Mako shark on fly - are you crazy?
Steve Hambleton and I have been fly-fishing mako and blue whaler sharks for the last eight years. In those early years we lost quite a few sharks while attempting to make an Australian salt-water fly-fishing record on 10 kg line class.
The Game Fishing Association of Australia, (GFAA) rules for salt-water fly-fishing are very different to the GFAA rules for conventional tackle. The biggest difference is the maximum length of wire leader used. The rules for fly-fishing state that a maximum shock tippet (wire trace in this instance) in line classes up to 10 kg be 30.48 cm measured from the eye of the hook to the single strand of the class tippet and is to include any knots used to connect the shock tippet to the class tippet. This very short wire shock tippet only protects the class tippet from the shark's teeth. The remaining class tippet is very vulnerable; being so close to the sharks rough skin and fins. The shark need only roll or hit the line under tension with it's hard fins and the class tippet will break like cotton.
In recent years, a new 15 kg line class for sharks and billfish only, has been added to the International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) fly-fishing rules. This new line class also allows a one metre shock tippet to be used, greatly improving your chances on big sharks.
One memorable trip was out of Devonport in March last year. From the Devonport boat ramp, we launched Steve's six metre centre console and headed out into Bass Strait. The sea was quite calm with a light northeasterly blowing. We planed out to the 50 metre mark on the sounder, where there had been plenty of big arrow squid. As we neared our destination, Steve threw out the frozen berley bucket secured to the boat with a wire rope. I backed off the motor to a slow trolling speed. We started a motorized berley trail to cover a wider area. Barely 10 minutes had passed when Steve yelled, "He's here". "You're joking aren't you", I replied, as I pulled the boat out of gear to see for myself and sure enough there was a mako of around 30 or 40 kilo's hard on the berley bucket. "Quick Craig, get your rod ready". Steve didn't have to ask me twice, as I hastily put together the 13 weight fly rod and rigged up a 15 kg IGFA leader and fly. This mako looked fired up, so I hastily put out a cast. He glided over to inspect the fly as it sank motionless, only to shy off at the last moment. I put out another cast, but the fly was refused yet again. With a few more presentations to try, I made another cast in front of the mako, but this time I allowed the fly to sink further. The mako still didn't seem interested until the fly was almost out of sight. He suddenly left the berley bucket and swam down to the sinking fly. I felt the line tighten up as the mako grabbed hold of the fly. I set the hook with two or three strip strikes until he realised something wasn't quite right, exploding into action with a blistering run, followed by an aerial display as the shark left the water. By now Steve had the boat in full pursuit, allowing me to maintain a short line, keeping the class tippet away from the shark's body as best I could. Steve constantly maneuvered the boat to gain the best angle as I locked up the reel with my line hand to apply as much pressure as I dared on 15 kg class tippet. After thirty minutes we had the mako just out of reach, slogging it out, not willing to lift its head. Another 10 minutes and a few more tense winds of the reel had the mako along side the boat, ready to be gaffed.
We would normally start to target mako's and blue whalers in Bass Strait and the waters off the east coast from December through to May. Makos are fish eaters and are often found in the same areas as tuna, couta or squid.
Fly-fishing for sharks normally requires the use of berley. A good berley trail will attract sharks to the boat, bringing them within casting range. We have raised shark to the boat within 10 minutes, but on other occasions it has taken up to 7 hours. To make the most of your time on the water have plenty of berley available and plan for a full days fishing. . When sharks eventually find the source of the berley, they will normally swim right along side the boat with their fin out of the water and test out the outboard leg for edibility with a gentle bite. All this makes for a very visual and exciting close encounter with one of these magnificent creatures.
With the shark preoccupied with the berley bucket, there is plenty of time to assess its size and make a decision on what line class to use. It pays to have a few flies already rigged to different class tippets for a quick loop-to-loop connection to your leader's butt section. Trying to tie up new leaders in rough conditions can have you coughing up your own berley trail if you're not careful.
Cast your fly to intercept the path and depth of the shark. A set of polarized sunglasses will help to gauge the shark's response to your fly. Quite often they will shy off at the last minute leaving your fly sliding down the length of the shark's body. This is the time when you can unintentionally fowl hook a shark if you can't see where your fly is. Persistence with the fly will sometimes work, but if you still have no response, then a big teaser bait such as a full tuna or couta thrown out on a rope will often liven things up a bit. Allow the shark to bite into the teaser bait, and then pull it away, shaking the shark off the teaser at the side of the boat if necessary. Immediately cast the fly in after this and allow it to sink naturally as though a piece of the teaser bait has fallen off. Continue to feed out line until the fly is out of sight before retrieving the fly for another cast. More often than not, the shark will swim down to take your fly. Once the shark has taken your fly, quickly check the fly line has not caught up on the boat or around your feet, then strip in line hard to set the hook and keep setting the hook with the rod low until the shark realizes it's hooked and takes off. As the stripped line leaves the deck and shoots up into the rod guides, try to guide the line to the rod with your line hand shaking out any tangled loops that may have formed. Now that the shark is taking line from the reel under a set drag, be ready for the shark to jump. A jump can normally be anticipated after a suddenly burst of speed. This is a good time to have your hand away from the reel and point the rod to the fish and lean forward with the rod as the shark leaves the water, taking some pressure off the class tippet. The boat can be used to speed up line recovery and gain control of the fight. When the fly line is back on the reel, maximum pressure can be applied by locking up the reel with your hand on the spool and initiating side strain, if the angle of line permits. If the shark starts to go for another run, simply remove your hand allowing the preset drag on the reel to take over. To lift a shark that is well down, use very short strokes of the rod with the rod tip in the water, taking advantage of the strong butt section in the rod. By using the boat and applying maximum pressure, it's possible to shorten a potentially long fight.
If you want to release the shark, you can simply cut the wire shock tippet. Otherwise a fixed gaff can be used for line classes 10 kg and lower, and a flying gaff for the 15kg line class. Gaffing a shark can be a very dangerous time for the inexperienced, especially if the shark has not been properly played out on the rod. Bringing onboard a live shark of considerable size is not recommended. A once calm looking shark at the side of the boat can quickly come back to life, when removed from the water, destroying the interior of the boat, or worse still, injuring anyone who gets too close.
If chasing records is not your thing, and you just want the thrill of catching a shark on fly, then you can lengthen the wire trace to outside the IGFA rules, protecting the line from any part of the shark's body, increasing your chances of landing a mako or blue whaler on fly.
Fly Rods: - Six to nine foot long rods; from 10 to 16 weights are commonly used for sharks.
Reels: - Fly reels are probably the most important aspect of fly-fishing for sharks. They need to hold up to 450 metres of backing and have a good quality disc drag. I prefer to use a direct drive reel that has a palming spool. This allows me to lock up on a shark by applying pressure to the spool with my line hand. Every time you turn the handle on a direct drive fly reel you will gain line regardless of the set drag. Whereas the anti reverse type reel, will only allow you to gain line when the pressure on the reel is below the drag setting. In the end choosing a direct drive or anti reverse reel comes down to your personal choice, both types of reels will do the job. Fly reel manufacturers such as Ross Reels, Tibor, Abels and Penn, to name a few, are all proven big game fly reels.
Lines: - To achieve the maximum capacity of backing on the reel, braid is recommended. I use 300 metres of 30 pound braid, then 150 metres of 50 pound braid followed by the fly line. For all joins in the braid I use a triple surgeons bimini twist to form a loop. This provides a strong loop-to-loop connection between the 30 and 50 pound braid and the fly line. Fly lines are normally of the sinking variety in a shooting head or a weight forward line. 50 pound braided monofilament loops are whipped at each end of the fly line and coated with Aquaseal.
Leader: - The leader is made up of a butt section, class section of your choice and a wire shock tippet. I use 80 pound line for the butt section and 80 pound multi-strand nylon coated wire for the shock tippet. Instead of tying a bulky loop in the 80 pound butt section to join the fly line, a 50 pound monofilament braided loop can be whipped onto the butt section in the same way as it was on the fly line. This allows the butt section of the leader to be wound through the rod tip, enabling you to bring the shark closer to the boat, ready for the gaff shot. A surgeon's loop can be tied into the other end of the butt section to join the triple surgeons bimini loop in the class tippet. A uni-knot can be used to connect the class tippet to a swivel attached to the wire shock tippet .
We used to use single strand wire, in the belief that sharks would shy off the multi strand wire. After loosing a couple of sharks to the single strand wire, we changed to nylon coated multi strand wire. Sharks have no trouble taking a fly on multi strand wire, once you have them in the right frame of mind.
Flies: - Flies tied on 6/0 hooks and greater are crimped straight to the wire shock tippet. . Big flashy profile flies tied on tandem hooks have been successful in the past.
For the first couple of years we did it the hard way, leaning over the back of the boat pounding the berley bucket while getting covered with berley. Then we began to use an industrial mincer to mince up fish frames to freeze in bins. When they were ready to be used, the frozen bins were thawed out so the berley could be dispersed with a soup ladled. This was still very messy and labor intensive.
In the end we froze our minced fish in 20 litre plastic buckets and drums, drilled a series of 40mm holes and used this as a berley bucket, tied off at the back of the boat on a 3 metre wire rope. This would thaw out in the water, distributing a constant, mess free, berley trail and leave everyone free to do a spot of bottom bouncing, catch some squid or have a snooze. Another advantage of the frozen berley bucket is you can quickly lay out a motorized berley trail, for a couple of kilometres, before stopping for the usual drift at your chosen destination. A long berley trail has a better chance of intercepting a passing mako.
Tuna oil can also be included in the berley trail, either drip fed from a bottle or by tying off a rag in the water, soaked in tuna oil.
Overview of the GFAA fly fishing rules
- Minimum overall length of fly rod is 1.82 cm or 6 foot. Extension buts are limited to 15.24 cm or 6 inches.
- Reels must be designed expressly for fly-fishing. Fly reels have no restriction on gear ratio or the type of drag used.
- Any type of fly line and backing can be used.
- No more than 36.57 metres or 120 foot of line may be stripped off the reel, measured from the fly.
- Minimum length of class tippet is 38.10 cm or 15 inches measured inside the connecting knots.
- A shock tippet must not exceed 30.48 cm or 12 inches. Measured from the eye of the hook to the single strand of the class tippet including the knots used to connect the shock tippet to the class tippet.
- For the 15 kg tippet category for billfish and shark only a 100 cm shock tippet length is allowed.
- A conventional fly may be dressed on a single or double hook or two single hooks in tandem. The second hook on a tandem fly must not exceed beyond the wing material. The eyes of the hooks shall be no more than 15.24 cm or 6 inches apart.
- Gaffs and nets used to boat or land a fish must not exceed 2.44 metres or 8 foot in overall length. This length limitation does not apply when fishing from a bridge, pier or other stationary structure.
- Shooting, harpooning or lancing any fish including sharks at any stage of the catch is prohibited.
- A rope or any extension cannot be attached to the gaff.
- The use of a flying gaff is not permitted, unless you are fishing the 15 kg line class reserved for billfish and sharks only.
- Trolling a lure behind a moving watercraft is not permitted.
- The craft must be completely out of gear both at the time the fly is presented and during the retrieve.
- Chumming with flesh, blood, skin or any part of mammals is prohibited.
For a complete list of the GFAA rules for fly-fishing. Refer to the official Australian Gamefishing Journal.
You must be a member of the Game Fishing Association of Australian (GFAA) to be eligible to claim a record. Membership can be gained by joining any game fishing club that is affiliated with the GFAA.