Presented from Issue 96
Why Do it?
Mako Sharks are a fantastic sports fish and as luck would have it, they live right here in Tasmania. They are visually spectacular during the extremely hard fight as they rip line from the reel on one of their blistering runs and then up the entertainment value one more notch by leaping metres into the air, crashing back down with a huge spray of water.
Of course, like all fishing scenarios, a fish will only fight long and hard like this if they are caught using a rod and line that will allow them a sporting chance. When you lay down a good burley trail there’s no telling what size shark you’re about to attract. You could get a newly born baby Mako that is only 60 cm long right up to fish that are hundreds of kilos in weight. This is just one of the reasons I like to burley sharks right up to the boat before putting a bait, lure or fly in the water. Sizing up a Mako or Blue Shark like this, gives you the opportunity to choose a line class, type of rod, and reel that will give you the most rewarding catch. Watching one or more of these free swimming sharks circle the boat and then bump the hull, or grab hold of the propeller, is exciting stuff. This fearless act is something you will only see while shark fishing.
The popularity of Soft Plastics has exploded over the years and for good reason as they are easy to use and they catch a lot of fish. Soft plastics have everything going for them. They have the ability to be fished at every depth, simply by changing the type of jig head or hook used and they are made to represent everything from crustaceans and worms, to baitfish. As their name implies, their soft chewy body must feel very natural to a fish, as they tend to hold onto them for a long time. This is especially true when using the heavily scented varieties of plastics that are as close to bait as you can make an artificial.
So, with all this going for them, why not throw one at a shark, you just know they are going to eat it. I think targeting any fish on an artificial is all about the challenge of persuading a fish to eat something that is not the real thing. To do this though, you often need to work a little harder on your presentation to fool a fish into eating your offering. I have no doubt that you could catch a very large shark on a soft plastic providing it is matched to the right tackle. But for me, the most rewarding time to use a soft plastic would be on one of those small makos that come in under one hundred kilos. Hook one of these rockets on a spinning reel that is matched to a suitable rod and you’re in for a whole lot of fun.
In The Beginning
Over the years my good friend Steven Hambleton and I have spent many hours on the water catching Makos and Blue Whalers on fly. From this, we have developed our own ideas on how to get a shark to eat a fly that has no artificial or natural fish attracting scent added to it. One of the pre-requisites was to see the fish first, so we could watch and learn from its reaction to the fly. Their initial response to the fly whether it was retrieved or not was not very encouraging at all. We soon realised that, even though sharks may look fearless, they can be quite cautious when they first approach the boat. That’s one of the reasons why many shark anglers use a balloon to float a bait out away from the boat, but for us, trying to catch a shark on fly by blind searching was not an option. Sure it has been done, but it’s just hard work and you don’t get the opportunity to size up a fish first, which I think is very important when you’re going for records or you just want to match the size of the fish to the appropriate tackle.
From those first rejections to the fly we knew we needed to change their cautious behaviour to one that was fearless and in a state of frustration, which is exactly the same state you get a Marlin or Sailfish into when you tease them up behind the boat. I am certainly not suggesting this is the only way it can be done, because as we all know, in fishing, there are always different ways of achieving the same outcome. This is just what has worked for Steve and I during the time we have pursued these amazing sharks.
For this type of fishing, using a burley trail to bring sharks to you (the source of a potential feed for the shark) is a tried and proven method of finding sharks in the open ocean. I believe fresh burley is best and there are two basic methods of delivering a constant trail of this mix. The first is to manually mash up fish using a burley bucket and chopper that is usually mounted to the back of the boat. The second is to use frozen minced up fish burley blocks that will thaw out in the water leaving an unbroken trail of finely chopped fish pieces and oils. I personally prefer the frozen burley blocks, as they are so easy to use and require a lot less effort to achieve the same outcome. The key to burley is to have enough on hand for a full day on the water. Frozen blocks can be used up quite quickly on a hot day and even faster if you’re drifting quickly in a rough sea. A very good addition to the burley mix is tuna oil dripped onto the water to create a slick. This will not only enhance your trail but will also stop a lot of the mutton birds from eating your burley or cubes as these birds tend to avoid this oily slick. Steve has a very easy way of distributing tuna oil to the trail, by feeding out a tuna oil soaked rag on a rope into trail. This method also keeps the tuna oil away from the side of the boat, which tends to stick to the hull and make a mess.
Laying Down a Burley Trail
The key to an effective burley trail is to maintain an unbroken scent trail that is going to lead fish to its source. The longer this trail becomes, the more fish it is likely to encounter. On those rough and windy days you cover a lot of water very quickly sending out a burley trail for many kilometres, which has the potential to cross the paths of many sharks. However, on those flat calm days, that have very little wind to assist your drift, the fish attracting range of your burley trail is going to be very limited. In these conditions, we came up with a very simple solution “the motorised burley trail”. Because we like to use frozen burley blocks, this is a very simple exercise of slowly towing the frozen burley in its cage or bag in the same direction of the eventual drift. Do this for a couple of kilometres or more before stopping to drift naturally and you will have a good start to the day. One thing to keep in mind during one of these motorised burley trails is, it pays to keep a close eye on your burley out the back, as we have had makos swim up behind the burley and take a bite. If you’re using a net bag made from nylon to defrost your burley in this situation you are very likely to loose the lot and not even know it if you’re not watching it at all times. Heavy plastic or metal burley cages are a good idea to distribute the frozen burley, as they will withstand a probing bite from a shark. These can be easily made to suit the size of your frozen blocks by using a variety of materials, from heavy plastic buckets and milk crates, to a purpose built steel or aluminum cage.
As I alluded to earlier, one of the key ingredients to consistently getting a shark to eat an artificial is to get them fired up by teasing them into a state where they want to eat. To do this, we use a whole solid fish, such as a tuna or couta, tied off on a rope. As soon as the burley goes into the water the teaser is let out to the limit of our vision on the day. This is just one way to tempt those cautious sharks that sit off the boat, just a little closer.
We have also had sharks come up onto the teaser when we have towed it during the motorised burley trail. If a fish doesn’t take the lot, then the tease has already started and if the shark isn’t too big, they can be pulled or tempted back to the boat using the teaser. The idea behind the whole fish teaser is to allow the shark to take a bite and then pull it away or in many cases, shake them off the fish at the side of the boat. As you could imagine, this gets them fired up and wanting more. At this stage it’s worth leaving the teaser out of the water and in some cases, if they are preoccupied with the burley cage, removing that as well. This will turn their focus onto whatever food source is left in the water. This is the time to present the soft plastic, allowing it to slowly sink like a piece of fish that was torn off on the tease. If they still don’t eat, throw in small pieces of fish that are a similar size to your plastic. If it eats those, try the plastic again. If it rejects the plastic again, return the teaser and the burley cage to the water and repeat the process.
Once you know the sink rate of your wire trace and plastic, you can lead the shark and have the plastic drift down in front of the fish, watch him eat it and then set the hook hard and hang on. If, after several attempts, the shark still won’t eat, another trick is to cast ahead of the shark so that it sees the plastic, but this time when the shark refuses it again, keep letting out line to allow the plastic to naturally sink deeper and deeper away from the shark. They must think they are about to miss out on a feed because you will often see them turn down and swim after your offering and finally, eat it. Perseverance is the key here and if you’re committed to catching one on a soft plastic, without adding a chunk of meat, you will succeed.
These days, the big off shore spinning reels and rods are very capable of subduing game fish like small makos and tuna. The advantage of this, over the overhead game reels, is that they are a lot easier to cast an un-weighted 130 mm long soft plastic with, accurately, ahead of a shark. That’s not to say you really need to cast very far when these sharks are right beside the boat anyway and if you were inclined to throw a big soft plastic at a 200 kg fish then you would probably want that 24kg overhead at your disposal. For those small makos, however, a heavy spinning outfit is just the thing to put the sport back into a small fish. When it comes to wire traces, it’s almost impossible to cast a plastic on a 3 to 5 m wire trace that is traditionally used when bait fishing, so this is where a couple of metres of a heavy monofilament wind on leader comes in. These leaders can be wound onto the reel, which will allow you to easily cast a short 1 metre, 80 to 100 kg nylon coated wire trace. Although this system isn’t as robust as a traditional shark trace. It still has enough wire in the system to deal with those teeth and the heavy wind on leader seams to withstand those tail wraps and their abrasive skin during the fight. This system also allows a more natural presentation, which I believe, is one step closer to getting a fish to eat an artificial.
Soft Plastic Rigs
I think big soft plastics, 130 mm and over, work the best for this style of fishing. Anything from big flick baits to Slick Rigs that are fished un-weighted, will do the trick. To improve the hook up rate, try pre-rigging two opposing hooks on a wire trace so that one hook points down through the plastic and the other points up. That way just like a two hook fly, you can double your chances of finding a spot in that bony mouth.
Sharks and in particular Mako Sharks, are a fantastic sports fish that are readily available in our waters if you put in the time and effort. Tasmania has many small makos in its waters that are great fun and very challenging to catch on light tackle. So why not rack up another species on your growing soft plastic capture list, take that photo and only take what you need for a feed, so we can preserve the fishery and keep them as a sports fish.