mackerel sharks including the Great White, Mako and Porbeagle. All of these sharks are known to be unpredictable, very tough fighters. The Salmon shark, Porbeagle and Mako make great table fare.
The Salmon Shark is unlike any other predatory fish in Alaskan waters. They are faster, bigger and stronger than any fish in our area, the apex predator. Their life cycle and biology are also one of the least understood. What is known is that they grow slowly and give birth to their young alive. Since they are slow growing and share similar biology to other sharks, it can be assumed that they are subject to over harvest.
I would advise anyone considering a shark fishing trip to only keep what you and your family can use and release the rest. Sharks are very hearty and are known to have excellent survival when released. Salmon shark average between 250 and 400 pounds with a few specimens over 700 pounds being caught each year.
Because it is common knowledge that big sharks are susceptible to over harvest, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has made stringent bag limits on the Salmon Shark. No commercial harvest and a sport catch of one per day and two per year.
The actual techniques for catching the Salmon shark are a closely guarded secret. There are only a handful of charters that target these sharks. Commonly, they rig dead baits to swim like a live fish and troll. Another popular technique is to troll artificial lures until a shark is found. If they won't bite the artificial, then present it with rigged bait. Herring, cod, commercially caught salmon (it is illegal to use a sport caught salmon for bait) are popular baits. Just like other gamefish, the sharks tend to respond to a fast trolling speed of 6-8 knots. Fishermen have tried all types of bait including fish more commonly used in marlin fishing like Mackerel, Bonito, and Mullet. I have found big concentrations of Salmon Sharks on a shelf between 22 and 35 miles due south of Day Harbor. This area is known as the Center Grounds. The depth of water changes from over 600' to about 325'. The area is large and there are lots of small halibut on the bottom. If you head out to this area in a private boat be careful. This area is very exposed and subject to wind and currents not usually experienced in areas closer to shore.
There are some other areas where sharks tend to congregate like on the eastern side of Prince William Sound near Cordova and other areas where big schools of salmon are common.
As far as the proper fishing gear goes, light tackle is really not an option. Once in Seward, five charter captains were out one evening and hooked up. They were taking turns on one very large shark for over four hours on 80 pound stand up tackle. The end result was that one of these guys (who shall remain nameless) slacked off the lever drag and let the reel backlash, causing the fish to break the 80 pound mono like it was thread.
So the specialized tackle would be a heavy-duty reel like a Penn International 50 wide or a Shimano TLD 50 wide (two speed), spooled with a high quality Monofilament like P-line 80 to 130 pound test. International Game Fish Association rules say that double line is allowed up to 20 feet for heavy tackle. Tying a Bimini Twist usually makes this double line. You are then allowed a leader of up to 20 feet. For the leader look to 400-pound stainless cable or if you are planning on releasing sharks (always a good idea) 600-pound clear monofilament is a good choice. Hook size and style depends on what bait you are using. I have seen the Owner Super Mutu 11/0 circle hook or the Owner Gorilla BG 10/0 do the job. Both are chemically sharpened and come ready to go out of the package.
The Salmon Shark is visual predator so if your hook is too big they will not bite.
Most of the targeted fishing effort occurs from Seward, Valdez and Cordova. There are a couple of charters who fish for occasionally in Kodiak as well. No one has caught (and released) more Salmon sharks than Captain Bob Candopoulos of Saltwater Safari Company. His 50' boat Legend is perfectly suited for tangling with these monstrous fish. The deck is far enough off the water and large enough, to give a degree of protection from the high jumping cousin to the Great White. His crews of three deckhands each have years of big game fishing experience. During a trip each has a specific task during the battle.
I would recommend NOT trying to capture one of these fish on your own private boat. The possibility of having a serious disaster is real. These sharks are capable of breaking tackle, pulling people overboard and jumping into the boat. I would advise you to pick an experienced charter operator and go with a pro.....at least until you learn the right way to do it.
The biggest challenge after finding and hooking up the Salmon Shark is to keep the battle going in a sporting manner. Typically if you play the fish wrong, it will end up twisting and spinning up the leader until it reaches your main fishing line. When this happens the shark's sandpaper-like hide will cut through your line in a split second. Now the shark has been freed from the battle but at what expense? The Shark is now tangled in a 15-foot stainless steel leader. Captain Candopoulos has never caught a shark that was tangled up from a previous battle. There were research divers on one trip that witnessed several dead sharks that were hog tied in fishing line and leader material.
How do you keep the battle sporting? Well, the angler's line must always run ahead of the fish. If the shark gets his pectoral fin or tail near the line, it will start spinning. Once this happens the battle is over and the shark will get away. The boat handler's experience will be the key to insuring that the proper line angle is maintained during the battle.
A back harness and stand up belt are standard equipment in the battle. According to Captain Candopoulos, he always has a crewmember assigned to the angler when they are hooked up. The amount of force during a shark fishing battle is enough that a fisherman could be pulled against the railing or in extreme cases overboard. Therefore the assigned crewmember is situated behind the angler and is holding the harness at all times to insure the angler's safety. After a tug of war that can last hours, the leader will appear at the surface of the water. This is when things can get dangerous.
The crewmember's job is to take control of the fish at the leader. Never try to do this without observing an experienced wireman do it first. Incorrect technique can result in a serious injury. The fish will be lead to the side of the boat into range for the crew to subdue, or release it.
If you intend to release your catch, your fishing gear will be different than what is used when catching to keep. For catch and release you need to use monofilament leader and galvanized or steel hooks. These will not stay in the shark for very long after it is set free.
If your intent is to catch and retain the shark, the crew will lead the fish close and control with the use to two flying gaffs. At this point the captain will shoot the fish. Once the fish is definitely dead, it is safe to be pulled on board. Keep in mind that pulling a shark into any boat is a very difficult task. This is not only because of their tremendous size but also because their skin is like sand paper, and does not slide easily. Once the fish is in the boat the preservation of the meat is imperative. Due to the high urea content in the skin of all sharks, bleeding and gutting as soon as possible is very important. If you choose to retain your shark, don't let hundreds of pounds of meat go to waste by improperly handling the fish.
The shark's meat is very good to eat and freezes well. They taste similar to swordfish. Since the sharks are so large, each fish yields hundreds of pounds of fillets. There are fish processors that are experienced in handling these fish in Seward. Captain Jacks Seafood Locker will cut, vacuum-pack and flash freeze your catch. When fishing keep in mind how much fish you really want and only keep what you can use. For freezing and vacuum sealing it will cost you around $1.10 per pound and to ship it out of state you are looking at $3 to 3.50 per pound. The Salmon Sharks average between 250 and 500 pounds.
As there are more charter companies offering shark fishing trips each year, don't be afraid to ask important questions:
Saltwater Safari Company (Seward) (907) 224-5232 or www.saltwatersafari.com
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