Sharks offer plenty of bite plus a fair fight

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THE DAYS of hero fishing for sharks may be long gone but they still offer a tough challenge and a tasty meal, as STEVE COOPER reports:

In my youth, in the 1960s, shark fishing was about size. The idea of catching and killing a giant shark, and towing it to port to weigh and take hero photos, did not prick many consciences. Most people believed killing sharks was a public service. It had been that way since Zane Grey visited Australia in the 1930s.

Anglers of the Baby Boomer generation grew up with black and white visions of huge sharks hanging from gantries. The process required to set up for a photo was downright ugly: gravity would force a shark’s stomach to drop so there would be a pregnant bulge near the pectoral fins; sometimes internal organs could be seen spilling out through the creature’s mouth. On the shark’s faded skin, written in chalk, were details like date, weight, line class and angler. It was an obscenity, usually topped off with a sensational newspaper headline that shouted “Man-eater”.

Glory hunting by anglers wasn’t frowned upon, nor were we anglers alone in our bloodlust. I suspect many an ageing neoprene warrior probably still has a powerhead going rusty in the back of a cupboard, albeit hidden behind a mountain of conservation literature. In the 1960s, the powerhead was a diver’s first line of defence against sharks.

George Abdo and Davy McRea show off a 23kg gummy for the camera prior to release.
George Abdo and Davy McRea show off a 23kg gummy for the camera prior to release.

Times and attitudes have changed: most anglers no longer kill for the sake of killing, and blood and guts anglers are more often vilified than admired.

The legacy is that some shark species, the great whites and grey nurse for example, were so hard hit by all forms of fishing that they are now protected. Scientists say these species are threatened with extinction.

Another major change in attitude among the general angling population is that size isn’t everything. The old adage about the size of the fight in the dog, rather than the size of the dog, applies to sharks. Small to medium sharks from 10 to 30kg, offer plenty of thrills given the angler is willing to put his or her prowess on the line and challenge sharks with sporting tackle. And at these sizes, the flesh is tender and tasty, if you happen to live down south.

Two shark species that fit within these weight parameters that have become prominent catches in southern waters in recent years are the gummy and school shark. The two species overlap so often that where you hook one type, you are likely to find the other.

There are visual similarities between the two sharks: the body shape and colour are close enough to cause confusion, however, the most obvious difference is in the mouth: gummy sharks, as the name suggests, have plates instead of teeth; school sharks have teeth – lots of them. There are other differences, but teeth in school sharks is the most obvious and leaves no room for doubt.

Steve Cooper shows off a 15kg gummy shark he caught in Western Port.
Steve Cooper shows off a 15kg gummy shark he caught in Western Port.

In Victoria, at least since 1988 when the State Government placed a ban on shark nets in coastal waters, shark numbers have steadily increased. The 1988 decision to close ocean waters within three nautical miles of the coast to shark gillnets and longlines is credited with the improved gummy and school shark populations.

To put this into perspective, gummy and school shark numbers have been steadily increasing for a couple of decades in Victorian waters.

I like school sharks because they are fast and fight well. I caught my first big school shark, a 25kg specimen, from the Point Lonsdale pier. It was a surprise capture as I was after bronze whalers. The school shark took a bait of conga eel suspended under a balloon. My tackle, ancient by modern standards, but over-gunned for the shark, consisted of a 15kg, full-roller game rod coupled with a with a 6/0 star drag Penn Senator game reel. This outfit accounted for several bronze whaler sharks up to 3.2m that, despite their larger size, lacked the vigour and speed of the smaller school shark.

Gummy sharks also fight well with quick turns, sharp runs and the usual rolling up in the line trick. An odd tactic of the gummy, when all else has failed, is to take refuge by sitting on the seabed and lying doggo like a big black stingray. When the shark adopts this position, it can be difficult to move. On a charter boat off Gunnamatta I saw the skipper cut two suspected stingrays free before agreeing to allow the angler to land the third, which turned out to be a 23kg plus gummy shark. Let that be a lesson: never cut your line without seeing what is on the hook. To digress, a similar occurrence happened to a Torquay angler who cut two “stingrays” off before deciding to land the third, which miraculously changed into a 30kg mulloway.

METHODS

Tackle for these medium range sharks should be 10-15kg. Heavier tackle is overkill. The most suitable tackle consists of a large capacity threadline reel with an over-size drag system. Rod choice depends on where you fish. Boat rods to suit are short, super powerful jig sticks. On beaches, use a 3.3m fast taper rod, preferably one that has plenty of grunt in the butt section to give more pulling power.

Gummy shark specialist, Brendan Wing, releasing a gummy in Western Port.

As mentioned earlier, school sharks are often caught while fishing for gummy sharks, which happen to be bottom feeders. This applies whether fishing from boat or beach. However, school sharks are more likely to be caught with baits suspended in the water below a balloon.

Portland angler Bob McPherson said his preference is to use fresh King George whiting, and fish the bait a couple of metres off the sea bed.

“We use about 30cm of 15-20kg wire because it’s thin, flexible enough to tie knots if you want, but mainly it keeps the shark’s teeth off the line,” Bob said.

And wire this thin and light is less likely to deter gummy sharks. If you intend fishing the bottom, rig a running paternoster with a 1.2m long, 50kg breaking strain monofilament (or light wire) leader and a sinker on a short 30cm dropper. Hook choice is 8/0 Circle or 6/0 Suicide pattern. Alternatively, employ two 4/0 Suicide hooks on the leader. It is true you will hook more gummy sharks without wire, however, if school sharks frequent the area and have been dominating catches, wire is essential. If you don’t, chances are you will suffer a bite off or two but sometimes you might get lucky and hook a toothy in the corner of the mouth.

Fresh bait is always the best bait. Many anglers employ cured eel for gummy sharks, but it is difficult to pass a fresh fillet or cube from any fish for either shark. Whiting works well, as does squid, salmon and silver trevally.

One point worth making is that berley can be overdone. Western Port angler Brendan Wing said that when fishing for gummy sharks there was no need for berley as the sharks had keen olfactory senses. Any fish that can sense as little as one part per million of blood in water doesn’t need a neon sign to find a bait. Another reason to avoid berley in some waters is because it will attract unwanted fish.

Both sharks fight hard and fast. The challenge increases with size and location. In surf or strong current scenarios, gummies and schoolies give anglers and their tackle a solid work out. In the surf, these sharks use gutters and wave surge to advantage; in strong current, count on the sharks using tidal streams to advantage.

Andrew Phillips shows off a nice gummy caught in Corio Bay.
Andrew Phillips shows off a nice gummy caught in Corio Bay.

Most of us who killed sharks for photos and glory realise the errors of our ways, but there is a need to keep sharks in perspective: gummy and school sharks are often taken for food, and this is not a waste. If you intend putting shark on the table, kill, bleed and gut the creature. The latter is especially important as the ammonia build up in their internal organs can taint the flesh – mind you, the liver is always good for another bait.

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Author: Steve Cooper

STEVE COOPER won two Walkley Awards for investigative journalism but his great love is fishing and he is renowned as one of Australia’s foremost writers and broadcasters on the subject.

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