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.
Handle With Care
Once a mako is hooked, fighting the fish becomes a team event for the captain (purple shirt), mate (yellow shirt) and angler (green shirt). A weak team member is like a weak link in a chain and can mean the difference between releasing a large mako alongside the boat, losing it – or worse yet, someone getting seriously injured.
_By Joe Mahler / _www.markerjockey.com
The angler handles the rod while the leader man assists the angler and communicates to the captain what the fish is doing. The captain has the most important job, managing the crew and keeping them calm while using the boat to wear down the fish.
“It’s important to fight the fish with the boat moving forward,” says Quinlan (1). “This keeps you mobile and helps prevent a big shark from running under the boat to cut you off. Once the fish begins swimming steadily with its dorsal fin out of the water, it’s time to position the shark parallel to the boat (2). Then close distance until you have the shark alongside. You want him swimming the same direction as you and, hopefully, too tired to sound.”
Once the leader man has hold of the leader and control of the fish, the angler moves all the way forward to clear room in the cockpit (3). Without taking any wraps around his wrist or hand, the leader man gently takes in leader until the shark is in reach of the release man (4). If the circle hook is lodged in the shark’s mouth, slide the release device – Quinlan uses a 6-foot dehooker – down the leader to pop out the hook. If the hook is deep, cut the leader as close as possible to the fish without putting your hands anywhere near its mouth. If you’re using steel cable for large fish, you’ll need cable cutters. Never, under any circumstances, bring a mako into the boat.
Gaffing and roping huge makos requires teamwork, practice and steady nerves. You should have no less respect for a shark you plan to release than for any other. For this reason, Quinlan recommends tackling a few medium-size makos before messing with monsters.
“This is another huge advantage of sight-fishing,” he says. “You can decide if your crew is up to the challenge before you put a bait in the water.”
What: Trophy mako sharks.
When: Prime time begins in May and runs all the way through October.
Where: Southern California offshore high spots and canyons from the Channel Islands off of Oxnard all the way south to San Diego.
**Capt. Steve Quinlan
Trophy Fishing Charters
Rods: Heavy 512- to 6-foot roller-guide rods, like the Penn Tuna Stick T53080ARA56, Seeker BSC6460XH-6AR and Calstar GFTR755XXH.
Reels: Two-speed Penn International 30 for 200- to 300-pound fish; two-speed Penn International 50 for 300- to 500-pound fish; Shimano Tiagra 50W for monsters.
Lines: 50-pound monofilament with 300-pound upper mono to 325-pound steel-wire leader; 60-pound monofilament directly to 30 feet of 480-pound steel cable; 80-pound mono directly to 30 feet of 900-pound cable.
Hooks: 9/0 to 16/0 circle hooks, depending on size of fish.
Other: Gloves, 6-foot dehooker and cable cutters.
Why Sight-Fishing Is Right
1. You want your chum slick to attract a lot of life and start a food chain. If you have baits in the water the arrival of blue sharks, seals or small makos forces you to alter or abandon your chum slick. When you don’t have to worry about “nuisance fish” messing with your baits, you’re free to let things develop naturally.
2. You’ll never be caught with your pants down. As I can tell you from experience, the last thing you want to be doing when a big shark arrives is goofing around with a little one. Sight-fishing helps keep your eyes on the prize, literally.
3. You’ll know when it’s coming. The birds in your chum slick are the first indicators that a mako is approaching. The gulls farthest back will lift off the water first and take flight, and then in rapid succession, the ones closer to the boat will take off. This is a signal that it’s time to get ready for action.
4. You can make it a fair fight. When you get a look at the fish, you can decide whether to bait it or wait for a bigger one. If you decide to bait the fish, you can properly match the tackle to the task. This is more sporting, and it ensures you can fight and land the shark quickly, for a healthy release.
5. You minimize deep-hooking when you watch the fish take the bait. By using circle hooks and setting up on the fish before it can swallow the bait, Quinlan has been able to safely remove the hook from many big makos.