Porbeagle sharks occur all round the coast of the British Isles and can be caught all year round. The current British record was caught in the Pentland Firth off the north coast of Scotland, but fish equally as big have been caught from the south coast of England and Ireland and not been weighed. Luckily, people aren’t interested in killing a magnificent fish of these proportions in order to claim a record any more. Off the south west coast of England all the way around Ireland and further on into the North Sea off Whitby, porgies can be found in good numbers throughout the summer months, although they are difficult (but not impossible) to target.
Porgies are not a fish to be taken lightly. You can get away with taking some liberties with average-sized blue shark and skate but I wouldn’t recommend trying that with even a relatively small porbeagle; they are an immensely strong fish and demand respect. On that point, if you’ve never targeted porbeagles I’d highly recommend a trip or two on a reputable charter boat as it can substantially shorten the learning curve. I say ‘a trip or two’ as porgies are not a reliable target and you will need some dedication and bloody-mindedness to target them successfully, especially from your own boat.
As a member of the warm-blooded mackerel shark family, porbeagles are well suited to our temperate waters. In fact, the waters around our coast have produced the largest individuals yet discovered, including the all-tackle world record fish. I have heard firsthand of fish to 600lb being taken commercially in the past. Although porbeagles are often associated with mackerel, it is far from essential that you use mackerel for bait – in fact I’ve had better success when not using mackerel baits.
The movements of porbeagles are not well understood in the ways they are for some other species, but it’s well-established that the biggest females (along with the large males) come inshore for the females to give birth to their pups in the spring. Females typically carry around four pups, a low figure but these offspring are already well-developed at birth so a high percentage survive. This reproduction strategy works fine in uninterrupted nature but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that it means porbeagles have little resilience to commercial pressure. Interestingly, porbeagle pups are known to predate on their brothers and sisters in the womb, a fact that sums them up in a nutshell for me – killing before they’re even born!
The average porbeagle caught through the summer typically weighs between 15lbs and 150lbs and fish of this calibre are not uncommonly reported from charter boats. There is another class of fish, however, that we find in the spring; these are typically 250lbs upwards and are the fish I choose to target.
From June, a generally smaller class of sharks are caught offshore in deeper water amongst the mackerel shoals. They can still be found here in the autumn, but in my area they also come into shallower water around this time and can be effectively targeted there also. Also, during the summer they often hang around wrecks feeding on the shoals of fish hanging around the structure. In my experience porbeagles love structure and tide and it’s a common theme no matter the size of the fish. It’s obvious that they haunt these kinds of places for the feeding opportunities, a theory borne out by the fact that most porbeagle wrecks and reefs are discovered by commercial rod and line or recreational anglers who find their fish being bitten in half.
Porbeagles are pelagic in nature, although I find that they hang around the bottom when on reefs and will occasionally pick up huss and ray baits off the bottom. They are also incredibly curious fish and will often come to the boat as you slow and stop to start your drift. They’ll sometimes take baits as soon as you get them in the water and before you even have a chance to get the chum bucket over the side (so make sure you have a bait in the water the second you kill the engine).
You can catch porbeagles in virtually any depth of water. I’ve hooked them in as little as 30 feet but they are also found in with the blues in much deeper water, so depth doesn’t seem to be as important a factor as it is with blues. They seem to use sight a lot more than blues (who seem to rely on their sense of smell a lot more). The fish I target in the spring also seem to be resident on small specific sections of reef. From a fishing perspective, this translates to chum and plenty of it, fresh baits and short drifts, once you’ve located an area that holds sharks. If you find a real hotspot, it’s also possible to anchor up and drop a chum trail over a holding area to pull fish up to the boat. You have to be pretty accurate to make this work though, they won’t leave a holding area to follow a slick that takes them miles away from their favoured larder. You also need to give some thought as to what you’ll do should you hook one at anchor; you really need to have a system of buoying off and fighting the fish from a drifting boat to avoid them snapping you off on the anchor rope.
You cannot scrimp on tackle for porbeagles, they can and will find any weakness in your setup so only use the best components. The following is my setup and I have put considerable research and testing in before arriving at it. Deeper water means you can use lighter gear, almost as you would for blue sharks but the potential size of the fish I target in the spring in shallow water make it necessary to go relatively heavy. I certainly wouldn’t go below 50lb class and, personally, I fish 80lb. Porbeagles are shaped similar to a tuna and they have comparable amounts of power, if not the same raw speed. If you go too light, you won’t be able to reliably get them near the boat without either snapping off or tiring the fish to the extent it can’t be recovered, so please gear up for them appropriately.
Properly set up lever drag reels are a real advantage when fishing for big, strong fish. Star drag reels don’t let you accurately preset your drag so have no real place in fishing for these hard-fighting giants. My choice is for Avet 30s and 50s with the drag set at 25lbs strike minimum. With 80lb braid attached by a modified FG knot to 80lb Momoi mono, I have a decent amount of stretch to cope with head shaking during the fight. Reel drag, setup, knots and crimps are appropriate to all big fish and will take some covering, so I’ll most likely cover that in a future article or video. Rods must be powerful: I’ve used the good old Penn Ally 30-80, Calstar 50-80 and also have some bent butt Penn Battalions to try this season.
We’ll start the rig at the hook: it must be incredibly strong and sharp. Personally, I won’t use a hook without a welded eye as the pressure during the fight can open out the eye and straighten lesser hooks. I use Owner Gorilla Live Bait or Mustad equivalent hooks in 9/0 or 10/0. For a bite trace, I use 5ft of 480lb 49 strand American Fishing Wire attached to a 440lb AFW ball bearing crosslock – there is no place for cheap swivels or wire when targeting porbeagles. The crosslock attaches to 12 feet of 400lb Momoi to act as a rubbing leader; porbeagles won’t roll up the trace as blues do but they will dig around deep and shred mono on reefs. Even going this heavy, I’ve been close to having my line rubbed through on rock pinnacles. At the end of the rubbing leader, I have another AFW ball bearing swivel of at least 320lbs attached to the crosslock on the end of my 80lb mono going to the reel. This 80lb line is doubled – you can use a bimini twist to create this but I like a plait knot to add more cushioning into the system.
The reason the first crosslock is stronger than the second is that should a fish get wrapped it will try to straighten its body against the trace. The force it can exert along its body is much greater than it can exert on the rest of the trace and the reel drag can’t come into play to relieve the strain. Every joint is carefully double crimped and either has a Flemish eye or a stainless thimble to reduce abrasion. It’s really important to match your crimp to the wire and mono and to make sure that the ends of the crimp splay outwards to stop them cutting into your line. Ideally, you should use alloy crimps on the mono and copper doubles on the wire.
Porbeagles like to hang around small areas and become resident for a period of time. These areas usually have abundant food sources – and I’m referring to fish bigger than mackerel here. in the autumn we find them on the bass and bream grounds, whereas in the spring we find them on the pollack grounds. Many of the areas they inhabit during the spring are remote and an absolute nightmare to get to in a small boat, but when we go I’ll often take someone along for the day. The deal is that I fish the shark rods and they have as much general fishing as they want. They normally fish intermittently and have had enough by lunchtime as there are so many pollack down there it can be hard to reach the bottom – that’s the sort of abundance of prey species we’re looking for.
I prefer to fish from a drifting boat with a good slick going out the back and, unlike when I’m fishing for blues, I only use fresh chum for porbeagles. Due to them often being found in groups it’s worth marking every run you get on the plotter. Whether you hook up or not, it’s always worth going back as there’s a good chance of making contact with another. This does mean breaking your slick but this is common with inshore fishing for porbeagles and repeat drifting an area can still produce a result – a totally different prospect to the ‘never break your slick’ rule for blues.
Power chumming (as I described in the November 2018 issue of Hookpoint) can be good, but I always make sure a bait goes over the side the second we stop moving. This has been a very successful tactic for me. If I have a guest I fillet as they catch, hanging the frames on a rope over the side to add fresh blood to the slick. I have had a shark come up and rip the chum bucket off the back whilst I was fighting another, demonstrating both their curiosity and social nature. I will start the day with frozen baits but always swap them for fresh as soon as I can, my preference being a 1-2lb pollack flapper.
I normally fish 3-4 baits from the boat depending on whether I have a crew or not. These are staggered to coincide with the chum slick, the furthest bait being generally around 70m away and the shortest is right under the boat. If I had to fish just one rod, the mid-range bait 30m off the back has been my most successful. I’ve found the sharks seem to take best around halfway up in the water column on these inshore areas, I guess this is because it’s so shallow that they can easily see and smell the baits above them. As we’re normally fishing in close proximity to a strong run of tide, it’s important to incorporate a sliding lead on the running trace to prevent the bait kiting up in the water.
Porbeagles are notoriously finicky takers, I have seen them take confidently only to drop a bait when they run the float into another line and feel the resistance. I’ve also seen them drop baits for no apparent reason and remove baits from a hook without a single click on the ratchet. I initially found it difficult to believe how gentle such a huge fish could be. To give an example, I was out on a trip last spring and it was nearly time to run back in when I saw the gentlest of taps on a rod tip. I stood up to see a porbeagle only slightly shorter than the beam of my boat laid sideways on the surface nibbling my bait which had been set 17 foot under the boat but with no weight attached. Upon seeing me, it spooked and swam away – luckily for me it still had the bait and I had it to the boat shortly after.
Sometimes the sharks will scream away but mostly, in my experience, there will just be a few ticks of the ratchet then a pause and another short run. I try to hit them as soon as they start the second run. Sometimes there will be no ratchet pull, you just notice a float beginning to move out of line. If you have a slow taker it’s a good idea to pull line off the reel and drop the bait back, then slowly reel it in, repeat and hope for a more committed attack. They also seem to like to take the back half of a bait so I position my hook as far back as I can get it in the flapper.
You will need to be on the ball in the fight as porbeagles have a formidable turn of speed. They’ll run straight away, then turn and come straight back at you and you’ll need to reel hard to keep up with them at all times. I use as much drag as I can as a general rule and if they get too far away, I’ll back the boat down on them to gain line or to stop them from tangling in inshore fishing gear. Fights can go on for a long time, particularly with the bigger fish and I find an AFTCO harness really helps with this. If you use a harness it’s important that it’s quick release at the reel lugs and make sure to always have a pair of pliers attached to you so you can cut the line should things go wrong.
Ultimately, you want to stay tight to the fish at all times and maintain as much drag as you can. It can be depressing to see all that hard-won line leave the reel but keep in mind that while this is happening you are getting a rest and the fish is tiring. Since takes can occur at any time, I always have the harness, tape, bottle of water and disgorger out handy so that once a fish takes I can concentrate on that and not rummaging around in the boat while trying to stay connected to the fish.
Porbeagles are in a different league to other large species like blue sharks and skate, even a small fish will cause you not inconsiderable hassle at the boat. They can make long runs or fight you under the boat but once they get tired they generally fight straight up and down. When you get to this point, however, your troubles are far from over – they can easily run around your prop or snap you off against the hull so stay alert. I normally have the engine running during the fight so that I can keep away from the fish and, once I think that it’s tired enough, I will gently engage forward gear. This has two effects: firstly it makes the fish kite up near the surface so you can see what you’re dealing with and secondly it starts to force water over the gills and help the shark to start recovering.
When you are 100% sure the fish is tired enough to wire it up, it’s time to put the gloves on and pull it up to the boat. It’s important to time this right as a porbeagle could easily crush your hand or cut you should you either misjudge it or have the wrong equipment (I like the AFTCO wiring gloves with their kevlar pad). Now it’s time to measure your fish – I like to know roughly what a fish weighs and certainly whether it was bigger than my last so I try to measure anything approaching a PB. To do this you will need to measure the girth and length – no mean feat, especially single handed. The biggest shark I’ve had to the boat so far came out of the conversion formula at 446lbs.
Once the fish is measured you can tag it (or not, depending on your viewpoint) and then once it’s recovered, unhook and release it from the moving boat. If you handle them like this they will swim away well. I wouldn’t recommend taking porbeagles out of the water for measuring or photos on a small boat and it’s something I have never done on any vessel due to my concerns for the welfare of the fish.
I struggle to call the bigger porbeagles ‘fish’ as when you’re leaning over the side of a boat and looking directly at one, the word just doesn’t seem to do them justice. It’s a real privilege to see them so close and be in their presence for a few fleeting moments. Watching them swim away again to terrorise the reef once more is just the icing on the cake.