I was the bag man, there to stuff burlap sacks with body parts. We were in a dim alley behind a San Diego fish market. Conway Bowman’s feet dangled over the edge of a Dumpster as he tossed tuna carcasses over the rim.
“Oh, bitchin’. Check these out,” Bowman said as he slid to the ground and handed me two albacore bellies, the Dom Perignon of chum. We threw them in the sacks, nodded at two puzzled onlookers, and headed toward the Dana Landing Marina, where we would launch our chase for shortfin mako sharks on the fly.
Shortfin makos have been the focus of fishing lore for generations. They frequently occupied the tales of Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey (including a piece by Grey in the April 1936 issue of FIELD & STREAM). But Bowman’s angle pushes the edge of reason. It goes like this:Motor anywhere from 5 to 30 miles off the Southern California coast in a 24-foot open hull boat until the ocean floor drops away into canyons over a thousand feet deep. There, you ride the swells above schooling baitfish, mackerel, and tuna to chum, tease, and hook a predator as large as yourself on a 14-weight fly rod.
Imagine tying your fly line around the waist of NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens and hanging on as he runs a deep route. These sharks swim three times faster thanT. O. sprints–up to 60 mph–and could easily hurdle the goal’s crossbar.
Several weeks earlier, Bowman and his protege, Capt. Dave Trimble, had invited me and a couple of pals to spend a week fishing the new-moon tides. It would be the flyfishing equivalent of a Warren Miller extreme skiing movie–crashing on Bowman’s floor, on the boats early, fishing hard all day, licking our wounds at night, and getting up to do it again. After some convincing, photographer Bill Decker agreed to tag along in a chase boat. The 58-year-old surfer and board fisherman was not fazed by the sharks;his reservations were about the flyfishing, “a sissy sport,” as he liked to call it.
Once the team was assembled, we loaded the boats with our gear and chum stash and idled away from Mission Bay. I was nervous. You always feel anticipation as you head out on the water, but your worries are limited to Will I make the casts, Did I apply enough sunscreen or, at the worst, I hope I don’t puke. On a mako trip, you worry that you might not come back whole. What sets these sharks apart from anything else you catch with a fly rod is that they can kill you. Before the trip, a friend had e-mailed me a story about a Delaware charter captain who died when his hand got tangled in a wire leader and the mako on the other end ripped him overboard like a rag doll.
Makos are apex predators, torpedo shaped and all muscle, with layered rows of razorlike teeth. Although they have not earned the notoriety of bull sharks or great whites because they typically cruise deeper offshore waters, makos can be just as nasty. They’re vicious even before birth;they cannibalistically devour their weaker siblings in utero. They have also been known to attack boats, and if one jumps in the boat with you, it can unleash a world of hurt. As a rule of thumb, when a mako jumps in, you jump out and hope he doesn’t have friends nearby.
The hull bounced hard on the water as we rode toward a GPS point named “Top of the Nine.” We carried no guns, no gaffs, no means to subdue the mako. The best we could hope for was a draw. When the angler pulled the shark close to the boat, Bowman or Trimble would grab the leader and slide an improvised long-handled release tool into its mouth to pop the fly. Then you’d start over. For these guys, it was all a big game.
After half an hour, Bowman killed the motor and tied the burlap chum sacks to the side of the boat. We rigged wire leaders to gaudy red and orange flies. Thirteen miles offshore, I could barely see the silhouette of Point Loma. “Keep your eyes open,” Bowman warned. Everything was hushed, save the steady breeze and swells lifting and slapping against the hull. “We have a good chance of seeing a big shark.”
The truth is that “a big shark” out here is still young. The California Bight, where the ocean indents the coast off of San Diego, is one of three major mako breeding grounds in the world.(The other two are off New Zealand and Madagascar.) Recently pupped makos will hang around this area for two years before ranging out to sea.
It’s a nursery, brimming with juvenile fish. The average mako cruising into a slick is about 80 pounds, but adults occasionally show up. A grown female can weigh over 1,300 pounds, and mature males can reach 500 pounds or more. Still, both captains say they rarely see sharks this size, and when they do, they don’t cast at them–usually.
“There is a threshold for flyfishing, and sometimes you need to check your ego and just watch the fish swim by,” Trimble said. “The pictures you see of huge makos caught off the east coast, that’s a totally different business. They’re caught with bait and balloons on heavy tackle. And fishermen kill the sharks to land them. Here, hooking, landing, and releasing a 150-pound mako on a fly rod is enough to kick your ass. And we can do that five or six times–which is like catching five or six tarpon–in a morning.”
For the record, Bowman claims the biggest mako he has landed on the fly was in the 275- to 300-pound range. Trimble and a client once hooked and nearly landed a mako they figured to be around 500 pounds. I had set a lofty goal of catching one in the neighborhood of 200 pounds. As it turned out, I only had to wait about an hour for my opportunity.
Ever since Bowman had dropped the chum bags in the water, Jeremy Hyatt had been craning his neck over the side, waiting for action. Hyatt is classic Colorado–a trout guide, rock climber, and whitewater kayaker–and we had brought him and Colorado fly shop owner Dan Hydinger along to get a comparative thrill reading when the sharks showed up. Now, as the first fin cut the water, Hyatt was pointing and howling wildly.
There is no rhyme or reason for when and how makos appear. Sometimes, on the ride offshore in the early morning, when the seas are calm and the wind is light, you might see one cruising under flocks of birds, or around kelp patties. Once you’ve set up a chum line, it might take five minutes or two hours for one to show. Or it might not happen at all.
If you use a surf-casting rod to throw a mackerel-head teaser around the boat, out of nowhere, a mouth may pop up and grab it. But most often, the mako arrives on its own terms, when you aren’t expecting it. You may be laughing, talking, or eating lunch. Then, as you lean over to fling away a pickle slice from your sandwich, a 6-footer glides by within an arm’s reach.
It’s like hunting big game from a tree stand. You go from a semihypnotic trance to sheer internal chaos in under two seconds. One instant, you’re barely awake, and the next, your heart is in your throat. That’s how it happened with this first mako.
“He’s a gorilla. One-eighty, maybe 200,” Bowman shouted as Hyatt and I scrambled around the deck. “I’m going to get him fired up.” He dangled a mackerel head in front of the shark and ripped it away just before the shark lunged, banged the boat, and then circled out into the slick. Bowman dragged the teaser through the chum line again, like a bullfighter with a cape, then once more, from another direction. With each pass, the fish got more pissed off.
I threw a fly into the mayhem and gave the line a sharp tug to pull it taut. The shark spun an angry arc looking for the teaser but found my fly instead. He bit down and swam toward the boat. Not wanting to set the hook while the mako was headed in my direction, I gave him slack line as he spit the fly. No problem. Sharks are used to eating things that poke them in the mouth. Within a minute, he was back.
Another cast, another strip, another bite. This time he turned away from the boat, and I set the hook with three hard jerks. In seconds the shark had unspooled the fly line, then ripped backing off the reel so fast that the powder residue on the gel-spun material looked like yellow smoke piping through the line guides. As I braced the rod butt into my thigh, I accidentally bumped my hand against the whirring reel. It cut my right thumb as if I had brushed against a band saw.
The shark jumped twice, cartwheeling over the waves. Then, for 30 minutes, I cranked the rod down toward the surface, strained and lifted, then cranked again, gaining sacred inches of line and occasionally licking the blood off my thumb. Eventually, we cheated and motored up on the fish to gather 200-plus yards of backing and fly line. Decker, shouting from the chase boat, said he wanted photos. I wanted this battle to end, one way or the other. When we were finally close enough for Bowman to grab the wire, the mako thrashed his head, snapped at Bowman’s arm, and stretched his jaws so wide we could have dropped a 5-gallon bucket inside his mouth.
“That fish was 200,” Bowman said as the shark finned away and we wiped the sweat off our faces. I flexed my left hand open and shut to coax blood flow back into my fore- arm. I was toast.
We spent the next several days working the same drill–Hyatt, Hydinger, and I trading turns hooking and fighting makos, and Decker firing away with the shutter, barking “Get closer!” as sharks leaped around the boats. After a while, we even got a bit comfortable with the routine. But that didn’t last.
One night, late in the week, we found ourselves rolling through La Jolla in Trimble’s classic ragtop Cadillac Eldorado. He drove with the seat half reclined, his left arm resting on top of the steering wheel. At that angle, I got a good look at the detailed tattoo of a mako chasing yellowfins on his forearm.
“Is Decker serious about the kayak?” he asked Bowman.
“Yeah, he says he wants to get pictures of us fighting a mako from one,” Bowman said. I figured they were joking.
Sure enough, at 6:30 the next morning, Decker sauntered down the dock with a blue sea kayak balanced on his head. Two hours later, we were back on “Top of the Nine,” bobbing in silence, when the first mako, maybe an 80-pounder, came barreling up the oily slick.
We traded glances as Decker dropped the kayak in the water. For a long moment, there were no volunteers. Then Bowman handed Hydinger the teaser rod, picked up the paddle and a fly rod, and jumped in. I was running the chase boat, feeling as if I was about to watch a train wreck.
The shark was hot even before Hydinger started throwing the teaser. At one point it circled toward the mackerel head and bumped against the kayak. It’s difficult enough to cast an oversize fly when you are upright, let alone when you’re sitting on a wobbly hunk of plastic with a paddle on your lap. Bowman managed one short cast with a popper fly, which prompted the mako to spin and look but not bite. Swells pushed the kayak farther away from the slick, and the shark disappeared.
As Bowman paddled back into the slick to set up for another cast, Hydinger called out, “Here’s another shark!”
“It’s not the same one?” Bowman asked.
“Nope. This one’s twice as big.” As the fin skimmed past Bowman, we saw this shark was longer than the kayak. I was about to suggest we call this deal off when Bowman cast and began popping the fly across the surface. Pop. Pop. Chomp. The mako swirled at a right angle, pulling the kayak sideways against the swells. Bowman teetered, then leaned to steer the craft in line with the rod, which was banging against the hull as the shark tore line off the screaming reel.
The drag was tight enough that the mako began to tow the kayak. We marked a waypoint on the GPS and ran the motors to catch up. We wanted to be close enough to grab Bowman if something went wrong, though most of us realized that if he fell out, he would likely be in greater trouble than we could save him from. As we watched Bowman strain against the shark, plowing a dogged path through the waves, this kayak idea felt like a joke gone very wrong.
The shark dragged the boat for nearly a half mile before Bowman started gaining line, bowing over the front of the kayak, then leaning on his back as he worked the reel. He cranked in all the backing, then started up the fly line through the running line into the belly. But what was he going to do next?
“If that shark does something weird, drop the rod, and forget about it,” Decker yelled.
“We’ll reach over and pull you in the boat. You can land the fish from here,” I shouted.
And then suddenly, the line went slack. The shark was gone. We motored over and hauled Bowman and the kayak into our boat. He showed us the line. It had been sawed through, just above the leader. Maybe the shark had cut it with his tail. Maybe he had bitten through it after turning back on Bowman. We’ll never know.
That night over mai tais at the dockside bar, we talked about the last few days. Bowman grinned and shook his head. “That kayak was a little dicey,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be doing that again soon. It sets a bad example for the kids.” We made plans to fish together again later in the year, but on my water instead, in a trout stream in Colorado. I promised him we’d go extreme in the high country. Heck, we could hike above the treeline. It might even snow.