As winds from a northerly quarter become more frequent, Long Island anglers are likely to encounter some of the biggest sharks of the season.
Fall sharking is one of the “forgotten” seasons, as near-offshore and inshore anglers evolve from their summer pursuits and look forward to the upcoming cooler months. These are typified with shorter daylight windows that target sea bass, one last shot at fluke, blackfish and migrating stripers. My experience is that the fall sharking experience can produce some of the year’s largest fish, especially if you are looking for makos, threshers or trying to wear out your crew and tackle by tagging and releasing waves of giant hungry blue dogs. However, I’ve found that it’s like three different seasons within a season, so I’m going to focus on the coastal fall sharking activity, looking at the best opportunities in the months of September, October and November.
This is the time when the fishing almost feels like August, but with ever-shortening days, a subtle hint in the prevailing winds from a southwest/west course to a northwest angle as we pass the autumnal equinox (September 15 or thereabouts, when the amount of daylight is “equal to the night”). The earth also tilts on its axis and the angle of sunlight changes, with cooler nights and the occasional hint of Indian summer. Hurricanes and alphabet storms will begin to march up the Atlantic seaboard with more regularity in September, but the water can still stay warm, with temps in the low-70s, even by month’s end.
Regardless of which Long Island port you sail from, the fall sharking menu can still include many of the summertime species, like dusky, brown/sandbar, tiger and hammerhead sharks, plus small makos and threshers. Drifting and dreaming near 15- to 20-fathom areas like wrecks, fathom curves, or conspicuous sea surface temp breaks with either bunker chum or mackerel chum will usually produce the most consistent action. However, hanging out on the perimeter of inshore bunker, Chub mackerel or bonito/little tunny schools and drifting back a snagged and/or rigged live or fresh dead bait will also garner its share of action from sharks that are shadowing these baitfish, which are typically browns, duskies, makos and smaller whiptails.
Other baits that work in September include small dorado that you can still catch around the inshore lobster pots, crab pots and/or sea buoys; small bay blues that can be employed whole, fan-tailed or fillets; plus whole, medium-sized local squid. To get the most action in September, it’s best to match the hatch, and the aforementioned baits should be on the top of the menu for coastal sharkers.
With coastal storms being more of a regular thing, stronger northern quarter winds chilling out both air and ocean temperatures into the mid-60s, along with shorter days and longer nights, many of the summertime species of sharks, football tuna and the bait that they forage upon are all on the move. Accordingly, the sharking action is heading into deeper water, with 20- to 25-fathom areas the usual starting points for October shark trips.
Wrecks, fathom curves and sea surface temperature breaks are the usual spots to start your search. However, one of my “tricks of the trade” is to troll out to deeper waters starting from the 15- to 20-fathom areas using tuna feathers and clones on lighter tackle, in the hopes of coming across remnants of the football tuna crowd. These can include Atlantic bonito, skipjack tuna, little tuna, frigate mackerel, chub mackerel and/or Spanish mackerel. Once my charter crews have iced anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen of these smaller footballs, we’ll typically set up nearby in the hopes of attracting a cruising shark in the area that might have been shadowing this forage and is looking to have a taste of the real thing. Obviously, the bunker or mackerel chum will bring them into your baits, but this is where some of the local sharpies take the extra step to ensure success. I know of a few South Shore charter boat captains that make their own chum, specifically for the fall shark fishery. They will grind up either homogeneous or a combination mix of bluefish, little tunny, bluefin/yellowfin tuna, or Chub mackerel chum. If this is what the sharks are chasing at the moment, using this chum will give you a distinct advantage over neighboring boats. Sure, it requires some extra work, but the results can be dramatically favorable.
If grinding your own chum is not in your future, you can do the next best thing, which is to use bunker chum (Schools will still probably be around during this month.) and intersperse the flow with bits and pieces of the aforementioned football species if you are lucky enough to catch any. Makos have a real penchant for little tunny baits, and I have caught dozens on these false albacores that have been frozen like a log for upwards of a year or two. When they thawed out, these baits still drew the attention of migrating makos. The October menu typically includes makos, threshers and the second coming of the blue dogs, in the form of large, hungry males that can get upwards of 300 pounds plus, with each one of the “747s” bending the rods for at least a half hour or more. I have consistently caught the largest makos and threshers of the season in the first two weeks of October and so have many of my contemporaries who like to shark fish in this month for larger fish. That being said, I usually upgrade my tackle to Penn 30 VSX reels spooled with 100-pound braid, but more on that later.
This month is reserved for the shark fishing fanatics, who just can’t get enough of a good thing. Due to falling water temps, which will hover in the 56- to 59-degree range, you typically have to go further out to 25- to 30-fathom areas to find the best action. Swarms of pesky dogfish will frequently conspire to ruin your day, and you might have to make a few moves to get away from the incessant annoyance of doggies chomping on your baits meant for bigger game. If you are lucky enough to find a patch of ocean that is devoid of dogfish, set up your chum slick and go to work before they find you. At this time of the year, there are frequently typically two thermoclines, which you can locate and verify with your echo sounder. The first is the upper layer, which is now cooler water. The second is the warmer surface layer of prior months, which has sunk down below layer number one. The final or third layer is the cooler bottom water. If you can find this “mid-layer” of water, which should be warmer than the surface sea temp readings, this is the magic zone that the makos and threshers will use to transit the area. Get a few baits down in this zone and you can be in business. As you get past the first few weeks in November, and the weather deteriorates to gray skies, a cold north wind and super-short daylight hours, the sharking season typically comes to an abrupt halt.
Tackle and Technique
As both my life and the tackle industry evolve, so does my shark-fishing tackle. Gone are my four-decade favorite 9/0 and 10/0 Mustad 7699 offset J-hooks, being replaced by the non-offset 14/0, 16/0, 18/0 and 20/0 circle hooks, due to recent changes in regulations. As a result of these regulations, the entire setup of when to strike a fish after the usual run-stop-run, or hot take-off pick-ups is now a process of waiting for the right moment, leaving the rod in the rodholder and then reeling down slowly/steadily until the line (hopefully) comes tight.
Tackle has evolved too, with large outsized 50W and 30W lever drag reels, or 9/0 star drag reels spooled with monofilament main line typically a habit of the past. I have seen many anglers employ these same reels using braid for expediency, but this might not be your best move. Those large, heavy, clunky reels might be spooled with 80-, 100- or 130-pound superbraid, but the drags on these reels usually can’t give you the drag settings to take advantage of the line that you are using. Most 30Ws and 50Ws manufactured by the leading reel makers will offer anywhere from 17 to 23 pounds of strike drag, while still producing zero friction free-spool.
Nowadays, smaller, lighter and more powerful two-speed reels filled with 65-, 80- or 100-pound superbraid are the choice of the up-and-coming generation of coastal sharkers. As I have discussed in past bluewater articles, I am a big fan of Penn’s VSX and next-gen VISX extreme-duty, open top two-speed lever drag reels. Historically, I have been employing 16 VSX and 30 VSX reels in my shark trips with great success. There’s sufficient line capacity (550 yards of 80-pound superbraid, plus a 50-yard mono topshot for the 16; 550 yards of 100-pound superbraid with a 50-yard mono topshot for the 30), run-stopping twin-disc drags, and a lightweight profile (41-ounce/32 pounds max drag for the 16 and 62-ounce/38 pounds of max drag for the 30) that will tire out the fish without fatiguing my anglers. My trio of 16s have gotten a lot of use over the years in the shark and tuna fishing game, with one being transferred to a good buddy of mine and another getting deposited in 145 feet of water south of Shinnecock Inlet earlier this year (yet another painful lesson learned about the benefits of owning and actually “using” safety lines when underway in rough seas), so I’m down to my last one. I’ve found the newbie VISX 20 reels are a perfect “‘tweener” between the 16 and 30 models and I bought a pair of those earlier this season and have put them to good use. They have a slightly larger sideplate compared to an original 16 VSX, weigh about 10 ounces more, but also generate a significantly increased max drag capacity (50 pounds compared to 32 pounds for the 16 VSX). I’ve been able to get 550 yards of 80-pound braid on the new 20 VISX, with a 50-yard topshot of 80-pound mono. The VSX/VISX levers’ combination of drag range, advanced strike setting, compact size, relatively light weight and ability to get total free-spool at elevated drag settings makes these my go-to reels for sharks and tuna.
Other accessory items that are requisite for a successful shark trip are a chum bag (plus a spare), a mako magnet, floats to keep your baits at specific depths, rubber bands, tagging stick and tags, tail ropes, wire cutters, heavy duty gloves, a flying gaff, a 6-foot straight gaff, de-hooker pole and plenty of pre-made wire leaders.
Fall sharking can be a blast and a great way to end the near-offshore big-game season, especially if overnight canyon trips are not in your vessel’s wheelhouse or your operating budget. When the alphabet storms finally make their way up the coast, you’ve got to keep a sharp eye on the local weather – it can get rough out there, especially when the prevailing winds turn to the north, northwest and northeast quarters. With waning hours of sunlight, fall sharking dictates that you are frequently leaving in the dark and coming back in the dark, so all hands onboard need to keep a lookout in limited visibility conditions, especially as you enter November. If you are not part of the Apex Predator Research tagging program, why not consider joining? You can reach out to them at https://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/nefsc/Narragansett/sharks/tagging.html and request a tagging kit setup. I have tagged over a thousand sharks with my crews and it’s always a blast to see when they are recaptured and where they migrate in the North Atlantic Ocean during their annual journeys. Shark populations are generally on the decline, so “tag and release” fishing is a great way to enjoy the resource and save it for the next generation. Plus a season ending mako or thresher is a bonus and will fill up the freezer with a winter’s full of delicious steaks and warm memories of your last catch. If you have any questions on fall sharking, reach out to me at www.marceejay.com. Be safe out there.