In Southern California, sharks offer the best chance for fly-fishermen to catch a fish over 50 pounds. Shortfin mako and blue sharks are the usual targets, and there are plenty of both in the Southern California Bight.

While makos over 900 lbs and blue sharks over 10 feet long have been caught on conventional gear in this region, there are lots of fish under 6 feet in length – ideal targets for fly fishermen.

A major target for shark fishing-the shortfin mako

A good mako comes to the boat. Photo courtesy Capt. Conway Bowman

Helping you get started…

This post is the first of a series of five articles on how to catch a shark on fly in Southern California. We’re focusing on mako and blue sharks because there are proven tackle and techniques for catching them.

While there are several other species of sharks beyond the breakwater, those fish are not major targets for fly-fishermen. We’ll discuss why in Part 5 of this series.

In this article, you’ll learn the basics of catching a shark on fly, but remember: there really is no substitute for time on the water

What’s the quickest way to learn how to catch a shark on fly?

The answer is simple: take a trip or two with a good shark fly-fishing guide! Even if you already own a boat, a good guide:

  • Knows where the fish are
  • Has the right gear
  • Knows what to do to attract the fish and get them to bite
  • Can coach you on casting and presentation
  • Will handle unhooking the fish

Fishing with a good guide shortcuts the learning process, plus you always learn some cool tricks.

Finding fly-fishing guides in SoCal

There are a number of captains in the SoCal area that will help you catch a shark on fly, especially in the San Diego area. Check out our Guides & Sportboats page for a comprehensive list.

Of the people listed, Capt. Conway Bowman, and Capt. Dave Trimble are probably the best-known shark fly-fishing specialists in the region.

Capt. Conway Bowman

Capt. Conway Bowman

Capt. Dave Trimble mugging with a mako.

Capt. Dave Trimble

Conway has been guiding fly-fishermen for sharks since 1994. He’s been featured in numerous articles in the national press, and has also hosted and guest-starred on several TV shows. He and wife Michelle host the popular SoCal Barbless Podcasts.

Dave started his shark fly-fishing career in 2002, working as second skipper for Conway. In 2008, he struck out on his own with On the Fly Fishing Charters. Dave averages over 300 mako releases a year, guided the first place team at the 2009 Flying Mako Tournament, and led client Brendan Mason to one of the largest fish ever brought to boat-side on fly…a mako estimated at close to 600 lbs.

Both Conway and Dave are not afraid to share their knowledge, and contributed heavily to this article. Their generosity was greatly appreciated, and I hope you learn a lot from what follows. I know I did!

So without further ado, let’s get started. Here are:

The 5 basic steps of shark fly-fishing…

  • Find a likely area for sharks
  • Set out a good chum slick, and wait for the fish to appear
  • If necessary, use a hookless teaser to bring skittish fish within range, and get them fired up
  • Present the fly, set the hook & fight the fish
  • RELEASE the fish, then (hopefully) repeat

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But of course, the devil is in the details.

Visual shark fishing-using a teaser to excite makos

Teasing mako sharks can be a real art form. Photo courtesy Capt. Dave Trimble

When should you go?

Although blue sharks are year-around residents of Southern California, they prefer cooler water, and become hard to find in the warmest summer months. Makos, on the other hand, are most active from May through October. Look for the best fishing to occur during the new or full moon, although good fishing can be encountered almost any time from late Spring through early Fall.

Some likely areas to find sharks:

Here are some historically popular shark fishing areas (from south to north). You can do an internet search to get specific coordinates:

  • The 9 Mile Bank
  • The 178 Spot
  • La Jolla Canyon
  • Carlsbad Canyon
  • The 209 Spot
  • The 267 Spot
  • The 14 Mile Bank
  • The 307 Spot
  • The backside of Anacapa Island

Which area should you choose? Each one of these spots represents a large area, and they’re separated by miles of ocean. Before you head out, you’ll need to do some homework.

Find the bait, find the sharks

According to Capt. Bowman, a good way to locate makos or blues is to find baitfish schools. Mako sharks are apex predators, and will actively feed on the bait, or chase down the game fish that follow the bait. Blue sharks won’t necessarily chase down free-swimming prey like a mako, but they will hang out around baitfish schools to pick off the injured, dead or dying that result from attacks by other predators.

A good SST map, like the Terrafin SST, can make finding fish easier-courtesy Terrafin

A Terrafin SST chart showing a classic temperature break. Courtesy Terrafin.com

The key to finding baitfish schools is to locate areas where two different currents collide (“current breaks”). Baitfish tend to accumulate along current breaks because current breaks cause changes in water temperature and algae content. As a result, they can often be located by studying Sea Surface Temperature (SST) and chlorophyll maps. These maps can be found on websites like Fishtrack.com, Terrafin.com, and FishDope.com. 

You can also consult on-line fishing reports from websites like 976Bite.com or FishDope.com. While these sites focus on popular game fish like tuna and yellowtail, makos in particular hang out in similar areas. That means these websites can be an easy way to determine zones of active fish. By combining this information with SST and chlorophyll data, you’ll be able to home in quickly on areas that are likely to hold sharks.

More useful tips for locating baitfish

Once you’re on the water, keep a constant lookout for signs of bait or feeding fish. Sharks and bait are constantly on the move, so you could encounter fish well away from your selected spots. These signs include: baitfish fleeing along the surface, “nervous” water, large dark areas just under the water’s surface, boils and splashing, and of course, bird activity.

But not just any bird activity. You’re looking for terns or shearwaters, which are active baitfish hunters, and very useful “eyes in the sky”. When they start forming up and picking at something on the surface, that’s a sign that bait is being pushed to the surface.

Another thing to look out for are unexpected calm spots in rippled water. These are caused by baitfish schools being attacked below the surface. The wounded baitfish release oils that float to the surface and change the surface tension of the water, resulting in a patch of smooth water, even if surrounding waters have wind ripples.

I’ve got my spots, and I’m ready to go. What’s next?

In the second part of this series, we’ll discuss what to do once you reach a likely spot: positioning the boat and setting up a good chum slick. Stay tuned!