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March 14, 2013

Invasion Force

Each spring, an invasion force charges the coast of Southern California brandishing rapiers and murderous ­intentions. They’re not pirates. They’re thresher sharks, descending on Pacific shores to slash, feed and, in some instances, bear young.

Baiting Up

On a kayak, having fresh bait usually means catching it on the spot. Krieger uses a sabiki rig to jig up a few sardines or mackerel in the area, then quickly transfers one to a heavier outfit to slow-troll it. Live bait seems to work better for Krieger; the bait’s frantic vibrations attract more strikes than with a dead bait, he believes.

Once hooked from a kayak, a big thresher can tow the craft for miles. “Usually, you get pulled around for 10 or 15 minutes,” says Krieger, “and then the fish reverses direction and goes deep, circling under the kayak.” The fight is made more difficult by the inability to exert a lot of leverage.

Bringing even a small thresher beside a kayak is tricky, as the tail can wreak havoc and deliver a nasty whack. The key is to make sure the fish is tired and relatively docile before grabbing the leader to bring it beside the kayak. “I like to grab the shark by the tail,” says Krieger, “and then turn it over to put it in a catatonic state before removing the hook and releasing it.”

Run and Gun

Paul Hoofe of Costa Mesa considers thresher sharks one of the world’s greatest game fish, provided they are hooked in the mouth. Fishing from his 246 Shamrock, he targets this species heavily in spring along the coasts of Los Angeles and Orange counties, but confines his actual fishing to times when he is certain he has located an area that’s holding threshers. The rest of the time he’s on the hunt, motoring up or down the coast until he finds signs of life — birds and bait. The birds he eyeballs, sometimes with binoculars. The bait he locates with a fish finder.

“If you really want to catch threshers, you have to look for the schools of bait,” says Hoofe. “If there’s no food, you’ll have a hard time finding a thresher.” By the same token, once he finds a life zone or gets a strike — even if he doesn’t hook the fish — he stays put, refusing to leave fish to find fish.

Hoofe scales his tackle to the size of the fish, employing relatively heavy tackle when the big females come in to spawn. “But when the fish are smaller, I break out the ultralight tackle and have a blast catching and releasing the pups,” says Hoofe, an International Game Fish Association representative who holds three IGFA line-class records for the common thresher in 2-, 4- and 6-pound-test categories.

Not all of his line-class attempts meet with success. Before setting the current 6-pound-test line-class mark of 94 pounds, 12 ounces, Hoofe hooked a much heavier thresher — about 180 pounds — fighting the fish for 23 hours and 40 minutes before losing it the morning after he hooked it.

Deadly Downriggers

Coastal threshers feed throughout the water column, sometimes targeting forage in deeper water, particularly at the head of marine canyons close to the coast. Downrigger trolling offers a way to reach the fish when they’re deeper. Most downrigger fishing for threshers is with live bait, usually a live Pacific mackerel, mackerel jack (known locally as a Spanish mackerel) or sardine. Larger baits such as Pacific mackerel lend themselves to bridling, while smaller baits like sardines are hooked crosswise through the nose.

Using a downrigger on each side of the boat allows you to stagger the baits. The depth depends on where the bait schools are holding, as you want to place your baits at the same depth or just above the schools. Trolling speeds are usually around 2 knots or less. “Downrigger fishing is my favorite,” says Hoofe. “Once the baits are down, I watch the rods constantly. If I get a knockdown or the rod even twitches, I dump the reel into free-spool and stop the boat.”

Presumably at this stage, a thresher has batted at the bait and knocked the line out of the release clip, and the shark is now swinging around to devour its stunned prize. Free-spooling line and stopping the boat allows the bait to flutter away naturally. Hoofe uses non-offset circle hooks such as Lazer Sharp L2004EL Sea Guard Circle models, and this virtually eliminates the possibility of foul-hooking a thresher on the knockdown.

“You’ll know it worked if moments later line starts peeling off the reel,” Hoofe explains. To set the circle hook, he points the rod in the direction the line is going and, using a lever-drag reel, slowly increases drag pressure. This sets the circle hook in the corner of the shark’s mouth. Hoofe is a strong promoter of catch-and-release — and circle hooks help ensure that the threshers he releases survive.