To game fishermen, the measure of a true monster has always been (and still is) the weight of 1000 pounds (453kg). Fish of this size are rarely encountered; only a handful of ‘grander’ mako sharks have ever been taken in local waters. Sam Mossman delves into game-fishing history.
Known internationally by their Maori name ‘mako’, these sharks are distributed worldwide in temperate and tropical seas. New Zealand can be considered the ‘home’ of the mako.
There are two sub-species, the shortfin and the longfin mako, but apparently we only have the shortfin in local waters. Of all studied sharks, the shortfin mako has one of the largest brain-to-body ratios, by this measure making them one of the most intelligent of all sharks. When provoked, they are known to attack boats and are recorded as jumping aboard and wreaking havoc in some cases.
Although these sharks seem to grow quickly, the females don’t breed until about 180kg in weight and 18 years of age – a pretty substantial beast to most anglers. Males, by comparison, can breed from about eight years of age, but do not reach the same size as females (called ‘sexual dimorphism’); all the ‘grander’ (1000lb-plus) mako sharks are females.
Eggs hatch inside the females and the developing young feed on other unhatched eggs inside the mother until birthed. This is known as ‘oophagy’ and results in a low number of well-developed young (averaging about 12), which weigh about 4kg and are readyto- rumble-predators at birth. I have encountered a few of these baby bities in Hawkes Bay waters, one of which attacked a hooked kahawai that was bigger than it was!
Fast, powerful and aerobatic, this species was popular with early game fishermen in New Zealand, being rated on par with marlin. (In fact, the Bay of Islands Swordfish Club was known as the ‘Bay of Islands Swordfish and Mako Shark Club’ for a number of years from 1924, but this was a bit of a mouthful and the ‘mako shark’ bit was later dropped.)
When Zane Grey arrived in 1926, he was disparaging of sharks, but he’d never encountered a mako before, and quickly changed his tune. On seeing his first, he wrote in his book Tales of the Anglers’ Eldorado: ‘Here was a sea creature, an engine of destruction, developed to the nth degree. I had never seen its’ like.’ Then, after hooking a few, he was soon in awe of them.
The late Peter Goadby, who wrote the seminal game-fishing book Big Fish and Blue Water, termed them ‘blue dynamite with a short fuse’.
Jim Corbett, a legendary hunter of man-eating tigers in India during the early years of the last century, once made the comment that when hunting dangerous animals, it is important that “there is an understanding of just who is hunting whom”. And certainly, you never know what to expect from a mako – if it will explode or be a wet squib – but taking on one of the big ones is truly a buttockclenching business.
The first ‘grander’ mako was caught on March 14, 1943, off Major Island in the Bay of Plenty as a result of a weekend’s leave during the Second World War. In this instance, one of the early Tauranga game skippers, Curly Steedman, then serving as a leading aircraftman, invited a party of friends and fellow servicemen out to Mayor Island in skipper Joe Barney’s launch Renahou.
On the second day of fishing, one of the party hooked a striped marlin and played it out. After an initial fight, it came in slowly but without a struggle. The reason for this was soon apparent: close behind was the fin of a huge mako. In typical fashion, the shark had disabled the marlin by biting off its tail while being brought to the boat. The shark then made a second rush, sinking its teeth into the stern of the launch, just below where Curly Steedman, who was acting as deckie, was standing at the rail. All could see it was a very big fish, so a new hook with a kahawai fillet and trace was quickly attached to the line.
The shark took the bait without hesitation and then went downwards. Baxter ‘Doug’ Ross from Hamilton, also a leading aircraftman, was in the chair and had the shark beaten in the remarkably short time of around an hour and a half. A photo of Ross fighting the big shark shows him using a reel manufactured by pioneering Tauranga game fisherman John Mowlem, built into the centre of a tanekaha rod, with the guides fitted under the rod.
The monster shark was secured, but the eight men aboard struggled for a further hour to get it onboard the launch. The old Renahou listed with the weight and no progress was made. Finally, they made their way to Sou-east Bay at Mayor Island with the shark in tow, and then to Tauranga later on. It was finally weighed the day after it was caught, but the set of scales at the Tauranga fish wharf could, unfortunately, only read up to 1000lb. So, although the fish was heavier than this, the official recorded weight for the catch was 1000lb (453kg).
It was an early IGFA world record (the IGFA was founded in 1939) and, in its day, was the largest game fish ever taken to IGFA regulations on rod and line (heavier tiger sharks had been caught, but were not considered game fish then).
It was many years before another mako came along that would defeat this record, but it finally happened on February 17, 1970, also in Mayor Island waters. Jim Penwarden, fishing from Ces Jack’s launch Abalone, caught a mako shark that tipped the scales to 1061lb (481.26kg), a new world record at the time. They were drift-fishing three to five kilometres north of Mayor Island, using a whole kahawai for bait.
This huge specimen was played for three hours and took the boat about nine kilometres before giving up. It broke the longstanding previous world record of 1000lb (Doug Ross’ fish) and held both the All Tackle and 60kg line-class records at the time. The IGFA’s files have the fish’s length at 3.71m, with a girth of 2.02m, and as may be seen in the photo, it was a very wellconditioned specimen. The rod used was a Southam No. 6 Cane rod, combined with a Penn Senator 14/0 reel loaded with 120lb Ashaway Dacron. (Penwarden’s use of a cane game rod as late as 1970 is a bit unusual, as fibreglass was available by then.)
New Zealand’s third mako exceeding 1000lb was the hardest to research, as information and images were difficult to find. The basic facts are that this monster mako was caught from Gwen Maree on February 23, 1984, during the NZBGFC (now NZSFC) Nationals. This Te Kaha-based trailer boat was owned by the late Don Gwillim and his angler, Rex Deans, was fishing 24kg line.
It must have been quite a battle on relatively light tackle (considering the size of the fish) from a modest-sized fibreglass trailer boat, but I could discover no accounts of the fight.
Rex Deans won the 24kg line-class section for sharks during the Nationals for the Whakatane Club, and also received the ‘Fisherman of the Year’ award from the NZBGFC for the heaviest fish caught that season. The fish still stands as the club and NZ Men’s Record for the 24kg line class and won a slew of club trophies that year.
Thanks to Wayne Hunt of the Whakatane SFC for his help with material for this article.
In the early years of big-game fishing, deepdrifting large baits on wire leaders was a popular method. Many of the largest sharks – tigers, threshers, hammerheads and makos, as well big black marlin – were taken this way. The use of 60kg tackle as a standard didn’t hurt the chances of a successful result, either. This method was especially popular on the grounds around Mayor Island, and use of the technique lingered longest there.
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