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Shortfin Mako Shark
By Chris Santella

Photo by Pat Ford

Quick Facts

SPECIES NAME

Isurus Oxyrinchus (Shortfin Mako Shark)

SIZE

Mako sharks can reach lengths of 12 feet and weights exceeding 1,200 pounds. Fish in the 80- to 200-pound class are best suited to fly rodders, though fish to 500 pounds have been successfully landed on the fly.

DIFFICULTY RATING

Smaller Fish – 4/10
(80 to 100 pounds)

Medium Fish – 7/10
(100 to 200 pounds)

Large Fish – 9/10
(200 pounds plus)

KNOWN FOR

Eerie approaches around your boat (cue the “Jaws” theme song); airborne acrobatics that make tarpon look like whitefish; incredibly fast runs and arm-busting stamina.

FAVORITE DESTINATIONS

California (San Diego, Catalina Island)

Photos by Pat Ford

 

Shortfin makos are distinguished from other sharks by a less pronounced dorsal fin, a pointy snout and an orthodontist’s nightmare of teeth. The fish are capable of bursts of speed approaching 60 miles per hour, making them the fastest member of the shark family and among the fastest fish in the oceans. Makos have been known to clear the water by over 20 feet, and have long been a target for conventional tackle anglers. Thanks in large part to Captain Conway Bowman (fishing out of San Diego), they have gained in acceptance and popularity as a fly-rod target—particularly juvenile fish in the 80-to 200-pound class. Historically, makos brought to the boat by conventional anglers were often killed. Thanks to the advocacy of Bowman and other guides, catch-and-release angling for makos (and other sharks) is becoming more the rule than the exception.

The notion of fly fishing for sharks seems like the product of an over active (and likely distraught) imagination – perhaps a scribbling from Hunter S. Thompson’s notebook after a cocktail of espresso and mescaline. It is indeed a trip! Your captain motors out to a spot in the blue where currents are running through, and lowers the chum bucket. Once it’s lowered – a modest mélange of fish carcasses and fish oil, not the ladles and ladles of blood dispensed by Captain Quint from the Orca – the wait begins, as the scent of food is broadcast through an expanding chum slick. In the meantime, you’ll familiarize yourself with your tackle—a short 14-weight rod resembling a truncheon; a reel big enough to hold 800 yards of backing; and an 8/0 fly – often fluorescent pink, sometimes a popper – that’s bigger than many of the trout you’ll encounter in an average day’s fishing.

Suffice it to say – you’re not on your local spring creek anymore.

Sometimes it takes a while for a shark to appear, sometimes their appearance is almost instantaneous. But if you’re fishing off San Diego in the summer months, they will likely come. As a dorsal fin (or several) appears, you begin to question the wisdom of bobbing about in open waters on a chunk of fiberglass while intentionally attracting these apex predators. “When you’re fishing for makos, the sharks are hunting you, not the other way around,” Bowman has said. While the angler strips out fly line, preparing for a water-load cast, the captain may cast a teaser bait to get the shark further “fired up.” As the fish approaches the teaser, the captain jerks it away—your cue to flop your fly somewhere near the shark. You needn’t be precise; the shark will generally find any fly within a five-foot radius. The best hook-sets occur if you wait for the fish to turn before stripping hard. Really hard. Then it’s off to the races. The shark might burst 50 or 100 yards before there’s a pause. Brace yourself—the first big jump is about to come! After that, makos might run several hundred yards further, jumping along the way. When you finally get the fish to the boat, an elongated version of the Ketchum Release tool facilitates a safe release . . . for angler and shark.

Mako fishing is an exhilarating experience . . . for most. Bowman has had at least one angler who demanded to be brought back to the dock when the first mako appeared near the boat. It was a little too much.

Makos are a pelagic (that is, open water) species, and can be found in tropical to temperate latitudes in all oceans around the globe; if conditions allow one to motor far enough off shore in such waters, you can likely find them once you lower the chum bucket. What’s made greater San Diego such an attractive fishery is that adult makos give birth in the the deep waters adjacent to the coast here; these waters in turn act as a part-time nursery for juvenile fish. These sharks– animals up to 300 pounds – frequent the inner coastal waters during the summer months, feeding on yellowtail jacks, bonito and other forage fish. Makos are sometimes encountered less than a mile offshore, in easy view of La Jolla. (A good friend has had fine mako fishing days off the central coast of Maine, a far cry from southern California . . . but needs to run 20 or 30 miles out to reach the fish. Downeast ocean conditions are seldom conducive to such a run in an open craft.)

Mako sharks can live up to 30 years. On the Pacific coast of North America, they are found from northern Oregon south to Baja California and beyond; in the Atlantic, they are encountered from New England to Florida, in the Caribbean and in the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas.

Makos can migrate long distances; wherever they go, they are feeding toward the top of the food chain, mainly on squid and other pelagics like swordfish, tuna and other sharks. (They have few predators beyond larger sharks, killer whales . . . and humans.) Females do not reproduce until they are 20 years old; when they do, pups are born alive (on average, a dozen) and are fairly large (up to 2 feet long).

Though harvest by sport fishermen has decreased, makos are targeted commercially or caught incidentally by longliners targeting swordfish and/or tuna.

You’ll want a rod somewhere between a 12- and a 15-weight, a reel that can apply at least 18 pounds of drag pressure and accommodate LOTS of backing, preferably 30-pound Dacron. (A large arbor is ideal for gaining back the football fields of line a mako is likely to take out.) A floating fly line should suffice. Bowman likes an orange and red fly, somewhere in the 8” to 12” range, often with a foam popper head; a tube-style fly may prevent your flies from being mauled on the first fish.

If you head out with a charter captain, they’ll have the gear you need. (Let’s face it; you’re not likely to find lots of other applications for your 14-weight!)

Chris Santella
Chris Santella is the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Fifty Places To Fly Fish Before You Die, and carries frequent bylines in the Washington Post and The New York Times. When not writing, Santella creates and plays music, or chases steelhead from his home base in Portland, Oregon.