Shark Fishing From a Kayak

When Jim Sammons wants to challenge himself, few others will go with him. Why, just last year he caught a 12-foot thresher shark -- alone, two miles out in the ocean, on his kayak.

by Allen Magarrell

Fishing from a kayak can mean many different things to different people. For professional kayak angler and guide Jim Sammons, it goes well beyond a profession. It's a lifestyle!

Anyone can catch a fish from a fully-decked-out $40,000 fishing boat, and if you don't have that kind of money, you can always charter a vessel; the results usually are the same. That's all well and good, but it's not for Jim, who was one of the first to use a kayak to chase deep-running fish off the coast of California.

With his kayak customized for saltwater fishing, Jim has caught numerous yellowtail, spotted bay bass, white seabass and calico bass. And on many occasions he has fought and landed toothy barracuda with no problems at all. On a Friday in July 2001, however, Jim was not going for yellowtail or white seabass. Without the obligation of clients that day, he wanted to target an "adrenaline" fish. He wanted to catch a shark. Either a mako or a thresher shark would do, although he preferred the thresher for a variety of reasons.

When fishing in a kayak, you experience the ocean waters in ways you cannot appreciate from a boat. You are in the water, not looking down into it. You move with swells of the ocean. You feel a kinship with all that swims with you, even the things that could swallow you. You in fact become part of the food chain.

Jim arrived at the public boat launch in La Jolla at 4 a.m. that Friday. The La Jolla launch's 100-yard stretch of sand beach is not exactly a conventional launch. With no concrete ramp or lights to help guide him, Jim pushed through pounding waves and surf, paddling like a madman to get beyond the surf.

Kayak angler Jim Sammons lifts a 12-foot thresher shark on a gaff after fighting the fish solo. Photo courtesy of Jim Sammons

After making his way through the surf, he sat for a moment outside of the breakers and ocean swells in flat, glassy water. This would be a good day for fishing, he decided.

The lights of Scripps Pier beckoned with the promise of baitfish, and in 10 minutes' time Jim had paddled to within its glow. He hooked up a "gang-line" rig to troll for bait. Kayak anglers do not have it easy when it comes to putting bait on board. There are no places to go to buy a scoop of bait at a marina when you take out your kayak. Kayakers must make bait by trolling gang-line rigs in hopes of baitfish. Sometimes this is easy. On this day, making bait was anything but easy.

The lights of the Scripps Pier attract many baitfish, including smelt, sardines and small mackerel, but Jim paddled his kayak up and down the length of the pier trolling his squid-baited gang line. No luck. After an hour without catching a single bait, Jim noticed that dawn was fast approaching and decided to paddle out to sea. He would try to catch a shark with artificial bait.

While making his way out to the open ocean, he came alongside another kayak angler, whose bait bucket was filled with large Pacific mackerel. Jim traded the man an apple for his choice of one precious mackerel. Looking down into the man's bucket, he picked out a 10-inch fish, the biggest he could see, in hopes that the big bait would attract a big shark.

Paddling in the open Pacific Ocean gives a guy lots of time to think, and Jim was running through his goal for the day. While there isn't much difference in table quality between thresher and mako sharks, he kept thinking that he'd prefer to encounter a thresher first. Makos, he counseled himself, are crazy. Many have been known to attack full-sized boats, and if you bring a mako alongside of your kayak, you risk not only your kayak but also life and limb as well. Because he was fishing alone, Jim made up his mind that this would be an all-or-nothing endeavor to take a thresher shark.

He pointed the bow of his kayak toward the edge of Submarine Canyon, about a mile and a half out to the southwest. This underwater canyon is over 200 feet deep. Currents in the area help hold schools of baitfish along the edge of the canyon, where the water is only 80 feet deep. Game fish, including sharks, constantly feed on the abundant food source.

Arriving at his destination, Jim surveyed the water for a few moments and noticed some surface boils here and there, but nothing to get excited about. Then he saw it: a thresher's tail sticking out of the water.

The shark was cruising the surface looking for food. He could tell by the size of the tail that the thresher was not overly big, perhaps just an 80-pounder. But a thresher that size - any size - would be good.

Jim grabbed his rod and stripped out line from the reel to tie a 60-pound leader and a 5/0 hook onto his 20-pound monofilament line. He hooked his lone mackerel through the mouth and then dropped the baitfish over the side of the kayak. Leaving the reel in free-spool mode with its clicker set, he paddled in large circles just outside the edge of the canyon to troll the live bait at moderate speed.

Jim knew that trolling such a large bait would discourage small fish from eating it, so it would require patience on his part to leave his mackerel down long enough to attract the shark's attention. He looked around and noticed that he was not seeing any more surface boils on the water. Maybe he had trolled a little too far, he told himself.

Just as Jim turned to check his rod he saw the large tail of a very big thresher shark - one exceeding 100 pounds - closing fast on his mackerel. Jim picked up the pace on his troll and looked back once again. In an instant, the big thresher had chased the mackerel down and, smacking it with its tail, stunned the baitfish.

His trolling stopped, Jim turned his kayak toward the shark to watch. With lightning speed the thresher hit again and took off with the bait. Jim held onto his rod and listened to the reel clicker as the shark swam away. Then there was a slight pause. He dropped the reel into gear and set the hook.

Feeling the sting, the big thresher leaped skyward, violently breaking out of the ocean just 40 feet from Jim and his kayak, and almost immediately sounded. Jim dropped his legs over the sides of his kayak for better leverage on the shark. The fish turned and again swam toward the surface, jumping only a few feet from the kayak. Now Jim was becoming concerned. If the thresher jumped over him and his kayak, he could be hit by the shark's massive tail. A bleeding kayak angler two miles offshore would not be a good thing, Jim told himself.

Once again the shark plunged into the water, and once again swam to the surface to jump. But this time the shark was moving away from Jim. It was towing him farther out to sea!

With no control over the fish, Jim held on as the shark pulled him another half-mile offshore before diving deep, giving Jim a more classic up-and-down fight. The struggle continued for more than two hours, with both fish and angler claiming little victories.

The shark's strength was causing the muscles in Jim's arms and legs to cramp and ache. And yet the constant pressure by Jim was making the shark too weak to fight to the surface and jump. After almost a three-hour battle, Jim got the upper hand and began to bring the fish to up to the surface. Tired from the long fight, the thresher offered little resistance.

Only when he brought the thresher alongside of his kayak did Jim realize just how big the shark really was. From the tip of the nose to the end of the tail the shark was 12 feet in length - almost as long as his kayak. He gaffed the shark and finished it off with his knife.

Luckily, a lobster fisherman scouting for new areas nearby had witnessed the ordeal and came by to help with the big shark. They loaded the fish onto his boat, and Jim wearily paddled his way back to shore.

Back at the dock, the thresher weighed in at 172 pounds. Indeed, it was quite a day off for Jim Sammons.

You can contact Jim Sammons about his guide service at (619) 461- 7172.

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