Ed note: This article was originally printed in issue 3 of Blade Kayak Fishing Journal Magazine, and now that issue 4 is live and issue 3 out of print, we thought we'd make it available for all Yakass readers. Essentially, this is a text based version of the Kayak Fishing with Sharks video clip I produced some time ago (shown below), but goes into greater depth. It's about fishing for and dealing with them from a kayak when hooked, though the intro gets the obvious stuff out of the way as tidily as I could manage.
Of the myriad topics of interest to salt-water orientated kayak fishermen, few attract as many diverse opinions and varying assumptions as the topic of sharks. To some degree this is for good reason but it might be also fair to say that a lot of that is centered in misconception more so than reality. For this we probably have Stephen Speilberg's 'Jaws' to thank; no other single event in the history of man-kind has been more detrimental to the species of shark-kind. Combine those nasty-looking teeth, soulless black eyes and mysterious nature (we still know relatively little about them) and sharks become terribly easy to demonize and sensationalize onto the big screen. Fear sells and sharks are the ultimate plot device, still frequently featured in oceanic horror movies to this day. If there is such a thing as an unnatural fear of sharks, this is why.
But scary shark movies aren't the only reason we fear them. There really is something very normal and natural about fearing sharks, deeply etched into our archetype: the fear of being eaten alive is innate within us all. No one wants to be eaten by anything (let alone a shark). The very thought of it is pretty much inconceivable, so simply knowing that it's physically possible for certain species of sharks to do this is quite enough to induce a state of fear in their presence. With that all said, I'm here to tell you (in the reassuring words first spoken by Franklin D. Roosevelt) that 'the only thing you have to fear is fear itself'. But lets not confuse 'fear' with the words 'respect' and 'caution'... because yes, certain sharks do pose a clear and present danger to the ocean-going kayak fisherman, albeit marginal. If you look at the stats there truly is very little to fear... but plenty to respect and be cautious about.
There's a few reasons I like to quote Franky when discussing sharks, partly because it is widely said that sharks can sense fear. While I cannot confirm the validity of this assertion, I can offer a possible scientific explanation as to why this may be so. With the exception of the Wobbygong, all shark species have what scientists refer to as Ampullae of Lorenzi, visible as small black dots on the underside of a sharks snout, they use to sense bio-electric fields. This much has been scientifically proven and is the basis for the technology behind the illustrious 'Shark Shield' device - more on that shortly. It's not unreasonable to suggest that a sudden switch in emotion from relaxation (the typical state of the kayak fishermen) to fear would cause a ripple in ones bio-electric field that may or may not be detectable by nearby sharks.
If they can smell a drop of blood from up to a mile away (as is often claimed) then it's not much of a stretch to imagine that their bio-electrical sensory capabilities are also pretty impressive. Believe the theory or not, I think erring towards the precautionary principle is the wise way to look at it. As such, it follows that it's probably not a good idea to be in the vicinity of sharks and shivering in your boots at the same time. Fear is your greatest enemy - not only because it may or may not be sensed by sharks but also that it's not the easiest thing in the world to make good calls of judgement when you're repainting your jocks at the same time.
In the highly unlikely event that you do encounter a large shark, the worst thing you could possibly do is panic. If you suspect that you're the type of person who may panic in the event of shark encounter (which would make you like any other normal person) my suggestion is to mentally train yourself for the possibility. Visualize what you think it might look like, how it might go down and most important of all, what you would do in that situation. Try not to think like Stephen Speilberg when you do this though - keep it real, and remind yourself of certain facts. Namely, the only real risk facing the kayak fisherman is falling out of their yak in the presence of a large aggressive shark. Ignore mythical fantasies of flying sharks snatching you from the deck of a kayak - that isn't going to happen... providing you didn't make your yak out of seal skin (thankfully kayak hull materials have come along way over the millenia).
Either way, if these visualizations leave you feeling uncomfortable, consider the option of attaching a Shark Shield to your kayak. Manufacturers of the Shark Shield describe it as a shark deterrent system incorporating a 3 dimensional electrical wave form that repels nearby sharks. While a lot of people seem to have reservations about their effectiveness, many kayak fishermen that use them have reported positive results. My own personal experiences mirror these, having reached some positive conclusions after testing them out on hooked sharks at the side of the yak. Fellow Shark Bay yak fisho Peter 'Slim' Bostock had an encounter with a large White Pointer that circled his kayak for some 15 minutes, never once penetrating the 8 metre diameter electrical field (supposedly effective range) of his Shark Shield. Juxtaposed to his experience, my close encounter with the same species in the same waters the year before went quite differently, possibly because I didn't have a Shark Shield attached at the time.
There were a few similarities to our experiences, including the fact that we were both approached from some distance away. Whether by sight or senses, these Sharks became aware of our proximity surprisingly quickly and swam on over to satisfy their curiosity. Pete was circled at a short distance for a lengthy duration whereas my grey-suited inquisitor came right up to the kayak, swam just inches underneath it and then tail-whipped the pontoon before circling around and following my kayak as I hightailed it out of there. I took it's behaviour this to be aggressive and rather than doing what Pete did (remain still and rely on the Shark Shield) I was compelled to get the hell out of there. As I started pedalling away it circled around and started following the kayak, looking very closely at the rudder and even rubbing it's nose onto it briefly. At this point I thought there was a fair chance it would take a bite of the rudder. It didn't and soon flicked off, swam up alongside the kayak and then swam away into darkness. The whole encounter lasted no more than a minute. Both Pete and I came away from our experiences unscathed and undeterred - we both still fish the same waters regularly.
A much more harrowing experience was that of Steve Kulcsar, who along with a few fellow kayak fishoes, were visited upon by a large White Pointer at Longreef 2009. While no one was hurt in this instance either, it did put a prompt end to their fishing trip. What made the encounter so hair-raising was that Steve was knocked off his kayak by the shark, which is pretty much your worse case scenario right there... and even that didn't end in disaster. So although there have been instances of kayak fishoes encountering larger sharks it's still relatively uncommon. In the rare event that it does occur, it's even more uncommon for it to end in fatality. There aren't any known instances of kayak fishoes being taken by sharks in Australian waters, which should come as a comforting thought.
It's fitting to conclude a discussion on larger sharks by adding that encountering them in estuary systems is exceedingly rare. While they are often found sniffing outside of bars and river mouths, typically only smaller less intimidating specimens and species venture upstream. While Jeremy Wade's idiotic 'River Monsters' TV show will try and convince you otherwise (one of his episodes focused on the 'river monster' bull sharks that are known to dwell in the Gold Coast canals), the chances of any of these posing some sort of life-threatening scenario for estuary-going kayak fishermen is slim to none.
In other words, it's really only open ocean kayak fishoes who need to concern themselves with safety relating to sharks and it's probably safe enough to say that equipping ones kayak with a Shark Shield for estuary fishing is overkill. Put into perspective, even if one does go kayak fishing in ocean waters where sharks are commonly found, the most dangerous thing that person will do that day is drive to and from the fishing spot. The fact of the matter is that open water kayak fishermen are far more likely to encounter smaller, less intimidating sharks, and most usually when hooked on the end of their line - most commonly some form of whaler. For the uninitiated, this can be a pretty interesting experience and yes, most certainly has potential to be dangerous... but not life threatening.
Landing a shark on a kayak is equally as challenging as removing a hook for release and attempting either should be approached with a great deal of caution. Common advice for releasing sharks is to just cut them free by snipping the line as close to their mouth as you can safely get and this is especially true if they're any bigger than around 5'. But if you're emotionally or financially attached to the lure it's hooked on to, you're going to have to find a way of either removing it from the shark without causing further injury to it (and none to yourself) or otherwise landing it and keeping it for the table.
Respect is critical here; if that shark is any larger than 5' chances are it's going to be too strong to handle safely. There are several things to be wary of and most obvious of these are those sharp rows of teeth. At all costs you need to make sure these don't make contact with any part of you. Perhaps equally as dangerous is the large lure hanging out of it's mouth (whaler species love bibbed trolling lures), which when attached to the head of an angry, desperate and thrashing shark becomes serious treble-trouble. Even smaller specimens anywhere between 2 - 5' (the tastiest of all - you can't buy better flake) have surprising strength and stamina and need to be handled with care. Whether one decides to land the shark or otherwise try to remove a hook or treble, it is best to take your time. It's often tricky to be sure just how tired a shark really is but until you do have some idea, it's best to think twice before making your move.
Often a hooked shark will go deceptively docile after a few minutes struggle and still have plenty left in the gas tank for when they think they need it. It pays to be aware of this before trying to pin, lasso or gaff the shark because attempting to do any of these things is bound to provoke an aggressive response. In order to remove a hook or treble from a sharks mouth with intention to release it, you really need to try and pin it down or otherwise secure the toothy end of it before trying. Because it's tricky to wear down a shark enough to pin it properly without killing it, a simpler approach is to gaff it through the corner of its mouth (easier said than done) and use that to control its head while removing the hook/s. This will be easiest to achieve if you can manage to restrict it's movement by holding it's upper half against the side of the yak. You'll need a good set of pliers to perform the removal process, not to mention nerves of steel.
A similar approach should be taken when attempting to land the shark, though in these instances its important to tire the shark out even further. The last thing you want is to be overpowered by the thing when you haul it aboard, so it's important to be as sure as possible that you're going to be able to handle it. Do not entertain fantasies about donging the shark into submission at the side of the kayak and definitely not while it still has a lure hanging from its mouth. Perhaps the simplest way to quickly tire a shark for landing is to grab it's tail (hold on tight) and drag it backwards through the water for a while, though this to needs to be done carefully, and is not going to be at all easy with a traditional paddle-based kayak. If you do manage to grab the tail, another option is to make a deep cut into the base of the tail, which will cause it to start hemorrhaging. Combine this with the backwards dragging technique and the shark's life-force will drain pretty quickly.
When you think the time is right to bring the shark aboard, if there's even the slightest doubt in your mind about how much energy it has left you are well advised to use the gaff. Aim for the mouth, as this will help you control it's head. If there's much life left in it, premature gaff shots will result in an explosion of aggressiveness especially if attempted to be made into their thickly-skinned body - avoid this at all costs. Remember, gaff the mouth only, be sure to pick your moment (don't rush it) and unless you're sure it is or almost dead, be prepared for an eruption.
Once the shark is well and truly dead, it is good practice to remove the tail completely to ensure a thorough bleeding process and swiftly gutted. This is high priority for sharks intended for the table; failure to do so is likely to result in a high ammonia taste and smell, best avoided at all costs. If you get it right, however, that night you'll be eating the nicest flake you've ever tasted. You won't believe it's not butter!