Mako Sharks: How to Catch Them

  “Mako boys,” Peter called, “there’s a mako in the trail.” Hawk-eyed skipper Peter Smallwood’s call alerted us to action. How he spotted the telltale, triangular dorsal fin tracking up the berley trail in the dull grey morning light was beyond me. I couldn’t see the shark, however, the creature’s movement through the berley slick was indicated by squawking mutton-birds taking flight, or should that be fright, as it neared them.
Author Steve Cooper with a  hard fighting and high jumping mako shark caught on fly tackle.

Author Steve Cooper with a hard fighting and high jumping mako shark caught on fly tackle.

Clear The Decks!

While we set to retrieving the sea anchor and clearing the decks, the package of blue dynamite came gliding up to the stern of the Peter’s nine-metre charter boat, Big Red. We were about 12km offshore in Bass Strait, and less than 25km from the urban sprawl that marks the fringes of Australia’s financial capital, Melbourne. The Strait is a rough and tumble waterway separating mainland Australia from the island of Tasmania. This morning was no different. In 56m of water, the offshore wind caught up with us and turned the water surface to a steady chop, with an occasional cats paw. On board Big Red that morning was deckie Ben Plumridge, and fishing mates Richard Carr, a blue water specialist, and Rod Harrison.

An Explosive Opponent

mako 5The mako is the most explosive shark on the planet, meaner than a cattle dog on a treeless plain. Zane Grey made the fighting capabilities of these sharks famous through his writings about his trips Down Under to Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s and 30s. I doubt that Grey ever envisaged anglers casting flies to these high-flying toothy missiles. Mind you, Grey was a bit different to the modern angler. Grey co-founded the “Porpoise Club” with his friend, Robert H. Davis of Munsey’s Magazine, to popularize the sport of hunting of dolphins and porpoises. They made their first catch off Seabright, New Jersey on September 21, 1912, where they harpooned and reeled in a bottlenose dolphin.

Mako On Fly

Anyway, back to the main theme: It was my turn on the fly and I was using a jumbo-size Pink Thing, an Australian variation of Dan Blanton’s Whistler pattern. Harro had a few in his kit from a recent Nile Perch trip; we decided to use these flies for their bulk and large gape. My instinct was to cast to the shark. Harro reckoned this denizen was hot to trot, so I cast to strip the fly across its line of vision. The shark made a beeline for the fly as soon as it hit the water; the instant acceleration and body language leaving no doubt about its intentions. The mako was hungry, and I was ready.

Hookup Despite The Odds

It was a terrible cast. A rocking boat, headwind, adrenalin pumping and too many orders being barked. I blame them all. In truth though, I was nervous. Despite all this, the mako came after the fly but it pulled. Getting the point of the hook home through the tough jaw cartilage is one of the hardest things about fly fishing sharks. Retrieving the fly, I waited until I had vision of the mako and cast a second time. Nothing special about the cast, just a bit straighter. The Pink Thing barely starting to sink before the shark homed in again. This time the take was hard and urgent. When the hook went home the mako engaged the afterburners, taking off in a screaming run that had the braid singing a swoffer symphony as it poured out through the guides.

One Ballistic Shark

mako 7More than 250 metres out the mako went ballistic, spearing out of the water, cartwheeling and making a spectacular re-entry that sent volumes of spray into the air. This shark was red hot, and as I was running out of line fast. Peter fired up the engine and headed his boat towards the rampaging shark. Luck favours the adventurous. The mako turned, running in a long arc while I wound line as fast as I could in an attempt to catch-up. Ten years before the scene being played out was unimaginable, but saltwater fly-fishing was in a peak growth period and it was all about catching different species. Fly-fishing for sharks was a new scene in these waters.

Recording The Action

Mako 3Victorian anglers hadn’t been exposed to much mako action, so we decided to make a video. The other charter skippers, aware of what we were doing, had been following our progress over the previous two days. Even though there is a strong competitive spirit between the boat operators, they like to let each other know what’s going on. Peter’s call on the radio was a simple: ‘Mako about 40 kg (90 lb) on.’ The response, ‘On the fly?’ was enough to bring Harro into the action: ‘How bloody well else?’ he roared. The wind speed fluctuated, and sea conditions ranged from lumpy to choppy. Big Red was being joggled around and I was having trouble keeping my balance. As the albatross flies these waters are not far from the Roaring Forties where the wind will blow a dog off a chain. These conditions create demands on boat handling; casting and fighting skills flat-water anglers rarely have to contend with.

Not Over Yet

After 30 minutes of hard slogging, the fly line came to the rod. I could feel the shark rolling and twisting but thought the fight almost over. I was wrong. This toothy was just getting its second wind. A sudden dive and line went sizzling out until the reel handle was just a blur. Once again, we gave chase. There was other action as well. First one, then two, then three blue sharks moved into the berley and began following us. One of these sharks was a monster, about four metres long. Being in a smallish boat so far from land, the arrival of a number sharks alerts you certain feelings … about mortality. This was a real rub-a-dub-dub scenario. I’m hooked up and trying to keep my balance, while Richard is standing behind me to make sure I don’t fall over. As Ben pumped the berley pot to hold the trailing sharks, Peter drove the boat, trying to hold my line angle and, at the same time, avoid breaking the trail trail. Then there was Harro: camera in hand and finger on the firing button, he’s so totally focussed on our dinner guests that for a while he was completely oblivious to the jig embedded in his right foot.

One Long Battle

Mako1Over an hour after the hook-up and the mako was on the surface and I was able to bring him within range for Ben to lean over and do the honours. There was no need for the noose we use to rope sharks while extracting flies. At some stage during the fight, the mako had become tail wrapped. Sadly, by the time it was alongside it was beyond release. John Gierach wrote that ‘In every catch-and-release fisherman’s past there is an old black frying pan.’ Well, Down Under, it’s a barbecue, and mako fillets cook up a treat. While we were doing the photo thing Peter called out: ‘Oh mate, this is a monster blue, 11 or 12 feet and a couple of hundred pounds. This is a real work out Rod.’ The response was quick: ‘That’s all right, I’m up to it.’

Another Crack At The Prize

mako 6Harro is not one to knock back a challenge. A big man with forearms to rival Popeye, the stage was set for a heavyweight confrontation. Harro shaped up but one of the smaller blues, about eight feet long, took the counterfeit offering. When Harro worked his shark back near the boat a new problem emerged: the sharks had been in the berley for over an hour, their taste buds primed by the scent; they were hungry. With the big blue snapping at its tail, Harro’s shark decided it was time to head for Antarctica. Harro changed his fly over to a flashy profile job with a stinger hook. To attract the shark’s attention, he smacked the fly on the water a couple of times. The big blue did the right thing, one gulp and he was on. This shark wasn’t sure what was going on at first and for a couple of minutes didn’t want to swim away from the boat. Then it took off in a big way. That shark probably felt like a pin cushion by the time Harro finished, after all Harro got the hooks into him three times.
Richard and Ben both hooked up during the four-hour session. It isn’t always this way. Some days it’s even better. It isn’t unusual to have more than a dozen sharks within casting range of a boat in a day.
Steve Cooper

About Steve Cooper

Cooper is now a freelance travel and fishing writer with no fixed abode - his home being his cleverly appointed Jayco caravan which is packed to the pop-top with fishing gear. He has has towed the rig the length and breadth of Australia behind his diesel-powered Toyota Landcruiser which of course is topped with a small, flexible fishing boat.

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