This is Part 4 of a 5-part series on shark fishing with flies in Southern California. This post covers tackle and rigging.
In Part 1, we introduced Capts. Dave Trimble and Conway Bowman, two of the best shark-on-fly guys in Southern California. We also covered getting started and where to fish. Part 2, discussed setting up your chum slick, and Part 3 covered the mechanics of catching and releasing a shark.
We decided to wait until the end of the series to discuss tackle, because it’s more important to understand the techniques first. Tackle and rigging derive from technique, so they make more sense once you understand how it’s done.
The starting point
If you have a 10 wt – 12 wt rod, go ahead and use it for shark fishing. In Southern California, this will also be your “go-to” rod for small tuna, medium yellowtail, and most sizes of mahi-mahi. Rods in this size range will do a good job on small to medium size sharks, as long as you’re careful not to high-stick the rod, and have a reel with a good drag.
If you decide that you want to go after larger sharks, a 13 -14 wt rod with a foregrip is a good choice. It will have enough lifting power to handle fish up to 150 lbs, and can withstand the stress of heavy tippets. A side benefit is that it makes a good heavy-duty offshore stick for medium-sized tuna and bigger yellowtail.
These rods are slightly shorter (roughly 8′ 6″) and are often built with composite butt sections. The mix of fiberglass and graphite enhances lifting power and makes the rod harder to break.
Guides are a bit larger in diameter, and snake guides may be replaced by conventional ring guides. Ring guides reduce stress on fly line coatings under heavy drag. Some rods also have gimbal butts for use with fighting belts.
These types of rods are fish-fighting tools first. Casting is secondary, since long casts are usually not required when shark fishing.
Popular brands and product lines include: the Temple Fork Outfitter’s Bluewater Series, the Sage Salt HD Series, and the Scott Sector Series.
Big Boy rod choices
For fish over 150 lbs, Capt. Bowman recommends a 15 – 17 wt rod. Conway prefers a custom-built rod based on a conventional rod blank, but the TFO Bluewater HD, Sage Salt HD 16 wt, and the Scott Sector 15 wt also fit into this category.
Rods like this are usually the tool of choice for fly fishermen chasing billfish and tuna. If you invest in this type of stick, it won’t get a lot of use in the Southern California Bight, except for large sharks and possibly the bigger bluefin tuna. Remember that if you book a trip with a shark fly-fishing guide, he’ll likely have this type of tackle available for you to use.
Equip your rod with a reel that has a spool diameter of 4.25″ or larger, with a good drag. Most experienced anglers prefer a direct drive reel (see our Getting Started series), but an anti-reverse reel will work.
Large diameter reels are a real plus because they retrieve line more quickly than smaller diameter reels. Total line capacity is not an issue, so large-, mid- and standard-sized arbors will all work.
Most people opt for a large-arbor reel, because it reduces the amount of expensive Spectra backing needed to fill the reel. Besides, a 4.5″ diameter standard-arbor reel will hold in excess of 600 yards of Spectra backing – or over a third of a mile – and nobody in their right mind wants to wind in that much line!
There are a slew of reels fit this description. Brands to look at include (but are not limited to): Galvan, Hatch, Abel, Tibor, Sage, Nautilus, Siegler, Orvis, Lamson, Redington, Ross and TFO.
Load your reel with 50 lb or 65 lb Spectra backing, packed tightly, and securely anchored to the spool. This last point is very important. Spectra is super slick, and will simply slip around a bare metal spool if attached with something like a Uni- or Arbor knot.
To prevent this, add a single layer of tape around the spool before tying on the backing. This will give the Spectra something to bite into before packing the backing on. If the reel has a ventilated spool with smooth hole edges, you can also tie the backing to one of the innermost holes. Might look a little strange, but it works!
For fly lines, Capt. Bowman recommends a floating or intermediate line, preferably floating. Saltwater taper weight-forward lines or integrated shooting heads are best. Capt. Trimble’s favorite line is the Rio Leviathan, because of its 70 lb test core.
Tippets and bite tippets
Let’s start with the tippet and bite tippet. For world records, the heaviest tippet class recognized by the IGFA is 10 kg (22 lb). Bite tippet length is limited to 12 inches, including knots.
The bad news is that landing even a medium-sized shark can be extremely difficult with this type of tackle, due to the abrasive nature of a shark’s skin.
As a result, pros like Dave Trimble and Conway Bowman opt for 25-30 lb tippets, with 32″ – 36″ wire bite tippets in most situations. This provides additional insurance against tippet abrasion or bite-offs. Heavier tippets also allow you to land a shark faster, putting less stress on the fish.
How to deal with wire
Single strand wire is the norm for bite tippets. Capt. Trimble prefers #7 or #8 wire over lighter wire because the fish are not leader-shy, and the heavier wire resists kinking and is easier to handle.
Use a Haywire Twist to connect the wire to a small welded ring (referred to locally as a “tuna ring”), and tie your tippet to the ring. Use a Haywire Twist to attach the hook to the wire bite tippet.
If you can’t find tuna rings, you can make a Haywire Loop in the wire bite tippet, and use an Albright knot to attach your tippet. But keep in mind that Albright knots seem to be more susceptible to abrasion damage, according to Capt. Bowman.
The rest of the leader
If you use heavy tippets, you don’t need much in the way of a leader butt. A short section of 30 – 50 lb mono is all that is needed.
Use a loop-to-loop connection to add the tippet to the butt, or tie the tippet directly to the butt section using a Double Surgeon’s knot. Keep leader length fairly short, 6-8 ft. max.
The BIG picture
Both Bowman and Trimble like larger tube flies (8″-12″), with saddle hackle, schlappen or synthetic hair forming the bulk of the fly. Feathers are preferred over long synthetic hair, because synthetic hair tends to catch in the fish’s teeth, making the release difficult. But feathers are delicate and don’t last as long.
Highly visible colors such as red, orange, or yellow help the angler keep track of the fly, and are attractive to sharks. However, oddly enough, Capts. Trimble and Bowman find that it’s best not to add much, if any, mylar or flash to the fly. For some reason, both makos and blue sharks are bothered by the glitter, and shy away from flies dressed with a lot of these materials.
The head of a shark fly is usually finished in epoxy or hard UV resin, and often sports large eyes.
Since these flies are tied tube style, a slide-on popper head can easily be added in front of the fly. This can be a good bet in the afternoons, when there’s chop on water. The popper head stirs up a fuss, making it easier for the shark to find the fly.
Speaking of surface flies…one of Capt. Bowman’s new “go-to” flies is Zino Nakasuji’s “Mako Toad”. Like other shark patterns, it’s created on a tube with multiple saddle hackle or schlappen tied in at the back.
However, instead of a conventional hair wing and belly, Zino uses a unique method to tie in multiple layers of 2mm and 3mm craft foam to create a squared-off flat foam body that has a very large profile. This fly is surprisingly easy to cast with the heavy fly lines used in shark fishing, and kicks up quite a fuss when given a good pull.
Capts. Bowman and Trimble prefer to use wide-gap 6/0 – 10/0 J-hooks with their tube flies, kept razor sharp. Favorite models include the Gamakatsu SL12S and the Tiemco 600sp.
They crush the barbs, to make it easier for the hooks to penetrate. In their experience, the fly line dragging behind the fish is enough to keep the fly seated even with a barbless hook.
Sources for shark flies
Flies built like this can be hard to find. In an informal survey of Southern California fly shops, only San Diego’s Fly Stop carries patterns specifically for sharks.
If you don’t tie flies, or don’t have the materials or time to whip some up on your own, you can also order them through custom fly tyers like Ryan Favorite and Marks Owens. See our “Custom Fly Tying” resource page for contact information.
Teaser rods and reels
Your teasing outfit starts with a long (8′-9′) rod, which can move the teaser out of the way quickly when the time comes. Because you will be tossing a mackerel or strip bait weighing several ounces, the rod should be fairly stiff, but with a parabolic action. A west coast-style “jig stick” is a good choice.
In the past, specialized rods built specifically for this type of teasing were available. The line ran up through the middle of the blank and out a specialty tip guide, so there were no guides on the outside of the blank to catch loose line when the teaser is flipped from the water.
Sadly, these rods are no longer made. The closest thing available right now are the various “Sabiki rods“, like those made by Promar/Ahi USA, but we haven’t had a chance to use these as a shark teasing rod yet.
If you’re shopping around for a shark teasing rod, you’ll find that there are many types of saltwater rods classified as “offshore teaser rods“. These are NOT what you are looking for. Typically, these sticks are short, have bent butts, and are not designed for casting. They’re used with kites, dredges, and other trolled teasers like plastic squid chains.
For a teaser reel, Captain Bowman prefers a conventional (revolving-spool) reel loaded with 40 lb test mono over a spinning reel. It’s sometimes necessary to throw the teaser 100′-150′, and he finds this easier to do with a conventional reel.
For the teaser itself, Conway and Dave prefer a small whole dead Pacific mackerel with a red plastic skirt pulled over the nose (an “octopus” skirt like those used on trolling jigs).
To rig this setup, slide the octopus up the main line, and tie on a large snap swivel. Open the snap, pin the mackerel through the nose, then close the snap. Slide the skirt down over the nose of the bait.
Instead of a whole mackerel, you can also use a strip bait cut from the belly of a large mackerel, small bonito or small skipjack. This is done by cutting the strip from the fish’s belly starting just behind the gills, then tapering the strip so it ends roughly around the vent.
The strip should include the pelvic fins (the ones on the fish’s belly, just behind the gills), which have a bit of gristle between them. Rig the skirt and snap as before, and push the snap through the skin behind the gristle.
Gear for the end-game
Depending on your experience and skill level, you may want to keep your distance from the fish when removing the hook. As mentioned earlier, a dehooker on a long (4′-8′) handle is recommended, but can be hard to find.
Dehookers like this used to be available from AFTCo and Accurate, but at the time of this writing, we could not find any for sale. There are still a number of smaller (16-24″) dehookers offered for sale, but these require you to get closer to the shark.
While shopping around for a dehooker, make sure pick one that can work by pushing on the hook bend. Many dehookers require you to use the device to pull on the hook bend while keeping the line tight, which is clearly a non-starter on sharks. And if your dehooker has a closed loop at the end, make sure the end of the dehooker is large enough to go around the fly (including a popper head).
If you can’t find a suitable dehooker, your next best bet is one of the extended hook-out devices, even though they are only 12″-15″ long. When using a tool this short to remove flies from a shark, make sure the fish is thoroughly played out, and approach the fly from the rear (as opposed to bending over the gunwhale and facing the shark head-on).
Sharks are apex predators with a low birthrate. As mentioned in Part 1, there is a lot of evidence that the Southern California Bight is a nursery area for makos. So while it may be tempting to keep a mako for the table, remember that even a 6 ft fish is immature sexually, and probably has not mated yet.
Therefore, we strongly recommend that you release all sharks, especially fly-sized specimens. Capts. Bowman and Trimble release all sharks, and require their clients to do so as well.
If you want to keep a shark, there are plenty of resources that will tell you how to subdue a shark safely…but we’re not going to do that here.
In Part 5 – which is the last topic in this article – we talk about some of the challenges and concerns facing shark fly fishermen in Southern California. Stay tuned!