February 24, 2021
This story was originally titled “Sharks on Flats: Pay a visit to the "man in the brown suit".” It appeared in the Dec-Jan-Feb 2016 issue of Fly Fisherman.
I'll fish for anything . . . anything that swims. When I was in college, the nearest trout stream and the ocean were both a couple of hours away, but I could wade the creeks in Chapel Hill and cast to horny heads or catch panfish and bass in local ponds. I’ve caught koi in hotel display ponds and hooked nearly everything else that I could get to eat a fly, and I’m still looking for fresh targets.
A fly rod is a staple in all of my travels—surf camp, weddings, business meetings. If I’m on the move I have a rod or six with me. Beyond fishing in unusual locations, I love to chase odd and nontraditional species. Goatfish in French Polynesia, dogfish in Guyana, triggerfish in the Seychelles. Most destinations involve a target species so it’s easy to develop tunnel vision on the primary objective, often to the detriment of adventure and great fishing.
In the Bahamas and every other bonefish flat in the world, one of the most neglected opportunities is flats fishing for “the man in the brown suit.” Sharks. They don’t get the respect of many other flats species, but you can sight-fish for them on the flats, they can be challenging, and when you hook them, they are a hell of a lot of fun.
Bonefish are widely adored by fly fishers but let’s face it. To a shark, they are baitfish. When you hook a bonefish, it’s like ringing the dinner bell for alpha predators. You would think a 4-foot powerhouse with explosive eats and blistering runs would be on most fly fishers’ bucket lists, but my experience is that most people hate them. I’ve shared a flats boat with many people who abhor the idea of fly fishing for sharks, and refuse to change their tackle or consider casting to them.
But these naysayers become instant converts once they experience a lemon shark following and then exploding on their popper in 18 inches of water. Sometimes you just have to twist their arms to get them to try it.
I’m baffled by this type of disdain, and think that most of it is based on misconceptions. Sharks aren’t always easy. Getting them to eat a fly on the flats takes skill, patience, and finding the right fish in the right mood. From making the cast and feeding the fish to the line management when you hook them, there’s a science to catching sharks on a fly.
Most fly fishers aren’t used to pulling on a fish with the weight, girth, and power of even a relatively small shark. And with our tackle, we can’t even dream of taming a truly large shark. Rigging for these fish is surprisingly straightforward. For the majority of the sharks we see on the flats, a stout 10-weight rod rigged with a floating line does the trick. I fish a shorter 6- or 7-foot leader with a 12- to 18-inch wire bite tippet. Single-strand piano wire is the best way to stop a shark from biting through the leader. Even small sharks will wear through knotable wire. I attach the wire to the leader with an Albright knot, and to the fly with a standard haywire twist. The leader often rubs on the abrasive body of the shark during the fight, so build your leader out of an abrasion-resistant hard monofilament.
Shark flies are simple—a little bit of red schlappen and palmered rabbit strips will do the trick. I prefer unweighted flies so I can control the depth and move the fly slowly. Anything with bright colors—red, orange, yellow—that moves in the water and pushes water works well. Keep in mind sharks don’t see well; it’s the movement and water displacement they use to find the fly. Poppers are a lot of fun and offer the most visually stunning eats. Sometimes a shark’s whole head comes out of the water to take the popper, but it’s often harder to get them to eat it and the rush of a shark toward a popper can sometimes push the fly out of the way.
There are really two ways to target sharks. Chumming is the obvious and most common method, and may be the reason why some people think sharks are easy. But taking opportunistic shots on the flats is a completely different ball game, and by far the most thrilling and cerebral method of fishing for sharks. It also takes a great deal of teamwork.
Poling the flats for bonefish with a shark rod also rigged makes the whole day more dynamic. By “ready” I mean out of the rod holder and accessible without you banging around the boat. Opportunities happen quickly, and you don’t want to be fumbling around making noise and taking unnecessary time to get the rod out and make a cast.
The fly fisher on the bow of the skiff should be focused on the primary target. The angler waiting in the cockpit should be ready to grab an alternate rod as needed for permit, tarpon, sharks, or ’cudas, while at the same time helping his partner spot bonefish and manage his line.
The sharks you see on the flats are looking for food. Cast close to them. The perfect cast is 10 inches in front and slightly to the side of the head. More often than not, the fly spooks the shark, but occasionally you get an immediate-reaction bite, and those types of instant strikes are often spectacular explosions.
Many fish will light up and charge the fly only to turn away at the last second when they realize there is no scent. If you cast to enough sharks, eventually you will find a brave one. The visual of the shark perking up, picking up speed, and elevating toward the surface to eat the fly will feed your addiction. Those fish that follow the fly but are uncommitted can occasionally be coaxed with a quick strip of the fly line, but more often than not I keep the fly barely moving in front of their nose and hope curiosity gets the best of them. Don’t give up on a shark as long as it is patrolling within range. Eventually it may eat out of pure annoyance.
Another great opportunity is when a shark is lit up and in pursuit of a hooked bonefish. Often you can help save a bonefish by distracting a frenzied shark with a well-placed fly. Whether they eat it or not, it takes their focus off the bonefish. If they do eat it, you get some of the most aggressive hookups you can imagine, and suddenly you and your buddy have a mismatched double, and a whole lot of action in one little boat.
Excelling in this arena elevates your angling game because it requires accurate casts, good line management, and the experience to understand and capitalize on the behavior and posture of the fish—all skills that make you a better all-around fly fisher.
If you want to target sharks exclusively, instead of just whenever the opportunity arises, it’s time to get dirty and put some blood in the water. Chumming is the most dependable way to get sharks within casting range, and it’s the best way to pull in some of the bigger species.
I do it two ways. The first is wind drifting along the transition from the flats to deeper water. You drop a chum bag over the side and pick a course where the wind moves the boat along the edge, preferably against the tide. This creates a long chum slick and due to the proximity of deeper water, creates the best opportunity to pull in sharks that will make the hairs on your neck stand up—like tiger sharks and hammerheads.
The fish come in hot, so keep your eyes peeled. I throw in a few fly-size pieces of bait as soon as I see the shark to get it in the mood to strike instinctively. It’s effective, and you can quickly hook into a fish outside your comfort zone. The shark will always head to deeper water, so crank up the boat engine and keep the fight as close as you can.
The other chumming technique targets the primary flats species–lemons, blacktips, and the occasional spinner shark. Anchor the boat on a light-color sandy bottom next to a deep tidal channel on an outgoing tide, and start the chum line. The tide carries the chum into the deep water, but the fish have to come up on the shallow white bottom to find the chum source, and this makes the fishing super visual and exciting.
The transition from deep to shallow water makes them surprisingly cautious; they come in shallow, then retreat. Then they loop in a little closer and peel off again, each time gaining more comfort in the shallow water. The circles continue to get smaller and smaller until eventually you can get a shot in front of them.
It’s sometimes challenging to get a shark to eat a fly when there is blood in the water. I like to throw pieces of bait at the fish as they get close to get them accustomed to using their eyesight, and not solely hunting by scent. The first time the bait hits the water they almost always spook, then come back and eat it. Throw another one, they may spook again but will come back sooner. Pretty soon they’ll be using the sound of the splashdown to find the bait. That’s when you make your cast and hang on.
Obviously sharks are dangerous and should be handled with care. Some of them—like lemon sharks—can bite their own tails, and they will be more than happy to show you if you’ve got your hand around it. When I hold lemon sharks, I also control the back of their heads while gripping their tails.
I’ve had a few close calls while handling sharks, and I’ve seen someone get bit from carelessness. If you play it smart they are manageable, and the photos can be spectacular.
I’m a believer in being an opportunistic angler, in honing your skills, and pushing your experiences outside of your comfort zone. Sharks are a great way to do all that. Catching them on a fly in shallow water makes you a better all-around fisherman and deepens your appreciation and understanding of their saltwater environment. I’ll wager if you give it a shot and get a few sharks to eat your fly, you’ll make a habit of carrying a shark rod in your flats skiff.
*Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas, Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge in South Andros. He travels extensively hosting small groups in exotic locations and guiding in the American West. He is most passionate about IndiFly (indifly.org)—a nonprofit he cofounded with Al Perkinson and Costa that works to help indigenous people use sportfishing as a method of conservation.