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Thresher sharks by Spencer Wright

Thresher Sharks – Alopias Vulpinus (An introduction) – by Spencer Wright

By an early age I was fascinated by fish and fishing and with the laws of probability and by living on the Isle of Wight, there was going to be a time when I realized that close by, was a shark angling hotspot.

Going back fifty years, tales of the Isle of Wight being a favoured area for Porbeagles were rife, with reports to the mainstream media; books were written about the potential area and even programs appeared on local television, documenting just what was out there swimming about in the turbulent waters.

Apart from the Porbeagles and if you were really lucky, there was the outside chance of the holy grail of Shark Angling, the incredibly rare and revered Thresher Shark. The occasional fish was seen jumping, but catching one of these enigmas, was more of a distant dream, to many.

Word soon spread about the ‘Isle of Shark’ and all-too-soon, long-liners from abroad had descended on the area and within no time at all, reports of tons of shark meat landing on the foreign fishmongers slab were very evident and the fishery was broken, and would take near on a quarter of a century to fix.

It was around this time that my flirtation with Boat Angling began. I joined a local boat fishing club as an 11 year old with my family and further to purchasing a small craft, we occasionally ventured out on one of the larger charter boats, which was owned by one of the club members.

The skipper was Danny Vokins; Danny just happened to be completely devoted with a certain species of shark, after catching his first one years before. He was so much in love with the species that he had named his first boat after it, namely ‘Thresher 1’.

Onboard ‘Thresher 1’ were plaques of different shark species, which I used to lovingly gaze at. The one that stood out was the holy-grail for us, the Thresher, along with its Latin name, ‘Alopias Vulpinus’ beautifully scribed out, along with a stunningly created image of the creature.

I was captivated by the stories and listened in complete awe of the tales of this fascinating species, which the skipper and his crew had to tell.

I learnt as much as I could about this Shark, but what I did know was that the Thresher Shark occasionally appeared in very infrequent numbers, through the warmer months in the rough waters, south of our beloved Island.

I had been on Danny’s boat on various occasions, mostly bottom fishing, but come summer time, I had an opportunity to go out on his boat, Shark fishing. Unfortunately on this occasion it wasn’t to fish, but just to help out on board, and catch a few mackerel and help the crew.

The day in question was quiet, but sometime in the afternoon, my school friend, who was also onboard had a mackerel rod out. I was sat on the engine box and watched as the tip started bending, which was just protruding over the gunwale.

I alerted Mark who grabbed the rod, who was then inadvertently dragged along the deck, towards the stern at a rate of knots as the feathers had snagged an unsuspecting Thresher which had been under the boat and within a split second, and the thrash of its tail, the line had snapped, and it was gone.

My first ever experience of a Thresher was one that would bite deep, and make a life-long impression on me.

I went on a few more trips that year and more trips the next year, but Just seen the occasional splash as one leapt out of the water, which they are prone to do. The odd fish was being caught by members of the club, but captures were at a premium and it was very evident just how few fish were inhabiting the local sea’s.

My first experience with a Shark happened later on in the summer, when one day, a scream of Shark came out of the skippers mouth. Two Porbeagles were circling the boat and 30 minutes later one of the crew were hooked up and after a short period of time the fish was boatside, and I was given responsibility of un-hooking the beast!

The following summer, I was older and like the others had become completely besotted with Sharks and the elusive Thresher.

I had progressed from fishing for mackerel and bottom fishing with baited feathers at slack tide, catching whatever came along to purchasing a 50lb class rod and a Penn Senator 6/0 loaded with 50lb Blue Sylcast line - I was now deemed old enough to have a go for them!

The year was uneventful for me, but I was privy to seeing two huge fish that slipped up to one lucky angler. Both fish that were both up around the 280lb mark and took roughly 4 hours to reel in, using the gear that we were privy too back then in the day.

Now, something happened that made life change a little around this time. I caught a Carp, which sidetracked me for a certain period of time. Even when I was chasing Carp, I had kept in contact with a few people so always had an idea of what was being caught, which over that timescale wasn’t a lot.

A select few kept at it, summer after summer, going through the motions, which you need to do when chasing the elusive Thresher’s and each year copious amounts of hours were wasted, chasing these magnificent creatures for very little reward and where some years only a handful of fish were caught. Some years were complete blanks, it really was the proverbial ball-breaker!

Now, fast forward a few years and I had looked into getting my shark fix back on track, and as insular as the anglers were, offers weren’t overly forthcoming to get out and have another try, so I thought that I would attempt it through a different avenue, namely with Andrew Alsop and Wight Water charters from Milford Haven in South Wales.

I had heard the jungle drums banging loud about the amount and of Sharks that he was catching out there, and this was going to be my quick-fix, or so I thought…!

For three seasons, I had charters booked with Andrew, all of which unfortunately had fallen foul to the weather, and on the third trip, I made a decision there and then, that I was going to carve out my own future.

A 23ft boat was purchased which took far longer, and cost much more money than could have ever have been anticipated. Its engine was small and the boat slow which wouldn’t be ideal for the turbulent and unstable conditions of St Catherines, so I went the whole hog and sold it as soon as it was finished and brought a 31ft charter boats from one of the other members of Bembridge Angling Club, where I belonged – I wanted something that was a safe fishing platform for me.

Bembridge Angling Club had always been the font of knowledge for Threshers. Many of the members had spent their whole lives chasing these fish, and knew much more about the species than most, although would never boast that fact.

Now, people from outside have always branded the Isle of wight contingent as ‘secret squirrels’, but only when you know of the sheer number of man hours that get put in targeting these fish, do you then realize just how precious the fishery is, and by shouting it out from the roof tops, only makes the job harder for yourself, as you are advertising a capture, which brings out more boats, and more competition, so it pays to keep your mouth well and truly shut!

Now, the first trip out in my 31ft boat and I picked an area which to try. I managed a few Tope, which had fallen to my Shark baits and given me a heart-stopping moments, then in the afternoon, one of the float started messing about. I eventually struck, and whatever was on the end held its ground. It felt as though I had hooked the bottom, but knowing I was fishing shallow I knew that this definitely wasn’t the case.

After a bit of a stalemate, the hook popped out. I quickly dropped another bait down, and it happened again, then let go, then a third time, which let go. Then the tide pushed me father away and it went quiet and soon it was time to start up the engines of Esk-Lady, my trusty Mitchell 31 and headed for home. It had been an exciting first trip back out and I was keen to try again soon.

A week or so later I had another try. This one was going to bring me much closer to my quarry than I had ever been before. I started in a completely different area to normal, hoping that my new area would bring fresh rewards.

I had been drifting for maybe two or three hours, when all of a sudden, just thirty feet from the boat, a Thresher jumped clean of the water. It sounded like a bomb going off. As I scrambled for my phone and momentarily looking down out it boomed again. If they jump, they normally do it a couple of times, so it always pays to keep looking.

The atmosphere was palpable, and I knew that close by was something that I had spent my whole life wanting to catch.

After 15 minutes, I felt my opportunity had departed, so I dropped the feathers down, 8, 9, 10, donk? What was that? And within a millisecond, my mackerel rod was being spooled and I learnt a valuable lesson that many times, sharks do track boats and if you do see one around your craft, they often hang around!

Suddenly the line went slack and I reeling back I realized that I still had my feathers intact and only the lead was missing, so my Thresher obviously had a liking for lead! It gave me another area to target, which would become fruitful for me in the future.

My fourth trip in was one which was to be a day in which I was never to forget. It was the first time that I had taken a friend, having ventured out beforehand, single-handedly.

As always, there was a flotilla of boats about. It was on the ebb tide that we were drifting and were casually chatting away, when suddenly, a rachet started to scream, but not just scream, but Screeaammmmm…. With so much speed and vigor, that I really didn’t want to pick the rod up. Even to this day, it was the fastest take that I have ever seen. My friend Timmy, came out with a classic, ‘that ain’t no Tope’!

I let the line go and go as this fast moving fish steamed off up towards the bow and beyond. Timmy started the boat as I held the rod whilst line was leaving the reel at a rate of knots. I gradually moved the drag up to try and set the circle hook, and soon the full battle curve of the rod took president, just thirty yards in front of me, a Thresher Shark breached, six foot clear of the water, with my hook firmly lodged in the corner of his mouth as I screamed ‘Thresher’ at the top of my voice.

If anyone ever asks me about a Thresher fight, all I can say is they absolutely lose it, and this one was no exception. It flew around just under the surface, jumping repeatedly, slapping its tail, showing its anger and displeasure at being hooked up. From one side of the boat to the other, circling around at break-neck speeds. I was a nervous wreck, and was physically shaking and could feel my heart thumping through my chest.

I just held on and let it do exactly what it wanted, I didn’t have the drag up too much, probably about 8-10lb, but in all reality, I was well undergunned with the pressure that I should have used.

For 25 minutes we chased it around and around and then I just had the inkling that it was done. We got it up near the boat and we managed to glove the leader so fish caught, and then towed it alongside the boat, which is an absolute necessity after the fight to release all of the lactic acid which it had built up and of course, kept it in the water at all times.

It’s been a long-standing ruling from Bembridge boats that no shark is boated, whatever the issue, being it wrapped, or foul-hooked, they are never brought in, as by doing so from our perspective is just giving them a death warrant. They don’t boat well and ones that we have seen brought on board have had their fate sealed through the selfish nature of the angler.

I was stood on the stern of the boat looking down, lovingly, gazing at my obsession. I had achieved my lifelong ambition within 4 trips, and was very aware that is had taken some friends decades.

I was taken aback by the fishes colors. I was always led to believe that they were special to look at but in the flesh, it was the most amazing thing that I had ever seen in my life. Golds, Purples, Silvers, plus the mottled belly which I had always wanted to see – I was absolutely spellbound.

Its tail was enormous. Its pecs were like wings on a jet plane, over 3ft long each. It wasn’t a huge fish, probably 125lb, but it made its mark, more than anything I had ever caught before in my life. We took a few picture on our phones and a bit of film as I was just conscious of getting it back safely.

As we backed off the revs the fish was just waddling along, like a dog on a lead. Its 5ft long flailing tail, flapping from side to side. The circle hook was nailed in the scissors and with a quick flick of a T-Bar, the hook was out, and with a flick of its tale, it powered back into the depths, which was my only concern, being its welfare.

Ambition achieved and it only fired the passion even more than before the bite. From that moment, nothing else mattered. I knew that I was going to spend the rest of my life, chasing these magnificent, stunning, scarce species of shark.

Learning all that I could. Speaking to as many people as I could, finding out habitats, areas, routes and patterns, which would make my understanding of the species so much more than it was before, especially with the fact that so little is known about the species. I completely immersed myself into the species.

With the current commercial ban on sharks and those targeting them, alongside a dedicated group of like-minded anglers chasing them, all following a strict un-written protocol, thinks are looking better for the potential future of the species.

As I learnt, there are so few of them in the world, with populations in the English Channel, California and the Philippines, with three or even four possible different species of Thresher shark spread around the worlds seas.

What do they do, and where do these pelagic fish go? All burning questions that nobody really knows the answer too. But for the UK, there is and always has been a dedicated band of brothers, from a small port off the east of the Isle of Wight at Bembridge which have spent their entire lives, chasing these magnificent creatures that will continue to do so, as long as they are allowed to.

Thresher Sharks by Spencer Wright (1)
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