BEFORE ALASKA CANCELLED ITS short-lived commercial salmon shark fishery, purse seiners targeted a huge concentration of the fish in Prince William Sound. They soon swapped their seines for 20-hook long-line sets, however. In places, the sharks were so numerous that dozens of them were sometimes trapped at one time in a net. After considering the effects of a supercharged shark weighing 300 to 700 pounds on nylon mesh, the fishermen wisely opted for hook and line.
Whether caught in a net or hooked on a line, salmon sharks pose all sorts of safety hazards for their captors. When one netter retrieved his set in Prince William Sound during the last legal harvest, a live and very annoyed salmon shark fell free and bounced onto the ship’s deck. No sooner had it landed than the fish thrashed its huge tail and began scooting along on its pectoral fins. Jaws snapping, the wriggling shark sent the nearest deck hand running for his life. The man ducked into the wheelhouse and the shark finally slammed to a stop, jammed against the opening by its wide fins.
The fisherman was a friend of Captain Greg Hamm, for whom such incidents were standard fare during his former career as an officer in the Alaska Wildlife Protection Division. Hamm currently runs Alaska Extreme Saltwater Adventures and specializes in sport-fishing for salmon sharks in ways that confound most anglers.
In the past couple of years salmon sharks have become a hot new sport fish in the 49th state, caught primarily on 80- to 130-pound-test tackle using full fighting harnesses. Such is not for Greg Hamm.
FLIES? YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING!
With its customized high black aluminum wind plates around the sides back to the helm, Hamm’s boat, dubbed “Frankenwhaler,” looks like an attack craft from an early James Bond movie. We had just tied it up at a Cordova fuel dock where a fellow offloading his net asked the usual: “Guys do any good?”
“Salmon shark,” we said.
We told him and he seemed duly impressed. Then we added, “On fly rods.” That gave him pause.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, his smile blossoming into a belly laugh. “Sure you did.”
Of course, we were using the 14- and 15-weight outfits any knowledgeable saltwater flyfishermen would use for marlin, tuna and similar beasts. But we hadn’t trolled or deep-jigged, as some so-called flyrod catches of salmon sharks are accomplished. We caught our sharks by casting big streamers and stripping them back in. We managed, but it was tough.
Captain Greg had lured Keys tarpon guide and big-fish flyrod expert Jake Jordan and me to his hunting grounds with reports of huge concentrations of sharks. We assumed that somewhere in the great gathering there would be a few of manageable size. Instead, the sharks started at 200 pounds; the largest was big enough to remind Hamm of the one that chased his friend down the deck.
We first discovered what we were up against after finishing the early morning run from Cordova in the hard blue-white Alaska light. Greg throttled back, slow-motoring us into a huge cove. As we prepared to fish, we saw boils of water bulge up around us as though depth charges had gone off far below. A big fin appeared, followed by several others, until at least a dozen shark dorsals were cutting the slick surface, scribing wandering figure-eights. Hamm looked at us and smiled. Then he pointed to a red-handled knife, its sheath taped to Frankenwhaler’s windshield. “In case somebody needs to cut somebody loose,” he said.
We asked Greg about the boils and what the sharks were up to. “Oh, they’re eating salmon,” he said. “That’s nothing, though. When they get really active they start crashing the surface, maybe even free-jumping and grabbing salmon in the air. This is one of their best ambush spots.”
Good ambush spots, Hamm believes, are areas where wide shallow benches or shelves extend from shore and run alongside. “Shallow” in this part of the Alaskan coast means 80 or 90 feet. The drop-off falls away to 400 feet or so. Many migrating salmon move along the shelves before entering rivers and sharks blast up to grab them as the fish go by. A recent research project seems to bear this theory out. Scientists observed salmon schools hiding in their boat’s shadow being attacked by sharks. The fierce creatures boomed up from the depths and blasted through their milling victims.
The shallow underwater structure provides an angler with an advantage. If a shark is hooked on the deep side of the extended shelves it tends to fight there. But it will come to the surface, or near it, far sooner over shallower water, where a fisherman can apply much more effective side pressure with the rod. A big shark sounding in hundreds of feet of water means trouble.
We were on the right side of the drop-off. Greg began his chumming operation by blending a soup from 5-gallon pails of salmon roe and salmon trimmings obtained from a friendly cannery. We hoped to bring in the surface swimmers, but after days of experimentation found that the chum excited the sub-surface fish more quickly.
Whether it was a surface cruiser or a deeper fish turned on by the chum, there was no mistaking the attitude of the first shark to follow the slick. It was hot and came boring directly toward the boat, turning slightly to show white featherings of long gill slits, dark blotches on a stark white belly and a curious little pointy nose. Jake cast the fat, 8-inch-long streamer–a gaudy ringer for a slab of salmon fillet tied by mutual pal and brilliant tier Lenny Moffo of Big Pine Key. No sooner had the streamer touched down than it was engulfed.
A MYSTERY SOLVED
The shark sizzled into the backing instantly, made several runs, turned three times and was suddenly gone. The 60-pound-test monofilament butt material–not the wire bite tippet–had been cleanly sliced. The next three fish did the same thing to the mono. Was the material bad? This was the same stuff Jake had used successfully on Guatemalan sailfish. We started calling it Guatemalan Go-Away mono, and went up to 100-pound-test stuff.
We had no trouble with the single-strand 44-pound-test wire bite tippet doubled or the 90-pound-test braided Surflon. Nor were our high-density sinking fly lines frayed. The fish I hooked were breaking even the heaviest butt section. Before each break-off there was a signature bumping sensation telegraphed up the line to the rod. These sharks were not spinning and rolling up in the line as many sharks do. Something else was going on.
On one particularly productive day the wind was kicking up whitecaps by noon, which seemed to signal to the sharks that they should descend to 40 to 80 feet below our boat. Greg moved out on the transom extension–a kind of swim platform at water level–to entice sharks to the surface by using a stubby “throw-down” teaser rod baited with a weighted salmon carcass fixed to a shiny hookless jig. The sharks came up hot and ready to eat anything that looked chewy.
Within seconds, another surface melee erupted. Beyond the boat, in open water, the sharks created white-foam explosions as they rolled from the water in their efforts to catch silver salmon. Some of these the sharks caught in mid-leap. Twice we saw a very large shark with a wicked gleam in its eyes chasing its smaller brethren, mere 300-pounders, around on the surface. Creepy stuff, but exciting.
With Jake again tight to a fish, Greg went through his normal routine of fast and nifty boat handling. Keeping the shark in the 90-foot shallows was vital. Greg kept moving the boat toward the drop-off, so the shark naturally wanted to move in the opposite direction. Finally it surfaced and we saw the bright Dacron sleeve covering the fly line-leader butt connection near the fish’s dorsal. We thought it might have been foul-hooked, but no. Working the rod and boat brought the line around and we saw the fish was mouth-hooked. Then the shark turned and the leader passed under one pectoral fin, coming up and back toward the sweeping tail.
Jake immediately felt the familiar banging sensation we’d felt earlier each time just before being cut off. But this time, we were ready. We had surmised that when a hooked shark made fast course changes on us, our lines would hang on either the long pectoral or high dorsal fin, positioning the leader butt so that the beating tail would cut through it like a scimitar. This time, though, Jake’s fast rod manipulation and Greg’s expert boat handling freed the leader from beneath the fin. Soon Jake had the leader in the guides, which qualified it as a legal catch. The salmon shark was easily 350 pounds. Greg grabbed the leader and the thrashing fish released itself. You don’t get many streamers back when you’re fishing for sharks.
Jake’s second catch topped 200 pounds. Jake had by then switched to Greg’s 12-weight rod and backed down the drag. When Jake felt the dreaded banging of the shark’s tail, he and Greg knew exactly what to do. The fish never had a chance. And so it went. As long as the fight stayed on the shelf, an angler stood a reasonable chance of success.
I wasn’t so lucky when I hooked a big shark too near the drop-off on the last day. At first the fish fought near the top and, after two long runs, I was able to retrieve all the backing and most of the fly line. I was beginning to feel pretty pleased with myself when the fish slashed away faster than Greg could maneuver the boat. The shark raced over the edge of the drop-off and then turned down into the inky depths, where it sounded more than 400 feet below us. It took many long, arm-numbing minutes to pull the shark back up.
The fish made a few more quick runs and finally performed an acute-angle turn at the boat that would have done Dale Jr. proud. I immediately felt that horrible banging of the tail, and the shark was gone. A quick back-off of the drag might not have helped in that case, though it worked well enough on smaller sharks to satisfy us that it is essential to keep a taut leader away from the shark’s tail.
Sometimes the shark will win anyway, especially if it grows bored with the fight before it’s worn out and decides to kick in its afterburners. When the big ones leave like that, all teeth and muscle, it’s not such a bad thing.
Try Your Luck?
Salmon shark specialist Greg Hamm can be reached at 907-424-5853; alaskaextreme firstname.lastname@example.org. The best fishing for salmon sharks begins around the first of July and can extend into September, depending on the weather.
A Fast Eating Machine
Salmon sharks are in the mackerel shark family, which includes makos and great whites. Salmon sharks have a higher body temperature than other sharks and are able to elevate it to 24.5 degrees above that of surrounding water. This enables them to withstand colder waters. They are among the swiftest of fish, able to put on bursts of speed in excess of 50 miles per hour.
Commercial fishermen dislike the sharks because of the damage they inflict to nets and gear. Scientists estimate that salmon sharks take between 12 and 25 percent of the typical salmon run. If bled and dressed immediately, salmon sharks are delicious. Not surprisingly, they taste sort of like salmon.