Shark Fishing Skills

Sharks are found in nearly every sea in the world, from the icy waters around Greenland to the warm south Pacific. Some are ferocious predators, but others are harmless plankton-eaters.

Twenty five or so species of fish belonging to the shark order have been recorded in the waters around the British Isles. One of these species, the basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, although relatively common, cannot be considered as a potential angling species as it is a plankton feeder unwilling to take any bait presented by an angler.

The head of a porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus)
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Nine other species are nearly always found in water well beyond that fished by anglers. Since these species are bottom-dwellers which swim at the edge of the continental shelf, they too can be removed from the list of species taken by anglers. Eight species are taken with great regularity on many parts of the coast but are not considered as sharks because of their small size, or names. These are the tope and the smoothhound, the spotted dogfish – lesser, greater (bull huss), blackmouthed – the spurdog, and monkfish which is also a true shark.

The remaining species are all large members of the family which are considered by anglers as real sharks. At least two of these, the blue shark, Prionace glauca, and the porbeagle, Lamna nasus, are extremely common at certain times of the year in some places, while two other species, the mako, Isurus oxyrhinchus, and the thresher shark, Alopias vulpinus, make the angling press with some regularity. A recent addition to the list of rod and line captured species is the six-gilled shark, Hexanchus griseus. There is only one recorded in Britain so far.

Porbeagle (Lamna nasus)
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Several other species are known to frequent our waters. Reports exist for the bramble shark, Ecinorhinus bracus, Greenland shark, Somniosus microcephalus and, surprisingly, the hammerhead, Sphyrna sp., which has been claimed (unsubstantiated) as a rod and line capture. Reported sightings only, without the evidence of an actual specimen, are the rigger shark, Galeocerda cuuieri, and white shark, Carcharodon carchararias.

The capture by rod and line of any of the last five, even six, species must be considered as luck rather than reward for intentional angling effort, and any angler trying specifically for these would spend many fruitless days before reward came his way, if at all.

Nevertheless, since fortune does smile on some anglers, no description of the sharks found around Britain can be complete without them. Since all sharks conform more than most fish to a general shape or body form, which consists essentially of a conical head with mouth on the underside, and a long, tapering, cylindrical body which ends in a forked tail, only those features which differentiate them need be discussed.

Fishing for the hammerhead shark

The hammerhead is immediately recognizable because the head is flattened from above and below and extended laterally into an unmistakable shape. The reason for this strange modification is not understood. There have been many suggestions about functional adap-tation. One is that the wide placing of the olefactory organs at the extremities of the ‘hammer’ may give it a ‘stereoscopic’ sense of smell.

Another species, the thresher, also immediately identifies itself because of the length of the upper half of the whole length of the fish. Again, proof of function for such a long tail is lacking. It has been suggested that the tail is used first to herd food fish into a tight pack and then for stunning them.

A basking shark
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Some other shark species can also be identified easily because they deviate from a general pattern shown by most sharks. Assuming that all sharks have two dorsal fins, a large one followed by a second smaller one near the tail, any shark not showing the two fins, but only a single large one near the tail, should also possess six gill openings on each side of the head and not five. This identifies the six-gilled shark.

In a somewhat similar way, the absence of an anal fin (the fin situated between the pelvic fins and the tail) means that the specimen in question is a member of the spurdog family, for all sharks which have cylindrical bodies but lack an anal fin belong to this group whether they bear spines at the front edge of the two dorsal fins or not. Such a shark would be either a bramble or a Greenland shark.

Distinction between these two species is very easy, for while the skin of the Greenland shark is rough like all sharks, the bramble shark also has many large thorns similar to those on the roker or thornback ray. The English name, bramble, is therefore very apt.

The other sharks – the porbeagle, mako, blue, tiger and white – do not show any of the features mentioned above (the absence of or special development of any fins), but conform completely to the generalized picture of a fish with five pairs of gill openings, two dorsal fins and an anal fin. But body proportions, fin positions, and colour and shape of teeth, are aids to identification.

Blue and tiger sharks The blue shark has an extremely long, slim body with the upper part of the tail much larger than its lower part, long, narrow pectoral fins and a vivid blue colour. A shark with a blunt, short snout and short pectorals, highly asymmetrical tail, and grey or transverse bars would be a tiger shark.

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Three species remain: the porbeagle, the mako and the white shark. They bear the greatest resemblance to one another and are closely related. Indeed, the similarity between the porbeagle and mako is so great that it was once not realised that the mako existed in British waters. A world record claim made to the International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) for a record porbeagle showed that mako exist in our seas, for on examination the fish was identified as a mako, not a porbeagle, on the basis of tooth structure.

Had the captor known that the mako is characterized by very long, slim, triangular teeth, unlike the triangular teeth of the porbeagle where the main triangle is flanked by one very small triangular cusp at the base, the mistake would not

have been made. Again, the porbeagle tends to be much more squat or plump than the mako, and always shows two caudal keels, one large, the other much smaller and less distinct. The mako only has one keel, due to the flattening of the body just in front of the tail.

Any shark taken off Britain which externally resembles the porbeagle but has only one caudal keel should also be examined for tooth shape. If they are triangular with serrated edges, then – at long last – a British white shark will have been taken.

The blue shark is a southern species which prefers warm water. As an oceanic fish it arrives off Britain’s South Coast and the south and west coasts of Ireland with the coming of summer, but keeps well off shore. Its main distribution area is off Cornwall, both on the English Channel side and to the north, and it is only at the end of exceptionally warm summers that some may move north into the Irish Sea. Many are found off the south and south-west of Ireland and along certain areas in the west such as Galway Bay.

Some may move north in the autumn to appear off the west coast of Scotland, but because the waters of the Minch (between the mainland and the Outer Hebrides) have only a northern and southern access to the open sea, few blue shark are found in that area. Most records from these northern waters come from west of the Hebrides, from the Rockall and St Kilda area.

A similar distribution exists for the mako shark. However, the numbers caught each year are nowhere near as great as for the blue since the species tends to be more solitary. Packs of mako are never encountered. All mako captures so far come from the western end of the English Channel or the northern part of the Bristol Channel.

Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
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Mako and porbeagle

The mako has so far not been reported in Irish waters, while the porbeagle is widespread. Many parts of the coasts of the British Isles hold porbeagle, with certain places in Wales and Scotland now producing specimens. So-called ‘hot-spots’ have been discovered off the Isle of Wight, North Cornwall and North Devon, but big catches may only be due to the great number of anglers fishing these areas. There are similar hotspots off the west coast of Ireland.

If anglers concentrated on shark fishing, many similar hotspots would come to light, as has been proved in Shetland. Here, due to the effort of two anglers, many porbeagle have been hooked including two specimens. Comparison of the hot-spots shows that they have one factor in common. They are all tidal areas close or relatively close in-shore, often in association with reef areas or rough ground, which are frequented by shoal fish such as herring or mackerel and to a very large extent pollack.

A similar distribution pattern also appears to exist for the thresher, which may be encountered anywhere at any time around Britain. Again, most records of capture come from the British south coast.

So far as the other species are con-cerned one, the Greenland shark, is definitely cold-water-loving so that the Shetlands would be the obvious place to expect the first rod and line capture. Perhaps some anglers fishing for common skate will be the first to catch one of these sharks. Since both the bramble and six-gilled sharks are bottom-dwelling species of rather deep water both could be taken anywhere that angling is carried close to or in water of over 100 fathoms.

Of the British species which have been recorded as rod and line captures, the six-gilled shark is the one with potentially the largest size. The present record, taken in 1976 off Penlee Point, Plymouth, at 9lb 8oz is no indication of the ultimate size for the species, for it is known to reach as much as 1,500lb.

Even the British blue record of 218lb, a record which has stood since 1959, is no indication of size for the world record is almost twice that weight. But fish of that size are uncommon and may become more so for the killing of these fish (especially by British anglers) means that there are fewer fish to reach the very big sizes.

The world record weight of over 1,000lb for a mako may also be somewhat on the low side, for larger specimens are known. British anglers, therefore, still have a target to aim for, as the British record weight for the species of 500lb represents only 50 per cent of the potential weight.

Cornwall’s world record

So far as the porbeagle record is con-cerned, Britain heads the World list with the 465lb fish taken of Padstow, Cornwall in 1976. But commercial captures suggest that it may reach more than 600lb.

As with the blue and mako sharks, the British thresher record of 295lb, established in 1978 off the Isle of Wight, is no indication of ultimate size, for specimens in excess of 1,000lb, have been caught elsewhere, and have been sighted in British waters.

So far as the other species which have been mentioned are concerned, all with the exception of the bramble are giants, for while the latter probably does not go heavier than 300lb, hammerheads have been reported to 15ft and 1,000lb, while the tiger shark will probably reach twice that weight.

Legendary white shark

The weight and size of the white shark are legendary, with specimens in excess of 20ft and two tons having been caught in nets or by harpoon. These fish therefore make the world rod-caught record of 2,664lb taken off Australia look a little small in comparison.

In second place in the giant league must be placed the Greenland shark, which in its cold waters reaches almost the same size as the white. It is an extremely sluggish species and is easily taken by hand line and landed without any struggle. This is why it is also often referred to as the ‘sleeper’ shark.

Solent and Isle off Wight

The Solent and the sea around the Isle of Wight provide first class fishing for both boat and beach anglers, and there is some good coarse fishing to be found on the island

Separating the Isle of Wight from the Hampshire mainland, the Solent offers a wide variety of mixed sea angling. A superabundance of food, comparatively shallow water, and savage tides attract many kinds of fish, providing first class fishing for beach and boat anglers alike. Big tope are often encountered in the Sowley area and fish to 50lb have been caught from Park Shore.

Smoothhounds in huge packs

Farther west, where the shore line is comprised of mud and salt grass, big sting ray also fall to beachcasting tackle, and fish of 40lb or more are caught during most summer seasons. Good sized smoothhounds roam the Solent in huge packs, and anglers using ragworm or deshelled hermit crabs often catch large numbers of prime specimens. Thorn-back rays and bass are also common in Solent waters.

Solent bass anglers usually fish Stone Point on the eastern side of Lepe Beach, or Sowley Boom or Hampstead Ledge on the island side of the Solent. These areas are best fished with natural baits, and strips of locally caught cuttlefish are the most favoured lure. Beyond Hurst Castle a long, submerged shingle bank provides a feeding ground for vast shoals of small to medium-sized bass, and most of these can be caught by trolling a red-gill sandeel behind a moving boat.

Fishing inside the Solent is good but seldom easy. Strong tides and drifting weed make for difficult conditions. Persevering anglers, however, often catch exceptional specimens. Quite apart from bass, tope, stingray, smoothhounds, skate and a host of smaller fish, the Solent is capable of producing the occasional big conger or monster monkfish. A 62lb monkfish was caught a few hundred yards off Sowley beach by a boat angler, while a young angler beachcasting into deep water at Hurst Castle brought in a 49lb conger eel.

Facing out into the channel, the south and south-western side of the Isle of Wight is noted for its good fishing. Beach anglers who fish such marks as Rocken End, Chale, Ather-field and Brook Beach catch large conger, skate and monkfish from the shore. Anglers in this area who specialize in bass also catch plenty of good-sized fish up to and well into double figures. The offshore marks round the island provide even more scope; tope, turbot, skate, ray, conger, pollack and heavyweight cod are all caught during the course of a normal season.

All round the coast of the island there is good fishing from beaches and from some piers. Sandown, a sheltered resort, has ideal fishing conditions all year round with boats available along the shore, and lugworm and king rag plentiful locally. Here, conger, dogfish, dabs, skate and mackerel can be fished from deep water, with plaice, flounder, bass and sole inshore.

Sandown and Totland also have good beach and pier fishing with boats available. At Sandown there are bass all year round with the largest in early autumn, and plaice, sole, turbot, mackerel, garfish, and large skate, ray and conger in late summer and early autumn. In Totland, bass can be caught off the shingle bank from a boat, and bass and conger from the shore. In Cowes there is good fishing for whiting in the harbour, with bass, mullet and pollack off the Parade, and pouting and bass in the Solent.

Excellent shark fishing Off St Catherine’s Point, vicious tide rips and very deep water combine to provide unique opportunities for shark fishing enthusiasts. In past years this area produced a seemingly endless stream of heavyweight porbeagle sharks, including one fish which for a while held the record for the species. A combination of overfishing and a decrease in mackerel shoals has led to a general decline in numbers of the porbeagle shark, but the St Catherine’s area is still one of the best places in the British Isles to try for a high leaping thresher shark. Fish of record-breaking proportions are regularly sighted off the corner of the island. Numerous 200lb-plus specimens have been caught by sharking boats drifting in St Catherine’s Deep, and fish of twice this weight have broken anglers’ tackle, often after several hours of hard fighting.

Quite apart from porbeagle and thresher sharks, the St Catherine’s area has also produced a strange silver-coloured shark covered in dark spots and blotches. When this particular shark was caught by the author, the Natural History Museum in London was notified and it was thought that it could be one of a new species as yet unrecorded. Unfortunately, this shark was caught on a day when porbeagle shark were extremely plentiful, and the angler, by the time he had landed the fish, was too tired to realize he had a potential record-breaking new species on his hands. In consequence, when the fish had been weighed and photographed, it was then cut up and sent to a local mink farmer to be used as fodder. Since this strange and very beautiful fish was caught, many anglers have fished the Isle of Wight in the hope of catching a similar specimen, but no one has yet made contact with one of these ‘unknown’ sharks.

Winter fishing round the island is often very good. Big cod are fairly common and fish of 20-25lb are regarded as good but not exceptional catches. Fish of up to 40lb are taken during most winter seasons, and a record-breaker could be caught at any time.

Other than good sea fishing, the Isle of Wight also provides limited coarse fishing facilities. Most of the river and lake fishing on the island is controlled by the Isle of Wight Freshwater Angling Association, which lets some fishing on a day ticket basis.