Early memories from far off days on the fish quay at Looe. Huge shark as perceived by a young boy were hauled up onto the hook of the weigh station. Smiling captors posed beside the lifeless bloated carcases as they dripped blood onto the quay. In those far off days conservation was still a concept that had not yet been embraced by society.
I was fascinated by the thought of sailing far out beyond the horizon to seek adventure with these fearsome monsters of the deep. The hardy souls who chartered boats were heroes to me as a young boy besotted by the sea. In those formative years I contented myself with fishing the shoreline to catch mackerel, mullet, pollock and garfish.
It was many years and very different times before I would live the dream and catch a shark. In the mean time I added numerous books on shark fishing to my collection of angling books. Trevor Housby was amongst my favourite authors and wrote several informative and exciting books on his worldwide adventures in pursuit of shark and many other species. Shark Hunter, The Rubby Dubby Trail, Big Fish, Big Game Fishing and Dream Fishing all contain exciting stories. I was privileged to meet Trevor Housby on the banks of Hatchet lake in Hampshire where we chatted about shark fishing off the Isle of Wight and his concerns at overfishing. Reading through Housby’s tomes it is apparent that he was perhaps ahead of the times in starting to consider the long term future of shark angling and its sustainability.
The birth place of Shark angling in the UK is undoubtedly the busy fishing port of Looe in South Cornwall. In 1961 Brigadier J.A.L Caunter’s book “Shark Angling In Great Britain” was published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd part of a series of Angling Times books. Other books worth reading regarding shark in UK waters are “Big Game Fishing In British Waters”, by David Carl Forbes, “Sea Angling Supreme” by Mike Millman and more recently “The Shark Fisherman” by David Turner. My own book “I Caught A Glimpse” also has a chapter relating to the shark fishery off North Devon.
The covers of these books with bloodstained shark carcasses replicate the practices of their time. The general perception of shark was as a killing machine as portrayed in the classic movie “Jaws”. Fortunately, today’s anglers and wider public are more enlightened valuing the shark for the magnificent fish it is.
In the mid-eighties I returned to Looe briefly on a couple of angling club outings in search of blue shark. On one particularly trip the entire fleet blanked as a result of May water. On another trip one of the boats chartered by the club enjoyed success with four or five shark caught. On the boat I was on one shark of about 25lb gave a screaming run and was brought to the boat giving little resistance on the heavy tackle supplied by the skippers at that time.
A decade later I joined a few friends off the North Devon Coast in search of porbeagle. During the late sixties and seventies members of the Appledore Shark Angling Club enjoyed frequent forays to the waters off North Devon where they caught numerous large porbeagle. Boats sailed from Appledore with “Jose Jaqueline” the top boat. Anglers also sailed from Ilfracombe on the boats “ Boy David” and “Girl Jean”. The anglers enjoyed considerable success but as in Cornwall most shark were slaughtered with many sold at market to cover the cost of the fishing.
he skipper we fished with was Clive Pearson who had enjoyed considerable success boating a porbeagle shark in the early nineties scaling 478lb. I recall spending several days drifting the waters off Hartland Point watching the floats bobbing in the oily slick of the rubby-dubby. Whilst blank days were frequent they were punctuated by occasional trips of high drama as large porbeagle seized our baits giving bruising battles on the 50lb class tackle we employed. Most shark would have been between 80lb and 100lb with virtually all shark released at the side of the boat. The biggest shark I hooked spat the bait out after a brief tussle and was estimated at 250lb plus by Clive.
I enjoyed a very successful trip with my good friend Ashley Clarke steaming for over two hours from Lynmouth to drift in the rubby-dubby trail close to the Cornish border. Between the two of us be brought six porbeagle to the side of the boat a day that is etched forever on my mind.
When Clive Pearson retired from shark fishing opportunities to chase shark eased and news of catches became sketchy. My own fishing excursions drifted elsewhere and my shark fishing dreams once again receded into the background.
As news of good catches of shark from the far West of Cornwall spread my ambition to chase shark was once again ignited. I booked to join up with a party of anglers on Bite Adventures out of Penzance. After several trips were blown off I eventually found myself with my son James and three other anglers far out off the Cornish Coast.
Close to fifty years after gazing at those shark on the quay at Looe I was to eventually hook my first blue shark. On the well balanced 20lb to 30lb class gear supplied the sport was exhilarating with each shark giving an exciting account. On that first trip out of Penzance we shared a catch of close to thirty blue shark up to 100lb.
The sharking day is largely unchanged since those pioneers of UK shark angling drifted the waters far off Looe in the early fifties when the Shark Angling Club of Great Britain was formed. A long steam to the sharking grounds when the engine is cut. The rubby- dubby trail is set with a bag or such like lowered over the side full of minced fish, pilchard oil and bran. The oily slick spreads across the water as the boat begins its drift. Brightly coloured floats suspend baits at various depths. The wait begins with the anglers chatting between themselves and perhaps catching fresh baits.
The tension and anticipation builds. Storm petrels, swoop over the waves, gulls float in the oily trail. A vast panorama of sea and sky the land far away and out of sight. The anglers will perhaps have drawn straws to decide who goes first. The gulls suddenly take off and there is increased focus on the floats as gulls often sense the danger from beneath.
The silence is suddenly broken by the rasping cry of a reel. The angler grabs the rod and waits a moment before allowing the hook to bite. At this moment the shark could be of any size from 30lb to perhaps 200lb or even bigger. Excitement and drama unfolds until the shark is eventually brought to the boat. Blue shark lean sleek creatures of beauty are admired before being released with care.
It is here that the sport has developed and changed for the better. Back in the formative days of the Shark Angling Club virtually all shark were brought into the boat and killed. Today all shark are returned to the water with minimal harm with even trophy shots on the boat becoming a thing of the past. The use of circle hooks has ensured that very few shark are badly hooked with most fish hooked in the corner of the jaw where a quick jab with the T-Bar removes the hook. The shark then disappear from whence they came with a vigorous flip of the tale and a flurry of spray.
In 2019 my wife and I attended an evening in The Old Sardine factory on West Looe Harbour where I was privileged to meet an array of characters who had fished out of Looe in earlier decades. Their memories were shared and a warmth of humanity shone through as friendships were rekindled on this night that celebrated a bygone era. Pat Smith aged 95 was glowing testimony to the joy of angling recalling her adventure from 1970 when she boated a huge porbeagle of 369lb.
Fifty years later anglers enjoy those same adventures drifting the ocean currents, floats buoyant in the rubby-dubby trail. Conservation is paramount in the minds of today’s anglers who are concerned at the constant threat to shark populations from commercial fishing.
Recent seasons have seen some fantastic catches of shark with the waters off West Cornwall and the Celtic deeps off West Wales yielding catches that would have been considered spectacular even in the good old days when the Shark Angling Club of Great Britain was at its peak. Catches of twenty to thirty blue shark per day are frequently shared between four or five anglers in a ten hour days sharking.
The reason for these increased catches is perhaps complex. The discovery of new ground is without doubt a factor with fast powerful boats able to venture far off shore. Climate change could also be a factor with higher water temperatures bringing more shark within range. Conservation measures and reduced commercial fishing is also a factor.
There are potential issues that threaten the shark populations and the shark angler.
There are those who seek to prevent angling for shark believing that angling is both a threat to the shark populations and that it is immoral to pursue the sport that generations have enjoyed. I personally believe that shark angling has minimal impact upon stocks and the recording of catches provides invaluable scientific data that can be used to monitor migration and shark populations.
A concern I have is that in recent seasons there appears to be a decline in mackerel populations. Shark fishing trips traditionally started with a short stop on the way to the shark grounds feathering for mackerel to use as bait. The last couple of shark fishing excursions have not seen us stop off for the mackerel as it appears the mackerel are very scarce. Instead of catching mackerel we have caught whiting whilst drifting for the shark using these as bait instead of mackerel. The whiting appear to be equally effective as shark baits my concern being that if baitfish continue to dwindle in numbers due to extensive overfishing then the predatory fish like shark and tuna will eventually either go elsewhere or starve.
Whilst writing this feature I received news of some excellent catches of porbeagle off the wild and rugged North Devon/ North Cornish coast. Local anglers venturing out in Private Boats have visited the sharking grounds once explored by the Appledore Shark Angling Club. It is good to see that the porbeagle numbers have once again recovered following a cessation of commercial fishing. Mark Jones fishing a solitaire session hooked a huge porbeagle that was successfully brought to the side of the boat and estimated to weigh 310lb. Several other shark over 200lb have also been caught from Private Boats. Ilfracombe Charter boats including Daniel Hawkins ‘Reel Deal’ are venturing further and exploring the wider potential at the mouth of the Bristol Channel and Beyond.
Looking back at the history of shark fishing in UK waters and many fluctuating phases it would seems apt to speculate upon the potential future of this fascinating branch of angling. Changing climate conditions can undoubtedly influence shark and prey migration resulting in fluctuating fortunes for angling interests. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s a number of mako shark were boated off the Cornish coast. The biggest mako a huge fish of 500lb to the rod of Joyce Yallop in May 1971.
A mako caught off the Welsh coast in July 2013 weighed around 200lb and was caught on Andrew Alsop’s boat ‘Whitewater’. This fish and another huge shark believed to be a mako that was hooked off Wales have brought speculation that these mighty shark could once again be targeted by UK anglers. The inevitable conversation often turns to the possibility that great whites could swim within UK waters. With plenty of food and water temperatures favourable why is this so far-fetched? There are after all no physical barriers within the Atlantic Ocean.