Summer of the Shark

In pursuit of a really large fish with a very small stick.

Saltwater Fly Fishing
December 2004/January 2005

Capt. Bob Candopoulos does get excited. He’ll be sitting there crammed into the wheelhouse of his 53-foot charter boat—The Legend—legs crossed against the helm and steering with his bum knee, when all of a sudden he will lean across the cockpit to tell you what he really thinks.

“I’m telling you,” Bob barks, spit cup in hand. “This ain’t no lemon shark down on some flat in the Keys. This is a coldwater, oceangoing, high… speed… motherf—er!”

And just when you think he’s riled, his whole frame explodes with a laugh that could shake the barnacles off a whale.

“That’s right. Write it down!” he bellows, then goes back to quietly watching Resurrection Cape come ’round the bow, signaling our entrance into bay waters and the final leg to Seward, Alaska. Out here, glaciers lap at the ocean rim, while sea lions lounge on rocky cliffs drip-painted with the chalky indelicacies of kittiwakes and gulls. You see orcas, porpoises, giant otters.

This is also halibut country, and Bob is a halibut captain. But he is foremost a shark fisherman, and we had been busy that day trying to make his 1,200th or so salmon shark the fleet’s first caught on a fly. Cousin to the mako and great white, the salmon shark (Lamna ditropis) is by all accounts one of the fastest fish in the ocean, a toothy torpedo that weighs on average 350 to 400 pounds. They range from Baja to Japan, but in summer they move into Prince William Sound by the thousands, where they roam the surface hunting salmon.

Although Alaska’s conventional-tackle fishery for salmon sharks is well established, very few anglers had gone after them with a fly rod. So we paired up with Captain Bob to give it a try. He catches more than 100 per summer on traditional gear and has as much experience with the species as anyone, a fascination sparked years ago when the first one he’d ever seen came busting out of the deep blue behind his charter boat and ripped a struggling halibut in half like a pit bull on a pancake.

Since then he has taken out hundreds of shark anglers, researchers, filmmakers, writers, and editors, and yet the salmon shark remains one of the ocean’s more obscure big-game fish. To expand the knowledge base of his favorite quarry, Bob once FedExed a frozen 300-pounder to the Scripps Oceanographic Institute for study (the kind of thing one does up there in the twenty-third hour of daylight, perhaps).

Fighting his fish to mutual exhaustion in up to 500 feet of water, it took him four hours and ten minutes to land it.

But in any case, big fish inspire big ambitions, and Bob had hoped to bring home a world-record fish on The Legend. I just wanted to bring home some sort of story, and whether we ever landed one or not, I wanted to simply feel the power of something that strong connected to my own pulse by the thin telegraph of line and leader—and 800 yards of backing.

I did see several sharks, and fellow editor David Foster of Gray’s Sporting Journal did inspire one to follow a huge herring fly I’d tied. But in the end, we traveled 2,500 miles for one day of fishing. The rest of the trip was weathered out, and we were left to only imagine what it would be like to hook such a fish on a fly rod.

As it turns out, we were not alone in that curiosity. About a month later, word trickled south that a 16-year-old high school kid from Anchorage had boated a nearly three-hundred-pound, fly-caught salmon shark on The Legend. Fighting his fish to mutual exhaustion in up to 500 feet of water, it took him four hours and ten minutes to land it. During roughly that same week, two other fly anglers leadered a salmon shark on IGFA-legal gear, after hooking and losing 18 of them.

All of a sudden, it seemed that salmon sharks were straightening hooks from Seward to Cordova, and it now appears that fly fishing for them is here to stay, at least as a somewhat esoteric pursuit. And there is, after all, a little fish story to tell about one really big fish. Both the tales and the fish are bound to get bigger next summer, but in the meantime, the rest of what I can tell you about it begins on page 56. ✦