Britain’s top Great White catcher.
Having been a shark fishing nut for far too many years, I knew in my heart that I had blown out on what would undoubtedly have been the pinnacle of chasing the toothy critters. It was many years ago, and at a time when I was hard core into fast trolling lures for blue marlin. I had taken plenty of sharks covering loads of species, from three oceans, but the question would always crop up somewhere. “Have you ever caught a Great White?”The answer was simply “No”. I had genuinely only fished for them for a single half day session down from Cape Town, and I was on such a whistle-stop tour of the country, I only had a chance meeting. It was with a Greek angler, and he was well into the Great White scene, having taken them as far as I recall to just under the 1000lb mark. The half day I went out was spent fishing close to a beach, over a reef, with a single spur dog or similar creature under a balloon. I returned disillusioned, but two days later I learnt from the skipper that a handline commercial guy working the same reef had his clamp-on outboard ripped off the back of the boat the day after we fished there!!!. It was purely a case of right place, wrong day. I forgot about Whites until a few years later when I became aware of another skipper working out of Struiss Bay, at the tip of South Africa.
I had also known Pete Thorman who had been on some of my foreign trips catching marlin, and he offered me the chance to split the boat with him for a week after Great Whites, as he had several trips lined up. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, now missed, as you cannot target Whites now as they are a protected species. But those marlin pulled me away, and with a charter investment in South Africa of about £180 a day for two of us, it was a catastrophic misjudgement that I rue to this day. For Pete not only got his first Great White. He got two. Then three. Then four. He would return each season, charter the boat, and come back to England with stories of battles with sharks that just got bigger and bigger. He finished his fishing for them as I believe the most successful White Shark angler of modern times. For his record stands at a mind blowing TWENTY SIX, and the top weight? Well, it just gets silly really, as I went to his house to watch one of his many hours of footage, and one particular shark looked like it had the width of a Ford Fiesta! Small wonder, as it was in excess of 2000lbs!! As I am now working on modern and vintage fishing material for Phil William’s famous website “fishingfilmsandfacts” we decided on a podcast interview with Pete to get some sort of background on what made him get into the pursuit of the biggest, most dangerous man-eater in the world. Here’s some of his account, and remember he has shot over 100 hours of film on them, so there is no denying he has caught, tagged and released such a huge number.
Pete’s lives in Bedford, and his office is crammed with Big Game fish photos, shark jaws, marlin bills, mounts of big Permit, and even half a blue marlin coming out of the wall. In a neat row around the top of the pictures are all the certificates he has received, together with the weights of the Great Whites he has tagged and released. He started some freshwater fishing as a youngster, but it was only in later life that he got the big fish bug by reading a story about a shark skipper with snow white hair. I knew the skipper well, and his name was Captain Jim Taylor. He was the sharkiest skipper I ever fished with, and I mean he really loved fishing for them. He did however also like pacifying them before he brought them aboard. Most skippers use a wooden fish bat. Capt Jim, being from South Carolina liked using full-on weaponry. When I chartered him he used a double barrel 12 gauge shotgun loaded with a lead deer ball. Some anglers saw him use semi-automatics, and he would often pop out the cabin door holding two, trying to decide whether a magnum revolver or machine gun would calm a 350lb Hammerhead down. Pete also got caught up in this maelstrom of fishy madness, and after nailing a 325lb Hammerhead with Jim, he was, and still is, hooked on the sharks.
He moved from his many forays to the Florida Keys, over to the Indian Ocean, where he first fished, and won the British Marlin Championship with a 361lb plus Blue marlin (as well as taking others).Then he progressed to the Pacific blue marlin, with more 300 pounders, all taken fast trolling with lures, until he then followed me out from a contact I had found with a small 20-foot Tremlett.An English guy who was just chilling out there doing a bit of charter work. I had taken blue marlin on his tiny boat to about 200lbs, but Pete got a clonker of 425lbs. So that was his quest for billfish quenched.
The sideline to all his Florida Keys and Mauritius trips were some incredible catches of other species, and Pete will freely admit that he carries the badge of being a “lucky” angler. He has had lots of big Tarpon, fishing through the night with guides, and accompanied by his wife Linda, who also gets in on the rod bending action. One such session with the “Silver King” as a target saw him score a bull’s eye with a very big Permit. This game fish is sought after by many light and mid range tackle enthusiasts, but Pete’s Permit is now hanging on the wall of his office….all 39lbs of it. When he fished with Capt. Jim, Taylor, the primary bait for the big sharks would invariably be either a slab, or whole 35lb Amberjack. This species lived over an undersea mountain called the “Hump”, located some twelve miles off land, and right in the middle of the Gulfstream flow. Small fish like Blackfin Tuna were there, the Amberjacks ate them, and the sharks ate the Amberjacks. A naturally progressive food chain. Except that Pete went one step further and set a new Met record for the year with a back breaking fight on an Amberjack that tipped the scales at 123lbs! He followed that by going into the back country of the Gulf of Mexico, catching Bull sharks on light tackle, and Tarpon well over 100lbs.Trolling for the marlin in Mauritius, not only did he win the British Marlin Championship, but he caught many Yellowfin Tuna, the largest of which weighed 150lbs.A shark trip for big Lemons in The Gambia saw him take several of the species, but again his luck shone through and he boated a massive 300lb Stingray, which would have been a world record, except they had a problem getting the scales certified. Only this past year Pete’s wife Linda got in on the action with a really unusual catch from the Gulf of Mexico with a rare 100lb plus Sawfish. This species is making something of a comeback, and the largest I have heard of was supposed to weigh around 700lbs.An estimated weight of course as the species are protected, but an indication that conservation measures do in fact work.
Pete then heard about the skipper who had a license to tag and release the Whites in South Africa, so immediately booked up a trip. The first time he went they fished for about two weeks, but only caught a single Great White. On that occasion he shared with friends and they used to split strikes, carrying them over to the next year’s trip. To get there involved flying in to Cape Town, then going another 200 miles to Struiss Bay, close to Cape Aghulas, the southernmost tip of South Africa. The boat was a small 24 foot catamaran hull with a pair of outboards. The boat would be fuelled on the jetty ready to go, having been out the previous night fishing commercially for species like pilchards. Travelling distance was short, just in the Bay, maybe thirty feet deep, and with people walking along the beach, unaware of the big predators swimming just offshore. Peak time was January and February, as any later and the weather kicked up rough. As it was I could see in his many films that virtually every day there was quite a swell running, and many times it looked downright rough, especially given the size of sharks he was encountering.
Trail, the licensed skipper, made up a fairly sloppy mush of mashed fish for the chum attractant, as they would be fishing from an anchored boat, and included the use of a lot of Pilchard oil. This was either ladled over the side in a fishy soup, or the pure oil put in a plastic bottle which was pierced with holes and hung over the side to filter away in the current. The Whites soon came, generally within an hour and a half, with up to three swimming and cruising round the boat. They were nervous, cautious and rarely charged straight in to grab the bait. Sometimes they refused to take at all. As to what went onto the hook, it was pretty much whatever species of fish they caught on the bottom that day.However,even on the seabed there were gargantuan stingrays, and if they hooked one of these up while they were bait fishing it was pretty much a one way ticket resulting in broken rods or busted lines. Pete reckons they ran to 8/900lbs, which is almost impossible to land on a rod and line. While that first year was quiet, he had the total contrast one year with his best session ever, during which they tagged and released no less than TWELVE Great Whites on the one trip. The sharks ranged from 220lbs to his biggest ever, the car-size one I mentioned earlier at 2,116lbs! Most of them were all over the 1000lb mark, 1200’s,1400’s and 1800’s .He was just lucky enough to be in that area when the biggest number of sharks for years had congregated. Almost as soon as Pete arrived back in the UK from his epic trip, Sky news were on to the story, and sent a courier over to pick up some action from Pete’s filming. It screened on Sky News, and all the national papers as well as the Angling Times.
As to tackle, it was all 130lb class outfits, cabled trace of 25 feet in case a shark should roll up, then another heavy duty bite trace on top. With stiff, marlin trolling rods coupled to quality lever drag reels, it was a case of using only the best, as any fish over 1000lbs is going to find a weakness in the rig if it’s there. Only one bait is used in the current, as too many outfits would be courting disaster. The first fifteen to twenty minutes is pandemonium, and then it’s just a straight hard slog. They are nothing like as hard to catch as marlin Pete assured me, as they more a bulky heavy weight, than strong and fast. Trail, the skipper has had truly monstrous White sharks hooked up, and Pete thinks the longest battle lasted some eight or nine hours and even then still got away. As to his own lengthy battles, the “double grander” took him somewhere around an hour and a half to bring to boatside for the tagging, and he admits that was the hardest fight of his life, with almost constant pressure.
The area is almost a holiday home spot for the locals, with beautiful beaches, but Pete’s sharking trips were in the off season, and if he went any later than about February, the winds were just too much for fishing. The peak is December for good weather, though he favours January and February for the best fishing. Even off the shore he has had several Guitar fish to 15lbs,and to his recollection has only been totally blown off the boat and beach together for one or two days. Even in rough weather, Trail would try to get out tagging the Great Whites as a predator of this size is not worried about sea conditions.
Handling such huge fish under inclement conditions is not for the faint hearted, as I watched one section where Pete could have got the ultimate video. He explained that it happened with the “double grander”. While the shark was on the wire ready for measuring, he leaned out to tap it on the shoulder as a gesture of thanks. As Whites are one of the species that can see with their eyes out of water it took it upon itself to lunge and snap at Pete, so close you could see the shark’s eye looking right at him. Absolutely no question in my mind that the shark saw him move in close and that triggered the jaw snap. That narrow escape has not taken the edge off his pursuit of big fish, though he freely admits he was very lucky with being in the right place at the right time to catch them. So with the Whites now a protected species does he still have a burning ambition to pursue the ultimate predators of the oceans? The answer is yes, and his next target is a species that is not so much in the limelight as a Great Whites. The Tiger Shark is also well documented as a maneater, and grows to around 1500lbs, more if you look at the commercial catches. The largest Tigers are reputed to come from the Indian Ocean, and Pete has his sights on getting not just any Tiger, he wants one of 1000lbs. For that you can narrow it down to the Great Barrier Reef during the Black Marlin season from September to December. Granders are easily caught from there, though it’s a long flight, and fishing is expensive. But the waters off East Africa, namely Kenya, has thrown up Tigers to 1000lbs by down rigging livebaits in deep water, and this may offer a more viable chance. One thing for sure, with Pete’s luck at getting big fish of many species, you certainly wouldn’t want to bet against him!
Anglers wanting to know more can try Phil William’s website”fishingfilmsandfacts.co.uk”.On it there is a podcast of Audio Angling with an exclusive interview with Pete, and there should be a brand new film from Phil with some of the best parts of Pete’s vintage shark tagging, and incredible unseen footage of truly immense sharks at the boatsid
COPYRIGHT. Graeme Pullen. All rights reserved.