Sharks are big, bad, and a blast to catch on a fly rod. Hooking one doesn’t require a lot of complicated casting technique; sharks will be right at your feet chewing on the side of the boat!
[Article & Photography by Pat Ford]
EVERYONE WHO FISHES THE FLATS RUNS INTO DAYS WHEN THE WIND IS UP, the visibility down, and the gamefish are scarce. You have a lot of those days in February and March in South Florida, but this can happen almost anytime of the year. Bad fishing conditions are no reason to cancel a trip. You can always play with sharks, and they are spectacular critters on a fly rod. Sharks—and shark-fishing guides—are available along the entire eastern seaboard up to Maine, and there are also opportunities to fish for sharks on the West Coast.
Almost every Keys guide raves about Florida’s shark fishery. Each has his own “special” hot spots and fly patterns, but wherever there are flats, there will be sharks.
I’ve been chasing Florida’s sharks with a fly rod since the 1970s. The most common species are lemon and blacktip sharks, but you can always run into bull, tiger, and even an occasional hammerhead shark. A hammerhead shark can range from 40 to 400 pounds.
Pound for pound, the most exciting fighter is a blacktip shark. A 100-pound blacktip will tear you up on a 12-weight rod, and if you’re hunting for a really big boy— a blacktip weighing more than 200 pounds—you should break out a 14-weight outfit. The good news is that you will probably need only one fly pattern that is big, bushy, and the color of an orange lifejacket. Don’t go shark fishing without a few of these gaudy flies tucked in your tackle bag.
I was fishing out of Guy Harvey’s newly renovated Bimini Big Game Club one February morning last winter. We were looking for permit, but unfortunately those fish were AWOL. We went to all the usual permit hangouts and saw nothing but barracudas and sharks. I couldn’t stand the lack of activity, so after several hours I decided to change tactics. Neither my fishing partner, Capt. Skipper Gentry, nor our guide, Capt. Fred “Eagle Eyes” Rolle, had ever fished for sharks with fly rods, but they were willing to give it a try.
Successful shark fishing requires some sort of chum, and my boatmates looked skeptical when I suggested we catch a couple of ’cudas and use those to attract sharks. It really doesn’t matter what you use as chum, but barracuda and ladyfish are high on the list. It took only a few minutes to tie a shiny surface plug on a spinning rod and catch a few smallish barracudas. We butterfly filleted the barracudas to make chum, attached it to a sturdy rope, and hung our shark attractant off the bow.
The idea is to set up as long a drift as possible, preferably over a flat that has access to deep water. It’s ideal if the wind is going against the tide because you want the scent of the chum to spread as far and as fast as possible. Then you wait. If a shark crosses the scent line, it will zero right in on the boat. Sometimes a shark meanders in and other times it will charge right up to the boat and tear the chum off the rope if you don’t get it out of the water fast enough. Those rabid charges will get your adrenaline going. It’s amazing how fast a lit-up shark can move, and they have absolutely no fear of a boat.
Okay, the chum has done its work; now it is your turn: You have to get a shark that is following its nose to eat a pile of feathers. If it’s lit up and excited, all you have to do is show him the fly and he’ll grab it. For some reason, a shark seems to see orange better than any other color; however, if the water is exceptionally clear, as in the Bahamas, you may have to try a chartreuse or red-and-white pattern. A pink or purple fly will also work, but always start off with orange.
If a shark is swimming toward you at a more reasonable speed, he’s going to need some coaxing to take your fly. Experienced angler R. T. Trosset, down in Key West, puts a thin slice of barracuda on a small hook with no steel leader and uses it as a teaser, just as they do for billfish offshore. The shark will come in on scent, see the teaser bait, and switch into visual mode. Trosset reels the teaser past the fl y and then jerks it out of the water on the theory that the shark will jump on the fly.
It’s amazing how a 100-pound-plus predator can turn down a fly if he gets a chance to smell it. Don’t expect him to just swim up and inhale your fly; he’s going to sniff it first, unless he thinks it’s getting away. The trick is to twitch the fly just enough to keep it away from the shark until he gets mad and decides to catch it.
If he rubs his nose on the fly, he’ll figure out it’s a trick. If he has to chase your fly just a bit, he will make it a matter of principle to grab it. It took a few toothy visitors before Skipper got the hang of enticing a bite, and by the end of the day, he’d landed several blacktips and tussled with three 100-pound sharks. At one point, a small hammerhead came into the chum, but it decided against a chicken-feather dinner. Shark fishing is a very visual and exciting experience, and catching one is not all that important. Just having fun with these incredible beasts can save an otherwise slow day.
To Tie and Retrieve a Shark Fly
Shark flies require a lot of material and big, extra-strength hooks. Capt Chris Dean, of Miami, probably ties more shark flies than anyone else on the planet. He uses six of the largest schlappen feathers he can find for the tail, and bulks up the neck with puffy material such as marabou.
Artist Tim Borski is an avid shark fisherman. He ties the fly on a light-wire hook. Tim then clips off the bend of the hook and attaches the fly to a bare size 5/0 hook using a short piece of wire. He feels that you get a better hook set with this rig.
A shark fly is a one fi sh item; even if the shark hasn’t shredded the fly, most anglers just cut the steel leader and start over with a fresh pattern. Conway Bowman guides anglers to mako sharks out of San Diego. Mako sharks are magnificent creatures. You catch them using the same methods we employ in Florida: chum them in, maybe tease them with a piece on fish belly, and switch to a fly. Conway has developed a massive de-hooking device that actually gives you a chance at getting the fly back from a mako shark, especially if the hook is barbless.
It doesn’t pay to spend too much time tying shark flies, because they are only one bite away from being gone. Make them as large as possible and don’t worry about the casting; a good shark will be at your feet, chewing on the dead ’cudas and maybe even the side of the boat.
A lawyer by training, a photographer by talent, and a fly fisherman by passion, Pat Ford travels the world in search of good fishing. Pat lives in Miami.