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August 18, 2010

Sight-Fish for SoCal Makos

Southern California's trophy mako sharks provide hot sight-fishing action...

After six hours of fruitless drifting and waiting, I broke the cardinal rule of sight-fishing for mako sharks. After much cajoling, I convinced our guide and trophy shark expert Capt. Steve Quinlan to let my 15-year-old son, Greg, bait the five-foot blue shark that had been circling our boat for the past 15 minutes.

"As soon as you mess around with that blue, the mako we want is going to show up," Quinlan warned. It seemed an empty threat given that we'd been chumming all afternoon, laying down a 10-mile slick that stretched out like a four-lane highway across the surface. The only visitors that came up the road were a couple of inquisitive blues, and in a moment of weakness, I told my son to go ahead and hook one up.

It took all of about one minute for Quinlan to be proven right. With all our attention focused on the hooked blue just 50 feet behind the boat, none of us noticed the 220-pound mako shark that blasted up our chum slick like a meat-seeking missile. As hard as something like that is to miss, we all caught it out of the corner of our eyes just before it tore into the hooked blue with a savage bite. In the ensuing fire drill - the wounded blue peeling line toward the horizon, the hungry mako looking for somebody, anybody else to bite, and four anglers stumbling around the cockpit - we certainly didn't deserve a shot at that shark.

Fortunately, the fishing gods smiled on us that day. I broke off the blue, Quinlan calmly baited another outfit, and the fight was soon on with a quality Southern California mako shark.

Land of Monsters
Southern California has a realistic claim to the world's best trophy mako fishery. Sharks of 150 to 400 pounds are fairly common, and experienced anglers have a legitimate shot at a real monster - a fish of more than 500 pounds - on any given outing. Winning various shark tournaments over the years (including ones on the nationally televised Shark Hunters: Ultimate Tournament Series and Shark Hunters II: East vs. West), Quinlan has seven mako sharks over 700 pounds and three over 800 pounds to his credit. He's confident an all-tackle world record patrols Southern California's coastline, a claim bolstered by his capture of a giant 1,175-pound mako only a few minutes from Marina del Rey harbor. Only 46 pounds shy of the current all-tackle IGFA record, this monster is believed to be the largest fish ever taken on rod and reel off the California coast.

After he captured that monster, and played a role in its death Quinlan made significant and fundamental changes in his approach to shark fishing. He dropped out of the tournament scene and set about learning to refine his techniques for luring, catching and releasing giant makos, in order to help preserve this valuable fishery and make shark fishing safer for the angler.

Spare the Rod
"When you're chumming, you're fishing" is how Quinlan sums up his trophy shark philosophy. "If you want to catch and release a monster shark, forget setting out baits," he explains. "I know plenty of experienced anglers who still can't break from the conventional wisdom that big sharks won't come to the boat, so they have to have baits set out at different depths. Every one of my big fish was spotted and hooked right behind the boat."

The goal is to lure a big mako, hungry and mean, right to your transom so he'll jump on your throw bait (a strip of tuna belly, bonito or other fish you literally throw to the shark) like a Rottweiler on a round steak. This means chumming - a lot. Quinlan carries about 400 pounds of chum for a day's fishing, typically skipjack, bonito, barracuda or tuna carcasses. While he'll use commercial block chum to augment his slick, Quinlan strongly believes that the scent of fresh fish brings a bigger class of mako.

He drops fish into a 30-gallon homemade chum masher that sits on his swim step, and blood, fish oil and chunks are forced overboard with a seawater pump. The drift is started by power chumming, idling the boat downwind for a mile or two as he lays out a scent trail. Then he shuts down and lets the drift take over. Every few minutes, a crew member churns the chum with the sharp metal masher blades. The result is a visible slick that soon attracts all manner of life, including birds, baitfish, sea lions and small sharks. Every crew member keeps his eyes peeled for the telltale signs of an approaching mako.