You’re gonna need a bigger boat…
Nearly half of the world’s 400-odd shark species frequent Aussie waters, and the cornucopia of cartilaginous beasts span the gamut of biological niches, from garbage-guts vacuum cleaners to the very, very top of the food chain.
Sharks and fishos have always shared a contentious relationship. While anglers naturally place themselves at the top of the totem, the reality beneath the ocean’s surface is very different.
From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem that big sharks deserve a spot right at the top of the game fisherman’s most wanted list. They’re big and fast, they pull crazy hard and look fearsome. They’re ultimate predators and they’re certainly willing to engage.
Instead, the reality for many lifer fishos is that sharks exist outside of the usual game fishing paradigm.
It can be a little hard to convey properly to the casual big fish enthusiast, but hooking, fighting and besting a big scary shark exists in a whole different sphere to the practice of chasing traditional game species like tuna, mackerel and billfish.
The mid to late 20th century was halcyon days for heavy tackle shark fishing enthusiasts. Huge tiger sharks, makos, whalers, bulls and great whites were targeted, caught, killed and photographed around Australia and the world.
Many game fishing clubs and competitions had separate shark fishing categories, with plenty of anglers and crews carving niches as shark specialists.
I remember seeing huge specimen drowned after being towed backwards by game boats and hung from the gantries at Barrenjoey Game Fishing Club each weekend through the 90s.
Sharks of this size are apex predators and their meat is not safe for human consumption. Their flesh contains high levels of urea as well as heavy metals including mercury and lead and other chemicals including arsenic that build up via bioaccumulation.
The huge fish were trussed up, posed with, photographed and dumped at sea. Not a great look, obviously, in an increasingly conservation minded society.
At least in terms of optics, something had to change.
The common view of sharks as vicious monsters swung towards a more woke perception of them as misunderstood, unfairly maligned creatures worthy of respect and protection.
As the tide of public perception shifted, the Great White Shark Recovery Plan was ratified in 2002.
With great whites wholly protected around Australia and internationally, shark fishing’s image took a hit.
While wholesale slaughter of top order predators was never a great idea, it’s become more and more common for well meaning, if under informed, groups and individuals to lump sharks in with sea turtles, dolphins, dugongs and other ‘cute’ marine life that mustn’t be interfered with under any circumstances.
These days, if you see any sort of mention of shark fishing in the mainstream media, it’s likely to be low effort clickbait blasting some idiot using a shark carcass as a bong, or a lightly researched hit piece framing shark fishos as redneck wrongdoers.
While killing any sea creature for the sake of it is plain wrong, there’s clearly a difference between sharks and sea turtles and the ways in which they impact marine ecosystems.
As top order predators, an over abundance of sharks alters fisheries and marine systems in obvious and not so obvious ways.
Anyone who’s fished the tropical waters from central Queensland up to Cape York and across the Top End would be acutely aware of the bloated shark biomass.
Many areas that were once fantastic fisheries for demersal and pelagic species are overrun with hordes of whalers, bull and spinner sharks and hulking big tigers that will snatch 10kg tuna from your line like a snacks.
There are no simple solutions when it comes to regulating complex fisheries, but it certainly doesn’t help when the waters are constantly muddied with nonsensical spin from groups and individuals who have likely never spent a day on or in these waters in their lives.
ON THE PLATE
While large sharks are a no-go, happily there are plenty of smaller shark species that are readily accessible and make great tucker.
In cooler southern waters off South Australia, Victoria and the southern half of New South Wales, gummy sharks are prized for their high quality fillets.
Further north, school sharks, reef sharks and juvenile whalers are readily caught and are good eating when prepared correctly. The meat is known as flake at fish markets and fish and chip shops. It’s firm and white and is popular for its texture, mild taste and lack of bones.
Regulations on shark size and bag limits vary considerably from state to state, so it’s worth brushing up on the particulars in your jurisdiction before wetting a line.
In New South Wales there is a minimum size limit of 91cm for whaler, school and mako sharks with a bag limit of five sharks in total per angler. Only one tiger, mako, smooth hammerhead, whaler or blue shark per angler is allowed.
In Queensland waters there is no minimum size limit, although a maximum size limit of 1.5m applies for all allowed shark species, with a total possession limit of one shark per angler, or two per boat (with two or more people aboard) enforced.
While the toothy predators are often a pest for reef fishos, known as ‘the taxman’ due to their practice of claiming more than their fair share of hooked fish, small and mid-sized school sharks and whalers can also be plenty of fun when targeted specifically with suitable gear.
The best eating sized sharks, around a metre or so in length, are regularly found in shallow inshore waters and are a viable target for shore-based fishos casting large baits from beaches and breakwalls.
A heavy 12’+ surf rod matched to a large threadline or overhead reel loaded with a few hundred metres of 50lb braid and a heavy monofilament leader is perfect for the job of tussling with these mid range scrappers.
Bait fishing is far and away the most effective method of locking horns with a shark, from the shore or elsewhere, and they’re not overly fussy.
Live baits including yakkas, slimy mackerel, herring, pike, mullet and tailor will score the bite in most instances, although sourcing a supply of fresh or salted cut baits easier and just as effective.
Any sort of bloody, oily fish flesh baits work. Bonito, striped tuna, mullet and tailor chunks, fillets and frames are at the top of the menu.
When presenting a bait, you’ll need to use at least one thick gauge live bait style hook in a 10/0 or 12/0 size, although many anglers prefer to snell two or more hooks together for a better hook up rate.
A short length of heavy-duty wire such as nylon-coated 49 strand trace in 175lb breaking strain or higher should be used to rig hooks in order to prevent bite-offs. At least a rod-length of heavy monofilament leader should be rigged above the wire trace, as sharks’ have course, abrasive skin that can easily wear through lighter line during drawn out fights.
Spend enough time on or around the ocean and you’ll form your own opinions on sharks, their place and how we should interact with them.
While there’s no glory to be had from killing anything that won’t be eaten, it’s plain to see there’s no shortage whatsoever of many shark species in Australian waters. They’re fish, just like any others, and there’s certainly a time and place for tangling with them.