March 22, 2012
Blood-and-guts fly fishing for sharks on the Gulf.
Sooner or later, we all think about it. I mean cranking a fly reel drag down and seeing how hard we can pull. Friend and reel-maker Ted Juracsik did it 30 years ago when he trolled a cedar plug on a fly outfit for tunas. Call me crazy, but some anglers may be happy to know that the spirit lives on.
You can almost hear "that sound-track" as a hefty hammerhead closes in on Brian Saners' streamer.
For fly fishermen, the great offshore represents the final frontier. It's out here in the domain of tunas and billfish that we still find quarry too tough to boat with regulation fly gear. Sharks—at least the large oceanic varieties—are prime examples. Although inshore fly fishermen have managed to land some pretty impressive specimens, some sharks of the open sea continue to elude capture. This, for a masochistic few, makes deepwater shark fishing with its attendant physical torture, worth the effort.
Chasing sharks with fly gear has always been considered an iffy proposition. The big ones suffer from limited vision and aren't likely to pursue a castable fly. Then there's the all-too-frequent problem of cutoffs, normally not the result of angler error but usually because of the shark's abrasive skin. Stated simply, you can do everything right and still lose the fish of a lifetime. That brings the audience rating for offshore shark fishing down near absolute zero.
Nevertheless, captains Andy Novak and Brian Sanders are an irascible lot. Like me, they have few compunctions about throwing a fish or two in the box. They know how to locate the action and they're aggressive about pursuing it. The latter, I should add, is an indispensable commodity whenever you go after any big fish. If after reading this account, you decide to run with the torch, Andy and Brian represent the kind of cockpit help you'll definitely want around.
When Andy invited me to Chokoloskee Island, having fished this sleepy Ten Thousand Island outpost before, I had a good idea of what to expect. This time I was way off base.
“There have been some big sharks offshore. Last week Brian and I teased up a bunch of bulls. We even saw three or four tigers.”
“We'll catch a few cudas for chum. Last year we released a couple big bulls and blacktips on fly. You can do it easy.”
Chum fishing. Ho-hum.
I asked Andy if he thought I could get a 200-pounder to strike a fly that was legitimately cast and retrieved.
“Sure. Just tie up some big orange Deceivers for the blacktips and if you have any billfish flies, bring them along,” he advised.
I also remember hearing something about tides and sinking lines. Whatever it was, I immediately forgot. What did occur to me, however, was possibly the craziest idea of my flyfishing career. If I was going to fish for monsters, I decided to rig an outfit that took the guesswork out of chasing big game. Or so I thought.
First, I'd call Scott Carrol at Scientific Anglers and get him to run some tensile strength tests on their new tarpon lines. Then I'd fill my reels with heavy backing. I'm talking about 130-pound test gelspun stuff. And rather than tying up a class tippet, I'd add a 5-foot butt section of 125-pound mono with a double surgeon's knot. That would be the tippet. Then I'd attach fly and tippet to a piece of No. 9 leader wire and throw in a bottle of ibuprofen for good measure.
Not your run-of-the-mill fly fishing outfit, huh?
But it sounded like great fun. Besides, there'd be no room for excuses. If I could get a shark to bite, it would definitely be him or me. I had my doubts about the system but in the end, decided to give it a try.
When the big day finally came, it turned out to be one of those mid-August scorchers. By the time we left Chokoloskee Island Park, the temperature was already hovering in the high 80s. Racing along in Brian's 22-foot boat created a breeze but after a half-hour run offshore, we slowed to idle speed. I didn't know it yet but the day would heat up in more ways than one. From the way he and Andy were huddled over the GPS, I suspected they'd located one of those fabulous Gulf Coast wrecks.
“Get your little rod and help us catch bait,” Brian said.
A fly with bulk, like this deerhair diver is a meat-and-potatoes shark fly.
By that, they meant I should cast a “regular” streamer on my “little” 9-weight rig in order to help fill the livewell. Meanwhile, both captains intended to use spinning outfits and bucktail jigs to tap into what appeared to be an inexhaustible school of one-pound jacks. I followed their instructions but was rebuffed. It's only then that I recalled Andy's words about bringing along a sinking line.
By the time it was over, we managed to catch several dozen jacks and two Spanish mackerel. The mackerel, incidentally, didn't care a lick about how fast the fly sank. A big one hit and burnt my stripping finger just about the time Brian and Andy finished squaring away the boat. Within minutes, I was back in position and braced for another high-speed run.
It didn't take long to reach wreck number two. By the time we slowed, I could already see fish on the surface. Once again, they were mostly jacks, only this time much larger. I quickly managed to tie a foam popper to my makeshift leader and get one in the boat before things took a serious turn. Within a few minutes, however, we were ready to embark on the mirthless business of teasing barracudas for chum.
If you intend to catch sharks offshore with any consistency, chumming is de rigueur. And it so happens that hereabouts, 'cudas make excellent chum. Following this premise, Brian and Andy have worked out a system of teasing cudas with live jacks fished on heavy conventional gear where their customers get in on the act. Whenever a cuda strikes the jack, it immediately cuts it in half. That's when whoever's working the teaser rod jerks the remaining half into the boat while the sport immediatel
y slaps a “head fly” in its place. Today, that sport was me.
As we came to rest at anchor, I was able to completely survey my surroundings. From what I could see, barracudas were everywhere. Andy grabbed the teasing rod first but the cudas within casting range weren't in a cooperative mood. Although I eventually got my chance, after missing two shots and failing to hook a huge grouper that rose from the wreck, I was summarily sent to the foredeck and told to reflect on my sins.
Brian took over. By using a combination of live bait and a rubber tube lure, he quickly managed to land several 20-pounders. I hoped we were finally in business. As it turned out, no sooner had Andy hung two butterflied cuda carcasses from a cleat than the action shifted gears.
I was the first to see it. Back a hundred yards in the slick, a dorsal and tail fin cleaved the surface while a large shark began homing in on the scent. The shark was coming fast. I'd seen his kind before, yet never while holding a fly rod in my hands.
The shark was coming fast. I'd seen his kind before, but not with a flyrod in my hands.
“Big hammerhead,” Andy proclaimed excitedly. “That fish looks 10 feet long.”
I knew he was right. At the same time, I was anxious to capture the action on film. Hammerheads are especially powerful, fast-moving sharks that take advantage of an incredibly sensitive homing mechanism to locate their prey. Whether this one would strike was problematical.
When I made the decision to dive for my camera, Brian was happy to grab a fly rod. I knew he understood the drill, so we'd find out one way or the other whether it was possible to hook, let alone hold such a monster. By the time he was able to make a back cast, the hammerhead was within range. What followed was a series of perfect deliveries that kept the fly continually in its path.
Compared to the big hammerhead, the oversized Deceiver looked like a misplaced orange crumb. The shark ignored it several times but finally inhaled it a mere 20 feet from the boat. The strike precipitated a merry romp that practically ripped rod and reel from Brian's sweaty hands. He worked the heavy tackle to his advantage. Unfortunately, after running 50 yards, the shark straightened out the 4/0 hook, leaving him to reel back the fly line empty-handed. At this point, everybody wanted to shoot the messenger.
A butterflied barracuda is a predator magnet.
I'd just about managed to explain my way out of trouble when the shark appeared once again in the slick, this time madder than ever. So much so that at one point Andy had to literally yank the carcasses from its snapping jaws. I fixed the fly situation as quickly as I could and eventually, the shark made the same mistake twice.
This time however, we were able to break anchor and follow in its wake.
To his credit, Brian handled the monster admirably. However, after a half-mile pursuit, the hook actually broke, forcing him to reel back several hundred yards of fly line and backing. I knew he could have caught that fish legitimately. That made the loss even more disappointing, although we had managed to learn more about putting the proverbial hammer down with heavy fly gear.
Although he later managed to land two nice permit, Brian remained inconsolable. So much so that during an afternoon thunderstorm when the water was too dark for sight fishing, he impaled a half mackerel on his fly and fed it back in the slick. I know what you're thinking. Nevertheless, let he who's never been tainted cast the first unseasoned fly.
They say that the sun also shines on the unrighteous. Maybe that's why Brian no sooner set down his rod than it bent in a mighty arc. Once again, he joined the fray. But this time, it was amidst a stream of guffaws that the Good Captain hauled his ill-begotten prize to the surface. The shark turned out to be a nurse and a good one, too. Let it suffice to say that it took more time getting this fellow off the hook than onto it.
Later that afternoon, we anchored over another wreck and hung the last carcass over the side. This time I was the designated hitter. But just to make sure nobody accused me of any improprieties, I tied on a double-hooked billfish fly that I could really cast.
For some reason, schools of permit kept racing up to the fly in order to get a better look. I knew they wouldn't eat. Still, to reinforce the original catechism, Andy reminded me that this wasn't what we came for. After 20 minutes of nervous waiting, a nice blacktip finally entered the slick. I cast as quickly as I could and only had to strip the fly once before he gobbled it on the run. Mr. Blacktip went nuts, but after some spirited side-stepping, I managed to get line and backing off the anchor rope and back on the reel before ultimately being able to wrench my victim to the boat.
Pretty cool, I thought. But this time, I was huffing like a sprinter. In addition to my own discomfort, we'd all managed to pick up a few dings and bruises during the day. But like the man said, that's what we came for. On the way back to the dock, I popped open the ibuprofen bottle and started thinking about dinner.
If you're looking for a statement, you won't find it here. When someone later told me that the IGFA was considering adding an extra-heavy tippet class, I balked. After all, what we did that day was simply an expression of frivolity.
I mean the same kind of wide-eyed curiosity that gets anglers fly fishing in the first place.
We'd enjoyed some exciting action. And on a day when Brian and Andy insisted there weren't many sharks.
The real highlight, however, came from realizing we didn't have to conform to any guidelines in order to have a good time. Both anglers and sharks came away in better shape, so you might say we showed a little class. But as any seriously indoctrinated fly fisherman will admit, this fly fishing was definitely in a class all its own.