by Tom King www.newenglandsharks.com
We are familiar with groups of people going out on boats to view whales frolicking and feeding out there on the briny. Whale watching has an enormous following. But what about us shark aficionados. I’ll bet you never thought in terms of shark watching. I do it all the time. Of course you will need sharks within the range of your boat. That’s usually not a problem in most coastal New England areas.
Unlike the whales, sharks aren’t going to congregate on the surface, and spend time cavorting in the same area month after month. Whales spend a lot of time loafing around in view, and go to the surface for air, which makes them easier to spot. Sharks need a little coaxing to show up at boatside. By using proper chumming techniques you can lure sharks to your boat, and by tossing the sharks a few fish tidbits, you can keep them in view for hours. There are certain species of sharks that will readily come to your boat and stay ; sharks like the blue, Prionace glauca, are a good example. Whereas the mako, porbeagle and thresher will come very close, but only remain at the boat for a few minutes.
If you are outside of New England, you may have different species in your area than the ones I mentioned. Learning how to identify the different species in your area , watching them swim, and observing their behavior is very enjoyable. There are some violent encounters you may witness, such as a mako attacking and killing a blue shark next to your boat.
Where to go?
Whether you are a shark fisher , or a watcher, or just want to tag some sharks, or just photograph them, properly setting up a chum slick in an area, known to have sharks, is the most important part of shark fishing and attracting sharks. The area you select to chum will be determined from your own experience with sharks. If you are lacking shark experience, you can get out a chart and talk to local fishermen who have had experiences with sharks within your boating range. Do a little detective work; don’t come across as a know it all, and you will get some leads on areas likely to have sharks. Many tuna fishermen can’t fish certain areas because of sharks constantly taking their bait, and would be glad to have you shark fish there.
Once you have selected an area, there are a several other factors to consider in chumming. What are you to use for chum? Where are you going to obtain it.? Where are you going to store it? How are you going to dispense it? How much do you need for a day of shark watching, or fishing.
If you only go out for shark fishing or viewing a few times a year you are better off buying frozen chum from a local dealer. No doubt about that. You will need at least 4 or 5 gallons of frozen chum for a days chumming; possibly two 5 gal. buckets if you are chumming in water over 65 degrees, that’s because the chum will dissolve at a faster rate than at lower water temps.
To Grind or not to Grind
Grinding up your own chum is messy, time consuming, and you will need a place to freeze and store it. If you go out many times a year, or can’t find a local supply, it may be worth the effort of grinding your own. And effort is the key word. You will have to catch or buy the fish to be ground up. Grind up small fish like herring, mackerel , menhaden or whatever small fish are available in your area.
If you grind your own, put the ground up chum in 4 or 5 gal buckets, leaving it down an inch to two inches from the top to allow for expansion when it freezes. I prefer the four gallon buckets which are easier to store and easier to handle. When we grind, we continuously spray a little menhaden oil into the ground up chum.
Also fill a few smaller size buckets. These smaller amounts in 1- 3 gal sizes are easy to add to the chum dispenser if the regular chum runs down, and because of time constraints, or at the end of the day you may not want to add a full larger bucket.
Use a suitable large electric grinder, and plan in advance on the number of buckets needed, and don’t forget the lids. There are always more buckets around than lids. To give you an idea of how much fish you might need to grind up; a hundred pounds of small fish like mackerel and herring will yield about three 5 gal buckets of ground up chum. A full fish tote of herring (125lbs+/-) will yield about 18 gallons of chum. From these basic figures you can estimate what you need.
Unused frozen chum a year old still works well, so don’t throw it away at the end of the season, as long as it was continuously frozen . Also left over chum from a day at sea, may be refrozen and used again in the same year. I used to think it would lose its “juice”, but to me it works just as well the second time as the first time.
Some sharkers, opt for not using frozen chum at all. They just bring out some iced down relatively fresh bait fish, and chop it up when they get to their watery destination.
How much chum is enough?
You want to dispense frozen ground up fish chum at a minimum of 3/4 gal per hour. We normally chum at 1 to 1-1/2 gals per hour on charter, and 2 gal per hour in a shark tournament. So basically 4 gals of chum is the minimum to take; 5 to 8 gals is the norm for a daily shark trip. You will have to adjust for the area that you fish. For example we may be shark fishing in 57 deg water in Mass. Bay; but when we enter a shark tournament , and fish the south side of Martha’s Vineyard we may be in 72 deg. water and use twice as much chum.
The simplistic perception of chumming is you put fish blood in the water and wait for a shark to show up. That will work, but like all endeavors there are some nuances worth learning to give you a better chance to succeed.
A shark’s sense of smell is amazing, and that’s what we will exploit to bring them up close and personal. When a shark enters a continuous chum slick of ground up fish, it will follow it unerringly, sometimes for miles, to the exact source – hopefully, your boat. Their life depends on that ability.
Different chumming devices
There is no end to how you can dispense chum, so be innovative.
Here are a few methods. You can make up your own if you like.
Floatation for these devices will be discussed later.
Winston Churchill said. “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they have exhausted every other possibility.” So I want to exhaust a possibility here for you and save you from learning the hard way.
Do not put your chum into the water unless it is in a device that protects it from shark bites. A plastic bucket is fine. Using an unprotected mesh bag, like an onion bag, a divers nylon lobster bag ,a mesh laundry bag or one of those yellow perforated canyon chum bags is an invitation to disaster. If you are going to use such a bag, surround it with a wire cage. If a shark bites into the chum bag, it won’t let go. They hang on so forcibly that you could pull them into the boat. The chum bag will be shredded and you will lose the chum.
Trying to avoid this from happening by having someone keeping an eye on the bag won’t work, because when tuna or some other marine show starts happening on the other side of the boat the watch dog will get distracted and the shark will get the chum bag.
Some circumstances will require you to move your boat out of the chum slick. You may want to jettison your chumming device if you hook up on a running jumping mako, or other large shark that might empty your reel if you remained stationary. Or if you are also jigging the bottom for cod and get into some really big cod you may want to leave the chumming device and go back up over the cod instead of drifting away from them. Many anglers codfish while waiting for sharks to show up. It would not be that uncommon to have a bluefin tuna grab your cod jig right on the bottom or when it is on the way down, that is another reason you may want to leave the chumming device and go battle a tuna that has grabbed your jig on a cod rod.
Here are a couple of suggestions for a floating chum dispenser you can jettison to keep your slick uninterrupted.
Bucket and box method
To avoid spilling chum all over the deck; take a 5 gal bucket of frozen chum , remove the lid, let the bucket sit upright on the deck. Take a tightly fitting, suitable square plastic box, like a milk crate that has holes in the box bottom to allow the chum to get out, and jam it onto the upright lidless 5 gallon bucket. Pick up the bucket and crate ( About 35 lbs. worth.) and secure the bucket to the box, with bungee cords or suitable tie lines so the bucket can’t come lose. The tie lines are attached to the box and come over the bottom of the chum bucket bottom to keep it in place. Secure a line or nylon covered cable line from the boat to the crate handles. When you put the bucket overboard put it in so the box is upright and the bucket is now upside down, with the open face of the bucket under water. The bucket and box may lay sideways but that is still alright as long as the water is reaching the exposed chum in the lidless bucket.
Mesh bag and cage method.
Another chumming method is to place the frozen chum from a bucket into a nylon, close meshed bag, or other perforated soft bag. Tie the neck tightly. Use tie wraps if you have them; and put the chum filled bag inside a secure wire mesh cage of one inch square or less. If the square wire mesh on the cage is to big, the bag will work its way out as the chum dissipates or the sharks will grab the protruding bag and shred it. The cage will prevent the sharks from biting open the chum bag. You may use up a lot of chum with this method since all the surface of the chum in the bag is exposed to the water. This method allows you to see how much chum is remaining in the bag. In cooler water, (55) deg. it will last about 4 hours- if the seas don’t get too rough. If the water is warmer than that, and you will be there longer than 4 hours, take along and extra 5 gal bucket of chum, and add it when needed.
From left to right: 4 gal bucket____5 gal bucket inside plastic milk crate______float with flag__wire mesh cage with chum bag inside.
If you have to leave your chumming device this flag device can be clipped onto the chumming device when you let it go, and will help you locate it after you return.
Test your marker setup before going offshore. Make sure it will stay afloat and vertical while attached to your chumming device.
I have 4 feet of nylon covered cable with a snap hook on this flag/float device in the picture. Make sure to use a snap that is difficult to open. The box and bucket will float but the metal mesh cage will sink if the float marker come loose. Put a couple of floats permanently attached to the metal mesh cage as a precaution.
Perforated 5 gal bucket method.
An easy chumming system is to drill 1/2 inch dia holes every 3 or 4 inches all around an empty 5 gal bucket including the lid and bottom. Then dump in the frozen contents from a 4 gal bucket of chum. (You won’t get 5 gals into the bucket, since the bucket tapers)
The 5 gallon lid is then closed and secured. A big snap on the end of a nylon covered cable is attached through a suitably drilled hole in the lid and through a drilled hole in the top side edge of the bucket. That will also help secure down the cover. The end of the nylon covered cable to the snap, can be secured to the boat. Opposite the snap on the bucket lid snap, two tie wraps can secure the other side of the lid to the bucket side utilizing the drilled holes in the lid and top side of the bucket. In this type of setup the 4 gallons of chum inside will last almost all day. (6-1/2 hours) Depending on water temperature and sea conditions; you can adjust the number of holes in the 5 gal bucket to get the desired effect for the area you fish. You can easily make up a couple of these buckets for different conditions. Warmer water and rough seas use up more chum; therefore use less holes.
If you are fishing on a boat with a generator and have access to 110 volts at sea, you can use an electric drill and just drill your holes into the full 5 gal bucket of chum. (One time we were drilling holes into a full chum bucket when a wave came over the transom , it flooded the cockpit and gave the person holding the drill a shocking experience. Fortunately the Ground Fault Interupter tripped and cut off the electrical supply. He was OK. The rest of us in the cockpit in ankle deep water didn’t feel any voltage. As always- be careful.
Leave the lid on. A series of 1/2 inch dia holes about 3 inches apart is a good start.
Drilling holes in a chum bucket can also be accomplished with a battery operated drill.
Drill two holes on the lid near the lid rim, opposite to each other . Then on the top of the bucket sides, just under those lid holes drill another hole on each side of the bucket.. Run a line through the hole in the side up through the lid hole go across the lid down through the lid hole on the opposite side and out the other side of the bucket. Then tie a bowline above the bucket so the bucket will drag along lid first. The pull of the line will be on the side of the bucket and not on the lid.
Lacking a drill a simple way is to take a knife with a stiff blade and cut holes directly into the bucket of frozen chum and just tie onto it and place it in the water. Leave the lid on the bucket.
Experience in your fishing area will tell you how many holes of what size to cut. A good start with holes cut by a knife, would be 3 rows of 3/4 inch square holes about 4 inches apart. Remove the cut plastic squares from the bucket, don’t push them inside the bucket as they may plug the holes. Chum many times plugs up some of the holes but the chum and water filled bucket still leaches out a scent trail that sharks can follow.
Floats for the chum dispenser
Eventually you will have to leave your chumming device and move the boat. You want to keep the slick continuous so you don’t want to pull the chum out of the water. The reason for leaving the chum device can be a mako or tuna hookup, or a shark is going to clean you off, or a basking shark or whale swims by picks up the line on a pectoral fin and gets foul hooked, or you want to go back up and catch some more of those 20 lb. cod you have just drifted over. There will be other reasons some not fishing related, but the point is it will happen. Have ready a bottom weighted shaft with a float, and a highly visible flag or flags that will stick up at least 4 feet above the water.
If you have a tower you may omit the flag setup and string a series of different colored floats on the cable line which attaches the device to the boat. When you drop the chum device the long string of floats is easier to see from a tower. If you don’t have a tower or high flybridge and are always at deck level you definitely need the flag setup to locate your chum device. If you have radar , a reflector atop the vertical shaft on the float helps especially if you might get fogged in. Lock in the loran or GPS numbers where you dropped the chumming device. Don’t expect the abandoned cage to continue drifting in the same direction as when it was being pulled along with the boat. It may start drifting in the opposite direction.
Wire cage/ chumbag setup needs floats.
Good reasons to have floats attached to a wire cage type chum dispenser are: If the cage gets loose from the boat, or you accidentally put it into the water untied, it won’t sink taking the chum inside with it. A floating cage is also less likely to get hit with the prop. You can attach the vertical flag float setup ,when you leave the cage to move the boat. (chum in a plastic bucket alone will float but without a flag is hard to see when you come back to retrieve it)
Secure several highly visible hard plastic floats to the cage. Put them on loops of nylon covered wire cable run through the floats, and attached to the wire mesh cage. That way the cage will not sink and the sharks won’t chew through the cable, and set the floats adrift. Use black, yellow, chartreuse, lime green or other highly visible colors for the floats. Don’t use more than one white float. (If you use a lot of white you will mistake a group of birds sitting on the water for you chumming device.) Don’t use only an inflated orange ball to float or mark you chumming device. Life jacket orange is a favorite color of blue sharks and they may slash your ball and sink it.
Keeping an uninterrupted slick going is very important, and a floating chumming device does a great job if you have to leave it. Write down or store the GPS or loran numbers when you leave the device.
Important: Remember the chumming device may not continue to drift in the same direction as when it was attached to the boat, so when you return to where you left it, look for it in all directions. You may even run into it on the way back to where you dropped it.
One chumming method is to use a PVC pipe 4-6 inches in diameter , approx. 3 feet long depending on the boat’s freeboard, with one end capped and the other end left open. Holes are drilled through the sides of the PVC tubing near the capped end which will allow the chum to disperse. The PVC tube is secured to the boat with the capped end and perforated portion under the water, and the open top of the tube above the water, and accessible to receive chum.
The chum is cut up and then placed in the tube, or put into the tube, and chopped up inside the tube with a long handled cutter. Another method is to cap the open end after chum is placed inside; tie the tube to the boat and allow it to float in the water. If you are shark watching or tagging and are not planning to move the boat, this PVC method is adequate. But it does require constant loading of chum. Bloody hands from this type of operation are a problem with cameras and fishing gear. Take turns to spread out the chore.
Some boats have baitwells or fish boxes whose holes are open to the salt water via holes thru the hull. Chum can be put into these wells and it will get out and form a slick. The drawback is you will drag the chum along with you if you move the boat since you can’t leave it behind.
TIP- If you are going to run short on chum, and you have jigged up some groundfish, fillet them, and put the racks (frames), guts and all, into the chum cage, or chum bag. This will keep the slick going.
If you are out fishing for non shark species, and have a quick successful day, and decide to go shark fishing, you can use this method. If you don’t have a cage or chum bag aboard put the racks in a plastic bag, and puncture it with a knife sufficient times to let the juices flow but don’t perforate it so much the fish frames get loose. If you have more frames than you can fit in the plastic bag or don’t have a plastic bag, tie some of the frames through gills and mouth, and put them in the water on a line near the surface.
The chum slick
Most peoples perception of setting up a chum slick is to arrive on the scene, throw over the chum and wait for a shark to appear. And eventually one or more sharks will come to the boat.. Maybe a half dozen or so sharks will show up. After years of doing this they will notice more sharks near the boat on windy rough days. The worse the sea conditions are the more sharks they get. What’s happening here? Several things: Noise, a longer slick, and more chum being dispersed.
When a boat is rolling in the seas it makes a lot of noise which will attract sharks. Sharks are always listening. South sea Islanders have for centuries attracted sharks by beating on the sides of their boats.
I believe the main reason more sharks are caught on rough windy days is more ground is covered on the drift, and more chum is released. Consequently the longer the slick the more sharks that will find it and follow the scent to the boat. Does this mean you have to leave earlier to get out there and get a longer slick on calmer days? That would work! But there is an easier way. Some shark fishermen call it “power chumming.” We call it “jump starting the slick”.
Jump starting the slick
When you shark fish an area, or just go shark watching, there are several things to consider. Some areas of good shark prospects cover hundreds of square miles. Other times a relatively small specific spot contains the sharks. I’ll tell you how to handle each situation.
Lets look at the first scenario, the easier of the two. If the shark producing area is extensive and you don’t need to be exactly on any particular spot; here’s what to do. Go to the general area you intend to attract sharks. Stop the boat ; leave the engine running. Look around. If another shark fisherman is near you, move at least two miles away. Competing slicks reduce the catches in both boats.
When you are ready to start your slick, put over your chum dispenser, and secure it to the boat in such a way that it can be slowly and safely towed. While sitting there drifting along in neutral, determine which direction the chum slick is going away from the boat. Take adequate time to ascertain this. The tendency after a long run to the shark area is to hurry up everything. Relax ! The way the slick is set up is the most important thing you will be doing.
So don’t rush it. Make sure you know the direction the slick is going by watching it go away from the boat. Once the direction that the slick is going away from the boat is determined, slowly move the boat in the opposite direction. That’s away from the existing slick. For example if the chum is drifting away from the boat in a westerly direction you will go slowly east dragging the chum along, and extending the slick. This is “jump starting the slick.” If it is a flat calm day, go about 1-1/2 miles. At 3 kts that’s about a half hour of dragging the chum dispenser. If its windy, about 1/2 mile. ( Ten minutes) Then stop the boat and start drifting. Make sure you are not dragging toward another shark fisherman who would end up being within two miles when you stop. Be prepared, a shark may be at the boat in a matter of minutes. In some areas you may have to wait several hours for a shark to show.
While slow trolling to set up the slick you can have hook bait in the water behind the boat in case a shark is following the boat.
After the slick is spread under power, and you stop and start drifting, the drift direction may be slightly different than from the starting point. Don’t worry, as long as the slick is continuous the sharks will find you, even if the slick has a dog leg in it. By jump starting the slick you can avoid being stuck in a small area with a short slick on a calm day.
Sharkers are divided on whether to move to another location if you don’t get results within a few hours. I am in the group that says “Don’t give up the slick.” Stay there. I was really put to the test one day when I was first mating. A new captain, totally inexperienced in shark fishing was taking the charter out since the regular captain was unable to go that day. I wanted to fish about 10 miles north of the area that we had been so successful in fishing prior to that trip. I changed the destination accordingly, since the new Captain had no idea where we should be sharkfishing. Three hours of waiting in the slick produced no sharks. The captain wanted to move. I suggested we hang in there. Within minutes of that conversation, the first of over a dozen of the biggest blue sharks I’ve seen showed up. The charter was thrilled with the size of the fish, and the quantity.
Earlier this month (Sept. 2002) I went into mid afternoon without a shark to the boat . A friend was sharking about 3 miles west of me and had taken a couple of sharks. He was ready to leave and asked me if I wanted to come over and pick up the slick. I declined, and ten minutes later we were into some big blue sharks and had a happy ending to the trip.
Getting the slick over a specific spot.
Lets look now at a more difficult chumming situation, where you have sharks in a concentrated area. If the slick must pass over a definite set of GPS or loran numbers, such as an underwater peak, a wreck, or a known shark hangout; here’s a basic procedure. There are factors like depth and current which are beyond my knowledge of the area you will be fishing. This is not a cure all method but will help you get a slick over a specific spot.
Go directly to the spot. Stop the boat, and let the boat drift away without chum in the water. Note the direction you are drifting from the spot.. Go back in the opposite direction through the spot and continue at least a half mile before stopping. If you drifted off the spot in a northerly direction go back through the spot and head south. Stop the boat , put the chum dispenser in the water and slowly tow it back northerly until you reach the selected target area. When you arrive; stop the boat over the spot and start drifting.
I have mentioned only two basic methods of chumming: neither requires you to anchor.
Those methods will cover 90% of the situations you will encounter. You may find a unique situation where anchoring and chumming is necessary. What I would do if fishing from anchor is go to where I would anchor the boat. Put the chum in the water and see what direction it drifts. Pull the chum onboard and motor about a mile in the direction the chum was drifting from the anchoring spot. Put the chum in the water there and slowly drag it back to the spot where I would then anchor.
Where to put the chum container
No matter where you put it someone wants it placed somewhere else.
We put our chum device on the windward side of the boat so it is pulling away from the hull, and always in view as we look down the slick. But there are other opinions.
Others prefer to put the chum on the lee side, so the chum comes under the boat, and the boat is in fact in the slick. The banging of the device against the hull doesn’t bother some people. I have seen some sharkers use a rod holder mounted curved arm with a pulley attached that will keep the chum device from hitting the boat.
On some boats you can put the chum in a baitwell that allows it to flow out through the hull.
(a drawback to this is if you move to fight a running jumping mako your slick will be all over the place.)
You can also tie the chum off the bow. That is where I put it on my son’s boat. He has a boat that you can easily walk to the bow.
Take your pick. Boats and people’s attitudes are all different. Tie the device in such a way it won’t get into the prop if you move the boat and forget to release or secure the cage .
If you need to add more chum, do it in a manner so that the slick is not broken.
Check your props before moving the boat.
The submerged dissimilar metals of your shaft, prop, strut ,zinc anodes or lower unit will create an electrical field called galvanic action, which will attract sharks. They came attracted by the chum, but will often mouth parts of the boat where an electrical field exists. Before you go into gear on an inboard to head back in; look into the water, make sure a shark is not mouthing your propeller. You may have to move a shark out from underneath with a boat hook, gently of course. If you go into gear, and the boat shudders you will know exactly what I am talking about. It happens. Especially if you have a lot of sharks swimming around the boat at quitting time.
It would not be unusual in a twin outboard boat to have one engine constantly mouthed by sharks and the other engine never touched. Electrical fields from the submerged lower units cause the sharks to concentrate on one of the engines.
Learn how to identify all the sharks you are likely to see in your area. Especially the shortfin mako, Isurus oxyrinchus, which is just about everywhere on the planet within 50 deg N and 50 deg.S latitudes. Makos dominate the other sharks. The mako while free swimming will jump for no apparent reason and have occasionally landed on boats.
Just about everyone familiar with chummed up blue sharks will tell you when the blue sharks scatter away from the boat for no apparent reason a big mako has arrived. That is true in most cases but I can remember three times the blues stayed at the boat with the mako. The first time the mako just kept zig zagging through the blues with it’s rigid militaristic swimming pattern. The second time we were throwing bait to the sharks and the blues kept after the sinking bait ignoring the mako . The third was a boatside disaster. A blue shark that stayed around, was attacked by a mako. The mako bolted and clamped on the blue sharks tail section, ultimately severing it and killing the blue.
Another myth is that sharks are afraid of the air breathing dolphins (mammals) like “Flipper.” Don’t believe it. We have been surrounded by dozens of dolphins and had sharks swim right through them to get to the chum at the boat, or have taken a hook bait.
Basking sharks, Cetorhinus maximus, will swim over to your boat and just glide by. Baskers are not so much attracted by the chum as they just want to investigate the object (your boat) on the surface. Baskers also swim very close to the bottom and can get fouled in your cod lines, resulting in another “big one that got away” story..
When you get sharks to your boat you can do whatever is your purpose. If you want to tag sharks you can do it after bringing them to the boat on rod and reel. A better way of tagging blue sharks and some other species, is to lure them alongside with pieces of fish fed to them, estimate their size, and just tag right out of the cockpit, without hooking them.
If you are just shark watching, bring along two cameras , sun block, polaroids, food and beverages. But don’t forget your visiting sharks; they appreciate a few fish morsels after the long swim to your boat. And of course be careful. Good Luck. –Tom
Trolling for sharks.
In some instances you may want to troll for sharks.
If you have a boat that will slow troll without you having to go in and out of gear, trolling can be productive for makos and threshers. We just caught that thresher trolling, and young Mike on the right is battling a mako that we picked up a few minutes later on the troll . The mako was released.
The boat I normally use for shark fishing trolls at 5 kts which in my opinion is a little too fast, so I usually drift.
Here we are on a boat that has a trolling valve, that will allow us to troll at 2 kts. We drag a couple of chum buckets along to put out the slick.
A couple of bluefish fillets were trolled astern about 75 feet on single hooks. We caught the thresher on a bluefish fillet, and then I switched to trolling head and tail hooked whole dead bluefish to demonstrate another method. The mako was taken on the trolled dead bluefish.
In Mass. Bay where I do my sharkfishing, we don’t have a lot of threshers and makos – so we drift fish which also allows us to cod fish and occasionally get a porbeagle and bluefin tuna off the bottom.
In this situation we are on the south side of Cape Cod in a shark tournament, where there are plenty of threshers and makos. This justifies trolling, otherwise you will be battling blue sharks all day if you are just drifting like we did the first day of the tournament. We tried the day before to get a blueshark over 300 lbs which is required for a weigh in, but the ones we caught were in the 250 lb range. On the second day, in the last hours of the tournament we switched to this tactic, and at least got a fish to weigh in. – Tom