I have always had a serious infatuation for sharks. Unfortunately, the reality of their biology is poorly represented by mainstream media and Hollywood attempts such as Shark Week and Jaws. Once their biology is understood, however, a greater appreciation of how these fish have survived millions of years without evolutionary change is inevitable. Of all the sharks, a select few are in fact dangerous to humans, and it is my opinion that of the select few, the mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) is the pinnacle. I had to catch one. This is the story.
Matt, Britt and myself met Lou on Monday. He was an old school lobster fisherman who had the salt of the Pacific running though his veins. I shook his hand that morning, and through that handshake I could feel all those years of experience from a life of fishing at sea. I would later learn he was once a commercial mako fisherman, but he would catch them with a hand line. A hand line! As in a line, a hook and his hands. This guy played tug-of-war with makos for a living and still had all his fingers. He was tough, and he knew these sharks well. Not long after we made our introductions we left the marina then headed out into the Pacific. Lou told us what to expect on our way to the fishing grounds. After a short boat ride we had chum in the water. Chum slicks are nothing like what Hollywood says they are. There’s no blood. There’s no fish chunks floating around. Instead, there is a very fine layer of oil that slowly spread wider the further we drifted. Of course oil and water do not mix so the slick was noticeably different in texture than that of the surrounding water. We were finally in pursuit of makos with a fly rod.
Mako fishing with a fly rod is more like hunting elk in the Rocky Mountains. The only differences are you’re carrying a fly rod and not a .30-06 and elk won’t eat you. Most of the time hunting is spent hiking around looking for elk sign, and the actual interaction with elk lasts little more than minutes. Similarly, we spent most of the day hiking around the Pacific looking for the right signs, the right current and the right conditions while we swapped stories. Lou constantly preached, “It’s all about the conditions. Conditions, conditions, conditions!” We gladly took his advice. After all, he was running the show. The drift has to be just right to maximize the chances of chumming in a shark. We finally found a decent spot so we set up for a long drift. During that time, the excitement and anxiety slows time to a crawl. Seconds turn to minutes. Minutes to hours. Hours to eternity. The entire time your eyes are glued to the water looking for that elusive shape. I remember Lou was in mid story when he stopped. We all knew why he stopped, but we needed reassurance to be sure. He calmly pointed beneath the boat, and in a moment of excitement and panic we saw a dark shadow circling below us. Shark.
Before I go on I need to tell you a little about Britt. Before this trip she had never really picked up a fly rod, or casted one for that matter. She had seen both Matt and I fish with them, but never really had the interest prior to this trip to learn how to fish with one. But, she was determined to catch a shark on a fly rod. Kudos to her. So we went to the local ponds every chance we could to bring her up to speed and practice casting. She picked it up fairly quickly, and could get the fly out just far enough that we thought would be good enough to entice a mako to bite. The real question was would she be able to do this with shot nerves and a 6 foot 100 pound predator swimming in front of her. We would soon find out.
The shark established a searching pattern around the boat. It would circle in front of us then dive deep behind the boat, finally ending in front again. We never got a good look at it, but we knew it was larger than anything any of us had ever caught. You could tell Britt was nervous as she managed to cast the fly. It delicately hit the water and began to sink. The bright orange fly was easily spotted in the blue water. As soon as it hit the water it seemed to come alive by quivering in fear for its life because the shark had undoubtedly spotted it. I’m not sure if it was the current or her hands shaking with nerves that put life into that fly. Whatever it was caught the attention of the shark. It curiously turned and swam towards the fly…and the boat. The shark rolled on the fly as gently as the fly hit the water. As the line went tight it rendered Matt and I speechless. Was this really happening?! Once reality kicked us both in the teeth we heard Lou yell, “Wait ‘til he swims away then strip strike!” Britt did exactly that. Once she buried the hook deep into the shark’s jaw it took off at a speed unparalleled on this planet. She fought and battled against insane runs and a deadly game of tug-of-war against one of the ocean’s top predators. After 45 minutes, she managed to wear the shark out and bring it boat side. Lou grabbed the leader to make it official. She had landed a shark – a blue shark (Prionace glauca). Lou estimated it at 75 pounds and 5 feet long. Not bad for a first fish on a fly rod. My turn…
We found the best conditions for a chum line and set up a drift. We again passed the time swapping stories, and catching rockfish as we drifted over them. And again time slowed to an eternal crawl. Finally the silence was broken by chaos. This time there was no doubt when a shark showed up. Lou yelled, “Mako!” Apparently the word “mako” triggers a panic attack and reduces the dexterity in my hands to nothing more than a shaken tremble. Finally, I collected my cool in time to make the most incredible cast of my life. I still replay it in my mind. The fly hit the water, and suddenly from beneath the boat a shadow shot out like a torpedo. It was a mako for sure. As it approached the fly its lifeless black eye caught mine and gently rolled on the fly. It took every ounce of self-control to wait for the precise moment to set the hook. After what seemed like hours with the fly its mouth, the shark turned out to sea, and I buried the hook point as hard as I could in its jaw. I have never set a hook like that in my life. The fight was on. Line peeled off my reel while the drag screamed. It sliced open my knuckles in the process so my knuckles were covered in blood. (I proudly wear that scar today.) I was mesmerized by the athletic ability of this shark as it jumped 10 feet in the air while doing a back flips and ganors, and all I could do was hold on. I remember thinking, “Don’t lose this fish! Don’t lose this fish! Don’t you dare lose this fish!” This went on for almost an hour before I finally tired it out. I was ready to see this beast up close. Lou managed to gain control of the leader then slid the shark boat side so I could study the creature up close. There is something about the lifeless, coal-black eye of a mako that stays with you. It steals part of your soul, and you’re forever under its spell. We took pictures then respectfully let it go. To see that shark swim off healthy gave me more pride than landing it. That moment changed me. How could it not? I now had a 6 foot 110 pound mako shark added to my piscatorial résumé. Matt’s turn…
It was early on Thursday, I believe, and the weather couldn’t make up its mind to be pleasant or a torrential down pour. We still went out. We got to a spot that Lou said he had landed many makos during his tenure as a commercial shark fisherman. Before the chum hit the water I heard, “Dorsal!” Matt had spotted a large dorsal cruising towards us. It was pure, dumb luck that we had stopped within feet of that shark. Matt had the fly in the water before any of us could get set up with the cameras. In no time he was hooked up. We knew it was a larger shark because it just stayed beneath the boat, hovering. He would gain a little line, and the shark would take it back. This went on for a half hour. Finally, Matt put a little more pressure on it. I guess the shark decided it had had enough and ripped line of the reel. Matt held on. At some point during the fight Matt looked at me and said, “Take the rod.” Confused, I took it. He said he had a burning sensation in his stomach and needed a rest. We later found out he had started a hernia fighting that shark. It worsened later that summer on a trip to Alaska when he was fighting a giant salmon. Of the fish I have caught in my life, I have never felt raw power like I did when that mako was on the line. To this day I am still amazed. The fish finally came up just enough to get a glimpse. Lou quietly said, “Whoa…” When your guide says “whoa” to himself you know you’ve done something special. I was in the process of handing the rod back to Matt when the shark regained its strength and took off. The power from its acceleration managed to rip the reel out of the reel seat. It slipped from my hands and hit the first guide on the third section of my fly rod. The reel and top three sections ripped off and skipped across the surface of the Pacific like a pebble on a calm pond. We were speechless, again. What the hell was that? Did this really just happen after an hour and a half fight?! We finally accepted the fact that it indeed happened and wasn’t a bad dream. Lou estimated that shark to be approximately 7 feet and 200 pounds. To add salt to the wound, the rod Matt was using was a custom rod I built on a brand new Sage Xi3 blank. The rod was at least a $900 to $1000 dollar rod considering the components I put on it. That was the only time that rod was fished. The bottom portion now hangs on his wall as a reminder of the shark that gave him the fight of his life – and a hernia. It’s painful to look at to this day.
That trip was number one on my bucket list, and I guarantee we will be back. Matt finally caught a mako that trip, but he now has a vendetta for those sharks. In fact, we all caught makos that trip. We broke a total of three rods, lost a Tibor reel and two fly line rigs – almost $3,000 in gear. Our abilities as anglers were tested and questioned on that trip, but would I do it again? Absolutely. I don’t think God ever intended makos to be caught on a fly rod, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try.