Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Get to grips with sharks

It’s work-up season. The waters are starting to cool, spawning season is over and, after having sex, the fish are hungry. Right through the predatory chain from sprats, pilchards and mackerel on to kahawai, trevally and snapper and up to kingfish, marlin and sharks, every fish can feel that winter is coming and with it a dearth of food. So they’re putting on condition as fast as they can ahead of a lean time when metabolisms slow because food and thus energy is scarce. In April and May every fish in the ocean is feeding aggressively, which makes it the easiest time of the year to hook them. The major predators often make the minor ones available to a large section of the food chain by herding them up into a “meatball” on or near the surface. 

This intense activity can be spotted from a good distance on a calm day. Birds working the surface or gannets plunging into the water repeatedly are good signs of a work-up. The "meatball" may be whitebait, anchovies or juvenile trevally, with kahawai flipping through it. Driving into the feed session will simply send the fish to the bottom. If you are targeting kahawai or kingfish then get ahead of the school in the direction it is moving, cut the motor and drift as you hurl spinning lures, soft baits or saltwater flies.

The place to catch snapper is behind the action, up to 300 metres behind at times. And anything at all dropped down should pull fish, from the above three methods to strayling or ledger rigs. The latter will commonly produce two fish on two hooks. The larger fish will be caught on straylines.

Many anglers have been blessed with the spectacle of whales lumbering through the whole work-up, fish spilling from the corners of their wide-open mouths, during April and May. This is particularly common off Northland, in the Hauraki Gulf and the Bay of Plenty.

There are also sharks aplenty.

The swimmer killed off MaoriBay, at Muriwai on Auckland's West Coast, in February unknowingly swam right into the middle of such a work-up. Mullet feeding on small baitfish were chased by kahawai and kingfish, with sharks beneath attracted by the surface activity. Head-down, the man did not see the surface splashing nor the gannets diving into it.

A small bronze whaler hit him first, drawing blood but releasing him, drawing the attention of a group of great white sharks which appeared to be a mother and two offspring.

The catching of sharks, both commercially and by amateurs, is subject of much debate these days. Once regarded as a scourge to be eliminated, the commercial catch was of no concern to the public and amateur anglers commonly killed any sharks they brought to the boat then tossed them away.

Up to one-third of a shark's body weight is in its liver. It was this that initially made them a target for mass hunting. Shark liver oil, known as squalene, was used as machine lubricant. It has been replaced by synthetics. Today, squalene is an expensive ingredient in cosmetics and lotions and is also blended to make health supplement pills. 

Use non-stainless circle hooks which will always roll into the side of a shark's mouth, will not impede its feeding after release and will quickly rust away.

Protected status 

Now, many of the world's shark species are endangered and some protected by law, such as great whites in New Zealand. Finning, to provide the main ingredients for the Oriental shark fin soup, is controlled in many countries and banned in others including Australia, the US and UK. In NZ, sharks cannot be finned alive and their bodies dumped; if fins are cut off then the trunk must be landed, and if not the total weight is estimated and counted against quota ie, 10 fins equals 10 sharks. The idea is to prevent waste and also discourage targeting of sharks.

NZ has 113 species of shark, 73 of which have commercial value but only the catch of blue sharks, ghost sharks, makos, porbeagle sharks, school shark, rig and spiny dogfish is governed under the Quota Management System. The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is reviewing that with the idea of adding others. Around 24,000 tonnes of shark is landed each year, most of it sold for fish and chips – the lemonfish in the window is dogfish – and fins bring in just $4.5 million of the country's $1.3 billion of earnings from seafood exports.

Amateurs now release nearly all sharks they catch alive, tagging many too, to aid marine research. Hunting sharks is suddenly very un-PC.

Some recreational fishers still target sharks for the hard fight they put up. Some hope never to see one. But most regular anglers will tackle a shark at some stage. Regardless of whether targeted or unwanted, there are measures that should be followed in order to avoid being “shark bait”.

Hooked sharks should always be treated as unpredictable, as no two behave the same when close to the boat. At this stage the fish feels it is in a battle for survival. It may twist and roll, it may jump. There are numerous stories of sharks propelling themselves into a boat. Smaller sharks have a lot of energy and can be particularly active and dangerous. Some sharks will run like fury as soon as they feel the strike of a hook. Others will swim straight to the boat.

Fishing in DoubtlessBay one day, with a kahawai out under a balloon to attract a kingfish, I hooked a 2.5 metre mako shark that immediately swam at our boat so quickly that I couldn't rewind the line to keep up with it. The mako attacked the transom sending fibreglass and wood splinters flying and driving my brave crew mates up towards the bow.

Remember to keep a sharp knife handy so you can free such a dangerous fish ASAP. Golden rule: Don't get any body parts near the mouth. And don't take your eyes off the catch.

Rule number two: Do your best to keep the shark calm. Sharks must move forward continually in order to keep water passing through their gills to provide oxygen. Do not lift the head out of the water as this will provoke a reaction, often a violent one. So can lifting the tail. The internal organs of many shark species are held in place by cartilage. In the water these organs are supported but if the shark is lifted by head or tail the tissue may tear. Lifting the fish from the water or raising its mouth or tail out can also damage the tendons which hold the vertebrae in place. As above, the fish will react as though it is fighting for it's life.

If the boat is stationary, the chance the fish will panic is high. So once a shark is at the boat, put the motor into gear and idle forward slowly. If the catch can be flipped onto its back it will often lie quietly in submission allowing easy removal of a hook or cutting of the hook or trace.

Braided steel wire used to be the trace of choice, as the toothy types couldn't bite through it. Now it is frowned on because trailing wire can cause abscesses and infections while taking its time to rust and/or hamper the shark's feeding. If you're targeting sharks use very heavy monofilament (150lbs) or, better, the kevlar trace generally used to make the better commercially-sold dropper rigs. 

Right hooks 

Use non-stainless hooks. Stainless hooks take many months and maybe a year or more to rust away, increasing the chance the fish will have problems with infection. The combination of constantly being in salt water and being washed with a shark's corrosive gut juices will disintegrate a steel hook within three months.

Use circle hooks. These are designed to roll into the corner of a fish's mouth. It is unusual for any fish to swallow a circle hook so that it jags in the throat or gut, where internal injury is likely. They are also easier to remove or cut when hooked through the very front of the mouth.

It is unwise to lean across the shark's mouth and body while attempting to remove the hook or cut the trace. The hooked side of the mouth should be the side closest to the boat; if that is not the case, let line out and bring the fish around the back of the boat and up the appropriate side.

Use gloves when handling the trace. Sudden movement by the fish can cause deep line cuts. And don't wrap the trace around your wrist or forearm – some anglers have suffered near-severing of wrist or cuts to the bone and some have been pulled overboard when sharks have taken off with power and speed.

Use a good pair of strong pliers to grab the shank of the hook and turn it out. The other option is to cut the hook, for which you will need a small pair of bolt cutters. The safest option is to cut the trace. Ensure this is cut as close as possible to the mouth so the animal is not impeded by a long trailing line.

Big sharks of any species (over 1.3m) should not be eaten because of high mercury levels; sharks are slow-growing and mercury accumulates in their bloodstream over time. Small sharks, eaten fresh, are a good feed.

Cut across the tail and through the gills to allow them to bleed out, or better still remove both head and tail and gut when fresh to the boat then ice the trunk. Spiny dogfish, rig and school shark or tope are all good eating if handled well. It is especially good for kids and those scared of swallowing fish bones – there are no bones. It makes good fish and chips and beats coming home empty-handed.

Makos and blue sharks are the only species that are part of the NZ tagging programme. Tagging is best left to experienced game fishers. It has shown how far and fast they can move. A 1.8m mako tagged for the National Institute of Atmosphere and Water (NIWA) off the Bay of Islands headed to Fiji briefly, on to New Caledonia, back to NZ and down the East Coast from Northland to the Bay of Plenty, past East Cape, over Cook Strait and on to Kaikoura in less than six months. It covered 13,300km at an average 60km/day.

Much of this handling advice also applies to stingrays. With rays, it's the back end you need to watch. Many have serrated barbs which can cause serious and painful injuries. Several anglers have been stabbed in the back while leaning over the gunwhale removing a hook. 


In Southland, Fish and Game have proposed a range of changes to regulations and are reviewing submissions from local anglers to gauge support for taking further steps to revamp the rules. The proposals include allowing salmon to be taken from the Mararoa River, allowing spin fishing in the Eglinton River and creating a Spring Fishing Season Opening, when the following mid-reaches of major rivers would be fishable from September 1 each year: Waiau to the Monowai Bridge, Aparima to the Wreys Bush Bridge, Oreti to the Lumsden Bridge, Mataura to the Otamita Bridge.

Fish and Game has also put suggested allowing soft baits in all waters and allowing shellfish to be used as bait. It wants the bag limit on all lakes in Southland to be two fish per person per day. There is also the idea of legalising bait fishing for junior anglers on the shorelines of Lake Te Anau, from the Upukerora Mouth to the control gates, on LakeManapouri along Frasers Beach to SupplyBay, and on the MavoraLakes.

Drift-dives undertaken after the summer floods have revealed that trout populations in major rivers appear to be unaffected by the high runs in January/February. The AparimaRiver has the highest density of trout/km at over 60/km. The Mataura was holding around 30 trout/km in the sections around Garston and the Upper Oreti, with up to 25 fish/km. 

Off limits

The regulations on the take of blue cod in the Marlborough Sounds remain a major bone of contention between locals and MPI, with the latter announcing no changes will be made until a review in 2015. The chief cause of concern for the recreational anglers is the "slot limit" restricting them to fish between 30cm and 35cm. The two-a-day limit seems to have been widely accepted but the size restriction means fishers have to haul many cod aboard before they catch two 'takers' and that the mortality rate of the released fish is high. The consensus among locals seems to be that the rules should require anglers to keep their first two fish over 33cm.

All accept that the big fish are the best breeders.

The upside is that the debate will ensure much effort is put into monitoring the blue cod population inside the Sounds before and after the review.

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