If you’re after a truly monstrous fish from British waters then the bluntnose sixgill shark has to be the one to target. These fish are true giants with specimens over 1000lbs not out of the question, and seeing really is believing – you can’t get the scale of them across in a photo. In fact, I’ve had trouble getting far enough away from them on the boat to fit the whole fish in the frame; that’s the scale of what we’re going to look at here.
This is the only species I’ll cover that doesn’t currently fit with my small boat theme as I haven’t yet tried for them on my own. I’ve only seen two and both of these were from a charter boat, so I’ll relate my experience much in the same way I talked about my skate trip on my own boat (https://hookpoint.co.uk/big-skate-small-boat/). I’m not claiming to be an expert on sixgills but I’ll try and pass on the information that helped me target them successfully.
I have every intention of returning to the area to catch a sixgill from my own boat as soon as the opportunity presents itself; I think a photo of a fish that’s near enough the same size as my boat will be one for the wall.
Sixgills are globally widespread but during my background research, I quickly realised that there was little information out there in books and on the internet that was relevant to fishing for them. This was going to be a case of talking to the skipper on the day and taking all his advice into account. If you can tap into reliable firsthand experience then it counts for more than any other source of information in my opinion.
Sixgills are known to live at incredible depths (generally 700m but down to as much as 2000m or more) where they feed on smaller fish such as other sharks and rays. They are also known to feed on squid, as well as large dead organisms (such as whales) that fall and break through the thermocline (a point where the water density changes due to temperature that prevents nutrients cycling into the depths). It’s understood that they live for a very long time, a fact that explains the sizes they can attain as adults. None of this information really helps us target them as we can’t fish the kind of depths they are typically found at. Also, the food items used to attract them to underwater cameras (like pig carcasses) are not the kind of things we can neatly put on a hook. Incidentally, the name ‘sixgill’ comes from the six gill slits they have – most other shark species having five. This places them closer in evolutionary terms to sharks found in the fossil record dating back around 200 million years than species like porbeagles and blues.
Sixgills are so big that it’s pretty unusual to find an individual under 100lbs, so I was happy enough that any hookup was likely to tick this species off my 100lbs plus list. For our angling purposes we’ll consider them benthic (bottom dwelling) although it is known that they rise up in the water column from extreme depths at night, presumably following the daily squid migration. Although normally associated with deep water, the place I fished for them was just over 60m in depth – not exactly what you’ll typically find quoted as their usual habitat. The area also holds skate, huss and congers and as we don’t want to be bothered too much by nuisance fish, big baits and big hooks are the order of the day. Congers and huss pecking away at the baits aren’t such a bad thing as their nibbling releases particles into the tide like a miniature chum slick.
Sixgills are a real lump of a fish and require heavy tackle to deal with them. You can think of them in similar terms to skate in that they will fight, but they use their sheer bulk against you as opposed to the speed some of the pelagic species are capable of. Due to their lack of speed you could probably get away with a star drag reel but since I like to know how much drag I’m fishing with, I stuck with preset lever drags. This lack of speed also means that you don’t need huge line capacity as they won’t spool you as long as you can put enough drag through the reel to stop them. For my attempt, I used my standard Avet Pro EX30s and had no problems at all. Rods should also be heavy to cope with the weight; I stuck with the tried and tested Penn Ally 30-80 as the tip is flexible enough to register the bite well but there’s plenty of backbone for when you need to apply a lot of pressure. Mainline was 80lb braid straight through to the rig and, due to the size of these fish, some sort of harness that will connect to the lugs on your reel is going to make life much easier. I took my AFTCO setup over with me and it was perfect.
The mouth of a sixgill is massive so I decided to go very big and very strong with my hooks. After much research into different patterns I settled on the Owner Jobu in a 12/0. The Jobu has a welded eye and the wire is immensely thick, although the hooks are still very sharp straight out of the packet. They are also very expensive to buy but then, you tend to get what you pay for with hooks. I crushed the barb down to help with unhooking, but this also helps a great deal with driving the hook in when you strike as it provides less resistance.
Sixgills have sharp teeth so a biting trace was in order. As I wanted the bait hard on the bottom, I kept this to around 24” of 480lb 49 strand American Fishing Wire attached to a 440lb AFW ball bearing swivel. There was no place for crosslocks here as they can very occasionally open up and I didn’t want to take the risk with the component being in such close proximity to the jaws. Also, with such a short biting trace there was no benefit in being able to detach it from the rest of the trace – nobody wants their hands that close to a shark’s teeth. Next was the rubbing leader – this was made up of 18ft of 400lb Momoi. This might sound long but when you consider the length of a sixgill, a trace of nearly 20ft is still only borderline long enough to prevent the tip of the tail coming into contact with the braided mainline. Onto the rubbing leader I added a drilled out zip slider to take a weight and pin the bait onto the bottom. The links on these are weak and would enable the weight to be knocked off should I get a take.
If you’ve read my other articles you’ll know by now that I like to ensure every join has a Flemish loop and is double crimped. For this attempt I had no mono topshot on my reel – this was because I wanted to fish in close contact with the bait and straight braid would lessen the effect of the tide and allow me to do so. The braid was tied to the swivel on the top of the rig using a simple four turn grinner. One extra thing I added to my rig was a deep dropping light of the type you’d see when targeting swordfish. I’d experimented with these before for skate and blue sharks, my thinking being that the pulses of light given off are an added attraction on a deep-fished bait. Light emission is very much associated with the kind of prey these species hunt at greater depths.
Although a couple of accidental sixgill captures have been recorded in UK waters, the name that’s been synonymous with them for over 10 years now is Luke Aston, a charter skipper based in County Clare on the west coast of Ireland. Luke is an ex-commercial skipper so has a real insight into what is swimming around out there in a way that rod and lining doesn’t really allow. He now runs a charter boat, the Clare Dragoon, as well as offering B&B accommodation on his farm. Kev McKie has also recently opened up a new area well offshore, but my trip was before that was discovered so I’ll relate what I found with regards to my trip with Luke here. You can find a lot of information at Luke’s website – www.fishandstay.com – he’s also done a podcast and a video interview that will give you enough information to get started. I found the whole research part of this pursuit really interesting as there really isn’t that much out there. My trip was made with a friend, Ben Bond, so what follows is an account of our experience as sixgill first-timers. Luke has a tried and tested mark and system so although we took our own tackle and rigs, we were completely in his hands for the next part.
We arrived at Shannon airport and drove our hire car down to Carraigaholt where we met Luke. After we’d unpacked and sorted our gear, we went to the local pub for a quick pint before an early night to keep fresh for the morning. We met Luke by the boat early the next morning, where he went through the safety equipment and confirmed that we were on a sixgill or bust mission. First stop was for fresh bait. We would be using coalfish and mackerel – for no other reason than both were readily available on the way out to the mark. Once we had enough bait, we ran out to the mark and anchored. This works for sixgills as you can then nail the bait hard to the seabed and it also gives them plenty of time to wander up the tide to your bait. You don’t seem to get any problems fighting them from an anchored boat as they don’t run out miles of line and foul the anchor rope. In my (very limited) experience they run up the tide during the fight but never as far as the bow.
After anchoring we baited up – our offerings had to be big enough to keep nuisance congers and huss off the hook so each bait consisted of a couple of mackerel cut into steaks and threaded up the line, followed by a couple of coalfish flappers to tip them off. We only fished one rod each, this was due to the depth of water and trying to avoid tangles. I quite like fishing at anchor, no constantly watching your drift line, and, in this case, no messy chum. It was quite a relaxing day, occasionally checking baits, freshening them up and dropping them slowly back down. We sat watching the rod tips and just chatting rubbish whilst we waited for a bite.
After a good few hours there was a gentle but definite bite on my rod. I gave it time to develop before lifting into the fish, setting the hook hard as soon as I felt the weight. You do get some big skate on the same mark so, although I wouldn’t have minded one as bycatch after I’d had a sixgill, I was really hoping this wasn’t one. Whatever it was it was very heavy, but I was soon gaining line a few turns of the handle at a time by dropping the rod and cranking simultaneously. I spent the whole fight at the stern moving from corner to corner as it kited across the tide. The main thing to watch out for was catching the braid on a trim tab or the hull, which would have parted it straight away due to the strain on it. Luke soon called it as a sixgill and as it came up onto the surface 25 minutes later, I could see he was right. They’re a funny looking thing, almost pink like a raw pork chop, but the main thing that strikes you is the bulk – they’re absolutely massive when you see one up close. Luke leadered the fish and I backed off the drag and dropped the rod back into the holder to get a better look. It was a truly impressive fish of a size I never really thought I’d see up close. After some photos and a quick bit of video footage, we released the fish, pulled the anchor and ran home for a well deserved beer and dinner. We’d accomplished our mission on the first day without any real problems at all so I was very happy with that.
Depending on the weather we still had another day or two of our trip to go. The next day looked good so we took another shot. It was slightly more breezy but despite another bite on my rod which never came to anything it was uneventful. The third day came round and the weather was still just about suitable so we all agreed to try again. Before the trip, Ben and I had agreed that we’d both fish our own rods to start with. If one of us was lucky enough to catch, then the next fish went to whoever hadn’t caught at that point. We thought that this was the fairest way to give us both a chance of success.
We fished the whole day exactly the same as the previous two. Nothing much happened until anchor-up time when there was a tap on my rod. Ben went over and lifted it – nothing there – but as he put it back in the holder it tapped again. We decided to give the fish some time, sitting and eating some cake that Luke’s wife had baked whilst keeping an eye on the rod. Once the cake was gone, Ben went back and lifted into what it quickly became apparent was a massive fish. I’m quite fit but I’m a small chap compared to Ben and this fish was giving him some serious trouble. My 25 minute fight time came and went and we were still nowhere near seeing the fish. I accused Ben of poor technique and generally had a good laugh at his expense as the fish made run after run whilst he couldn’t do a thing with it – clearly it was much bigger than mine.
After the hour mark we began to consider that it might have been foulhooked as no matter how much pressure Ben put on it, it wouldn’t respond. Another half an hour later, the fish finally surfaced and we could see that it was hooked fair and square, it also completely dwarfed my fish of a couple of days earlier. In fact, it was so big that I couldn’t get far enough away on the boat to fit the whole fish in my camera frame! The only sixgill Luke has weighed on land was in 2009: it was 12’ 9” long and weighed 1056lbs and this fish this was clearly miles bigger than that. Unfortunately it was far too windy to use the drone that day (it will only fly in winds up to 10mph) so we couldn’t get any footage that gave any sense of scale at all. This subsequently gave rise to much confusion in the reports of Ben’s fish as the only decent footage was of my fish from two days earlier. They coupled this with the estimate of his fish which clearly didn’t stack up at all – I suppose you really can’t believe everything you read!
This will be a short section as it wasn’t something I did myself, I can only speak from what I saw. The sixgills we caught were both so big that there wasn’t a way of getting exact length or girth measurements. This wasn’t something that bothered me a great deal though as they’re not a regular target and they were clearly both huge. We settled for pulling them alongside the boat to predetermined marks to get an estimate of the length. They didn’t seem too bad to handle, they were obviously very heavy but they didn’t give any trouble at the boat, much like a skate they half sat there waiting to be released. As soon as we let them go they both went off down into the tide with no trouble at all. As with wiring all big fish, gloves are a must, as is a way to cut yourself free should you encounter a problem.