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October 19, 2011

San Diego Sharkin'

Blue sharks on fly help heat up the off season

Winter is typically when anglers clean up their gear, catch up on the newest techniques and technology, and start planning for the next big trip. During winter, the closest I come to any offshore game fish is when I reach past them in my freezer to get more ice for my next cocktail.

So when Capt. John Hendrickson of San Diego Fly Shop asked me if I’d be interested in going offshore to catch some big fish on fly, I jumped at the chance. Hendrickson admitted that, this time of year, most of the fish that come up in the slick are blue sharks, not the makos known for their power and stunning aerial maneuvers. But I had never caught any kind of shark on fly, so I said, “What the heck? What else is there to do in the middle of January?”

It was a beautiful morning in San Diego. A northerly breeze etched the cool blue waters along the crescent-shaped coastline. Pods of dolphin shimmered intermittently upon the endless watery plane; the all-too-comfortable and clever seals performed their morning vocal exercises; and whales spouted in the distance.

Sharky Water
Finding sharks is not much different than searching for other big game fish. Using topographical maps of the sea bottom is a good place to start. Underwater structures, such as canyon ridges with steep drops and high points, cause current breaks and upwellings. These conditions hold baitfish and, in turn, attract other larger species, and areas with these features offer promising places to drift in search of fish.

Hendrickson explained that you want to aim your drift at a particular point to intersect suspected hot spots. Birds and baitballs are usually signs that you are in the right area. Determine which direction you will be moving once the motor is killed, based on wind and current conditions. The size of your boat and the strength of the wind and current will dictate the speed. “Bigger boats have more sail than smaller boats, so they move faster, which will allow you to cover more ground,” said Hendrickson. “The more ground you cover, the better you are going to do.” Using a chart plotter, or even a simple GPS tracking device, is a good way to monitor the progress of your drift.

Hendrickson decided that the top of the Nine Mile Bank would be a good place to start our drift. We were expecting the wind to shift to a more easterly direction by 11, and we hoped that Mother Nature would cooperate and graciously nudge the 25-foot Parker along our intended path, so we set the chum over the side and waited while the current spread a broad slick in front of us. We soaked chum for about 35 minutes, then it happened.

“Game on,” said Hendrickson quietly from his perch on the transom, where he stood watching. I turned and looked out over the slick at an endless expanse of silver-speckled blue water divided by an oily highway trailing off into the distance. Then I got a glimpse of what Hendrickson had seen: Carving up the chum line like a windsurfer on a blustery day came the dorsal fin of a curious blue shark, a 6-footer.

The Big Tease
Sharks have personalities, and each one approaches differently. “Sometimes they’ll come in fast, looking for any food that falls in the water so that they can get a meal,” said Hendrickson. “You know they are ready to eat. Other times, they’ll come in super slow, checking things out.” That is what the teaser is for, he explained. He picked up a bait-casting rod rigged with a hookless dead mackerel and sailed it toward the shark. The scent of the mackerel and the flash in the morning sunlight soon had this blue licking its chops.

Sitting comfortably at the top of the food chain, sharks rarely spook, giving you ample time to prepare for the encounter. Upon first seeing the fish, you can take your time, size it up and choose your weapon. I picked up a 12-weight and made my way to the bow.
When you are ready to execute the bait-and-switch, it is best to cast the teaser so the shark attacks it at a 45-degree angle, moving away from the boat. That angle makes it easy to set the hook firmly in the corner of the shark’s mouth instead of risking yanking it away in an attempt to set it.

Hendrickson tossed the teaser about 30 feet from the boat and instructed me to cast as close to it as I could as soon as the shark locked in on it. The shark beelined toward the teaser, and I dropped the fly alongside it. Hendrickson pulled it from the water, and bam! Smackola. The shark surfaced and chowed down the fly. It’s just that simple.

A couple of firm strip strikes set the hook, and the shark started thrashing the surface into a very uninviting whirlpool. Then it was gone, peeling off 200 feet of line in seconds. I held on, hoping the shark wouldn’t roll on the line. Then after a few minutes, I felt it slowing, so I start pulling.