Risky Business
  |  First Published: February 2007

In all the years that I’ve been offshore kayak fishing the questions I’m most often asked are: “Are sharks a concern? Have you got any interesting stories? Had any close calls?” My answer, predictably, is... “yes, yes and yes”.

Sharks come with the kayak angler’s watery territory but in my experience are no more a hazard than the car trip to the fishing grounds or negotiating a dumping shore break. They do present some risk, but it’s a risk that can be reduced by taking the proper precautions and following sensible procedures.

I re-visited this subject not long ago after reading an article about a New Zealand kayak angler who was stalked by a 6m white pointer. This guy was lucky to survive but the point is, despite accidentally doing almost everything imaginable to attract and stimulate this large predator, he did live to tell the tale.

He had set a long line baited with 12+ hooks and berleyed extensively for an hour or two. He also made up his berley on the run which meant the deck and cockpit area of his kayak was covered in dripping blood and fish bits. Unfortunately for him, this attracted a very large great white. When the shark started monstering his snapper catch as he was bringing in the set line, he cut the line away from the kayak with his knife. Unfortunately, in the process, he cut his leg rather badly, causing his own blood to flow into the water from the scuppered cockpit. With the huge predator circling and bumping his kayak the angler, in real fear of his life, hurled his remaining bait and tuna berley as far from the kayak as possible. When that didn’t distract the predator, he vomited all over himself, the kayak and into the surrounding water. As you can imagine, the white pointer was probably thinking, “What the hell is in this plastic container?” and began doing everything it could think of to tip the potential food source out so it could give it the proverbial taste test.

Fortunately the guy was only about 400m from shore and he eventually made it back to shallow water safely. This was, however, after a harrowing half an hour of interrupted paddling during which the white pointer repeatedly rammed, slammed and pushed his small craft from all directions.

Did this story put any doubt in my mind about the safety of my chosen sport? Not really. My reaction was, in fact, quite the opposite. Barring extreme bad luck, I’m comfortable that the procedures I’ve developed over the years are sufficient to minimise the danger of an unwelcome close encounter of this kind. Kayak fishing can be as risky as you are prepared to make it.

The following rules can be followed or ignored, depending on how much of an adrenaline rush you’d like to experience.

1. Know Your Waters

It’s important to know the grounds you’re going to be fishing. If you’re not familiar with the area, head to the local tackle stores for information on currents, rips and weather. If you’re really concerned about sharks in the area, the local dive shop is the best place to start. Some of my good friends run the dive store in Noosa and keep me up to speed with any new shark arrivals on our local reefs.

2. Paddle and Fish Within Your Capabilities

This is a sport where fitness is an important factor depending on your target species. If you’re chasing tailor or squire around rocky headlands or behind the surf line and aren’t paddling more than 5-10km, you can get by with a moderate level of fitness.

If you’re chasing fish like large mackerel, tuna or cobia and working typically 3-5km from shore, you need to be in pretty good shape. A 15-20kg northern bluefin will tow you around for 40-60 minutes and can take you 3-4km from your hook-up point. If one of these fish tows you further out to sea you need to be fit enough to perhaps paddle 8-10km back to shore with a 20kg fish on board! And while a 20kg+ Spanish mackerel may be only good for roughly ten minutes of hard and fast fighting it’s still an added burden when you’ve got some distance to go to dry land.

3. Try to Avoid Playing a Fish Too Long

One bonus of fishing from a kayak is that you can go with the fish. This takes a lot of load off your gear, as you can use lighter tackle than if you were fishing from a boat but a hard fighting fish will take a lot longer to defeat.

If I have been playing a fish for more than 50 minutes I will tighten the drag and bring it in as quickly as possible. I’d rather risk a bust-off than tempt fate. The one time I left a fish in the water longer than I wanted too was during a double hook-up. When I finally brought the second fish, a good sized spotted mackerel, in I found I was only seconds away from losing it to a shark. I wasn’t aware of the shark until it sliced through the water beside the kayak but didn’t return.

4. Don’t Berley up with Fresh Flesh and Blood

Whilst berleying from a boat makes sense, berleying from a kayak should only be done if you want to catch sharks. That’s not as crazy as it sounds though – I know some kayak anglers who get their thrills catching Noahs. If you’re not one of them, don’t create a chum trail that will attract their interest. Preparing bloody, smelly chum on the deck of your kayak while bobbing in 30m of water, 3-4km from shore is really pushing your luck. A judicious sprinkling of dry berley pellets can be useful to attract the bait schools during the pelagic season. Just don’t overdo it.

5. Don’t Blood Your Fish Once it’s Onboard

My whole strategy is based on a bloodless catch. My aim is to get fish like school and spotted mackerel to the side of the yak as soon as possible, tail them with my gloved hand and wrap them in 1-2 towels to contain the blood. A Spanish mackerel has to be played out to tire it before bringing it on board but as the average (8-10kg) fish is only good for a hard and fast 4-5 minute tussle, it’s a relatively risk free exercise. I use a custom designed ‘fish lifter’, similar to a gaff but with a longer ‘return’ and a dull point to avoid cutting the fish when I slip the lifter point under the gill rakers and out through the mouth and haul it on board.

Tuna are a different thing all together. They tend to run hard, without tiring, for anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour depending on their size and condition before they give up the ghost. They’re not a hard fish to control when you bring them on board but must be wrapped and stored quickly as their gill arteries tend to blow out and spray blood everywhere.

Snapper present few problems. Their large gill rakers allow the lifter to slide in easily and they rarely struggle or bleed profusely on board unless foul hooked. I always carry six custom made, foam ‘scupper plugs’ to block off the scupper holes where I’m holding my catch. They don’t provide a 100% watertight seal, but when used with the towel wraps, I find them to be adequate.

6. Don’t Draw Attention to Yourself

This is a hard one as it it’s often difficult to predict the consequences of some decisions. The advice should be to err on the side of caution. I focus mostly on what I call ‘paddle trolling’, whether it be baits or hard bodied lures, because I’ve always believed that keeping on the move draws less attention.

The following story, however, does indicate that not all my theories hold water.

7. Move Away From the Kill Zone

Why hang around? You will probably have made a bit of noise and gotten some blood in the water, no matter how careful you’ve been. So as soon as you’ve secured your well wrapped fish, paddle a couple of hundred metres from the spot where you removed the fish from the water.

8. Carry the Appropriate Safety Equipment

A life jacket or PFD (personal flotation device) is a must. I also carry two ‘day’ flares in the centre hatch of my kayak, a deck mounted ‘anchor’ light for poor light conditions and an EPIRB in the front pocket of my PFD. I also now have a waterproof handheld marine radio as well as a mobile phone.

If you’re serious about open water kayak angling, you need to be serious about the safety aspect as well.

Does all this help?

I feel more comfortable fishing from my kayak with all of these precautions in place but if you’re still really concerned about encountering a shark I’d suggest you buying a ‘Shark Shield’ or wear chain mail leggings.

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