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March 14, 2007

Makos Up Close

Southern California experts share secrets for catching sharks near shore.

I felt like a goat tied to a stake in grizzly bear country.

Standing just a few feet above the waterline on the deck of a 24-foot bay boat, I had no firm metal bow rail to protect me. In the water nearby: plenty of hungry mako sharks, one of which had already skyed about 10 feet into the air a few yards away.

What would stop one of these muscular fish from catapulting over the boat and, purposefully or not, raking me with its finely sharpened white teeth? What if I fell in? What if I had to jump out of the boat after a mako splashed down in the cockpit?

Thankfully, I had three much more delectably sized males on board to draw the sharks' interest. Big fish, big bait, right?

I had come to the San Diego area in late May to hunt for mako and thresher sharks. But threshers don't migrate according to our human calendar, and a hot bite that erupted the previous week had since grown totally cold. Targeting Southern California threshers is a be-there-right-now type of fishery.

Hunting makos isn't.

Adapt and Overcome

"Southern California is a breeding ground for makos and one of just a few nurseries [in the world]," says Capt. Russell O'Neil (619-226-2929,, who guided us two of our three days aboard a 52-foot Hatteras with blissfully high freeboard. "We catch a lot of 20-, 40-, 60-pound makos; these fish should always be released."

While smaller fish comprise the majority of makos found in these waters, the big-shark potential increases as you head toward Los Angeles. The deep canyon ridges off the islands, colder water and close proximity to seals and sea lions bring more makos in the 200- to 1,000-pound range.

Makos arrive off San Diego in the spring, and many migrate north in July. That's why Los Angeles features so many summer mako tournaments. But San Diego sees the numbers, and the fish swim within sight of shore - close enough that anglers aboard smaller center-console boats can target them.

Our third-day captain, Conway Bowman (619-822-6256,, who runs the 24-foot Triton LTS, routinely guides even novice fly anglers to mako catches. His best day: 26 makos on fly.

Since we hoped for both makos and threshers our first day, O'Neil began by slow-trolling after running out of Mission Bay's Dana Landing. John Bretza, director of product development for Okuma (, brought some Titus Gold reels on Tournament Series trolling rods and a hush-hush-prototype lever-drag reel on a lighter baitcasting rod. Bretza spooled the Titus reels with 50-pound Spectra and a 30- to 40-foot section of 30- to 40-pound mono as a top shot, terminated with a snap swivel.

Threshers usually migrate to these waters in early May and follow bait balls up the coast. Captains target them in 66- to 68-degree water around offshore peaks, along the 100-fathom curve and the La Jolla Canyon, but their appearance can be very brief.

Trying the Troll

Our day began with an unusually bright, calm scene. Southern California is known for its "May gray and June gloom," but this day was anything but that. Once offshore, we saw a pod of seals bobbing through a bait school while birds worked overhead. We cast sabiki rigs into the melee and hauled in a well full of greenback mackerel.

Up on the bridge, O'Neil seemed happy with what he saw: "It's really fishy out here; there's a lot of life," he said, scanning the horizon for schooling bonito. Working from the 50- out to the 100-fathom curve just a few miles offshore, he hoped to entice a thresher but possibly also hook a big mako. In the absence of threshers, we'd settle down in the afternoon, hang a chum bag and coax the makos to us.

On the troll, we set out a spread of mackerel rigged to a variety of weighted heads such as Ballyhood Top Guns and Bait-O-Matics in bleeding mackerel, chartreuse, pink and purple colors. Bretza says he used to employ a downrigger to troll baits, but threshers would bat the bait with their enormous whip-like tails and trip the release. So he was constantly resetting the gear.

For the trolled baits, Bretza rigged 15-foot leaders of 400-pound, 49-strand cable crimped to Mustad 7691 stainless-steel 7/0 hooks. For tournaments, anglers use longer and heavier leaders, up to 800 pound test and 30 feet, to target the biggest sharks and protect mono main lines. Using double hooks creates problems when releasing fish, so Bretza uses singles.

Some shark experts promote non-stainless hooks though, because hooks made of other metals and alloys rust more quickly. However, Bretza says recent research shows some of these metals exude chemicals that can actually poison fish.

The temperature sensor read 67.6 degrees on O'Neil's meter, and the water appeared a clean green color. Although threshers prefer blue water, they don't mind a slight color change, he said.

Makos don't seem to care at all: To prove the point, a 60-pounder crashed one of the bigger trolled baits.

Closest to the rod, Bretza took it from the holder and began hauling in the fish. It didn't behave much like a mako should - no acrobatics at all - so we thought it might be foul-hooked. Once he brought it boat-side though, we saw the hook in the corner of the fish's mouth. Apparently, the boat's forward motion overwhelmed the shark.

As we set the baits back out, we saw huge sea lions following the lines. We changed tactics, brought everything in and ran to a better location for drifting.

Chum Tactics

O'Neil tossed out a chum bucket attached to a buoy line. The bucket would drift and emit scent, doing its work, while we continued to troll a little while longer. After about 45 minutes, we returned to the buoy and found three blue sharks swarming.

Mate Harry Okuda picked up the buoy and bucket, then cut up some ripe bonito O'Neil had stored in the hold. Okuda put the fish parts into a burlap sack and hung the mess overboard from a transom cleat.

Bretza re-rigged four lines for the drift. The leaders included about 10 feet of 135-pound wire above the hook, downsized because we expected to catch smaller makos in the 60- to 150-pound range. With smaller sharks, Bretza uses single-strand wire. Multi-strand also carries an electric charge, which literally "charges up" the sharks at the boat, he says.

On two lines, Bretza pinned live baits, and on two more, he hooked slabs of bonito. Most often Bretza staggers the depths of the lines by adding sliding sinkers - breakaway torpedo weights wrapped with a rubber band near the swivel - and balloons. He'll also add skirts and plastic glow rattles just above the baits to increase color, vibration and sound.

"I often put a second hook at the back of the live baits," he adds. "The bait doesn't last that long, but otherwise the makos will eat the tail off the bait first. They often come back, but using the second hook ensures a better hookup."

As soon as Bretza deployed lines, the blue sharks covered up the baits. "We've got the blues," O'Neil groaned with some irony. The feisty marauders measured about 4 feet long but kept us in near-   constant action. Unfortunately, they fouled leader after leader by rolling boat-side before release.

Abruptly, one of the rods jerked toward the covering board. Here was a heavier fish, hopefully a mako. We watched for acrobatics; the fish surged several times toward the surface without breaching. At the boat, we saw why. The 60-pound mako was hopelessly tangled in our line and another line from a previous angler. A sore had worn in the corner of its mouth from the first hook. We did our best to unravel the fish and cut all the lines before release.

Blue and Gray

On our second day, California's famous "marine layer" of fog draped the harbor and inlet and extended several miles from shore. Beyond the gloom, the skies opened up bright and mild. But O'Neil saw fewer birds and fewer bait schools. "Different day on the water," he said.

He decided to rig a balloon to one of the lines to keep it away from the boat and suspend a live bait so it could swim more naturally. He used a loop of dental floss to fasten on the balloon. But the wind died, and the balloon languished nearby.

Okuda went to work on the chum trail, loading fresh bonito into the sack. And the ocean came to life. Several makos in the 20- to 40-pound range savaged the baits. We released three on conventional tackle and caught one on a fly rod.

SoCal angler and photographer Paul Sharman picked up an 8-pound-test outfit and cast to a blue shark pestering the chum sack, creating some screaming light-tackle fun. A 30-pound mako bit off the back of one of the live baits, then came back for it. Once Bretza hooked it, the fish thrashed wildly and dashed beneath the boat.

All the activity apparently stirred some larger fish to action. We hooked back-to-back 100- and 120-pound makos and a much larger blue shark. The day's mako body count totaled eight - all released, though California allows anglers each to keep two per day.

Flyers on Fly

Aboard Bowman's bay boat the next day, we talked a little further about mako conditions. The full moon, the skipper said, is a mako moon. An hour before and an hour after the high tide are prime times for a mako bite. Current and water temperature also affect locations and activity.

"A couple of weeks ago, we had a lot of wind offshore," Bowman said. "It turned the water over, and the temperatures dropped. It's coming back up now."

Bowman's recorder read 68 degrees; the water appeared a deep violet blue. We would target the 100-, 50- and 20-fathom curves on a daylong drift from deep to shallow water, moving with a slight west wind. But first we'd catch some small bonitos to cut up for bait.

While Bowman's clients usually target makos on the fly, we asked to catch a few on meat and a few on feathers, and he was fine with that. Once we picked up some bonitos on jigs, we motored to deeper water, and Bowman pulled a plastic chum bucket from the bilge. He poked holes in the plastic and attached it to a line off a stern cleat. We towed the bucket - power chumming - to spread out the scent quickly over selected spots.

For chum, Bowman prefers albacore and barracuda over other types of fish. The bucket quickly brought in the blue sharks. While we were tempted to catch a few on fly, we waited, expecting any moment to glimpse "the man in the gray suit."

He showed up as promised, swimming, agitated, darting around in the chum slick 10 feet from the boat. Bowman teased the mako with a hook-less bonito strip. Sharman, on the fly rod, cast an Orange Mako Bomb fly and stripped it past the fish's nose. Finally, perhaps out of frustration, it lashed out at the fly.

Sharman cleared the fly line as the 100-pound shark realized the bait was a little less palatable than expected. It streaked off in vicious short runs but never leaped. Sharman subdued the fish, and Bowman removed the fly, much more tattered for the experience.

The next mako that entered the slick showed no shyness. It gobbled the fly and launched itself skyward three or four times. As it punched the air, it turned upside down and sideways, less writhing than gymnastic.

"You'll catch one mako with an attitude, and he'll spool you. Then you'll catch another one, and he'll just loll on the surface," Bowman said.

Bretza sweetened a fly with a little bonito strip and tied it to the leader on his 15-pound plug rod. He was rewarded with a third mako while Sharman started teasing a literal school of blue sharks with a fly. He appeared to be playing a game of keep-away with a younger sibling.

We finished the day with four makos, three on fly, multiple blue sharks on fly and with all fingers and toes attached and whole. Sometimes you just have to cheat death a little bit.