We are trolling big swimming plugs for bluefish 15 miles off Virginia Beach when one of the rods suddenly bucks in the rod holder. “Holy smokes, that’s a big bluefish!” I say to my fishing buddies. Then, a giant thresher shark explodes out of the water 100 feet behind the boat, beginning an hour-long battle that ended with a 200-pound fish boat-side.
That shark reignites my enthusiasm for these great fish.
Monsters on the Beach
When I was a kid, my dad and I caught big makos that exploded in aerobatic displays of gnashing teeth and thrashing tails. But through the years, shark populations have declined, and my passion for shark fishing had gone dormant until that thresher shark interrupted our bluefish trip.
That day, we released another big thresher and broke off a third fish, trolling Stretch 50s and Rapala Magnums on 30-pound tackle.
As shark populations have rebounded, there’s no better hunting grounds than mid-Atlantic area waters.
With my interest piqued, I contact Capt. Jake Hiles, a VB local who specializes in shark fishing. “There are more sharks out there than most people realize,” he says.
Hiles says that blacktip sharks show up inside 20 fathoms in April and stick around through October. Threshers pick up in fall and hang around through spring, while big makos lurk east of the 50-fathom line in spring and fall.
To find the fish, Hiles first finds the bait. “For blacktip, sandbar and dusky inside 20 fathoms, we look for big schools of menhaden and set up shop,” he says. The threshers show up, along with big bluefish, on inshore humps around Chesapeake Light Tower and Tower Reef. Mako sharks follow albacore along the 50-fathom plateau in spring and fall.
The Promised Land
No place offers better shark fishing than Hatteras Island, North Carolina. After hearing stories of free-jumping makos, I joined Capt. Kenny Koci for a day of shark fishing this past spring.
We meet at the dock before dawn, and an hour later we are on the edge of the Gulf Stream. But instead of stopping the boat and deploying a chum bucket and bloody chunks of bait, Koci slows to 6 knots and brings out a spread of 50s spooled with 150-pound braid and a 300-yard topshot of 50-pound mono.
While we are setting the spread, I spot a six-foot mako free-jumping off the bow. “I guess we’re in the right place,” Koci observes.
Koci says that tuna, albacore and especially bluefish in the area are a good sign that makos are around too.
We don’t troll far before we get the best sign of all: The rod pulling the right flat line bucks hard and slams down. “That’s how you hook one!” Koci says.
While the angler works his fish to the boat, he explains that makos will often short-strike a plug. If a mako hits and misses one of the Ilanders or SeaWitches, Koci drops the bait back and waits for the shark to return. Cranking and pausing will encourage the fish to attack again. “You gotta work it like a blue marlin,” he says. “They’ll almost always come back to finish it off.”
As the day progresses, we have jumping sharks, running sharks, charging sharks and streaking sharks. Koci’s crew is ecstatic, and by the end of the day, they are exhausted.
On the way in, Koci details the sharkin’ off Hatteras. “The fish show up in December, when the water starts to get cold and the bluefish move offshore,” he says. The peak of the season is March to April. He looks for a temperature break where 66-degree water crosses structure. “The fish could be in 20 fathoms or 500 fathoms,” he says, “and 66 degrees is the magic temperature.”
While trolling is a great way to catch makos during the day, Koci says the bite really fires up at night. “We’ve had nights where we’ve caught 20 makos,” he recalls. Using spread similar to the one Hiles uses off Virginia Beach, Koci drifts the 66-degree break. “The best nights find the current bucking the wind,” he says, which slows his drift and spreads out the chum slick.
Listening to Koci’s stories of epic action convinces me: There are more opportunities to explore along the mid-Atlantic, and a lot more sharks to catch.
Mid-Atlantic Sharks Planner
Warm southern currents and cold northern water bring a variety of sharks to the mid-Atlantic coast year-round. To find the fish, find where bait, structure and ideal water temperature collide. Great sharking is available within 20 miles of any port along the coast. To find out what’s available, set out chum and bait, and wait to see what comes in to feed.
Where: Humps, hills, canyons and temperature breaks from Cape May, New Jersey, to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
When: Target thresher and mako fall through early spring. Turn to blacktip, sandbar and dusky in the summer.
Shark Regulations: Shark-fishing regulations change from time to time and state to state. For the latest rules, check your local fish and wildlife department; for federal rules, go to noaa.com.
- Virginia Beach, Virginia: Capt. Jake Hiles, www.matadorsportfishing.com, phone: 757-749-6448
- Hatteras, North Carolina: Capt. Kenny Koci, www.bigtahuna.com
Mid-Atlantic Sharks Tackle Box
Shark conservation has become a worldwide effort. Due to a serious lack of data on most shark species, the Guy Harvey Research Institute began a mako-shark-tagging project last year. Researchers have tagged four makos with Pop-Up Satellite Archival Tags (PATs). CLICK HERE to view an animated track of one particular mako the GHRI tagged in New Zealand.
Rods: Big sharks offshore: 50-pound-class, 6-foot rod with a longer butt section; inshore: 7-foot, 30-pound rod.
Reels: Offshore: two-speed, 50-pound-class reel; inshore: 30-pound class reel for sharks up to 100 pounds. Keep handy a 7-foot, medium-heavy spinning rod rigged with a 12-inch piece of No. 9 wire and a fresh chunk of bait as a pitch rod.
Line: 50-pound reel, 150-pound braided line and a 300-yard topshot of 80-pound mono. The 30-pound reel holds enough of 30-pound monofilament for water shallower than 20 fathoms.
Rigs: Wire leader is key to beating sharks. Single-strand No. 7 to No. 12 wire will fool inshore sharks; 500-pound-test cable stops sea monsters. The wire should be 10 to 15 feet long to prevent fish from breaking the line with its tail. When drifting baits, stainless-steel J-hooks work best. For trolling, makos can’t resist a dark-colored Yo-Zuri Bonita, Braid Marauder or Ilander Hawaiian Eye. Thresher sharks will take a swing at a Mann’s Stretch 50 or a Rapala Magnum.