It seems that kayaks, berley and sharks make a bad recipe; Herb Spannagl provides his thoughts on leaving the last ingredient out... It seems that kayaks, berley and sharks make a bad recipe; Herb Spannagl provides his thoughts on leaving the last ingredient out...
Mention sharks in any gathering of kayak fishers and you get a flood of personal stories ranging from fleeting visual encounters to downright scary confrontations. It quickly becomes obvious that next to capsizing and drowning, sharks rank highly in many kayak fishers’ anxieties.
The ingredient generally facilitating such ‘uninvited’ visits is berley. Berley consists of various items fish like to eat, but to attract the more distant fish the scent needs to be dispersed with the current to advertise that there is a free lunch somewhere up-current. Unfortunately, this potent fish magnet not only attracts the fish you want to catch, it also lures in those you should avoid, including the occasional spine-chilling customers you don’t even want to see out there.
While the connection between sharks and berley is pretty obvious, the appearance of so-called ‘uninvited’ visitors is very often directly attributable to how the berley is deployed from the kayak. Hanging an onion sack full of fresh fish scraps from the gunwales might be a smart way to complement the large stray-line baits being presented to shy XOS snapper, but it also suggests your kayak is a food bank to sharks.
Few kayakers realise that blood from cutting up bait on board or your catch’s scent leaking from your scuppers also act as berley. With such a direct connection between food and kayak, it should not surprise anyone that sharks sometimes take an unhealthy interest in their vessels.
Luckily, most sharks that show up are relatively harmless, except for great whites, which have accounted for almost all attacks on people and, apparently, on one or two kayaks in New Zealand waters.
Despite fishing most of the time near the Sugar Loaf Islands’ seal colony, I have yet to see a great white, which suits me just fine. Another good thing is that our waters seem too cold for bull and tiger sharks, as both species are frequently implicated in overseas attacks on swimmers, divers and kayakers in more tropical waters.
On my blue water tuna hunts I have had about half-a-dozen close tangles with smaller but absolutely fearless mako sharks, which were hell-bent on beating me to my prize. One ended up on my lap when it missed the tuna I had just gaffed.
However, my biggest fright came from a 3-4m bronze whaler, which hooked itself while trying to steal a small snapper from my line. The big beast towed me several hundred metres before suddenly launching itself from the water right beside my kayak, landing with such a splash that I was wet all over. Up until that moment I’d firmly believed my tow truck was a big snapper!
Having said all that, it is worth noting that these close shark encounters stretch over some 25 years of kayak fishing and none were directed at me or my kayak.
To put shark paranoia into some sort of perspective, the official statistics show that shark attacks are quite rare in this country; you are more likely to be run over by a car.
AS THIS ARTICLE is mainly about how to deploy berley to specifically catch fish, I want to spend the rest of this article on this practice.
There are several ways to deploy berley from a kayak, and to choose the most appropriate method we must first identify our target fish and the water depth we expect to find them. Species such as kahawai, trevally or snapper can occupy the whole water column, whereas blue cod, gurnard and rig are largely bottom dwellers.
To get the best benefit from your berley, its scent and small particles must get to the fish before the allure becomes too diluted. This means setting up a berley trail close to fish-holding water. The actual potency of any berley depends on its contents, the amount, and the rate of dispersal. Keep in mind that berley containing blood, fish oils, small particles of minced fish frames, broken kina, mussels, paua guts or crayfish scraps, are more appealing than, say, pig pellets or other dry commercial preparations.
Your dispenser and its associated cord not only allow the desired depth to be targeted, the system also determines how quickly the berley disperses. For example, a net bag distributes berley much more quickly than a container with small holes. Commercial berley is not cheap, so although generous quantities of it will likely be beneficial, it pays to keep the cost-versus-benefit equation firmly in mind. You also need to remind yourself that the sole purpose of your berley is to attract hungry fish, not feed them.
Scent travels via moving air on land; in water scent is dispersed by currents. Compared with wind, ocean currents are much slower, so a berley cargo takes much longer to cover a given area. This, and the possibility that your target fish have not yet found your berley trail or, if they have, might still be following it to your kayak, often account for a considerable delay before bites start to happen. It can therefore be a confidence-sapping wait before the fish show up. The impatient soon pull anchor and start the same waiting game somewhere else. Do that a few times and you’ve wasted a good part of the fishing trip.
Only the other day I had a graphic reminder of the wisdom of giving fish plenty of time to find me. Almost an hour had passed without a bite when I reluctantly decided to move. I slowly wound up my berley line, then the first rod. However, just as I pulled the second one from the rod holder, its tip bent over and line pulled from the little reel. A few minutes later I landed a 2.5kg snapper.
Was this a fluke? I quickly dropped the re-baited ledger to the bottom, and within minutes scored a second, similar-sized nodder. That was all I needed to let the berley down again, and led to a steady succession of gurnard, along with the odd kahawai. The end result saw my Prowler 13’s fish-bin so loaded that my small craft was distinctly bow up on the way back in.
It does not matter how delectable your berley mix is, if your baits are not in the scent trail or at least close by, the fishing is going to be tough. While this simple logic is easily understood, it’s an insight often ignored on the water unfortunately.
The most common mistake is to tie the berley container directly to the anchor rope. This is all well and good, provided the wind and current move in the same direction. However, even a slight wind change can push the light kayak away from the berley trail and from the fish your berley has attracted. From then on your baits are soaking in ‘dead’ water.
A few years ago, someone came up with the idea of setting a berley bomb out on its own anchor and then anchoring the kayak directly down-current. This way, kayakers could avoid being towed by a shark if it became entangled in the berley line. I tried it a few times on the water, but had no end of problems keeping the berley buoy and my kayak anchored in the same current lane.
A similarly cunning plan of separately anchoring a berley bomb and later stealthily drifting down its ‘invisible’ trail also faded quietly away.
My own kayak fishing philosophy of keeping things simple and safe applies particularly well to berleying. I kill fish quickly and store them in a leak-proof chilly bin. All my bait is fully prepared beforehand and stored in snap-lid containers. I generally avoid processing bait on board, but if I have to, I wash all blood and slime off the kayak and my tools without delay.
My berley is frozen in small, plastic, takeaway pots and can be easily transferred into a similar-sized plastic cray-sniffer pot. It only takes a few seconds and leaves no mess on board.
The sniffer pot is attached to a 2mm cord with a larger shark-clip, and gets dragged down by a 32-ounce ‘puka bomb. After hitting the bottom I pull it up about two metres and fasten the cord to a smaller shark-clip connected to my tiny running rig. Once it is secured, I pull the running rig’s shark-clip right to the stern to keep the berley line out the way of my fishing lines.
It takes some time for the berley to thaw enough to start dispersing. To get a trail going quickly, I drop tuna-oil-covered stone chips into the current. With wind and current often fighting each other, it is sometimes difficult to know which direction my berley trail is going, but by hanging my dispenser off the stern I always know where the trail starts from.
This article is reproduced with permission of