How to turn a slow, fishless day into a memorable trip.
[by Chuck Furimsky]
VAN SCOTT FULTON, AN OLD COLLEGE BUDDY OF MINE, was always ahead of the times with his off-the-wall ideas. They seemed so far out until, years later, they became staples in our daily lives. His most ambitious endeavor was selling bottled water; this seemed silly because everyone I knew had water faucets in their homes.
The idea I admired the most was his Match the Hatch Vending Machine. He must have seen a bait vending machine after they made their appearance in local convenience stores and tackle shops. But Van was a fly fisherman, and he wanted a vending machine next to the water where you could select your favorite insect hatch. Let’s say you wanted to fish a sulfur hatch. You’d feed your money into the machine, pull the knob, and out would fly hundreds of sulfur mayflies to land on the water and excite the fish. You were in business if you had size 14 Sulfurs in your fly box.
Okay, now for a true story.
In July and August, the water near my home of Ocean City, New Jersey, heats up and I have to replace my usual target, striped bass, with something else. I know sandbar sharks, locally called brown sharks, populate our coast, but they are more of a bycatch nuisance than a targeted sport fish. And fly fishing for sharks isn’t usually considered the first option when leaving the boat dock, but my feeling is that if it bends my fly rod, I’ll give it a shot.
How It’s Done
Here’s the drill for how I catch sharks on a fly.
I have a boat, which is probably necessary for my method. Drifting on a light, windy day, a mile or two off the beach, is a perfect start. My preferred tackle is a 10-weight outfit with a flexible wire tippet. A sinking-tip line is usually better than a floating line.
Now I have to create the “hatch.”
My local shop, Fin-Atics, sells frozen ground bunker in plastic quart bags for a few dollars apiece. I usually get half a dozen bags. Once I shut off the motor in an area that hopefully has some wandering schools of bunker, I start the hatch. (Okay, you technically minded guys might call it chumming.) I have a very old mesh bag laced over a foam inner tube. When my son was a baby, clean cloth diapers were delivered every week in a similar bag, and then returned to the diaper service in a very different condition. I’ve had this particular mesh bag for more than 40 years, which supports my wife’s theory that I never throw anything away. Well, I put a bag of chum in the bag, and toss the whole thing into the ocean. The chum sinks and waves back and forth, creating a greasy, fishy slick on the surface of the water. I like to think the bunker chum attracts the shark; you can’t rely on the original residue from the diapers.
As the boat drifts and the slick spreads, the next step is to prepare your indicator rod. I use an ordinary level-wind reel on a sturdy boat rod with about a two-foot-long piece of stiff, stainless steel wire tied to the end of the line. I cut the head off a full frozen bunker; I can also get these at the tackle shop in case I can’t snag a fresh one. I poke the hookless wire through the eyes of the bunker, twist the wire a few times to prevent the head from sliding off, and toss it into the slick about 30 feet from the boat. Put the click on the bait-casting reel, and place the rod in the holder. Next, prepare your fly rod. Tie on your fly, strip some line onto the boat deck, and lean the rod in the ready position. Now you wait. . . .
It could happen in 5 minutes or 50 minutes—your indicator rod will bend, line will click off, and you’re in business. If you are fishing alone, you will have to pull the bait away from the shark and tease him to the boat, flip away the bunker head, and then quickly cast your fly; of course, this routine is easier with two people. There’s a knack to each job. You can’t let the shark chew the teaser head forever, and you must retrieve it at a steady pace so the shark stays in pursuit. Just as he wonders where the bait went, cast your fly right at his nose. The shark might immediately inhale the fly or swim around it like a trout following a dry fly he isn’t sure is real. Be patient and keep casting and splatting the fly in front of the cruising shark, and he’ll eventually strike.
The Fight Is On!
Once he eats your fly, reel in fast to prevent the slack line from fouling the around your wrist or reel. The shark will blast off when he feels the point of the hook, so be ready.
Fighting a shark is fun. He probably won’t jump, but it won’t be boring. Once he tires next to the boat, a barbless hook will allow you to quickly release him—if you are careful. I have a long-handled hook remover, so I can reach down and take the hook out of the shark’s mouth. Four out of five sharks are easy to unhook; I won’t tell you about the fifth one.
I use two patterns, and have a rod prepared with each fly in case the shark is picky. My favorite pattern is the Chunk Head, which matches the bunker head I used to tease in the shark. The other fly is a strip of bloody-colored crosscut rabbit fur wrapped around a large stainless steel hook. This simple fly matches the drifting pieces of bunker that escape from the chum bag.
You’re probably not accustomed to this type of fishing, but it’s an option for when times are slow. Sharks are actually formidable fish to deceive with flies, and they give a great battle. Most are just the right size—around four feet long and weigh 30 to 40 pounds.
One last suggestion: If you hold one up for a picture, be sure you aren’t close to the beach. For some reason, this irritates the lifeguards.
Chuck Furimsky is the director of the International Fly Tying Symposium and the national string of winter fly fishing carnivals he calls The Fly Fishing Show. When he’s not organizing one of these events, he’s traveling the world in search of good fishing.