DANA POINT — Capt. Jay Bush trained his acute vision on the horizon ahead, where the navy blue Pacific met the pale blue sky. His weathered features focused on a mix of sea birds that stirred on the surface, while others circled slightly above.
Slicing between this commotion were a dozen porpoises, which dipped in and out of the shifting sea.
Bush wasn't interested in this watery scene, but rather the large ball of anchovies and sardines gliding beneath the surface. With a single cry of "Bait," Bush spun the eyes of his three-man crew toward movement off the bow of his 46-foot vessel.
Just as quickly, the men turned their attention toward the fish meter mounted on the console where a large, shaded outline moved across the 18-inch screen. "That's what we're looking for, right there," Bush yelled as he circled the silhouette with his index finger.
It was an ideal start for this particular outing. Bush and his mates were looking for thresher sharks and, as any seasoned angler knows, locating their food source is the key to finding these predators.
Bush, 43, has been running charters out of Dana Point Harbor about 10 years. After five years as operator of the 46 Bertram Sportfisher named "Stimulator," he became owner last year.
Pursuing threshers off the local coastline is not a full-time adventure for Bush, because it's not often these fish wander into waters off Orange County. More likely he's taking patrons out looking for yellowtail, bass or barracuda off Catalina and San Clemente islands, or venturing south past Coronado Island and into Mexican waters for tuna and other big game fish. He also takes customers spearfishing, scuba diving, or sight-seeing.
But for approximately 10 weeks of the year, in late spring and early summer, Bush pursues the threshers, one of the gamest fish that ever moves through this area.
This species of shark is unlike any other. It is easily identified by its distinctively long tail, which is nearly as long as its body. The tail is the shark's most potent weapon, used to stun and kill prey with a swift flick. Its small mouth then swallows up the lifeless bait and its tiny teeth do the rest.
This tail also makes it exciting to catch. No other sea creature is hooked in the tail as often as the thresher, which gives this shark an advantage. With its frontside unimpeded, the thresher is able to generate substantial propulsion in its escape attempt, thus providing a better fight for the angler.
Its delectable white meat and lack of bones also make it quite a trophy for the dinner table.
While Bush kept his eye on the fish meter, his friends, Mark Washburn and Dave Aulrich, began to rig up. The tackle used for threshers needs to be stout. The most popular rig for those after sharks is a PENN 50SW or 80SW International with a two-speed reel loaded with high quality, 80-pound Dacron line.
Bush and his crew know they can't afford to skimp on the tackle, because anyone who hooks into a thresher probably will be wired for hours. He has seen what an average-sized shark can do to undersized line, snapping it before the real fight even begins.
Having enough tackle on the reel is just as important, Bush emphasizes. The water a few miles off Southern California's coast is usually more than 1,000 feet deep, and the thresher's first instinct once hooked is to dive straight down. Getting spooled is always a major concern when sharkfishing.
Washburn nearly lost a thresher during a tournament last year after it continued to run, and it would have cost him $20,000 in first-place money.
"A couple of times during the fight I could see the silver of my reel showing through," he said. "I had my backup rod ready to go if I needed to throw the other one overboard."
Such a tactic is not easy to do in that situation. If the fish breaks loose, a rod and reel that costs hundreds of dollars is lost as well.
Many individuals would like to see threshers, as well as other species, get away more often. Overfishing of sharks in general has become a serious problem for a number of reasons.
Sharks are not like bony fish, which can release between one million and 100 million eggs in a single spawning. They are at the top of the food chain in the ocean, so nature has ensured their numbers remain balanced by equipping them with slow reproductive cycles.
Most sharks mate only once a year, and then have only one to two offspring, and many give birth to live offspring after a gestation period of approximately one year.
Much of the demise is attributed to commercial fishermen who kill sharks for their fins, which are a delicacy used for soup primarily in Asian countries. In Asia, fins go for approximately $150 a pound, and in the United States they cost $5 to $30 a pound.
American fisherman in U.S. waters are prohibited by law from practicing finning, and legislation protecting sharks from finning, as well as protecting sharks in general, is slowly being passed by countries around the world.