The first time I ever saw a mako shark was in San Diego in 2006. I’d heard
stories about fly fishing for them from my buddy, Dr Steve Ward, and he’d
convinced me to join him on a trip with Capt. Conway Bowman, who specializes
in catching mako sharks on a fly rod. But makos are far from the prototypical
fly-fishing target. For starters, they are usually too big, sometimes
exceeding 1,000 pounds (the all-tackle record caught in Massachusetts in 2021
was a 1,221-pounder). Needless to say, I was intrigued by the prospect of
witnessing an epic battle with such a menacing apex predator.
Of course, you can’t just go out on the ocean and target mako sharks. They
roam the open seas and are rarely encountered in most places. While there are
makos in Florida, where I live, most encounters take place when one suddenly
attacks a hooked fish. No one I know has ever caught one on a fly in Florida,
and there still are no International Gamefish Association (IGFA) world records
for mako caught on the fly in US waters. Clearly, the first step toward
success is finding a place where this shark species is abundant.
New Zealand and Australia emerged as early mako hotspots. Back in 1984, Billy
Pate set some IGFA fly-fishing world records in Kiwi waters, but all his mako
catches were under 60 pounds. About 15 years later, rumors about
concentrations of makos off Southern California started circulating. All the
stories centered around San Diego and Conway Bowman, who not only discovered
aggregations of these sharks, many of ideal proportions for fly tackle, but
also devised a way to catch them consistently.
Bowman’s mako research and experimenting have rewarded him with consistent results.
Bowman is the first to admit that local commercial fishermen, like Lou Fedor,
helped him a lot. Fedor turned him toward ledges and upwellings that held
makos and also provided valuable pointers to chum them up to the boat. And
though Bowman’s research and learning curve took years, they eventually paid
off in a big way. Now his usual program begins at the local fish markets,
where he has convinced the owners to save him their fish scraps instead of
just throwing them out. Those scraps (mostly tuna) are dumped into plastic
buckets and frozen for Bowman to pick up.
Bowman’s mako-fishing grounds are surprisingly close to the dock at Mission
Bay, where he keeps his 24-foot Triton. A 20-minute run gets his anglers to
the first of several ledges, one where the bottom drops from 25 to over 100
fathoms. Flat-calm seas make the ride fast and comfortable, but Bowman likes a
bit of wind to keep his boat drifting as he dangles a huge block of frozen
fish parts over the side, which he spices up with a generous supply of
menhaden oil, resulting in a chum slick that stretches for miles.
Battling a big mako shark requires both strength and
There’s really no telling how many makos will rise to the chum or how big they
will be. “Years back, most of the makos I saw ranged from 50 to 100 pounds,”
says Bowman. “Occasionally we’d lure in one of around 150 pounds, but that’s
changed over the last few years.” In recent seasons, he’s raised some
Today Bowman is the only charter captain in San Diego offering fly-fishing
trips for mako sharks. I’ve fished with him several times since 2006, but have
also had to cancel in numerous occasions due to travel conflicts or slow
In 2021, as COVID travel restrictions were easing up, I kept running into my
friend, Steve Ward, during tarpon season in the Florida Keys. Our
conversations gradually moved to planning another trip with Bowman. The
scuttlebutt was that some truly huge makos were now in the mix, and hooking
some in the 500-pound range would be more than a slight possibility. In fact,
Bowman had recently described fights with 700-pounders that went on for
Bowman takes every precaution to ensure the quick
release and survival of every mako anglers bring boatside.
As it turned out, Steve and Greg Arnold, a heralded Louisiana fishing guide,
had some days already booked with Bowman and invited me to ride along to take
photos. I quickly accepted their offer and met them in Dallas soon after, en
route to San Diego for our next mako-fishing adventure.
Bowman has a basic rule for his mako trips: nobody kills anything. It would be
easy to set an IGFA world record with him, but that would require killing a
shark to bring it to a scale ashore, and that wasn’t going to happen. This
next mako trip would be simply fun fishing, and everything would be geared
toward ensuring the survival of the quarry.
Pull Out the Big Guns
You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, so Bowman carries mega fly rods custom
made for him by Jack Bookout. The beefy, 8-foot sticks are listed as 20-weight
Mako Specials. The reels are Orvis Mirage VI-D loaded with some 800 yards of
50-pound braid for backing, which is attached to about 100 feet of 50-pound
mono and then a heavy shooting head.
The sharks are teased right up to the boat with a hookless mackerel covered by
a bright-orange skirt, so there really isn’t much need for casting more than
30 feet. Once a mako appears in the chum line, Bowman casts the teaser and
leads the shark right up to the floating fly. At the last second, he jerks the
teaser from the water, and the shark instantly focuses its attention on the
Bowman uses a custom dehooker to safely remove the
hook from every mako before its release.
Follow the Leader
Since records are not sought aboard his boat, Bowman sees no need for
IGFA-sanctioned leaders, but anglers may certainly rig one if they prefer. His
recommended leader comprises six feet of 40-pound mono connected to two feet
of 140-pound wire serving as the bite tippet. The mono is separated from the
wire by a tiny ring to keep the latter from severing the former as the linkage
comes under extreme pressure.
Most of Bowman’s mako patterns are tube flies with a popper head, the most
interesting of which is the Zion Toad, a comically-huge version of the Tarpon
Toad. He uses 9/0 or 10/0 hooks with the barbs removed. Before each shark is
released, the hook is detached with a custom-made dehooker with the kind of
shaft you’d typically see on a gaff. No one ever touches the sharks, and they
all swim away no worse for wear, other than a bit tired from the battle.
Mako sharks are famous for taking to the air during
Many mako strikes are simply spectacular—head out of water, mouth wide open
and the lethal, dagger-sharp chompers at the ready. And once these sharks feel
the hook, there’s no telling what will come next. Makos are magnificent
jumpers, which is one of the reasons I’d come back to see Bowman in San
Diego. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict if or when a mako will jump,
or where it will be when it takes to the air.
You don’t want a big shark to jump too close to the boat on the off chance it
will land in your lap, which is never a good thing. So hookups are purposely
done as far away from the boat as possible. And if the mako jumps in the
distance, it’s almost impossible to have a camera with a big telephoto lens
focused on the shark to capture the aerial display at just the precise
instant. I did manage to a get a couple of shots of the only hooked mako that
actually went airborne during our latest trip, but it wasn’t one of the
The first day started off promising. We soon raised a pair of makos, one of
around 225 pounds, the other a bit smaller. Steve hooked the bigger of the two
and it took at least 400 yards of backing for a ride before breaking
off. About an hour later, another one showed up, and it too hit a life-jacket
orange fly. Then it ran off a quarter mile of line and also broke off. Steve
and Greg were fishing the mega fly rods with the drag on the reels locked
down, but Bowman figured both sharks must have hit the line with their tails
and broke the 40-pound mono.
The next day, we were back at the same ledge, hoping for better luck. And both
anglers caught makos in the 60-pound class, but they really wanted something
in the 500-pound range, despite none of us having any idea of how long it
would take to land such a beast on a fly rod.
When fly fishing for makos, much of the action
frequently takes place close to the boat.
Bowman assured us it could and had been done, but the fishing gods refused to
smile on us the first two days, so he planned a special trip for our last
attempt. We got up early and drove from San Diego to Long Beach, where we met
Capt. Jack Vincent, a master of giant makos who has caught some up to 1,000
pounds on conventional tackle. He was optimistic about our chances to chum up
and feed a monster a fly but stopped short of predicting a successful
catch. The only thing certain, he said, would be the pain an angler would
endure after the hookup.
We ran past Catalina Island, to a ledge where the water depth dropped from 300
to 3,000 feet, and set up our chum line. Vincent described this stretch as the
Jurassic Park of mako fishing, but the only sharks that made the scene were
several small blues that the crew saw as a nuisance. As the day progressed,
the absence of makos grew increasingly frustrating, but around 3 p.m., a
200-pounder showed up.
With thoughts of battling a true leviathan still bouncing around in our heads,
there was a brief discussion about whether or not we should even try for a
smaller mako that showed up in the chum line. What if “the one” finally
appeared when we were hooked up to this smaller, but still respectable
Fortunately, rational minds prevailed, and Steve hooked up easily. To my utter
disappointment, this mako never jumped. And, unlike the two big ones Steve
hooked the first day, this guy wouldn’t go more than 100 yards from the boat.
And without the long runs, and the fly line and 400 yards of backing in tow,
it wasn’t going to tire anytime soon. My old buddy was in for a major battle.
He would get the shark close now and again, only to have it power its way back
under the boat. The short-distance tug of war repeated itself a dozen times,
and the shark wasn’t wasting any energy.
It probably took Steve 30 minutes to get that mako close enough for Bowman to
cut the wire leader. The shark had taken the fly too deep to use the dehooker,
so the leader had to be cut. Luckily, once the heavy pressure ceased, we knew
the barbless hook wouldn’t stay put for very long.
Later, another nice mako followed the chum trail right to the boat and stayed
with us for over 10 minutes. Before it moved on in anticlimactic fashion, it
came close enough for all of us to see the foot-long section of wire leader
hanging from its jaw. It was the same fish Steve had released less than an
hour earlier. Evidently, it was still hungry.
It’s hard not to admire makos’ impressive build and
Makos, with their sleek, dark-blue bodies and the powerful tail that propels
them, are spectacular creatures that reach speeds of over 50 mph and are
universally considered the fastest sharks in the sea. Undoubtedly, they are
the apex predators in San Diego waters, and just seeing one up close is a
prize in itself. Catching one on a fly rod is truly special, but we remain
determined to hook into that 500-pounder and will definitely be back next
season for another try.
Just to keep the fire burning, Bowman sent us a text that said his anglers
went nine-for 12 the day we left for home. In fishing, sometimes that’s how
things shake out.