February 10, 2022
Mako sharks are lightning-fast, powerful killing machines. While great white sharks have a much-deserved reputation for their size and ferocity, makos stand alone as the pound-for-pound strongest, fastest, and highest-jumping sharks in the ocean.
So who would be crazy enough to target them with a fly rod? A decade ago, makos were an interesting incidental catch, but San Diego bluewater captain Conway Bowman has turned shark fishing into a science, and has developed an approach that gives properly equipped fly fishers excellent opportunities to hook makos on a daily basis (weather pending).
What’s more, his berth in San Diego is just a short jaunt from the airport, with easy connections across the Western U.S. I stay at Dana Point Inn, which is a 15-minute taxi ride from the airport, and then walk to the marina where Bowman keeps his boat: a 24-foot Triton with a walk-around center console.
The first time I fished with Bowman, I got on a plane in Denver in the early morning and was hooked into my first greyhounding, leaping mako before lunch on the same day.
Mako Shark Science
Pacific makos appear near San Diego in good numbers in early June and remain through September. Yes, it’s summer in Southern California but you needn’t worry about the heat. Steady ocean breezes keep you cool and the temperature rarely rises above 90 degrees F.
During the summer there are some monster makos off the coast that can exceed 600 pounds. You won’t cast near these. The majority of the sharks are less than 200 pounds, and posses all the size and power you are looking for.
Bowman has an intimate knowledge of the bottom topography, and seasonal current speed and direction, as well as daily tides. His GPS waypoints pinpoint the underwater mounts, ridges, and canyons that cause upwellings and keep baitfish near the surface where makos feed. Bowman uses his knowledge of these underwater structures, and of the current direction and speed, to set up chum lines that pass over known mako feeding locations and draw sharks to the boat. Then you wait for an attack.
During the anticipation period, I watch whales, sea lions, and pods of dolphin. It’s not unusual to see ocean sunfish—mola mola—seemingly float by. These jelly-fish eaters look like bluegills with a large dorsal fin, but they can exceed 1,000 pounds.
Then Bowman yells “Shark!” and the day-dreaming and whale-watching quickly halts. He picks up his teasing outfit and launches a big orange skirted teaser—with a mackerel clipped inside—toward the shark.
Your adrenalin surges as you scan the water. First you see a dorsal fin, then the thick shape of a mako behind the teaser. Your line is ready—stripped into loose, neat coils on the deck—and you hold an immense 12-inch or larger orange-colored fly in your hand.
When he feels the shark is adequately agitated, Bowman yells “Cast!” and you launch the fly not directly in front of the shark, but to the left or right—within a few feet of either eye.
Don’t retrieve the fly. Just let it sit and only give it a few twitches if the shark inspects the fly but doesn’t eat. It is an incredible moment when the shark cruises over, opens its toothy maw, and in an instant your fly is gone.
Do not set the hook—yet. A forward strip-set often drives the hook point against the shark’s teeth. Instead, let the shark turn and pull the hook into the corner of its mouth. When the line tightens, strip-set hard, make sure the line and reel handle are clear, and hold on.
Every mako reacts differently when hooked, but the usual response is a blistering 100-yard run punctuated with jaw-dropping leaps, then another high-octane burst of speed that can bash and bloody your knuckles if you don’t keep your hand off the reel handle. Makos can maintain a steady swimming pace of 25 mph, with bursts of speed (like when hooked) of up to 50 mph.
Makos are as fast as tuna but unlike tuna, they stay near the surface, and usually don’t sound. When a big gamefish runs, you do very little except keep your hand away from the reel handle, and dip the rod tip when the fish jumps. It’s not unusual for a mako to make three or four long runs before you can begin to take back line.
I wear golf gloves on both hands to prevent blisters. They also allow me to pinch the line against the cork without fear of lacerations from the line.
As with any powerful ocean fish, the most efficient way to gain line is with your legs. To apply pressure and retrieve line, drop the rod tip into the water and deeply flex at the knees. Hold the reel handle or pinch line against the cork and push with your legs to gain line, then reel up the slack. For maximum efficiency, only raise the rod tip about two feet at a time. Do not raise the rod above horizontal during the fight. Let your legs do the work.
When the shark is calm, steer it to side of the boat where the captain can grab the wire tippet and remove the fly. It is an incredible thrill to stare into the eye of the beast and see one of these magnificent creatures swim away.
Mako Shark Fly Fishing Gear
For all species I believe in using the lightest practical tackle, and for most makos that means a 16-weight rod and a large-capacity bluewater reel such as an Abel Super 12W, or Tibor Gulfstream or Pacific. Bring the biggest reel you can get your hands on—don’t worry, it won’t be too big.
For fish up to 200 pounds, a 16-weight is not too much, and a fish over 200 pounds would be a severe test of body and tackle. For makos less than 50 pounds, 12-weight rods and tarpon reels are adequate, but most of the sharks are much larger.
If you are in San Diego on business, or don’t own saltwater tackle, Bowman can provide everything you need. You should bring your own light rain gear, hat, polarized sunglasses, sunscreen, running shoes or deck shoes (no sandals), motion sickness pills or a patch (Scopalamine patch), quick-dry pants, and long-sleeve shirt.
John Barr is a contract tier for Umpqua Feather Merchants. His latest book is Barr Flies (Stackpole Books, 2007).