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For anglers sharks are a prize to be cherished, especially off the UK coastline and when I travelled to New York State for the second ‘Shark Cup’ in June 2004, I had a good feeling about the prospects. I’d fished the event in 2003, and released 9 sharks in two days, so expected at least a similar level of sport. What followed was simply mind-blowing.
The Shark Cup is to shark fishing what the Ryder Cup is to Golf, without the European influence; it’s Brits v/s Yanks. The format is simple: one Brit and one Yank per boat to catch and release sharks. 30lb and 50lb test tackle is used, each angler fishing one of each outfit and points are scored for releases, with bonus points for 30lb test.
Blue Sharks, possibly the most graceful, beautiful fish I’ve ever seen, are the most prolific species, but mako and thresher are possible, as well as the very odd intruder hammerhead, tiger and even (think this in hushed tones) great white, although none of the last three showed themselves this year. Most of the fishing is done 20 or so miles east off Montauk, Long Island, the extreme easterly tip of New York State.
The boats are 38-46 footers, rigged for travelling even further offshore. The reasons for the abundance of fish are several: the preservation of fish stocks for leisure angling, strict limits on anglers’ catches, and the increasing ‘catch and release’ policies of forward thinking captains, encouraged by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) who endorse the event.
Tactics are as follows: leave harbour and stop around Montauk Point, in the tidal rips, to fish for bluefish as bait. These fish are similar to our bass, but pale blue, and with a decent array of teeth. Once in shark territory…the captain looks for broken ground in about 200ft of water and sets up a drift along a contour if possible…a chum line of minced bunker; a plankton-eating member of the herring family is set. Occasional chunks of fish are tossed out as groundbait to lure the sharks too.
Three rods are set, each bait under either a big float that is set to slide down the line on striking, or a balloon, which bursts when a shark dives with the bait. The bait furthest from the boat, about 60-75yds range, will be set at maybe 50ft deep, the next one will be 35yds off, at 30ft deep, then one at 15yds, set at 15ft. The fourth rod is kept either as a ‘pitch bait’ should a fish appear in the chum, a regular happening, or lowered directly under the chum bucket, a perforated plastic tub filled with frozen chum that slowly thaws, leaving an oily trail.
So, here’s what happened to me. Day One was excellent. I fished with Alan Kenter, from New Jersey, who beat me six sharks to four, all blues. On the second day, I had one of THE great days of my angling life that will stay with me for ever. My boat partner was Herb Rattner, IGFA ‘Hall of Fame’, with 161 World Records to his name and 51 years of shark fishing under his belt.
We started well, with blue sharks appearing very quickly and we were going fish for fish, up to 3 each, when I lost one and Herb didn’t, giving him a lead. I then lost another, and Herb took a shot at a fish under the boat, which should have been on MY pitch bait rod, and hooked it up before I could get a bait in. Fair play to him, another fish in front.
A Beautiful SunfishThen I hooked something that fought a bit differently. A VERY fast take on the distance rod, which had a 6lb bluefish livebait under the balloon, and a strike met not with the usual blue shark headshake and run, but a heartstopping dash, followed by three explosive jumps. It was mako time, my first ever! Soon had the fish under the stern, all 150lb+ of it, when the hook pulled! We then went fish for fish, mainly blues between 100 and 200lb, when with the clock coming up to ‘lines out’ at 3pm, and Herb firmly attached to a massive 200lb+ blue, I picked up the distance rod to wind in. The big bluefish livebait, about 9lbs in weight, splashed on the surface, and what I thought was a sunfish dorsal fin approached.
Suddenly the fin got taller and taller, until I realised it wasn’t a fin but a tail, and in front of the tail was a BIG thresher shark. The shark circled the bait, smashing down with its tail to stun the fish. Threshers have comparatively small mouths, and want to engulf a dead fish rather than chase around a live one. Eventually the balloons sped across the top, the line tightened and I whacked the reel into gear, and struck several times…I wanted this fish, and I wanted it BAD!
Herb joined me in willing the massive shark closer to the boat, revealing at the same time that in 51 years of shark fishing he’d never even SEEN a thresher next to a boat before. That made me even keener to beat the fish, and after 10 minutes the leader appeared off the stern. Then it disappeared again as the fish set off for the bottom, 220ft below.
An agonising 12 minutes later the leader appeared and the mate grabbed it, slowly drawing the bulky, but sleek grey/copper shape towards the gunwhale. Once alongside the boat, the mighty fish, 15 feet long including the huge scythe shaped tail, lay there like a lamb until the wire leader was cut, then it smashed its tail into the stern before disappearing.
I was shattered, more emotionally than physically. Definitely a fish of a lifetime, and the experience of a lifetime. Herb took the points on the day, but I took the memory and it will live with me forever. On day 3 I had my one success, beating Art Pepper by a goodly margin, and helping the Brits defeat the Yanks on home waters. I suspect we’ll be doing it all again next June,whatever else happens, I don’t think that catching that thresher shark will be beaten in my mind. Unless it’s great, and white, and I don’t even want to think about that!
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