[Be sure to click through all the images in the gallery above.]
To my knowledge, Billy Pate was the first person to catch a mako on a fly within the specifications of the International Game Fish Association. To do it, in 1984, the legendary angler traveled to New Zealand. But today, thanks to San Diego-based Capt. Conway Bowman of Bowman Bluewater, anglers don’t need to get their passport stamped to accomplish this feat.
In the early ’90s Bowman came across a book written by Nick Curcione that mentioned fishing for mako sharks off the coast of California. Up until that point, there really wasn’t much saltwater fly-fishing going on in San Diego, but the thought of catching one of these magnificent creatures on a fly was irresistible. Conway had a 16-foot aluminum skiff at the time, and during the summer, seas off the San Diego coast were relatively calm. It was in this boat that Bowman began experimenting and exploring. Initially, the problem he faced was where to start — it’s a very big ocean and he’d never even seen a mako much less hooked one.
He figured the most logical way to launch his quest was to ask the local commercial fishing captains. They knew the ocean and many of them actually targeted makos to sell. Before too long, Bowman ran into a neighbor named Capt. Lou Foder, who happened to be a commercial lobster fisherman. Lou fished makos when lobsters weren’t in season and was willing to share his knowledge.
The reason behind a commercial fisherman (most are normally tight-lipped) telling a recreational fishing kid about where makos hung out, their range and feeding patterns was pretty simple. “He thought I was an idiot,” Conway says. “And why wouldn’t he think that? Here was a kid who wanted to run out into the Pacific in a tiny boat and try to catch a mako shark on a fly rod and then release it.” None of this made any sense to Lou, but he liked Conway and figured he’d humor him a bit since he certainly wasn’t a threat to his commercial fishing business. At times Lou allowed Conway to slip into his chum slick to watch him work the sharks to the boat. Today Conway is the first to admit that 90 percent of his knowledge of the best tides, moon phases, water temperatures and seasons for mako sharks came from Lou.
During those early years, Conway found that the best chum was scraps from local fish markets, and it wasn’t a problem for them to freeze their trash in five-gallon buckets for him. The best mako fishing was only a few miles offshore, so there was no need for a supersize boat. Yet the 16-foot aluminum skiff was a bit on the light side. There were rips and ledges that the makos traveled on a regular basis, and the plan was simply to find a specific spot that looked fishy, hang the frozen chum bucket over the side, drift and wait.
The most amazing aspect of San Diego’s mako fishery is that most of the sharks are in the 50- to 150-pound range — perfect for fly rods. Every so often, a monster will appear in the chum, and Conway has hooked makos close to 1,000 pounds. You don’t land a lot weighing more than 300 pounds, but the potential is always there. Tackle is pretty simple. A 12- to 14-weight fly rod and a quality offshore reel with a weight forward line and 50- to 80-pound braid for backing will work just fine. The flies are the size of small chickens, but casts don’t have to be very long because makos fear nothing — not even the boat. They are the top of the food chain, and anything that smells good is worth investigating. They’ll swim right up and hang around the boat for as long as it takes to get themselves hooked.