Celtic Sea Shark Hunt

In recent years, the British Isles have become the hot new hood for porbeagles and other bad boys of the shark world.

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Target of the Hunt: The Porbeagle
It was that time of the year when the Welsh air was clear, crisp and sweetly tainted with the scent of fallen leaves lying on damp ground, when early in the morning on a windless day, a lazy mist floats effortlessly above the summer-warmed Celtic Sea. In the darkness a bit earlier, we had slipped out of Milford Haven Marina and made the run down past the great oil refineries of Milford Haven Inlet, located on Wales southwesternmost coast, about 60 miles southeast of Ireland. We hit the open sea at Saint Anne's Head, the three of us savoring mugs of steaming coffee inside the cramped wheelhouse aboard White Water. We continued on out to the reef a few miles offshore, by which time the sun was slowly ascending into the eastern sky. There we had quickly filled a cooler with fresh mackerel for hook baits and chum before steaming a further 30 miles offshore on the slick-calm Celtic Sea to commence our drift. (This gallery is based on the feature "Celtic Sea Shark Hunt" by Dave Lewis, which appeared in Sport Fishing magazine.)Doug Perrine
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Last-Minute Hook-Ups
After several hours of action from blue sharks, Alsop made the call: “Another 10 minutes of fishing, and we head home.” The words had barely left his lips when first one, then a second, and then a third reel screamed out in unison as fish picked up the baits and swam off at speed toward the Wexford coastline of Ireland. Each of us grabbed a rod and came tight on hefty fish, a triple-header to finish our season!Dave Lewis
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The UK's Finest Game Fish?
When Alsop reached out and grabbed my leader, we were able to confirm what we had already begun to suspect. These fish were not blues but much stronger, much faster porbeagle sharks, arguably the finest that game-fish anglers can realistically expect to catch around the coast of the British Isles. At 165 pounds, it was only my second and still largest porbeagle shark. (Though we kept this one and enjoyed eating it, Alsop releases nearly all sharks caught on his boat.) After several years’ experience fishing sharks offshore with friends, he was keen to open up and develop this then-little-known fishery to the U.K. market. And the rest, as they say, is history.Dave Lewis
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The Resurgence
Here in the U.K., shark fishing has always been popular. From the 1950s through the 1970s, a shark sport-fishing industry based along the south coast of England flourished. Mostly it targeted blues, but also porbeagles along with an occasional thresher and mako (the U.K. mako record is held by a 500-pound fish caught off Looe, Cornwall, in 1971). Through the ’80s and ’90s, the number of sharks caught around the U.K. coast dropped dramatically; subsequently, interest in the sport all but dried up. Most years, few porbeagles were caught; they’d become scarce due to excessive commercial fishing.Dave Lewis
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Shark-Rich Waters
Over the past decade, I’ve watched with growing admiration as my friend Alsop developed almost single-handedly the shark sport fishery off the southwest coast of Wales to what it is today: the finest shark fishery you’ll find anywhere in continental Europe. This past season, Alsop’s crew released a total of 1,168 sharks, mostly blues but including 58 porbeagles up to an estimated 235 pounds, plus the first mako ever recorded in Welsh waters, a 194-pounder as estimated by length/girth formulas. This map shows Alsop's primary fishing grounds.Map by Brenda Weaver
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Shark Slams
Alsop has opened up what, at certain times of year, amounts to a reliable porbeagle fishery, with fish most often in the 80- to 120-pound range but regularly reach 200 pounds. Certainly it’s a superb destination for anyone looking to catch a porbeagle shark to complete an IGFA Shark Royal Slam (we also catch other sharks, notably plenty of tope, here in Wales too). “Each year we’re catching more and more porbeagles,” Alsop says, “and I feel this stems from the number of fish starting to show signs of recovery since the 2010 commercial ban, plus a greater understanding of the species. “We catch porbeagle right through our four-month season, but most are caught right at the beginning, during late June and July, and then again at the back end, in October. We see an occasional fish during the peak summer months, but by then there are too many blues around,” says Alsop. “We know that porbeagles have their pups around April and May off the north Devon and Cornish coast, less than 50 miles to the south of where we fish. Some huge porbeagles are caught very close to the coast in that area, and I assume we’re catching the back end of this run of fish. “Also I’m convinced that the fish we catch in October really represent the start of the porbeagle run. It would certainly be interesting to spend some time fishing out here throughout the winter months,” Alsop says. “After all, the world record, a 507-pounder, was caught in 1993 off the coast of northern Scotland.”Dave Lewis
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Power Chumming
Unlike blue sharks, which rarely venture into water less than at least a couple of hundred feet deep, porbeagles often come into very shallow water. Those caught off Devon and Cornwall during spring are often hooked within a half-mile from the coast. Porbeagle sharks move inshore to feed on pollack, cod and other reef species, as well as to give birth to their pups Porbeagle sharks often take residence on offshore wrecks too, making their presence known by biting off fish hooked by anglers. Whenever wreck fishing, Alsop always has a rod ready, rigged with a pitch bait; increasingly, this tactic is producing some of his biggest fish of the season. Until very recently, most of Alsop’s sharks were taken in the classic manner: Run offshore to the area to be fished, stop the boat, and start to drift while chumming a mixture of mashed fish and bran liberally laced with fish oil in mesh sacks hanging over the side, along with occasional chunks. This technique works well enough when there is sufficient wind and/or tide to create a decent drift and scent trail, but not so well in a calm sea.Dave Lewis
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Starting the Chum Trail
On those days, Alsop resorts to power chumming. When still a few miles away from the target area, the boat is slowed to a couple of knots, the chum bags deployed, and the boat continues on to the intended area, thus kick-starting the chum trail. A few years back, Alsop mused that they might as well also fish a few baits, slowly trolling them to see if anything wanted to eat — and sure enough, his crew started catching porbeagle sharks. This year he even briefly hooked a big bluefin tuna, which are occasionally seen but at the time of writing have not yet been caught off the coast of Wales (watch this space!).Dave Lewis
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Rigged and Ready
Porbeagles often appear at the boat within minutes of its stopping and commencing its drift. The waters in the Celtic Sea that Alsop fishes, known as the Celtic Deeps, are a major fishing area for the commercial fleet that targets white fishes such as cod and haddock. Alsop believes this behavior is a conditioned response from porbeagles foraging scraps and discards when trawlers stop to haul their nets. It has happened too often to be put down purely as coincidence. Consequently Alsop ensures at least one bait is rigged and ready to be fished the moment the boat stops. Tackle typically used in the Welsh shark fishery consists of a 30- to 50-pound-class boat rod matched with a lever-drag reel such as a Shimano TLD25 or 30, with a capacity of at least 600 yards of 30-pound monofilament. Certainly the average-size fish caught can be taken on much lighter gear, but you never know just when a really big girl is going to swim up the slick and eat a bait.Dave Lewis
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Butterfly Cut Mackerel
Alsop still uses some J hooks as in this butterfly of mackerel filets, though he has largely switched to circle hooks with great success. Some of Alsop’s traces are rigged with a sliding 2- to 4-ounce sinker to ensure the baits are fished at the correct depth and out of reach of diving gannets. Empty drink bottles are used as floats (since the pecking of gulls kept bursting our balloons). When drifting, Alsop typically fishes five rods, set from the surface, just below the chum bags down to 100 feet. Baits used include pretty much any type of fish — mostly mackerel, whiting, pollack and garfish (similar to but larger than ballyhoo). Since I first started fishing sharks with Alsop in 2003, as described at the start of this article, I have joined him many times over the years. Between the increasing expertise of skippers like Alsop, and the resurgence of large sharks, shark fishing off Wales just keeps getting better.Butterfly Cut Mackerel
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A Porbeagle Primer
Porbeagles are in the family of mackerel sharks, Lamnidae, and closely related to the mako and salmon shark, as well whites and threshers. Shown here is a salmon shark in the frigid waters off Alaska. Within the northern hemisphere, porbeagles are usually found from the Newfoundland Grand Banks through southern Greenland to Scandinavia and Russia. The southern limit of their range extends from New Jersey and Bermuda through the Azores and Madeira to Morocco (they’re considered extinct in the Mediterranean). Porbeagles are a highly migratory, schooling species, typically found near the surface on the open ocean as well as in coastal waters. It is estimated that porbeagles live for 30 to 40 years, with males maturing at about seven years and females at 12 to 14 years. They can grow to a length of more than 11 feet.Doug Perrine
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Tiny Teeth Tell the Story
Lateral denticles (the tiny "teeth" visible at each side of the long, triangular teeth) are characteristic of porbeagles (but not the closely related mako).Doug Perrine
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Electro Detection
The tiny holes visible in an extreme closeup under the snout of a porbeagle are part of an organ called the ampullae of Lorenzini. Extremely sensitive to changes in electrical fields, these help sharks sense struggling prey.Doug Perrine
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Hot Blooded
Porbeagles, like other large predators in the family Lamnidae, are homeothermic — able to maintain a body temperature warmer than ambient water. Their red muscles, located deep within the body, adjacent to the spine, consist of more than 4,000 small arteries arranged in bands. The porbeagle has one of the highest core temperatures within its family, as much as 14 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding water. This allows the species to maintain higher cruising speeds, hunt in deeper water for extended periods of time, and enter higher latitudes during winter to exploit food resources not available to most other sharks. Sadly, the tasty porbeagle shark used to be heavily targeted commercially for its valuable meat, especially for European markets. This resulted in a population crash between 1981 to 2005 in the north and west Atlantic, which was estimated to be as much as 85 percent of their historic numbers. In 2010 the European Union banned commercial fishermen from landing porbeagles.Dave Lewis
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Visiting Wales
Andrew Alsop's White Water is one of several boats based in and around Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, in southwest Wales, which specialize in shark fishing. With a relatively short season and demand at an all-time high, early booking of charters is essential. In addition to shark fishing, Alsop fishes reefs and wrecks for pollack, ling, cod, coalfish, bass and conger eel. Tope are plentiful over inshore grounds in June and July. For more information on fishing here, visit: whitewatercharters.co.uk and celticwildcat.com. Wales, particularly southwest Wales, is a magnificent destination for a vacation. The Welsh border is a two-hour run from London, and Milford Haven is another two hours away, with excellent roads all the way. Steeped in Celtic history, Wales (which has its own distinct language) is a “land of legends.” You’ll find countless quaint villages and towns, many with their own castle and/or other unique historical sights. A wide range of first-class accommodations is available throughout the principality, and a visit to Cardiff, the capital city, is a must. The rugged coastline is interspersed with broad sandy beaches; the interior remains completely undeveloped, consisting of mile upon mile of rolling hills and high mountains that feed many clean-flowing, free-running rivers and streams, which hold wild brown trout and (from June through September) excellent runs of salmon and sea trout, known in Welsh as sewin. Access to prime fishing is widely available. For more information visit: wild fishing wales and visit wales.Dave Lewis