Floating on kayaks, men fish for sharks

Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Picture this: There's a 50-pound sit-on-top kayak, a 170-pound man and about 15 pounds of fishing tackle and gear.

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That's 235 pounds of bait.

Right below, churning the water on a frantic quest for pink salmon, are salmon sharks, a relative of the mako shark that can weigh ¼ of 500 pounds.

These sharks are plentiful in Southcentral Alaska waters, especially near Hinchinbrook Island, where the insane idea of catching a fish bigger than the fishing boat became reality for a small group of men on July 23.

In what would become a chaotic frenzy, Christopher Mautino, Howard McKim, Allen Bushnell and Allen Sansano each hooked a salmon shark within minutes of each other. They spent the next 90 minutes "sleighing" through the water as the sharks took them on a ride, or muscling them to the top when the sharks dove deep.

As far as the men know, it was the first time such a large fish has been caught from a kayak.

"I'm still just trying to take it all in," said Mautino, who runs a kayak-fishing business called Liquid Adventures in Seward. "It was a pretty nutty adventure. We didn't know if it would work."

The adventure began a year ago, as the men, who know each other through their affiliation with Ocean Kayak, a company that produces kayaks specifically designed for fishing, began pondering the question: Which fish are too big to be caught from a kayak?

There are marlins, which can be fought off the coast of Baja and other tropical areas. They can exceed 1,800 pounds, but as far as the men knew, nothing even close to that size had ever been caught from a kayak.

Then there's halibut, which can reach more than 300 pounds and are a species Mautino regularly targets when guiding his own clients.

But a salmon shark? They are huge, some more than 7 feet long, with bodies that are thicker around than the kayaks and menacing "Jaws"-like teeth.

As Howard McKim, owner of Ketchikan Kayak Fishing said, "That was my whole question. Will it attack a boat like a mako?"

To fortify the experimental trip, the foursome hired Pacific Mountain Guides of Valdez, which specializes in salmon shark fishing trips and knew some of the best locations to find the creatures. With their inflatable Zodiac, the guides could monitor the fishing, and help out in the event of an overturned kayak or an attack.

"My initial thought was, 'This isn't going to work, I hope we go out there and everyone gets scared and we catch halibut instead,'" Mautino said.

McKim said the captain told them salmon sharks are not aggressive, but as they motored around the backside of the island and saw the water literally boiling with shark fins and sharks jumping out of the water in pursuit of the pinks, doubts crept in.

"They were all over, they were just jumping everywhere," McKim said. "The only time I was nervous was (when the) pink salmon were using my kayak for cover, and the sharks were just slamming salmon right on the surface. ... But they never charged the boat, they never tried to bite anything."

The plan was to drop all four kayaks within about a quarter mile of each other. That way they would be spread out enough to have clear fishing grounds but close enough for the Zodiac to reach them quickly if need be.

Bushnell, from Santa Cruz, Calif., and Sansano, from Seattle, were along on the trip, which McKim said is not something he'd ever consider marketing to the general public - it's too new and too dangerous.

"It was definitely a hand-picked group," he said.

The effort would not make any record books, either, McKim said. The sport of kayak fishing is so new that there are no records for fish taken from a kayak. But because the industry is relatively small, he and Mautino said they would know if a larger fish had been caught elsewhere.

"Now's definitely the time for this sport," McKim said. "It kind of went from an underground sport, a core group of people, and started spreading. It's starting like mountain biking and surfing did; now it's catching on."

Once in their kayaks, the four men tossed in their lines, using $1,000 reels provided by their guides and whole pink salmon as bait.

Not long after McKim settled into the boat, his line went taut and he was on a shark. Before he could even turn to let his friends know, Sansano hit one, then Bushnell. Less than a minute later, Mautino was holding tight, fighting the beast below. Within four minutes, four sharks were on four lines.

The men had never seen anything like it.

Mautino said the Pacific Mountain guides were stunned, too. Even on their charter boat, they usually allow only one shark at a time to be hooked, he said. As they watched the men in their little kayaks battle the sharks, they seemed slightly alarmed, Mautino said.

"At one point I was the only one not hooked up, and they said, 'Whatever you do, do not hook up,'" Mautino said. "But before I could respond, I had one."

Bushnell's shark took off straight for the Pacific Mountain boat, so the captain had to pull anchor. Across the water, McKim performed a careful ballet, letting out just enough line to let his shark swim deep and tire itself out, but not so much it could get away.

"It really all comes down to your drag setting," he said. "You just set the drag and let it pull hard enough. All fish get tired so you just let them run and let them run."

In kayak-angling terms, it's called a "sleigh ride" - what happens when a hooked fish swims away furiously, pulling the kayak and angler along.

It's the equivalent of catching a good wave while surfing or riding the perfect skinny singletrack while mountain biking.

And it's exactly what the four men hoped they'd experience.

For short spurts, they got it, pulled along at 2-3 mph, Mautino said. But they found the Hinchinbrook salmon sharks typically "sound," diving deep to escape.

"They did a little of both, but the captain had prepped us about their behavior," Mautino said. "That was difficult because when they sound, they rip off a lot of line and (they) surge. That's when it's unstable in the kayak because the boat is moving around."

Another challenge, Mautino said, is that kayak anglers can't assume the typical fish-fighting position.

"The sheer force and weight of the fish, you can't hold the rod up, so the rod would get pinned leaning against the rail of the kayak," he said. "You're pinned there holding it, trying to get the drag set right.

"It was too much to take in. You're excited for everybody, and you're kind of nervous at the same time."

The chaos lasted for a little more than an hour, with the four men fighting their respective salmon sharks to the surface. Occasionally McKim's shark would tire enough that he could grab it and lift its Moby Dick-like tail above the water. But it would slip away and fight some more.

Landing the creatures was equally challenging. The Pacific Mountain guides helped with a couple, but McKim said the most rewarding experience was when he and Mautino subdued the latter's shark.

"We clipped a buoy on it and had it right next to my kayak," he said. "We successfully got it up beside the boat, then released it. We couldn't get it on the kayak out there, but as far as releasing them and getting them up to the boat with two buoys, we found that it can be done."

Next on the men's agenda is a simpler trip with no motor boat support. Mautino said he would use smaller gear because it would be easier to handle from the kayaks.

McKim likes the simplicity of the kayaks, which he has long believed contribute to fishing success.

"(Kayaks) are silent; you are invisible, basically," McKim said. "In a kayak, you're always so sneaky ... I always think we look like trees or logs floating. It's just quieter."

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