KENAI - After nine years fishing for halibut in Lower Cook Inlet, the biggest fish John Vargo landed weighed 100 pounds. So, for him, reeling in a 7-foot, 4-inch-long salmon shark with a leg jig, an old reel meant for salmon trolling, and a little piece of herring was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"We were all thinking it was a skate," he said. "It was really heavy. It just acted like an anchor. We didn't realize it was a shark until it was right up against the boat."
Vargo, of Kasilof, was fishing for halibut off Anchor Point at about 6:30 Friday morning when he hooked into the shark. Salmon sharks have a reputation of breaking tackle when they're caught, he said, but his shark didn't put up a fight. Vargo had it alongside the boat within five minutes.
"It was alive, but not really fighting much. It just came right up to the side of the boat," Vargo said, adding he only had to shoot it once with a gun to kill it. "It took three very strong guys to get it up into the boat, though. It was a really heavy fish."
Vargo hooked the shark in the lip with a treble hook, and said if the first gunshot hadn't killed it, it would have swam away. Once the shark was in the boat, Vargo bled and gutted it right away then took it to be skinned and processed. That evening instead of cooking halibut, he put the shark on the barbecue and had it for dinner.
"It was some of the best meat I ever had," he said "It was almost exactly like a really good pork chop, real juicy and tender. It takes on any flavor really well. It's just amazing."
Vargo said each fillet probably weighed 100 pounds each. The gutted shark weighed 248 pounds, he said. And when he took it the taxidermist to remove the jaw, Vargo said he was told the guts on a 7-foot shark would weigh between 75 to 80 pounds, bringing the total weight to 325 pounds.
"I was worried when I first caught it," he said. "It's like butchering a 300-pound pig."
Ken Goldman, commercial fisheries biologist with Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer, said Vargo's salmon shark is "right out of the mold." On average, salmon sharks found in Alaska are 6-feet, 5-inches to 8-feet, 5-inches long and can weigh up to 400 pounds.
As part of his doctorate degree, Goldman said he studied salmon shark age and growth rates. The largest shark he's seen was a few inches shorter than 9 feet, he said.
The sharks are found throughout the North Pacific, but it's rare for an angler to catch one in Cook Inlet, Goldman said. Sharks are targeted in the Prince William Sound area out of Seward, Cordova and Valdez, and they're common in Shelikof Strait, but Goldman said, at the most, 12 shark reports a year come into the Homer Fish and Game office.
"I'm not sure what it is that doesn't attract them up into Cook Inlet," he said. "Not that many are caught in Lower Cook Inlet."
Richard Hocking, aquarium curator at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, said salmon sharks are typically feeding when they wind up in Alaska. The sharks are related to great white and mako sharks, Hocking said, and it's not uncommon for someone to mistake a salmon shark for a baby great white. But while great whites' teeth become serrated when they get older, perfect for ripping and tearing huge chunks of meat, Hocking said salmon sharks' teeth are made for snapping up schooling fish and eating them.
"The salmon shark is a neat looking animal," he said, adding that folks from Kodiak brought one over on a boat, thinking it was a mako shark. "The smaller ones caught in Cook Inlet often have sharper features and a tighter pointed nose. They may, in fact, look like other sharks."
Goldman said the salmon shark is considered Alaska's game fish, similar to tuna and marlin. They are warm-blooded and, like humans, can fight to maintain their core body temperature despite the temperature of the water.
He said biologists estimate salmon sharks live to be about 40, and he can tell the age by looking at the shark's vertebrae.
After the shark's jaw is boiled, Vargo said he'd put it on a stand above on the mantelpiece in his house. But even though he liked the meat, Vargo said he will probably release the next shark he catches.
"They're not a very common thing, and I'd rather not be trying to target something like that," he said. "My main goal is to get at least 100 pounds of halibut per winter. I'm doing pretty good as far as shark now. I may not have to get too much halibut."