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September 21, 2007

Salmon Shark Slugfest

Droves of huge salmon sharks descend on Alaskan waters to intercept salmon every summer, and anglers are beginning to capitalize on this run of big-game brawlers.
The salmon shark closely resembles the mako, its cousin in southernly climes.
Photo: Jake Jordan

Since learning of the new recreational fishery for salmon sharks, I've been anxious to catch one of these puzzling predators of the north Pacific. ¿ I first heard about them from Captain Bill Steffers, who was catching these mako look-alikes in Prince William Sound. He showed me photos and talked about how hard they fight, but he really got my attention when he said, "Sometimes we see hundreds of them cruising on the surface on sunny days. When you find one you usually find a lot."

That was two years ago.

As a salmon drawn to the waters of its spawning, I went back to Cordova this past summer with my friend Captain Jake Jordan to try my luck with salmon sharks.

Jordan, a Florida Keys fishing guide, came last year with a fly rod and hooked 16 fish over four days.

He broke off every fish the first three days, but, remarkably, subdued two the last day, using IGFA-compliant 20-pound leaders. This time we were packing stand-up tackle to improve our odds of getting a few to the boat. Our host was Captain Greg Hamm, a retired Alaska state trooper and light-tackle guide who is fascinated with catching these big critters.

On our visit, we stayed in a rustic cottage next to Hamm's home on Eyak Lake. We fished from his 22-foot Boston Whaler, nicknamed "FrankenWhaler" due to modifications for light-tackle fishing, including a custom welded-aluminum transom casting platform and a high rail around the flat bow forward of the raised windshield. The cockpit is low to the water, which provides an up-close view of the sharks, as I discovered when one blasted out of the murky water within inches of me as I retrieved a jig.

These sharks feed on salmon returning to rivers to spawn, so they can be found close to shore.
Photo: Gary Caputi

Going Coastal
Fog kept us at the dock the first morning, but once the day cleared we headed through Orca Inlet into Prince William Sound for a spot Hamm said would be holding sharks.

During the 75-minute run the sun came out and the most beautiful scenery burst into view. We cruised past mountains and dense forests on flat aqua-green water beneath incredibly blue skies. The air was so pure you could feel it all the way to your toes when you took a deep breath.

Hamm slowed the boat as we approached a wooded point near the mouth of a cove and idled closer. We were within 100 yards of the rocky bank with trees right on the water's edge when he pointed to the fishfinder, which was filled with large marks.

"Salmon sharks," Hamm said in his understated way. All I could do was look in amazement. We were a stone's throw from shore and the setting was so "north woods" that I felt like I should be casting plastic grubs for smallmouth bass. Instead I was looking at more sharks on the sounder than I'd ever seen anywhere.

As Hamm killed the engine, I grabbed my stand-up outfit, a Penn 16VSX loaded with 50-pound braid and a mono top shot.

A salmon shark is leadered at boatside. A fileted salmon carcass rigged on a heavy jig is the ideal bait.
Photo: Gary Caputi

Hamm baited the circle hook with the rack of a recently filleted salmon and said, "Drop it."

The bait hit 80 feet and was eaten in seconds. I counted to five, moved the drag lever to strike and felt the circle hook set. I was fast to my first salmon shark in under two minutes.

The fish ran for deeper water, stripping the top shot and getting well into the braid, effortlessly pulling against 18 pounds of drag. Hamm maneuvered the boat outside of the fish, forcing it back toward shore. After a couple more hard runs and a lot of head shaking, the battle settled into a tug of war: I'd pump the shark up and it would turn and run off another 100 yards of line. I started to think the fish was playing me. When it finally came to the boat it was about seven feet long and the head, dorsal and back looked remarkably like a mako. Estimating weight was difficult for me because these sharks exhibit much more girth than the makos I know. Hamm said this one weighed about 300 to 350 pounds, definitely heavier than a mako of comparable length.

A few minutes later I was hooked up to my second shark. I managed to beat four out of the nine I hooked, and during the process I learned a few things about salmon sharks.

First, they are damn strong and slug it out, making hard-charging runs and occasional leaps. Some fight near the surface while others go deep. Keep them closer to shore to encourage a surface fight. The water temperature on our visit was an unusually balmy 65 degrees and that seemed to keep the sharks off the surface, but it is common to encounter numerous fish lazily sunning themselves.

Find one salmon shark and you've probably found a wolf pack - a feeding congregation that can number in the hundreds, holding on an ambush point where salmon schools move through as they return to their spawning streams.

Leader Tweaks

Photo: Jake Jordan

To rig for salmon sharks, we started with a 16/0 circle hook attached to eight feet of No. 14 Tooth-Proof stainless-steel wire, a ball-bearing swivel and ten feet of 300-pound mono. But we modified it after losing a few sharks that turned in tight circles, catching the wire with their tails and kinking it so it would break later in the fight. The 300-pound leader held up well, while the wire tended to cut the shark's skin. So we reduced the wire to a three-foot trace and passed it through nylon tubing, then attached it to 15 feet of 300-pound mono with a swivel. This setup aided release if the shark rolled up in it, and didn't cut the fish.

We used Gitzem jigs with pink or orange Mold Craft squid bodies, but Vike jigs with single hooks also work.

We pulled the bait-and-switch with a 20-weight fly rod, using a large fly that looked like a salmon fillet. We hooked six, but were unable to fight any for more than ten minutes before breaking off. Catching these brawlers on the fly is possible, but it is not easy. One thing's for sure: I'll be back to try again.

Salmon Shark Skippers
Captain Greg Hamm, Alaska Extreme Fly Fishing; (907) 424-5853; alaskaextremesaltwater@yahoo.com
Steve Rainey, Orca Adventure Lodge; www.orcaadventurelodge.com
Captain Bob Candopoulos, Saltwater Safari Company; (907) 224-5232; www.saltwatersafari.com