Great White Shark on a Fly

Conway Bowman is a veteran shark captain and pelagic species conservationist from Southern California. Recently, he and Jeff Patterson of Abel fly reels landed a juvenile great white shark on a fly, which simultaneously has garnered him praise (for the achievement) and scorn (for hooking an endangered species).

We offer a platform for Conway’s perspective, because we believe it’s relevant.

The Great White Incident

It was simply a matter of time before someone caught a great white shark on a fly in Southern California. On July 24, 2009, it just so happened it was Jeff Patterson and me.

I’ve been plying the waters off the San Diego coast for the better part of fifteen years, searching for the perfect mako to catch on the fly, and during this time, I’ve seen two great whites—both were giants and not interested in what I was offering. But in the back of my mind I knew I’d have an intimate moment with a smaller great white somewhere down the line.

I had been guiding Jeff for a couple of days of pretty decent mako and big blue shark fishing, but the water conditions were shit—cool, green water is not ideal for makos in July, so we had to run to some Hail Mary spots (small, fickle offshore canyons that can make a guide a hero or zero). The tides looked good, so we went for it.

My instincts proved correct and within ten minutes of setting up on the “The Dong” (a canyon resembling a large donkey phallus running north-to-south for about a half mile), Jeff was casting to his first mako of the day, a solid 125-pounder that would jump and make a couple of long runs before succumbing to the release stick. Good-sized makos and feisty blue sharks kept Jeff and me busy hooking, releasing, and talking about what a unique catch-and-release fly fishery we have only a few miles offshore from San Diego.

As the afternoon grew late, the tides slacked and the fishing slowed to a halt. Jeff and I sat on the boat talking not about fishing, but about music. We agreed that Def Leppard was a great band, the new singer of Journey was unreal (even though I, for the most part, dislike the band), and Colin Hay (from Men at Work fame) is one of the greatest songwriters of our time.

We sat and waited and waited for one more mako, and then, like slow motion, a large fish appeared in the afternoon glare about a hundred feet from the boat, slowly moving up the chum slick. It was broad shouldered, olive-to-blue in color, and with a deliberate and cautious approach that large sharks possess when quartering-up on prey.

We both jumped to our feet and watched as the shark patrolled closer to the boat. Jeff grabbed the 16-weight and placed a large orange and red Mako Bomb a foot from the shark’s nose. After one long strip, the shark saw and engulfed the fly. The glare on the water was tough. The only way I saw the shark take was when the bright orange fly disappeared. The shark swam from the boat, Jeff set the hook, and the fish burned off two hundred yards of fly line and backing as it headed out to sea.

The fight was strong, deliberate, and lasted about twenty-five minutes. Usually a mako of this size would jump and cartwheel into the horizon, but this shark was different. The strength and confidence the shark displayed was unlike any mako I’d ever witnessed. The line started to go slack, and I realized the shark was swimming back at the boat, completely unfazed by begin tethered to and pulled on by a fly rod.

As Jeff reeled to keep tight to the shark, it finally appeared ten feet off the boat’s stern with its flagged tail and large dorsal fin cutting across the surface. At this point, I finally got a clear view of what was pulling on Jeff’s 16-weight—a juvenile great white, roughly six feet in length and about150 pounds. I quickly suggested to Jeff we get this shark to the boat and released. I was getting nervous about this shark, not so much for the “achievement” of the event, but to get the large hook and three feet of steel leader out of its mouth.

After another five minutes of getting the shark boat side, I realized that this was a rare moment not only for Jeff and me personally, but also in the realm of inshore flyfishing. To my knowledge, there has never been a great white caught and released on a fly in California’s waters.

I grabbed the leader, leaned over the rail, and gently pulled the shark towards me. I looked deep into its eye, in awe of the perfectly shaped orb and its blackness. Rows of conical teeth, sharp, serrated, and pure white spoke to its ability to gather prey effortlessly. I visually scanned the shark from nose to tail, amazed at the bluntness of its nose, its unusually broad girth, and the flawless design of the tail. The moment was surreal.

Jeff and I reached down to touch the shark as it slowly swam alongside the boat. With one swipe of the release stick the hook was dislodged and the shark swam off into the ocean.

For an hour we sat on the boat in silence—a moment neither of us ever will forget.

Some fly-fisherman and conventional fisherman have questioned me bringing this shark boat side and not breaking off the fish once I realized it was a great white. They are quick to judge my actions. These “experts” believe the best approach in this type of situation was to break off the shark and leave the 10/0 hook and three feet of steel leader hanging from its mouth. Though this could be seen as the “right thing to do” in theory, this approach most likely would have done more harm than good for the day-to-day survival of the shark. The steel leader and hook could have damaged and disrupted the shark’s delicate hydrodynamic ability to move efficiently through the water, thus resulting in the tiring of the shark over time, and ultimately leaving it vulnerable to many additional risks. The shark is in a better place because of my actions.

In the end, I’ll simply state that it’s pretty easy to write about actions after the fact. But in the heat of a moment, you make what you think are the best and most calculated decisions. Down the road, you prepare yourself to live with the consequences of these decisions.



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