In 2006, Allen Sansano, Chris Mautino, Howard McKim and Allen Bushnell were riding on the back deck of a large fishing boat heading to La Paz, Mexico. Each of the friends were expert anglers with years of experience. On the long ride, the conversation worked its way to the ultimate kayak fishing trip. Howard McKim, one of the first kayak fishing guides, proposed the ideal trip would be catching giant salmon sharks in Alaska. The rest is history.
Angling for the First Salmon Shark
It took some convincing after McKim made his suggestion, but the friends were soon hooked on his idea. They started making plans to intercept the pink salmon run in Valdez, Alaska. What started as four buddies shooting the bull ended with the first, legitimate monster fish caught on a kayak.
In a phone interview over a decade later, Allen “Bushy” Bushnell remembers the draw of catching the first giant fish in a kayak. “Every two years, salmon sharks show up for the pink salmon run in Alaska,” he explains. He remembers McKim describing huge sharks, up to 500 pounds, gorging on migrating salmon. The crew put their heads together to devise a plan to catch salmon shark from kayaks.
Grey Skies and Adrenaline
In 2007, the conversation became a reality. The friends arrived in Valdez, then loaded their kayaks and crew on a large fishing vessel named Bold Eagle. “We were surrounded by black rock, grey seas and grey sky; the setting wasn’t beautiful,” Bushnell remembers.
As the anglers dropped their boats in cold, grey water they were surrounded by huge sharks swirling on the surface, Bushnell felt the rush of adrenaline as his heart raced. “I’m glad the doctor gave me a stress test before I left,” he laughs.
The anglers used heavy tackle, 200-pound test, very expensive reels and long wire leaders handmade by the skipper. For bait, they used 24-inch frozen pink salmon. McKim hooked up first. Bushnell says the group looked at each other and acknowledge, “This was going to be epic.”
Bushnell dropped his bait and hooked a shark right away. He remembers the huge fish taking line fast, towing him sideways. “We were doing battle,” he says.
The shark pulled Bushnell far from his friends and the mothership. When he reached deeper water, the fish shot straight down. Bushnell would winch up a few turns and the huge shark would take his progress back. “Then it turned on its afterburners.”
After an hour, the huge fish came to the surface. Although the goal was catch and release, Bushnell’s shark died during the fight.
“We ate it. I didn’t find it all that tasty; it was edible, but not great,” Bushnell admits. He ended up donating most of the meat after keeping enough for his family.
In the end, everyone caught one shark. They kept two sharks. McKim managed to secure his fish and release it without assistance, proving a solo kayaker could best a fish three times his size.
Aftermath of the Salmon Shark Trip
Ultimately, most people measure fishing success in the size of the fish. “Back then, the salty characters didn’t have a lot of respect for kayak anglers,” Bushnell laughs. He says people often look at his kayak and ask about his biggest fish. “I tell them 450 pounds, how about you?” he chuckles.
For Bushnell, catching the salmon shark was the trip of a lifetime. “It was so much better with friends,” he adds. When the story hit fishing message boards around the world, the team’s achievement was celebrated and lauded. “My contribution was good looks and a sense of humor,” he laughs.
Former Kayak Angler editor, Paul Lebowitz, remembers the expedition was treated like a fish story. “There weren’t many pictures and it wasn’t documented well, so the trip was shrouded in mystery,” he recalls. He wishes the expedition had better media coverage. “They should have invited me,” the long-time outdoor writer jokes. After the news broke, people poo-pooed the anglers for accepting assistance from a mothership. “There was even a firearm used, if I remember,” Lebowitz adds.
Pushing the Limits With More Big Hits
At the time, the salmon shark expedition made a buzz outside the sport, even hitting mainstream media. Today, the expedition continues to inspire big-game anglers.
Florida-based adventurer Colby Blackwell has landed blue marlin, sharks and tuna and he’s only a teenager. “The accomplishment will surely inspire other anglers to do push the limits,” he says. Blackwell says each time one angler takes the sport to the limit, others are encouraged to beat the mark.
Regardless of methods or results, big-game anglers credit the salmon shark expedition as setting the mark early on. Blackwell’s voice gets excited, “I’m planning a salmon shark trip, now,” he says.
This weighty catch is a hard one to top. | Feature photo: Allen Sansano