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Mako Madness

SAN DIEGO — When Conway Bowman decided it was time to switch from fly-fishing for largemouth bass to fly-fishing for sharks, makos were his primary target.

At the start, it was easier said than done. Rather than a mako, the first shark that Bowman ever caught on a fly rod was a 100-pound blue, one of the two-dozen blues that had been attracted to Bowman's chum line on a warm summer day in 1993.

"It was flat calm and I took my 16-foot aluminum v-hull about 15 miles offshore. Once I found a good tide line I set up a chum slick and within about two hours I was surrounded by blue sharks in the 50- to 150-pound range," said Bowman, 43. "At that point I said to myself 'Wow, these are some pretty serious fish, and I've only got an 8-weight outfit.' "

Even if the rig was a bit light for sharks, even if the California angler didn't anticipate the brute strength of a 6-foot-long shark, the business end of his rig had all the right stuff, including a homemade streamer fly and a steel leader.

Bowman cast ahead of a fish that was zigzagging through the oily chum, and it ate the streamer. The fight was on, and by the time Bowman got the fish to the boat two hours later, he was hooked just as solidly as the shark had been.

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"I didn't try to horse it and the blue took a lot longer than it might have otherwise, but I wanted to catch a shark, any shark, on a fly outfit, no matter how long it took," Bowman said.

That psychological impediment out of the way, Bowman went looking for the real source of his fascination, the mako sharks that were said to be stacked up in the inky Pacific offshore San Diego.

His wasn't a simple quest. Unbeknownst to Bowman at the time, he was overshooting his mark, thinking that shortfin makos stayed a lot farther offshore his hometown than they actually do.

It's understandable; the acrobatic makos are regarded as a deepwater species that shares the water with marlin and sailfish. Small wonder that, for two years after catching that first blue shark, Bowman ran by most of the makos as he made his way offshore.

"In my defense, I was still trying to figure things out about makos," said Bowman, the wetlands manager for the City of San Diego Water Department. "Based on what I thought I knew about them, I kept fishing way too far out. Gradually, though, after speaking with commercial fishermen and sports anglers, I got things sorted out."

That's an understatement. In 1995 Bowman hit the mako jackpot. Fishing anywhere from within the sound of waves washing the beaches at Mission Bay, to offshore about 8 miles, Bowman started catching the graceful sharks virtually everywhere he stopped in between.

Some days he averaged 10 hookups; his best trip came a couple of years ago when Bowman and a friend hooked 21 makos and managed to get 13 of them to the boat for release.

"It took me awhile to put together all the pieces and find the right tide, the right water temperature, the right moon phase and those sorts of things," Bowman said. "Makos are drawn to upwellings of the California Current where the entire food chain from phytoplankton on up is activated.

"There's a big push of makos starting in late May and then stay around into October. They spawn and then they go offshore somewhere. We don't know for sure how far out they go, maybe 100 miles or so, but they always show up again the following spring."

When he first targeted makos, Bowman had the fishery to himself. He started his own guide service (www.bowmanbluewater.com) and became THE shark fly-fishing guru. Since Year One, his boat has averaged about 100 makos annually, or about 1,500 overall. That doesn't include all the blue sharks and hammerheads Bowman and friends have caught and released, nor the 150-pound juvenile great white shark that Jeff Patterson of Abel Fly Reels subdued while fishing with Bowman in late July.

To their knowledge, it was the first white shark ever caught on fly tackle. Indeed, there is no fly-tackle record for white sharks in the International Game Fish Association's records book. Patterson's fish won't be the first, either. Since 1994 it's been illegal to fish for white sharks off California (now they're protected everywhere). Bowman took photos of the accidental catch and then released it.

Because it was 25 feet behind the boat when it popped up to chomp Patterson's streamer, the anglers assumed the shark was a mako. Up close, it's difficult to confuse a 6-foot-long juvenile white shark for a mako, however. Where the white's back is a dull grey, the shortfin's primary color might range from deep periwinkle to pale blue fading to the white of its underparts. The mako's eyes are black, like a white's, but at maturity its snout is more streamlined than the latter's blocky head.

The teeth tell the story about how sharks make their living. A mako's teeth are cylindrical and sharply pointed, meant for grabbing fast-moving prey such as mackerel, bonita, tuna, yellowtails and the like that it chases down.
Makos can top 30 miles per hour; some have been clocked at more than 40 mph. Whites, on the other hand, have the triangular, serrated teeth of a fish that isn't so particular about whether its prey is dead or alive — the teeth are made for taking big chunks out of flesh.

The largest mako that Bowman ever caught weighed an estimated 350 pounds, and the circumstances that surrounded the catch were typical.

Bowman was fishing an area known as The Trench just a few hundred yards off the beach. The mako ran through the slick so quickly that at first Bowman thought it was a sea lion chasing a baitfish. Once he realized it was an unusually large mako, he made a 40-foot cast with a big popper.

One long gurgling strip of the popper was all it took to produce an explosive take. The mako ran straight for Bowman's boat and it was all he could do to take up the slack and attempt to set the hook.

Luckily for Bowman, the mako zipped past the stern and was solidly hooked by the time it began a series of frantic tailwalks about 10 feet away from where the angler stood. After going airborne, the mako sounded and within a few seconds was 200 feet from the boat. It then somersaulted out of the water, dove again and headed for Asia. Bowman had to start an engine and idle toward the shark to regain line. An hour passed before the fisherman was able to get the big mako close enough to unhook.

It's the mako's propensity to jump several times during a fight, often as high as 20 feet or so, which endears it to anglers such as Bowman. As a rule, the fish make searing runs punctuated by spectacular cartwheeling leaps. However, there's nothing predictable about their behavior when they first appear behind the stern of a fishing boat.

"Makos are moody. Sometimes one will be very tentative and casually swim around as it tries to find the source of the slick [which usually is a couple of small tuna in a perforated bucket tied off the stern]. Other makos come charging in as fast as they can swim, right up the middle of the chum line," Bowman said. "They don't slow down until they get to the boat, and then they start biting on stuff. These don't need a lot of encouragement to take the streamer."

Bowman favors a heavy tube fly of his own concoction that he dubbed "The Mako Bomb." A buddy, Robert Dieble, hand-pours a resin head that, with the bright-orange-and-red tube body, slides up the leader when a shark is hooked. A 14-weight outfit is required to cast the fly, whose hook is attached to a length of Mason 68-pound-test steel leader with a haywire twist. The other end of the 3-foot leader is haywired to a short length of 25-pound-test tippet.

In between the tippet and the floating fly line is a length of 50-pound-test Mason Hard monofilament. The 8-foot, 4-inch rod that Bowman uses is matched to a large-arbor, direct-drive reel with a premium drag. Six hundred yards of gel-spun backing go on first, followed by 100 yards of 30-pound-test high-visibility Dacron. Then comes the fly line, connected on either end by a loop-to-loop system.

Bowman mostly sight-casts to fish that are in the chum slick behind his drifting 24-foot bay boat, rather than simply blind-casting and stripping the fly back. For one thing, it saves energy; more importantly, when he sees the shark take the lure it enables him to set the hook in the corner of the mako's mouth. Bowman uses a 4-foot-long release stick to retrieve the fly, and most of the time he gets it back intact.

Occasionally while he's travelling back and forth to his fishing grounds, Bowman might spot a free-swimming shark that's cruising the surface in search of food, and cast to it or have his customer cast to it. To him, the ultimate challenge is to get a mako that hasn't been lured close by a chum slick to take the fly.

"There are about a dozen or so of us regulars fly-fishing for them off San Diego now, and we're blessed that there are so many makos in our local waters from spring through fall. On a good day, you're going to get a half dozen shots or so. I don't think there's anywhere else in the world where you've got a better chance at makos. It's fantastic."