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Fly Fishing for Sharks

In Southern California there is a group of anglers that frequently goes looking for trouble. Not with other anglers you understand but trouble for themselves! It is not that they maybe had too much beer or have some other social problem but they do have an addiction, and that is what puts them in harms way. They also have great respect for their quarry, an apex predator whose reputation of long fast runs and high cart-wheeling jumps keeps them coming back for more. One word is all it takes to get these adrenaline junkies fired up - MAKO!

The Mako Shark, Isurus oxyrinchus, is found globally in warm or temperate seas. Known as one of the fastest sharks in the ocean, this pelagic predator can reach speeds of up to 22mph. With an average size of 6-8 feet they can stretch up to around 12 feet and weigh over a thousand pounds. Dark blue above, white below and often with a black-tipped snout they are a handsome member of the mackerel shark family. The current all-tackle IGFA record is a fish of 1,221lb (553.84Kg) caught on the east coast of the USA in 2001. Here in San Diego, California they typically run a lot smaller and are more suitable for light tackle action. According to David Holts who works out of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California and conducts conventional and satellite tagging studies, this region is recognized as a pupping area. "The pups are probably born just off shore and then move into the Bight. The entire Southern California Bight is well suited for them as prey is plentiful and oceanic conditions are good. Sub adults are off southern California and Baja California all year. They move north and south along the coast usually within a couple hundred miles." It is from late spring through to the end of autumn though that fishing the inshore waters is best as one enterprising fishing guide discovered a few years back.

Conway Bowman grew up in San Diego fishing the lakes and bays and as soon as he was old enough he was out in a small boat on the ocean. Over time he found patterns in the movements of the local mako shark population and where and when they would turn up. He later started a guiding business specifically to target the sharks and as he started to take clients out and word spread about what this crazy Californian was up to he became a celebrity of sorts, especially as he favors targeting these toothy speedsters with the fly rod or light tackle whenever possible - which has to be considered one of our sports ultimate challenges! Bowman advocates catch and release, as with a growing popularity and reputation for some flavorful meat, the population and fishery needs protecting. This past summer I was lucky enough to hook up with Bowman to go see for myself what all the fuss was about.

It was a leisurely 8am start from his dock at Mission Bay, quite a nice change from the pre-dawn starts required for the longer runs to the tuna grounds for which San Diego is better known. Heading straight out of the harbor it was about a half-hours run to our first stop which was to look for some fresh bonito for the chum slick we would be needing. The last couple of seasons have seen a comeback in the numbers of this oily fleshed and therefore perfect addition to the chum bucket. We didn't waste much time in picking up a couple on small flashy silver lures and into the fish box they went. Knowing that the tidal flow would bring us back in towards shore, Bowman motored us out beyond one of his favorite spots and laid out both some commercially bought chum and also the fresh bonito that had been sliced up to release the essential oils and blood into the water. The olfactory senses of the mako are so good that rather than just drift slowly to spread a thick chum slick, we were actually able to slowly motor down-current 'speed-chumming' a visibly smaller slick, but yet one that would be more than sufficient to draw in any sharks in the area. In fact even before we stopped laying the slick our first customer arrived, lazily finning along behind the boat in and out of the scent trail it was following.

Another reason Bowman has earned his reputation is that he is no sedentary shark fisherman. For him there is no joy in just placing a hunk of meat on a hook and throwing it out and waiting, it is the thrill of the hunt and actively sight-fishing his selected target which keeps him returning for more. This is achieved by working as a team with his clients. Using the method known as bait and switch, Bowman first threads a teaser of fresh bonito flesh onto a spinning rig. Once a shark is sighted, or indeed selected when more than one is present (which is often the case once the slick has been established for a while), this teaser is cast just beyond the shark and then wound back past it towards the boat. The aim is to get its attention and fire up its predator instincts so that it locks on to the bait and starts hunting it down. Depending on the mood of the mako this can take several attempts or it can be instant. There is no doubt when it happens though - just like a hunting dog that suddenly becomes alert and pricks up its ears, the posture change is very apparent. The emphasis then shifts to the angler who in this case is poised with what looks like half a bright orange chicken tied to a hook which in fact is a custom made mako fly. As the mako is teased up the angler starts to false cast the fly so that just at the point where the shark is poised to bite the teaser is pulled quickly away and the fly cast slightly in front and to one side of the shark so it sees it straight away and strikes at it instead. Bowman uses only barbless circle hooks in his flies and so as the mako turns away with its prize, the hook typically catches right in the corner of its mouth largely out of the way of its razor sharp set of teeth. A couple of good solid strip strikes to make sure the hook is set firmly and this is where the fun starts!

Once the shark feels that hook find its home be ready for its first run which will typically be long and fast. It is not uncommon as we saw on our trip, for a freshly hooked mako to run one hundred yards or more making the line zip through the water due to its speed, shedding a trail of water behind it like a jet-boat. Like a billfish, they also like to go airborne, often making several leaps in a row high into the air. This makes them one of the most spectacular fighting fish I have come across and one you won't forget in a hurry. The rest of the fight is a mix of dogged resistance and more runs and leaps which diminish as the fight wears on. Bowman is a big proponent of what he calls "breaking the fish early" by which he means putting your back into the fight and using your gear to its best ability to show the fish who is boss. Not letting them have their way, especially the bigger fish over 100lb, allows his clients to bring fish to the boat much quicker and on relatively light line. This is also better for the mako as they have a better chance of recovering quickly compared to a longer fight which allows lactic acid to build up in their muscles. Because of the barbless circle hook used, it is quite easy to use a release stick which consists of a coil of thick wire on the end of a gaff stick, which is then slid down the line and against the bend of the hook. One quick push of the stick and the hook pops right out allowing the fish to swim away. It also keeps the shark and angler at a safe distance as putting your hands anywhere near the mouth is inviting trouble. The mako has a well justified reputation as having a bad temper and the last thing you want on deck is a live one unless you are well prepared for it. They have been known to destroy the boat cockpits of unwary anglers who brought them aboard and who then had to run for the safety of the bow as the shark went wild, thrashing around and biting anything in its path. Bowman and other regular mako anglers will occasionally pick up a small one for the camera, but even they do not recommend it!