Fantastic Pelagics: Pier Fishing for Thresher Sharks

Posted by Spencer Wonder on

Springtime in California means different things for different people. For a certain community of anglers in California, spring means one thing: Thresher Sharks. While many anglers take to the high-seas in California's massive fleet of sport boats, a select few remain shore-bound chasing these long-tailed leviathans from land. This very special fishery dominates the minds of most land-based anglers in California and the zeal with which those involved pursue their catch is unmatched. 

Each year, starting in the last weeks of March, the first bait balls arrive from offshore. These groups of baitfish move coastward to shores of the Southern California Bight to bask in the warming waters of the beach. With these baitfish come predators, Bonito, White Seabass, and the normally pelagic Common Thresher Shark (Alopias vulpinus) all come within range of the land-based angler. These fish can stay within range as late as early winter, but generally they stick around until late fall.

Most land based Thresher Shark fishing is done from piers along the California coast, with the majority of the action taking place between Santa Barbara and Imperial Beach, but with fish being caught as far north as San Francisco and as far south as Silver Strand Beach. Each pier has its own personality, hotspots, and in some cases unique challenges and ways to fish. 

In the interest of brevity, this article will address the basic baits, tactics, and tricks to increase the chances of hooking and landing one of these sought after game fish from Terra Firma : Dry Land.

Bait, its Whats for Dinner!

Thresher sharks differ from the usual “mindless eating machine” persona that most sharks have. Most of a Thresher's diet consists of small bait fish, and as such baits should emulate that preference. At times incredibly picky these sharks have relatively small mouths and teeth, preferring to consume their meals whole, rarely “chewing” much, if at all.

Most Thresher fishermen are biased towards live bait, with mackerel and sardines being the first choices. While a great number of fish each year are indeed taken on live bait, equal (and sometimes greater) numbers of fish are taken on dead baits. Being the bait that stands out in the crowd is one way to increase your odds.

It often pays off to use different baits than the other anglers in your area. If everyone on deck is using live mackerel, try using a fresh dead, or even a half mac. If there are no mackerel or sardines around try other bait-fish such as Queenfish (A.K.A Herring or Ronkies) , Smelt, or even Croaker. Anything is better than nothing and something fresh is always better than something frozen. Frozen is better than nothing however, and it is always worth it to bring some frozen bait with you in case there is a shortage at the location you plan to fish, at the very least it can help to catch you fresh bait.

To Float or Not to Float, That is the Question:

Most anglers think of Threshers are surface feeders, and while a large number will be caught very close to the surface, plenty will be caught lower in the water column.

Slidebaiting, as discussed in the previous article “Slidebaiting: The Basics” is the dominant method of targeting these acrobatic little sharks from land. Sometimes the basic slide rig will be modified with some sort of flotation to keep the sliding leader ion the surface. A float for this purpose can be purchased here: This is a fantastic way to target fish in the first few feet of the water column. A longer leader, in excess of 10 feet or so, should be used under the float to ensure the bait dangles a reasonable distance under the surface.

That is not to say that the rest of the water column should be neglected, and an un-floated should be employed as well, something that will reach a little deeper beneath the surface. We recommend a shorter slide, something in the 2-3 foot range should enable the slide to reach a reasonable depth and distance from the structure.

Slidebaiting leaders and all the required add-ons can be found here:

Slidebaiting is not the only way to target Threshers from land. There are a multitude of other “casted” rigs that can enable suspended bait presentations to these purple invaders as well, these will be covered in more detail in a later article.

Thresher sharks, as mentioned before, can be incredibly picky and tentative eaters when they chose to be. It is for this reason that leader material for the slide should be made of a low-visibility material such as Fluorocarbon. The abrasion resistance and stiffness of this leader material will stand up very well to the small teeth and abrasive skin of the Thresher Sharks as well as remaining virtually invisible and tangle-free. Hooks should be circle hooks to avoid tail hooking the fish, a common event when other hooks are used. Leaders made with Fluorocarbon and circle hooks can be found here:

Another common pitfall new Thresher anglers fall into is the idea that distance from the pier is key. Many, many Threshers are right next to the pier. That is not to say that distance plays no role, often times the farther cast can separate your bait from the pack enough to draw a strike. Take notice of the crowd and how they are fishing. If all the baits are close to the pier, try presenting one at a greater distance, and likewise if the bulk of the baits are presented far the structure try dunking a bait close in. 

Location, Location, Location Or Conditions, Conditions, Conditions?:

The early bird often gets the worm in this fishery. Most Thresher Sharks are hooked during the morning hours, a few hours after sunrise. Very few of these fish are hooked in the dark, with sunset bites less common than sunrise bites. If one has to pick a few hours to fish, the better choice is always earlier in the day.

Don't get caught up in the tides. So often people try to predict a bite based on tide position, with a clear bias toward the high tide. In most cases the tide seems to have little bearing on the action of the day. What is important however, is that there is tidal flow. Moving water brings bait to the area, and that bait is what attracts the fish. If the bite doesn't happen on the incoming tide, chances are there may be a outgoing bite.

Thresher sharks move around, a lot. New anglers in this fishery are often frustrated by how "hot and cold" the bite can be. It is not unheard of for a dozen fish to be hooked one day and the following day for the bite to shut down completely. This often provokes anglers to "Pier Hop" and travel great distances up or down the coast in search of biting fish. This can be a very successful strategy for some who's fishing time is limited. However, due to the unpredictable nature of these particular sharks, oftentimes it is better to wait for the fish to come to you. Nothing is more frustrating that arriving a new location only to hear the old adage, “Should of been here yesterday!” Time on the planks is key, it is no coincidence that the most consistent producers in the California scene fish the same place religiously. By fishing the same place consistently it enables the angler to build a “pattern” of what is working and what isn't. Networking with other anglers, and setting up times to fish together or apart is also an important part of success. Information is valuable in this sport, and the more you have the better.

Equipment: Dont Show Up Undergunned!:

One of the reasons Thresher sharks are so popular as a game fish is their incredible speed and acrobatic jumps during the fight. These fish fight hard, and fast. It is not uncommon for a fish to strip over 100 yards of line on the first run, and jump multiple times before it is brought alongside the pier. It is due to this renowned fighting ability that the angler should bring the heavy tackle out to tackle these fish!

There was a time when most of the fish hooked in California were going to be first or second year pups, under 7 feet in length. In this period 20-40lb tackle was more then sufficient to target these small pup sharks.

However, times have changed! Each year it seems that a handful more of larger adult and sub-adult fish over 8 feet in length are encountered by landbased anglers. These “better grade” fish are often lost due to tackle failure and the chaos that ensues when a large fish is hooked in the crowd commonly associated with pier fishing. Better to be ready for these fish when they do show up as they invariably do, rather than to be caught unprepared. In this modern and still rebounding fishery 40lb test should be considered the minimum. 60 to 100lb tackle is much more appropriate and will see more of these better grade fish on the planks!

Light drag settings are suggested to avoid pulling hooks out of the relatively soft tissue that makes up the sharks mouth parts. 10lbs of drag is more than sufficient to tire out and eventually reel in one of these purple “Lazerbeams”. It is important to remember not to horse these fish in. Most Thresher sharks are lost close to the pier, to pilings or other lines. By tiring the fish out far from the structure the angler can eliminate a lot of the issues commonly associated with lost fish. It is encouraged that once the fish is identified as a Thresher that the other lines on the pier are reeled up and the rail cleared of onlookers to enable the angler to follow the fish around the pier, reducing the chances of tangles or the fish wrapping the mainline on its body.

Since most Thresher fishing is done from piers, a net or gaff is going to be required to land the animal once tired. Make sure the gaff rope is long enough to reach the water with enough room to spare. If the fish is being harvested try to get more than one gaff in the animal. Try to avoid “swinging” or “throwing” the gaff at the fish, rather let the angler bring the fish to the gaff. A simple upward pull is all that is needed to set the gaff hook, not a powerful jerk that may wind up rupturing or tangling the line.  A good rule of thumb is for one gaff a time to be lowered to the fish, to avoid tangling the gaffs together. If using a net try to lead the fish into the net head first. Once the fish is secure, either by net or gaff, the angler should reduce the drag on the reel so that if the fish does fall, the line and rod will not break from the sudden pressure. Sometimes a second opportunity at gaffing the fish can be had if the drag is lose enough during the fall!

Thresher shark is pretty good table fare, and a responsible harvest of a few fish a year is respectable and perfectly ethical. However, most people chose to release the smaller, net-able fish, and if this practice is engaged in the fish should be handled minimally, and returned using the net rather than simply tossing them back.