“IT’S PROBABLY JUST MACKEREL.”
We’re three hours into a mako drift, we have exactly two seagulls to show for it, and there’s a baitball bonanza a hundred yards off our bow that we can do exactly nothing about. It’s a worst-case scenario. The guy next to me looks enviously at the airborne barracuda chasing pinhead chovies and asks if I think a shark might be under them. “It’s probably just mackerel and cuda pushing the bait up,” I try to caution—we would do best to stay the course.
“You never know when a dorsel’s going to come down that slick.” I motion towards the rigged 12 weight fly rods and the two mile path of chum that stretches out behind the boat into Southern California’s baby blue horizon. He nods, unsure, while I briefly wonder if I should have pursued birdwatching instead. At least the seagulls always cooperate.
“MAKOS DON’T WAKE UP UNTIL NOON”
Fly fishing for shortfin mako sharks is an exercise in faith and commitment. Sure, you have to know how to find them. How to read the seafloor structure, the currents, the wind, the chlorophyll levels, the water temps. But combine all those variables, all that calculus, and what you’re left with is a vague idea of where a shark might show up.
It’s not dissimilar from, say, predicting what tide and moon phase bonefish might show up on a flat. The difference is, you can move around and look for bonefish. With makos, you’re committing to drifting in a straight line with the wind and doing absolutely nothing until a shark finds you. I’ve never drifted for two uneventful hours without wondering to myself, “I wonder if I’ll ever see a shark again.” It’s the most mentally taxing thing I’ve ever done.
“Makos don’t wake up until at least noon,” a veteran guide (and now mentor) joked to me the first time I ever drifted for sharks. We didn’t see anything until 2:00 PM that day, and I don’t think I quite believed it when we finally did. Two things blew my mind that first day—one, how steadfastly confident that guide was throughout the first five uneventful hours of drifting; and two, that we caught and released that same shark twice in a row.
EVERYONE WANTS A MONSTER…UNTIL THEY GET ONE
About three and a half hours into the drift, we notice something—the seagulls are lifting off, one by one. Things get quiet. The mackerel in the slick become nervous, then panicked, then gone. Three seconds later, the mako shows up. Five to six feet in length (who’s counting?), she’s lit up and ready to go. She circles the boat, and we get an orange tube fly all of 20 feet into her path. She doesn’t eat it immediately; instead she circles and inspects. We get nervous. She starts to figure-eight around the fly, and we realize what’s about to go down. She bites and turns away as I yell to set the hook again and again. Things escalate quickly as she jumps 15 feet in the air, and it’s game on.
This is when buyer’s remorse kicks in. There’s a honeymoon phase at the beginning of a mako fight when the shark breaches. It’s the move that has attracted fly anglers to makos for decades. But after the jump, a slugfest ensues. And with a big enough shark, this can mean a brutal tug of war with one of the smartest, fastest fish in the ocean. They take you into lengths of backing you were never supposed to see. You can fight your way back only to have the shark decide it’s time to revisit your backing. The fight’s only over when it’s over, and that’s typically when the shark seems bored enough to throw in the towel. Leadering a mako can go just as haywire as it can with big tarpon. Broken rods, drenching tail kicks, and general calamity often ensue. There’s a beautiful feeling when you can slip the curly-cue end of the release stick down the leader and pop a barbless 10/0 hook out of that toothy grin.
Reactions vary after the shark is released. Some folks laugh; some cry; some throw up (trust me, I’ve seen it). Some take a shot—or three—of tequila. But one thing’s for sure: most people don’t want another big mako that day. I count my blessings on the rare occasions I can turn the boat back towards home at the end of the day with a shark still circling.
T&T Creative Pro Noah Rosenthal battles a mako on the Exocett SS 450
There’s something that continues to bring me back to that first mako I ever saw—the one we caught and released twice. It worried me at the time, and it still does. On the one hand, you have a creature totally without fear. It’s aggressive, curious, and highly intelligent. But on the other hand, these same qualities make for a vulnerable apex predator. Getting a shark to eat a fly can be an art. One that I’m still learning every time I walk a client through the task. Getting a shark to eat a piece of bait, however, is not so difficult. Nor is the act of free-gaffing one at the side of a boat, illegal as it may be.
I’m lucky to be part of a community of fly fishing guides who exercise strict catch and release practices with makos. Unfortunately, outside of this community, you will find a lot of dead sharks, taken either for their fins, their filets, or a simple big game trophy. Commercial fleets only add to the pressure, often taking makos as bycatch on longlines. Recent research has shown that a mako in the North Atlantic stands a 30% chance of being harvested in any given year.
I have yet to take someone aboard my boat who wasn’t in awe when they saw their first shark, let alone caught and released one. I think that’s why I spend so much time now pursuing them and showing them off to others. Because at the end of the day, no statistics or facts are going to build better allies than folks who have had the chance to go hand to hand with a mako shark on a fly rod.