June 28, 2023
In the blush of a colorful southeastern Atlantic dawn, Capt. Patrick Smith stood on the casting deck of his Carolina Skiff runabout and gathered his wits for another toss of the cast net, ignoring the rumble of a delivery truck rolling by on the southeastern Florida causeway overhead.
As the owner of Swamp to Sea Adventures Guide Service in Palm Beach County, Fla., Smith is a fly fishing and light tackle guide in the inshore and canal waters near Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, places where species as diverse as largemouth bass, clown knifefish, jack crevalle, tarpon and snook all lurk.
“What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever caught on a fly rod?” he queried as he whirled and threw the cast net in a perfect arc, the umbrella collapsing on a key ingredient for the day’s adventure, just as the Garmin Panoptix Livescope showed the school of baitfish below in a mix of orange and yellow hues against the black screen.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I replied. “I caught a 29 ½ inch bull trout once in British Columbia. And back home in Texas, I’ve caught a few nice stripers, a couple of good redfish on the coast, and an 8.4-pound largemouth. So, I’d probably say 10 pounds or so.”
As a big tarpon appeared on the graph and turned on the baitfish, Smith grunted and started to pull the net upwards, the wheels turning in his head.
“Lynn, we’re going to beat that today, by a long shot,” he smiled. “Just wait and see.”
Piscatorial Promise Made
For some guides, such enthusiastic early morning prognostications are little more than a good-natured attempt to buoy the confidence of the angler on the casting platform. In all my years of fishing, I don’t think I’ve ever had a guide who didn’t predict success for the coming day.
But over the past several years, in an annual post-ICAST fishing trip that Jeff Phillips, my Outdoor Sportsman Group colleague, and yours truly have made with Smith, we’ve found that what the enthusiastic guide has promised, he has also delivered on.
Typically, the species that Phillips has sought with light spinning tackle and I’ve sought with an Orvis six-weight have been exotics in the expansive southeastern Florida canal system. Transplanted butterfly peacock bass—a species that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists stocked in the 1980s to try and control illegal aquarium species dumps—are some of the area’s most prized catches for fly anglers along with occasional visits at the end of the line from Oscars, Mayan cichlids and clown knifefish.
Our first two years fishing with Smith had produced plenty of memorable moments—a good number shared on Outdoor Channel Facebook Live streams—as we found the peacock bass fishing action as red hot as a steamy July day can be near Miami. On both trips, Phillips had managed to hook a clown knifefish on bait, although the species eluded my various fly patterns.
In fact, only deer hair fly-tying guru and author Pat Cohen, who fished the canal system a few years back after a class at the Ole Florida Fly Shop that Smith guides out of, has managed to catch a clown knifefish on the fly aboard the captain’s boat.
This day, however, Smith promised to show us a different side of the southeastern Florida fishery, especially since the peacock bite was off. Less than an hour later, we were powering through the rough waters of the Boynton Inlet, heading out onto the Atlantic for some saltwater fun.
Our time on the ocean was steady as a variety of species came to the boat in a smorgasbord of opportunity. Smith routinely targets highly regarded snook, tarpon, jack crevalle, kingfish, wahoo and even sailfish in the saltwater that he regularly prowls and any of those were potential targets. But they didn’t want to cooperate, leaving the action for a host of other species common in the western Atlantic.
But I didn’t care, because the highlight of the morning, for me at least, came when a 3+ pound remora—the suckerfish that often hitches a ride on sharks—took a Smith tied Clouser Minnow that I was casting about on the three-weight fly rod Smith had handed me. Yeah, a three-weight in the Atlantic.
Every once in a while, Smith would take a species that Phillips had pulled up from below in the 80-feet of water we were fishing in and would cryptically mumble, “Yeah, that’ll work.” And with that, the fish would go into the expansive YETI Cooler in front of the boat’s console.
After two or three hours of hit-or-miss action—and with an evening trip scheduled to toss flies at snook hovering in water lit by dock lights—Smith suggested that we head back through the inlet for the second part of our morning’s adventure.
“Lynn, are you ready to catch your biggest fish on the fly?” Smith laughed as he gunned the motor and headed for the shallow flats adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway near Boynton Beach. “Let’s go see if a few sharks will play the game on that 12-weight.”
A half-hour later, we were in position and I moved to the front casting deck with an Orvis Helios 3 12-weight, a big Nautilus large arbor fly reel spooled with a few hundred yards of backing, and a big gaudy red/orange fly of bucktail and feathers.
Like most shark fishing on the fly, the trap had been set for some bait and switch angling as Smith took some of the fish in his cooler and set a chum line that was soon spreading its oily slick downwind in the late morning breeze. While small barracuda are often the preferred chum line ingredient, we made do with what we had.
Not long after the slick had started to do its work, the first shadowy figure showed up, a decent-sized blacktip shark that swept by, hoping to find an easy meal. Within a few minutes, five or six blacktips were buzzing about in front of the boat as Smith worked a big teaser plug on a spinning rod and I cast the big fly about.
There was plenty of interest in the first half-hour, but no takers and my hopes were beginning to fade. Smith saw that, and promptly said to be patient because there were plenty of potential customers buzzing about.
A few moments later, he called my attention to a good-sized blacktip cruising in front of the boat, casting the big teaser plug in its direction, and ripping it back as the shark lunged in that direction. When the shark found the feathered chew toy I had cast in its direction, the topwater take was as explosive as a big largemouth hitting a deer hair popper might be on a lake back home in Texas.
“There it is!,” Phillips said, followed by Smith’s “We are off to the races!”
And with that, those two were reduced to playing roles of coach and interested bystander for the next half-hour as the reel’s drag sang the sweet music that saltwater fly anglers know. The line vanished in a couple of moments and the backing was soon following suit as I began to fight the reasonably sized shark intent on emptying the reel.
When I asked Smith what to do next, he smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“Pretty much just hang on, try to stay tight, and reel when you have a chance,” he said, then peering over and taking a look at the large arbor reel that was emptying very quickly. “Oh wow, you’re way into the backing on this one. But that’s pretty normal.”
And with that, the fight settled into a see-saw battle of determination, willpower, and aching muscles as the Florida sun beat down upon the scene.
Gear & Techniques for Fly Fishing for Sharks
To win such a saltwater battle, you’ll probably want a guide if you're not familiar with the gear and techniques necessary for a shark fly fishing adventure. Some guides don’t want to purposefully fish for sharks, but others like Smith are more than happy to spend a day chasing them, realizing that they offer great fly tackle opportunities, a diversion on inclement weather days, and a tremendous way to work on casting and fighting fish with a big fly rod.
And while sharks are increasingly pressured by a variety of ocean changes and human activities, they remain abundant for now with blacktips, spinner sharks, nurse sharks bonnetheads, sandbar sharks and lemon sharks prowling about. You might also encounter bigger bull sharks or hammerheads, but not too many of those are successfully landed on the fly.
While sight fishing without chumming is certainly possible, having a chum line spreading its scent on tidal currents is ideal because sharks are like bird dogs working quail on a cactus flat, easily lured in from long distances when they get a snootful of that oily invite. You can catch your own chum as our boat did, or simply buy a frozen chum block from area tackle and bait shops.
It's worth noting that while few fly fishers will purposefully target sharks from the shoreline or while wade fishing, it is illegal in Florida to chum in those instances. On a boat however, the practice is permitted and there’s little doubt that a chum slick is a highly effective means of finding them for the fly rod.
Those fly rods will need to be stout since you’ll need something more robust than what is typically used for trout, largemouth bass, or even most inshore redfish. When sharks are the target, opt for a 10, 11, or 12-weight fast-action nine-foot graphite rod with plenty of fish-fighting strength in the butt section.
A floating saltwater line and a short leader ending with a strong bite tippet section are also necessary. For the bite tippet, opinions vary, but frequent Florida Sportsman contributor John Kumiski says many fly anglers like coffee- or camo-colored No. 2 single-strand wire in the 27-pound test range. In Oliver White’s treatise on shark fishing a couple of years ago for our OSG sister publication Fly Fisherman, he opts for a “…6- or 7-foot leader with a 12- to 18-inch wire bite tippet,” the latter being single-strand piano wire to keep the shark from biting through the leader.
Smith’s setup was similar, with a 30-lb. mono leader (note that a shark’s hide is rough and can wear through a monofilament leader on lengthy fights) and a 12-inch section of No. 4 or No. 6 wire as a bite tippet.
In terms of flies, that’s pretty simple—if it floats, is a bushy mix of red and orange deer hair, schlappen and maybe a little flash, and has a strong big game saltwater 5/0 hook hidden underneath, it will likely get a shark’s attention. In the end, you’re simply trying to look like a meaty chunk of chum or a bloody baitfish, a salty hors d'oeuvre to a shark.
On that July day in Florida, my memories about the lengthy fish fight are a blur. As other sharks buzzed about our vessel, Stewart couldn’t resist a shot at a good blacktip only a short cast away, quickly hooking, fighting and landing the blacktip on spinning tackle as I struggled to regain fly line.
Finally, the blacktip I was battling tired and I was able to draw him near the boat. But on the windy shallow flat, Smith had Power Poled us down as the fight’s end drew near. In the final moments, the blacktip saw a window of opportunity, darted behind the boat, wrapped the fly line around one of the Power Poles, and despite my best efforts to keep it all from happening, total chaos ensued.
That included sharp cracking sounds as the tip section of Smith’s 12-weight Helios gave way. Somehow, the shark remained attached and moments later, the fight was over as Smith clutched his dehooking device and had the shark skiff side. The saltwater captain got a twinkle in his eye, and after assessing the situation and falling back on his lengthy guiding experience, he decided to bring the four-foot shark aboard briefly for a photo prior to the release.
Be forewarned, this can be dangerous and only someone experienced in shark fishing should even consider attempting to bring one of these apex predators onto the casting deck given their ability to twist, turn and bite with those surgically sharp teeth.
With Smith sternly coaching me, the 40-lb. or better blacktip was soon aboard and Phillips—who would fight and lose a bigger fly rod shark of his own a short while later—took a couple of quick photos of me with a broken 12-weight, a moderately sized blacktip shark, and a memory that gets revisited a lot.
Over a plate of shrimp and grits at a nearby restaurant later that day, I was drained from a day on the salt, but happy and smiling weakly as Phillips and my wife chatted about the morning. I was elsewhere, though, reliving Stewart’s promise made and promise kept with the biggest fly rod catch of my life.
And weary as I was, I couldn’t wait to go and do it all over again.