You Can’t Always Get a Big Shark

By Dale Martens

“But If You Try Sometimes You Can Get Something Smaller… Here’s a Taste of Sharking and Fishing in San Diego…”

If you want to hook into something that jumps like crazy and justifies buying that 14 weight -and you don’t have a Rolling Stone-sized bank account – do a little research into mako shark fishing. I did and it led me to On the Fly Charters, run by Dave Trimble out of San Diego. His specialty is hooking mako sharks that often run in excess 100 pounds and can leap more than 6 feet out of the water. What makes it even better is that no expensive international flight is required and the charter fee is way less than most offshore boats.

So one morning last July, I met Dave at Dana Landing, which is a reach cast away from Sea World in San Diego, and hopped on his 23 foot center console. I was well equipped with 8, 10, 12, and 14 weights. According to Dave, the makos ranged anywhere from 40 to well over 100 pounds and there were other critters to be caught as well; the idea was to be well matched to any possible target.

The sea was flat and glassy as we left the harbor. After a short run, my adrenaline level surged. Fish were boiling all over a half acre area. I was in the middle of my first ever feeding frenzy. The boils were small but they were still boils.

“Never leave fish to find fish,” said Dave as he throttled back. Soon I was throwing a small Clouser on the 8 weight with a deep-sinking line and stripping it two-handed through the fracas. It didn’t take long to find out that the perpetrators were ten to twelve inch long mackerel. They weren’t large and they weren’t glamorous, but they were spirited and they were fun. Secretly, I checked something off my bucket list, casting a fly into a bona fide feeding frenzy.

After keeping a few mackerel for a possible bait-and-switch scenario later, Dave pointed the boat offshore once more. We were headed for a temperature break about 45 minutes from the harbor. Dave had it marked on the GPS; when we got there it looked like any random spot on the Pacific beyond an easy visual of San Diego’s shoreline. Nevertheless, the GPS screen and the temperature plot gave it potential.

Dave quickly had the chum bucket overboard. It was a large pail full of fish guts, fish heads, fish skins, fish fillets, and other unknown delicacies. It had small holes to let oil and small bits escape. Dave had a large wooden stick to give the chum bucket the occasional stir and release even more morsels out of the holes.

The plan was to drift along the temperature break and let our chum slick spread out behind the boat. Eventually, the visible chum slick might reach back more than a half mile. Given their keen sense of smell, we would be attracting makos from an impressively large area.

With the kind of optimism that only a fisherman can understand, Dave knotted a 10 inch long fly onto the 14 weight. It was red in color to imitate a bloodied hunk of flesh. A spinning rod was also rigged with a fish fillet from the chum bucket. If a shark was lingering in the chum slick but beyond fly rod range, the spinning rod would tease it into range.

Interestingly, Dave made sure that all the heavier fly outfits had a floating lines. “Don’t want some shark taking a chunk out of your fly line,” was the explanation. “When they are around the boat, they’ll swim underneath the floater. Sinkers get too involved with the fish.”

Everything was set to go. Shark fishing definitely fits the adage “Hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of terror.” Luckily, Dave is an interesting guy to share a boat with in the middle of the Pacific. Right after high school, he started guiding on the Colorado River around Lee’s Ferry and made it out to San Diego when Conway Bowman, a well known saltwater guide, needed help. Whether running kelp paddies for dorado, drifting midge pupae for trout, or tossing spinner baits in the local pond with his son, Dave loved it all and had great stories to share.

He told me that the recent El Niño was responsible for two or three hundred pound hamerheads making more than rare appearances in his chum slicks. Surprisingly, the hammerheads were actually much more wary than the smaller makos. Dave went on to predict what tide stage would be a good time for sharks in general. He must have seen my puzzled look and added, “Yeah, I know it’s weird being so far offshore, but you still get the currents out here.”

After about 3 hours of trading fish stories and other philosophical discussions – almost right when Dave predicted it – a huge dorsal fin showed up beside the boat. Dave called it: “Hammerhead! Big one! Better than 200 pounds! 9 o’clock! Grab the 14!”

I have to admit I felt a little unsteady as I stood on the bow and stripped line off the reel. I had never cast my 14 weight at an actual fish. The dorsal fin was about 2 feet out of the water but to me it looked like the size of a mainsail on a racing yacht. My heart was pounding. Unfortunately, as fast as it appeared, the fin sank out of sight.

Dave was optimistic and gave some instructions. “Give it a few casts. Everywhere around the boat. He could be close.” I cast in all directions, all the while wondering – maybe even fearing – what the grab of such a beast might feel like. I have to admit never feeling so tense while blind casting open water.

There was no sign of the beast. However, Dave was not ready to give up and fan cast the fillet with the spin rod. The hammerhead was still not showing itself. “Try some more casts,” said Dave. After about a dozen casts, the hammerhead was officially declared gone. As Dave had told me earlier, they were large but wary.

Unfortunately, the rest of the day passed with no shark sightings – just 2 fisherman talking and philosophizing in a boat. My few seconds of terror had come and gone with the rise and fall of a single dorsal fin. As the chum bucket came out of water, I noticed that its slick was indeed an impressive creation, snaking out behind us.

The next day I took a break from fishing and did a long day trip with Deb, my girlfriend, out to Joshua Tree National Park. It was a perfect jumble of trees and barren, bouldered hills. I never thought that something so stark could be so amazing. It was like the kind of landscape that might erupt when a mad artist tosses paint at a canvas.

Back in San Diego the next morning, I was itching to fish. Especially when Dave had emailed the night before about running and gunning kelp paddies with other clients during the day. They had caught several dorado, tuna, and yellowtail. Although I would have offered to row the boat to the nearest kelp paddy, the wind was blowing hard offshore and the waves were uncomfortably large. As a result, Dave and I elected to fish inshore for calico bass and maybe even some yellowtail. Calicos are the size of freshwater smallmouths and yellowtails commonly reach 10 or 20 pounds. Yellowtails could be called the bullies of the southern California’s inshore waters.

We motored a few miles north of San Diego towards some submerged kelp beds that were only a few hundred yards offshore from the scenic dunes and bluffs of Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve. On the way there, a massive school of dolphins played alongside our speeding boat. There seemed to be hundreds of them; wave after wave would approach the boat and then move off. If the day would have ended right there, it still would have been a worthwhile trip.

Once at the fishing spot, an 8 weight and a sinking line, along with a little patience, let me tickle the tops of the kelp. Several calico bass and quite a few mackerel grabbed the Clouser and gave me some good pulls. Although nothing was more than a foot long, I confess to having a grand time. The highlight was a big yellowtail flashing from the deep and grabbing a mackerel I had on. The rod doubled over and throbbed like it does when a truly big fish is connected. Unfortunately, the connection only lasted for a few seconds and I reeled in a slightly stunned, but very lucky mackerel. After a half day of fishing, I was back in San Diego taking in the sights.

My final day with Dave was again something different. Deb came out in the boat with us and we stayed within Mission Bay, the home of Dana Landing. Mission Bay was dredged out of the coastline and has several distinct arms. It averages 10 feet deep and serves as a harbor and playground for many of San Diego’s small boats. Mission Bay is also inhabited by spotted bay bass, which are quite small but very distinctive looking. Mostly because I had never caught one before, I was eager to get my fly in front of some.

It was a relaxing morning of fishing. Dave never even had to put the boat up on plane. He had us drifting over several submerged grass beds where the bay bass hung out. Deb was armed with a light spinning outfit and a jig; I had a 6 weight, a sinking line, and the ubiquitous Clouser. The bass were very engaging and we had solid action the entire time. As Dave put it, “Target species acquired!” What bay bass lack in size, they make up for with sheer coolness.

Although I really wanted to catch a big, jumping mako shark, the trip whole trip was still worthwhile. For anyone interested in budget big-game fishing, I would recommend taking a look at San Diego. If the sharks don’t cooperate, the “fall back positions” or “insurance species” are definitely there. Maybe someone will even hook up with that big hammerhead that is still swimming around…