Surely these coal-eyed cousins of the mako and great white can see—and catch—my fly. And we know they are under the boat. The mate keeps spotting them on the sounder, every so often calling out their presence like a steamboat leadsman marking fathoms: “Shark at fifty feet. Shark, thirty feet…”
For what seems like the thousandth time that day, I chuck the giant herring pattern down drift, allow it to sink (“Shark, forty feet…”), and then start stripping in line. But other than one half-hearted follow, the salmon sharks of Prince William Sound have shown no interest in taking a fly. Nor do they care for the burlap bag of fish flesh hanging from the starboard rail.
Nonetheless, Capt. Bob Candopoulos of Saltwater Safari Company is optimistically pacing the stern deck of his 53-foot charter boat, The Legend, and chanting: “You’re gonna get a shark. I can feel it. You’re gonna get one.”
Captain Bob ought to know. At last count, he and his clients have caught more than 1,200 salmon sharks, mostly by trolling huge plugs on heavy gear. His largest topped 800 pounds. But until our trip, neither he nor his anglers had ever tried to catch one on a fly rod.
So there we were, 80 miles out in the Gulf of Alaska: Bob trying to reconcile himself to the efficacy of the fly rod, me trying to figure out how to duplicate the action of the godawful huge hardware he normally trolls at several knots, while using a featherweight fly that had all the movement of a billowing hanky. Strip, reel, and yank—I simply could not move it fast enough.
Earlier, I had seen a shark on the surface at close range, but that lone sighting ultimately became the anti-climax of a month of tying, rigging, and pondering how to be among the first to hook and land a salmon shark—which average 350 pounds—on a fly rod.
This was possible, it seemed, because salmon sharks cruise into Prince William Sound en masse each spring in search of salmon and herrings. But the only one I’ll see on the only day I get to fish for them appears 30 minutes into a planned three-day trip.
We are drifting out beyond the blue-ice tongues of the Kenai and Chugach, scanning the glassy surface, when the deckhand, E. J., says, “Shark.” He announces this very matter of fact, as if he has just spotted a turtle or the four o’clock bus.
With me on the bow, 14-weight in hand, Bob motors over to the lingering surface swirl, and when the shark lazily rolls again 15 feet to my left, I can clearly see its characteristically mottled belly and pointed snout. But I barely get a cast off before he is a hundred feet away, fading into the depths.
“Four hundred pounder,” E. J. says calmly, and that is it. He walks back to the wheelhouse to monitor the sounder, leaving me pie-eyed and speechless, heart racing at the prospect of latching on to such a fish.
FRONTIER FLY FISHING
Taking salmon sharks on a fly has been a topic of discussion among a small number of Alaskan guides and anglers for at least a couple of years. But few, if any, had given it serious consideration until this summer, when the effort seemed to get quite serious.
Two weeks after my weathered-out trip, Captain Bob was fishing with an Anchorage client named John Ellsworth and his son, Johnny. On the way in from a day of trolling plugs for sharks, Bob mentioned our effort, and furthermore, that salmon sharks, given their size and numbers, might be just the species for setting a world record for the biggest fish ever caught on a fly rod.
“Johnny turned to me immediately and said, “I want to do that,” recalls Captain Bob. “And then about three weeks later he called and said he had the gear and wanted to book.”
Convinced that our problem had largely been one of fly action, Captain Bob consulted with an Anchorage fly tier to construct weighted flies that would stay deep and jig while drifting rather than flutter. And so, armed with heavy flies and a 15-weight rod and 14-weight reel, Johnny Ellsworth flew to Seward the evening before the trip. They picked up Bob and took off again to scout for sharks in the sound. That evening, they spotted a school of sharks slinking along behind waves of nervous salmon, and by 5 a.m. the next morning they were motoring out of port in rough seas.
When they finally located the sharks, which were a couple of miles from where they’d been the night before, Ellsworth peeled off 90 to 100 feet of 550-grain line and began drifting. Rather than strip retrieve, however, Bob had him reel the fly in at a constant pace to keep the weighted fly moving.
So it went for a few hours, until the crew spotted a shark shadowing the fly 20 feet back and 10 feet down. It submerged and circled beneath the boat, giving Ellsworth time to strip off some more sinking line. When he had just about retrieved it to the leader, the shark hammered his fly. According to Captain Bob (who doesn’t believe salmon sharks react well to chum), the jigging motion of the fly was the key.
Ellsworth recalls the strike: “It just went crazy, zigzagging all over the place in a matter of seconds. Its first run was about 300 yards.” Ultimately, however, the shark threw the hook after about an hour and a half. But the crew estimated it to weigh 500 pounds, and Ellsworth immediately set about picking another fight.
“Bob, look at this,” he said. He let the rod dip two or three more times, and then gave a strip strike with everything he had. Then he hit the shark again.
“The fish went nearly four hundred yards on its first run,” says Ellsworth. “The reel was just smoking and whining.” Though they had hooked the shark in about 90 feet of water, it quickly went over a ledge into 500 feet of ocean.
The next two hours were a constant give-and-take struggle straight over the side, the least efficient way to fight a huge fish. But having never even fly fished in salt water before, much less for such big game, and with a captain unsure as to how much pressure a 30-pound tippet will allow, Ellsworth was pretty much reduced to trench warfare.
“He’d get the yellow line (running line) in, and we’d be all excited, and then the shark would take it all back, plus the backing. He did that ten times, says Candopolous.
At one point, the shark swam in a huge, two-mile-long figure-eight, with Captain Bob backing down on him for a couple of laps. What started out as an adrenaline rush had become a contest of wills between the shark and the kid.
More than three hours into the fight, and with the shark still peeling line, Johnny was beginning to wane. Fighting the shark through rain, fog, fleeting sun, and pitching seas, he’d bruised his reeling hand from index finger to thumb pad. Steam poured off his back, and his arms trembled. “Everything was hurting,” says Johnny. “My muscles were long gone, but it’s your mind that starts breaking down.”
Bob decided to try one all-or-nothing strategy to budge the shark. But it was already late, and they were three hours from home with no end in sight. Bob radioed the Coast Guard and gave them the numbers to Bob’s office and for Johnny’s parents.
I asked them to tell everyone we had a big shark,” says Bob, “and I told them that we’re not coming in until we either land it or lose it.”
During roughly the same time frame this Summer, at least two other parties of salmon shark anglers were setting out from Cordova with fly rods in hand. A group from Fish Alaska magazine tried their hand in early June, but they were using 130-pound Spectra 3 on downriggers rather than fly line, and after hours of indifference from a school of sharks, were reduced to hooking a horse herring on the fly. Eventually, they hooked up several sharks that way, most of which either straightened their hooks or cut them off by rolling up the line. But they did in fact bring one fish to the boat.
“These fish would head for deep water after about thirty minutes. I’d feel a thump, thump, thump, and then they’d be gone,” says Jordan. “But it didn’t feel like a roll. It felt like they were dragging the line over rocks.”
On the 13th fish, Jordan and Gibbs altered their strategy by racing toward deep water and fighting from the outside, forcing the shark back toward relatively shallow water (90 feet). “This one made the mistake of fighting on the surface, which was why we were able to land it,” says Jordan, an experienced bluewater fly fisherman with hundreds of sailfish to his credit. He estimates his salmon shark to have been 350 pounds. Gibbs also worked a 250-pounder within a few feet of the boat on IGFA legal tackle. But when asked how big the rest of the fish they fought were, Gibbs simply laughed and said, “Too big.”
THIS IS GONNA HURT
At about three and a half hours into the fight, 16-year-old Johnny Ellsworth was tapped out. Sweat-soaked and shaking, he looked at Bob and said, “I don’t think I can do it.”
In one-last ditch effort to pry the shark off the bottom, Captain Bob decided they needed more angle. “I told him he was going to lose a lot of line, but he said, ‘I don’t care. Just do it.’”
As Bob motored away, a couple of hundred yards of hard-won backing peeled off the reel. Ellsworth began cranking and pumping as fast as he could, and twice got a couple of wraps of running line around his spool. Twice the shark removed it.
At about the four-hour mark, the exhausted fish finally surfaced about 250 yards away, swimming parallel to the boat. Every time Captain Bob tried to head it off, however, the fish simply moved away, but he finally maneuvered the boat across its snout, and the first lengths of black sinking line surfaced. In a final, gut-it-out heave, Ellsworth pumped the shark alongside. Captain Bob leapt over the stern rail and onto the swing deck and grabbed the leader. It took four men wielding five gaffs to lift the shark aboard. Several hours later, they weighed in at the Seward docks with, by all accounts, one of the first salmon sharks ever boated by fly rod. At 279.8 pounds, it was a smaller-than-average specimen. It was also male, which Candopoulos says are smaller but much harder fighting than females. “A female probably would have burned out in half the time,” he says.
As for Captain Bob, he’s now a convert to fly fishing. “I’ve watched over twelve hundred landings on that boat and have pretty much seen everything that can happen with a salmon shark. But when you’ve never even seen someone catch a trout on a fly rod, and here you are watching someone fight an apex predator on thirty-pound test… it was the most amazing thing I’ve witnessed in twenty-five years as a charter captain,” says Captain Bob.
After reconfiguring his leader to IGFA standards, Ellsworth booked The Legend once more this past summer. They hooked and fought another shark, but lost it after an hour and a half. And with that, a summer of experimentation and adventure came to a close. With September bearing down, any thoughts of setting records or refining techniques were retired until next summer.
“We will go back out, and he will get a world record. He’s determined,” says Captain Bob. “When we found out that first shark wouldn’t qualify he was pretty disappointed. But it’s like I told him: The record is not in some book. The record is in your heart.” ✦