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July 20, 2011

SoCal Thresher Madness

Bait-and-switch helps Southern California anglers punch trophy threshers in the mouth.

The common thresher shark off Southern California is a miracle adaptation. Its compact, thickly-muscled body and elongated scythe-shape tail are perfectly designed for its unique method of feeding. Thresher sharks whip their tails — which can equal their overall body length — with pinpoint accuracy to stun sardines, anchovies, mackerel and other prey. Then they circle around to gulp down baitfish injured, killed or addled by the sudden concussion. When threshers feed in groups near the surface, you can often see and hear the commotion created by their fleshy bullwhips in action.

This unusual feeding style makes threshers challenging fish to catch — at least if you care about hooking them in the mouth. Because they attack baits and lures with their tail — often repeatedly — threshers are frequently foul-hooked by anglers, so much so that the technique of trolling rigged dead baits or swimming plugs for threshers has developed its own dubious nickname: the “drag-and-snag.”

Heads, You Win
It takes some effort to hook threshers in the mouth on a regular basis. It’s certainly worth it, for several reasons. Of course, there is the feeling of sportsmanship and fair play that comes with properly hooking and beating one of these majestic sharks on rod and reel. For tournament anglers and record seekers, there is the added benefit of keeping to IGFA rules. The best reason, however, is the undeniable fact that a mouth-hooked thresher shark puts up a much more fun and spirited fight.

“Threshers jump a lot and tend to stay on the surface when they’re hooked in the mouth,” says Dave Elm, production manager for AFTCO, chairman of United Anglers of Southern California and an avid thresher shark angler. Elm has held several Balboa Angling Club thresher shark records over the years, along with an IGFA world record on 16-pound line class. He and other Southern California thresher shark aficionados have refined bait-and-switch slow-trolling techniques that successfully attract trophy thresher sharks, minimize foul-hooking and get the sharks to inhale the bait — often right behind the boat. These techniques also increase the likelihood of a healthy release. The Balboa Angling Club has long worked to promote thresher shark conservation, offering release buttons and release points standings to recognize anglers who conserve these magnificent animals.
   
Where, When and What
Southern California anglers enjoy an excellent recreational fishery for thresher sharks, with bona fide big-game action close to home. When smaller 50- to 100-pound threshers gather to feed outside the kelp line, it’s even possible for kayak anglers to get in on the excitement.
Although primarily a spring and fall fishery, threshers can be caught anytime conditions are favorable. Elm looks for water of 59 to 63 degrees with a greenish-blue tinge that locals refer to as “dirty.” If there is a pronounced edge between green and blue water, he likes to fish the green side.

The other key factor in locating thresher sharks is the presence of bait. It could be schools of anchovies, sardines or mackerel — it doesn’t matter much as long as you’re metering good concentrations of forage. If you’re in the right color of water and marking suspended bait on the fish finder, you are where you want to be.

Although conditions change from day to day, some areas of the Orange County coast tend to be thresher feeding zones. Among these are the southern portions of Laguna Beach and the Newport Canyon area off the Newport Pier.

Elm focuses on two different depth zones and, in effect, two different fish populations. “Depending on where the bite has been happening, I fish along the 50-fathom curve or the 100-fathom curve farther offshore,” says Elm. Although it’s not written in stone, he usually finds sub-100-pound fish tighter to the beach. The bigger fish usually work deeper feeding zones, where you are more likely to encounter a typical 100- to 150-pound thresher — with a shot at the occasional 250-pound monster.

Handle with Care
You need to handle these fish carefully when you get them alongside the boat, paying particular attention to the rear end. Threshers don’t have the snaggletooth mouth and bad attitude that define makos, Southern California’s other popular game shark. What they do have is a five-foot tail that can slap you silly.

“To successfully and safely release a thresher, you want to keep the boat moving forward and the fish swimming as you bring him alongside,” says Elm. “When you have control of the leader, you want to either remove the hook with an ARC dehooker or cut the wire as close as possible to the fish’s mouth.”