Sharks! Radical reef fly fishing.
Published Sep 22nd 2008
A shark odyssey.
By Korrie Broos
Jacques and Jimmy live in Cape Town and have become a "mean fly fishing team". Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong opened new frontiers in space. These two fly fishermen have opened new frontiers in fly fishing. In the past catching Black Spotted gully sharks and Smooth Hound sharks on fly. For years these brute-strength sharks were the domain of rock and surf anglers, fishing with heavy duty bait tackle. The strength of these 2 shark species is legendary. While the Mako, Great White and Thresher sharks are more open water (pelagic) species built for speed. The Black Spotted gully and Smooth Hound sharks are built for power. Raw power. If you have ever stood on a reef with the tide and waves pushing in and washing back and forth, you will know the power of the water. The Black Spotted gully shark and Smooth hound shark live and cruise in these shallow waters, constantly fighting the pushing and pull of the water. With no discernable disruption, to their effortless swimming rhythm, they cruise the reefs, gullies and channels. The powerful pulsations of currents never seem able to deflect them from their chosen course. Using their powerful bodies, tails and huge pectoral fins, their search for the next meal is uninterrupted. Be it a crab, injured fish or a well presented fly.
Jimmy and Jacques started fly fishing for sand sharks and rays in lagoons. Subsequently. someone, mentioned to them that there are some reef-dwelling rays and that they didn't have to travel 150km to the closest lagoon to fish for sand sharks or rays. No further encouragement was needed, the next day they where on the reefs. In the following days, they caught a few Duckbill- and Honeycomb rays. But what intrigued them more were the sharks swimming around. Not sure what species of sharks they where, they made some enquiries. Black Spotted Gully Sharks and Smooth Hound Sharks, are the most common, they where told, with some Bronze Whaler Sharks doing the rounds, the odd Ragged Tooth shark and even a Great White shark have been spotted on rare occasions. No, nobody have ever caught them on fly. To them this raised the question of whether it was possible to take the larger species on fly.
The gauntlet had been thrown down. The challenge was accepted. "Sharks must eat, if they must eat, they HAVE to take a fly", they postulated.
And so the odyssey began.
The biggest rods they had were #9 and #10 weights respectively. That being enough for the largest Sand sharks and rays that they had thus far targeted. After trying various flies, in different colors and sizes, the Black Spotted gully sharks and Smooth Hound sharks started looking at the flies. After 2 hook ups and snapped rods, they realized they where completely outgunned. They started referring to the #9 and #10 rods as toothpicks.
The inevitable visit to a local fly shop had them leaving with two 12 weight outfits after exchanging cash and goodwill. That afternoon they were back on the reefs. Exploring the unknown. A hook up or two followed, but still no fish was landed. After 2 weeks, between getting the tides right and an opportunity between hectic work schedules, they were on the reefs again. Trying for the sharks on flies.
The score, after a couple of weeks being 12-0 in favor of the sharks they realized, that #12 weights did not have enough power, and were too light for these brutes.
After another visit to a local fly fishing shop and more cash changing hands they became the proud owners of a #14 and a #15 rod respectively.
The rods where fitted with Nautilus reels and 400 meters of 65 pound TUFLINE XP backing, 100 pound fluorocarbon tippets, they where sure that they, now, had the right rods to turn the odyssey into positive encounters.
Having had numerous hookups, they had confidence in the flies, plus the added security of the stronger rods, they where sure they had the right ammunition for the ensuing battles.
From previous forays, they had now established the best time of the day to target the sharks, the best spots on the reefs and the optimum tides to ensure the most likely chance of encountering sharks. With the back-up security of heavier tackle the their confidence was now at its peak.
As they went thru the checklist with military precision, they ticked all the boxes.
- Floating fly lines don't get the flies down deep enough.
- Sinking lines and lead core lines "kill" the natural" movement of the flies.
- Intermediate lines give the correct sink rate and give the fly the right amount of "natural" movement.
- 100 pound fluoro carbon leaders give optimum protection against the reefs and the abrasion of the shark's skin.
- Crimp-ons are the best for fixing the hooks on loops, and then perfection loops.
- Best time to be on the reefs is 2 hours before high tide.
- You have to stay on the reef right thru the peak of high tide and 2 hours after the tide has turned.
- With a pushing tide, high tide must be 2 hours before sunset.
- You will be standing up to your chest in the shallowest points when the tide is full.
- The deepest gullies will then be about 4 to 5 meters deep.
- If the water is murky or it is overcast, create a chum slick otherwise it is impossible to see the fish.
- Present the fly about 1, 5 meters in front of the approaching shark.
- If it is dark, it is wise to have some form of light, i.e. headlamp.
With all the preparations, test of knots, check drag on the new reels, a shocking revelation dawned upon them.
Even with a 100 pound Fluorocarbon tippet, special Airflo fly lines with 50 pound breaking strain and 400 meters of backing of 65 pound breaking strain there is no way that one could "straight stick" a large shark, if you you are unable to turn it. Standing up to one's chest in water, one is almost weightless. Furthermore, since you will be exceedingly unwilling to let go of your brand new rod (especially), the shark is going to take you with. Into the black "void" in front of you. Being trolled by a shark into the approaching dark and into the open ocean, by a fly line and backing, were not high on their list of priorities.
They thought about astronauts who have some form of safety anchor when they ‘walk' in space. Being sensible fly fishers our men did not relish the idea of a free ride into the ocean.
Thus a final but important piece of safety equipment was added to the checklist.
A length of climbing rope, to attach them to each other when it became dark and one of them was hooked up to a big shark.
So the final planning stage arrived. Checking the moon phases, the tides, the work schedules. Each factor in this mission had to be checked, logged and coordinated to make sure that success was guaranteed. With all of the experience gained from previous trips, coordinating of the tides, moon phases and works schedules, the rendezvous time with the sharks was established. The only factor that could not be planned for was the weather. The perfect conditions leading up to this mission would be 2 to 3 days of Southeaster. The South East wind blows warmer surface water to the beach. Fish and sharks follow this warm water.
The mission was planned. The count down began. Weather forecasts (notoriously fickle) were checked. The last week was counted down, then the days where counted down to the last day, finally the last hours, minutes and seconds where counted, till their departure for the reefs. Arriving at the parking lot, everything appeared perfect. The sun had already set its sights on the home straight for the day, diving towards Table Mountain, and the western horizon for its daily, night's trip to the other side of the globe.
The weather played its part, the southeasterly wind started to drop after blowing for a couple of days. The warmer surface water of the open ocean was pushed right up to the shore. Apart from attracting the fish, and the sharks that follow the fish, the 4 hours, standing on the reefs, waiting for a shark to show itself, are also a bit more pleasant, with water that is 2 to 3 degrees warmer than usual.
Rods were rigged with nervous anticipation. Would today be the day? Would they finally be able to hook a shark, fight it and land it? Would they finally be able to say "Mission Accomplished?"
They started the walk. Past the last parking bays. 30 meters of sandy beach, to the first rocks. With high tide nearing its peak in about 2 hours, only the last bit of reef was fighting the tide to stay above water. Gingerly they stepped into the water. With no wet suits, getting wet up to the belly button is the worst of the wet wading, on the reefs. With a very testing section, when you reach a specific part, unique to the male anatomy, is reached.
They traversed the reef that runs diagonally into the sea. Wading out, through every gully and outcrop, their anticipation grew, as the distance between them and the land increased. 100 meters, 150 meters, 200 meters, 220 meters into the sea. They reached their favorite ridge on the reef. Water visibility was good - "spotting the sharks will be easy today", they commented. With a gully in front of them and a secondary one behind them, they have almost double the chance of spotting a shark. Then its sight casting to the shark and, hopefully, the shark taking the fly.
Astronauts have a definite count down to lift off, but standing on a reef for 4 hours waiting for passing sharks, counting down those 4 hours can feel like eternity. The ocean is a massive area, not as large as space, but to find a Black Spot Gully shark or a Smooth hound shark, can be like looking for a non existing, Halley's comet in the Milky Way. To increase the chances of seeing the sharks, Jimmy and Jacques, throw a handful of chopped mullet into the current every 15 minutes. This creates a chum slick that sharks pick up and follow, hopefully passing close enough to be spotted and cast to.
It is amazing how the fishing gods, sometimes keep on stacking the odds against one, depriving fishermen of their blessings. Other times, it feels if they bestow your whole life's fishing blessings on you in a single trip.
Standing on the reef, half a fly line stripped off, fly in the hand, Jimmy and Jacques were not sure how many blessings, if any, will be bestowed on them that day as their eyes pierced through the surface glare into the gullies below them. With the tide pushing and sun aiming for the horizon, the first Smooth Hound shark appeared. Before they could load the rod, it was gone. Maybe the fishing gods where smiling on them, they joked. Or was the joke on them. Then a second shark appeared. They were ready. A half a back cast and then the forward cast. The fly landed 2 meters in front of the shark. Almost too far, it sank gently to the depth of the shark. From previous hookups they knew the gentlest of retrieves, with the natural wave action providing enough movement in the fly, was all that was needed to catch the shark's eye. The shark veered slightly to the side. It sucked in the fly. Feeding line thru the guides, as the shark swam off with the fly, they knew to let it swim away with the fly until all the slack is taken up. With all the slack taken up and the rod level with the water, the hook is set the hook with as much power that a stiff, 8 foot, #14 or #15 rod can offer.
As the ignition switch is flipped on a rocket and the fuel ignites, the fight between gravity and the rocket starts. The rocket fighting gravity for every centimeter of distance it wants to put between the he earth and space. Similarly, the setting of the hook ignites the fight between the shark and the fly fisher. With drag on the reel set at maximum, the shark explodes away, fighting for every centimeter it wants to put between the fly fisher and itself.
With the drag set at maximum, the extreme fly fisherman, standing belly button deep in the water, 200 meters from the shore, and a seriously irritated shark at the other end of the fly line, things can get hectic.
When hooked, sharks don't swim to the shore and beach themselves like a sailing ship without a rudder in an onshore wind. No way. They head for the open ocean, as hard and as fast as they can. Furthermore, since you are attached to him/her by a hook, tippet, fly line, backing and fly rod, the fish is determined to take you with, whatever your feelings on the matter. Or you very quickly change your attitude about drag settings, or how close you want your friend to stand next to you. This is the time when the fly fishermen start wondering what the people on the beach might think, ,seeing them in close embrace on the reefs. But, all of a sudden it doesn't matter, since he is grateful for his help.
With the drag set to the maximum, the surface of the ocean changes shape. The shark becomes aerial about 150 meters from the fly fishermen. It is a Smooth Hound shark, they comment. The Black Spotted Gully shark hugs the reefs and gullies. With maximum drag applied; the Smooth Hound shark goes aerial. Then, diving below the surface again, it runs another 80 meters plus of backing from the reel, before it is stopped the first time. The shark allows itself to be slowly winched in about 50 meters as it recovers its energy levels. Then it makes another run for freedom. Having used most of its high octane fuel on the first run, the second run is much shorter. In the same way that Earth's gravity slowly gathers an orbiting rocket and accelerates the process the nearer it gets, so the fly fisher brings the shark in faster and faster after every run.
But all fly fishers who have caught large fish on very strong tippet and fought them very hard, will know, that having them close by does not mean it the fish is ready to give up.
The same applies to sharks especially Smooth hounds and Black spotted gully sharks.
But what do you do when you have your first shark, less than two meters from you; you have no net, no gaff (you want to release the fish in any event), the shore a couple of hundred meters behind you?
You jump in, grab it, wrap your arms around the body and embrace it like you would embrace your partner after returning from a long space trip. This is the moment, however, when the shark decides, it is not as fond of you, as you hope.
Your arms wrapped around the shark's body at or around its pectoral fins, provides the shark with a pivot point from which to shake its head and thrash its tail. With a skin made from "sandpaper" the painful message is not to fish with short sleeve shirts again.
With a pushing swell, Jacques is deposited, standing on a ledge, with his shark embraced like a precious loved one, a huge smile on his face. The shark, on the other hand, wanted none of that and continued to shake its body furiously to rid itself of the clutches of its unwanted "lover".
Finally Jacques says "mission accomplished" and slowly opens his arms, letting the shark slide gently head first into the ocean. To which Jimmy replies, "no, mission only beginning"
Between them, the two friends stopped counting after they have landed 26 Black Spotted Gully Sharks and Smooth hound sharks. They are still a regular feature on the reefs in the Strand, considered by many as ultimate fly fishers for sharks on fly.
Being quizzed on what their next goal on fly, as one they answer "a 100kg plus, Bronze whale shark on fly". After that what is left to catch, you ask? Again they reply in unison,, bursting into raucous laughter" a Southern Right Whale on a krill imitation", knowing that they have caught you as well, but not on a fly.