School sharks, or Tope as they are globally known, are a fun species of shark distributed throughout Australia’s cooler waters. They are a demersal species of shark, and quite similar in appearance and distribution to our popular gummy sharks. Schoolies however, are a bit bigger on average and in my opinion they fight a bit harder!
School sharks have global distribution and often migrate large distances each season. Here in Australia they are commonly encountered from Albany in the west, through South Australia and around Tasmania, and along the Vic coastline to Southern NSW. They are occasionally found higher than these distribution boundaries, but the southern coastline is definitely their preferred range.
School sharks are a fairly slender shark, and here in my home waters of SA they average around 12 to 18kg. Any schoolie over 20kg is a quality shark, and anything pushing 30kg is a trophy fish. They often aggregate in schools of similar sized fish. School sharks differ from gummies in that they lack the faint white dots as seen along the gummy shark upper flank. Also school sharks have a pointy, almost opaque nose, and they have small sharp teeth.
School sharks are a popular target in our southern waters; they put up a great fight and are a really nice shark on the table. I would rate them as our second best flake fillet, with the gummy shark being number one.
School sharks have a wide environmental range and can be found along open surf beaches, and over natural reef structure from around 15m deep, right out to the edge of the continental shelf. Unlike gummy sharks, you don’t see many schoolies in our shallow bays, they predominantly hold over deeper structure. In my local waters we see quite a few school sharks over our open ocean reefs from 30 to 50m of water, and as their name suggests, when you find one you find others.
Last week we had a session chasing snapper, about several kays offshore. On our last few trips to this particular reef we had encountered a couple of school sharks, so we knew some fish were in the area. On this particular day we picked up some solid soundings on the Simrad, and the reef was loaded with school sharks. We were catching a few nice snapper and red snapper (nannygai), and even had two school sharks follow hooked snapper to the surface in 45m of water – something we hadn’t seen with this demersal species previously. We only lost one snapper to the sharks, but they were also taking baits and offering plenty of action.
It’s always a gamble when fishing for other species using mono trace when some school sharks come along. We were using mono trace and we did get bitten off by a few sharks, but we also landed a few up to around 22kg. We dispatched one shark for the table.
When some schoolies arrive on our reef system, I like to use a pair of 8/0 hooks snelled 5cm apart, with a sinker sitting above the trace line. This allows the bait to trail behind the sinker, and presents the bait well. Because school sharks have small teeth, they can bite through mono trace relatively easily, and hence I run with 100 to 125lb hard mono for the trace line. You can run a fine wire such as nylon coated 0.8mm wire, but schoolies do shy away from wire on occasions.
School sharks love eating squid – it’s a fairly long-lasting bait and withstands a lot of the small picking fish you find over the same reefs. If we don’t have squid, then fillet baits of oily fish such as mackerel, herring, trevally etc all work fine.
I prefer drift fishing for school sharks; this allows us to cover plenty of ground until a school is found. You need favourable weather conditions to be able to drift fish, with wind greater than around 12 to 15kt it’s really hard as your drift speed will be too quick, and it will be a challenge keeping a bait down deep enough. You will need a reasonable lead to maintain depth while drift fishing, and hence I use an 8oz sinker for most of my fishing.
Anchoring and deploying a berley trail is a super-effective way of targeting a few school sharks if you have the time to sit it out on anchor. When we sit on anchor for schoolies I aim to anchor off the side of the main peak of reef to avoid all the smaller species that dominate around the top of the lump.
In the tackle department, a quality 6000 threadline and a rod in the 8 – 12kg range or 10 – 15kg range is ideal for schoolies. Likewise, an overhead rod and reel will do the job nicely. My main school shark outfit at the moment is a Torium 20 reel and Ocea Jigger PE4 overhead rod matched with 40lb Powerpro braid. It’s a super-fun outfit for hooking and fighting the schoolies on.
School sharks offer a fun target in our deeper water along our temperate coastline, and they’re a good shark on the table.