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Chapter One: It Changes Everything
When you're fly-fishing for sharks, the line between lunacy and sanity is pretty thin. Twelve miles off the San Diego coast, former grunge rocker Conway Bowman stopped the eighteen-foot aluminum boat with the upswept bow. The sea lifted us. We were just beyond the bank where the Pacific Ocean's floor plummets from fifty fathoms to three hundred, where an upwell brings food to the surface.
Sharks like it here. Conway likes it here.
At thirty, he's a handsome guy, lean and hard and tan, with a three-day stubble and closely cut hair. He wore a fleece jacket, khaki shorts, tennis shoes, Orvis sunglasses, and a wide straw hat. He was excited and intent, couldn't wait to get out there, but he forced himself to stay within the bay speed limit. The motor growled. We passed a lolling cigarette boat.
"More gauges than a spaceship," he said, squinting at it.
Several kayakers were leaning into the offshore wind and heading out to sea. Some kayakers paddle five miles out with their fishing gear to catch giant sea bass. Sometimes they're joined by even hardier breeds, belly boaters anglers suspended in fancy inner tubes and surfboard anglers. Like the kayakers, the surfboard anglers paddle out in their wet suits, rod held in their teeth, a fanny pack around their waist to hold lures and snippers. These anglers favor kelp forests or the floating kelp beds that break away in storms or are chewed loose from their rock anchors by sea urchins; the beds attract yellowtail, dorado, rockfish, and opaleye. Suspended, feet dangling, the belly-boat and surfboard fishers move above the kelp forest, watch it twine down into darkness. They sit out there all day and sometimes at night, listening to the hissing and popping of life in the kelp.
Here's how extreme it gets. On July 7, 1998, Scot Cherry, a 6 feet 4 inches tall surfboard angler, caught a 140-pound thresher shark while fishing a mile and a half off La Jolla. It was nearly as long as Cherry's 13-foot longboard. During the forty-five-minute fight, the shark towed Cherry for five miles at about 10 knots fast enough to create a wake behind the board. Cherry's ambition is to surf behind a shark.
Compared to these anglers, Conway seems...conservative.
Over the noise of the engine and the pounding of the hull, Conway described his earliest memories, which were of fishing.
I remember my father, this big man walking into the kitchen with albacore as long as his leg. I'd watch the way he cleaned the fish with authority. I'd sit on the floor and just look at him.
We'd go fishing every weekend. He'd get me up when it was still dark. The mornings always smelled like pipe tobacco. I remember his Ford Falcon, and his hat, and his red checkered Filson jacket, and his boots. I still have those boots. He didn't use them anymore, so I just took them. Up until a few years ago, I used to wear them when I fished. They're in my closet now.
I must have been about three years old. It was a very cold February day. My father and I were out fishing on Lake Jennings, and I remember he had on this big white coat with a big woolen collar. He was sitting there baiting my hook and he threw it out and we were using cheese bait. I got hit. He set the hook, and handed the rod back to me, and I'm reeling and reeling. It was a large trout. I was really excited and so was he. He went down and took it off the hook and put it on a stringer and put it in the water, turned around, and I went into the water after the fish. Just to play with it, you know.
This was the middle of February, it was probably thirty-two degrees out. I remember him getting into the water and just taking me, you know, and running me up to the car and putting me in the car and taking me home. With the fish of course.
Conway pushed the throttle and lifted the Bayrunner bow over the first swells outside the bay. We were headed out into the high rolling sea now. My fourteen-year-old son Jason was with us. He was wearing dark glasses, a black tee shirt, and a kind of seasick scowl. In recent months, he and I had been having difficulty talking for the first time since he was little. Perhaps a little fly-fishing for sharks would help. Something new for both of us.
Still, I had not realized that the boat would be this...small.
We watched delicate, silver fish skim through the tops of the waves next to the boat. A morning chop like this usually gives way to smooth seas once you get farther out. Off on the sea, dark shapes, like quarter moons, floated above the waves, down and up, down and up.
"Porpoise," said Conway, smiling. "They'll come right at us."
"Look at 'em, Jason," I said to my quiet son. "There must be what, fifteen?"
"We can probably hear them," said Conway.
He turned off the engine. We heard nothing. "Sometimes it takes five minutes for the whole school to go through. That was a small school. When pilot whales pass by, you can hear them through the aluminum hull their high squeal." The arc of the world moved up and then down, and up again. He held a Magellan-Meridian Excel Global Positioning System on which he had programmed the hot spots for sharks, the coordinates of his sightings since January. These were marked by flags on the screen. After a few minutes of drifting silently, listening, he started the engine again and we moved out.
He stood, watching intently. "We're looking for signs of life: bait fish, birds on top of the bait fish, even subtle irregularities in the surface, which could, for instance, signal puddling yellowtail tuna "
"What do you mean, puddling?"
"They're just kind of up, slurping on the surface. So you're constantly watching for that. Also, you're reading the water. For instance, right in front of us, you see this slick?" Not the oil slick, he said, but a slight change in the texture of the water beyond it, a smoothing. "It's a current break. Fish like current breaks. Usually in a current break, on either side, there's a temperature difference and you always want to fish the warmer side of it. So you're always looking for things like that. These details usually will guide you right to the fish."
He cut the engine again. We were nine miles out. Land was a thin strip of memory. We floated above the inner edge of the Nine Mile Bank, where the depth drops abruptly from fifty fathoms to three hundred; the current far below hits a mountainside and shoots upward, producing an upwelling of water that disgorges biomass concentrated plant and animal life from the deep and splays it out along the surface. The biomass attracts smaller fish, and these draw larger predators.
We'll fish here, Conway said, and drift to twelve miles out.
From the front of the slowly pitching boat, he hauled out a crate of commercial "Shark and Fish Chum" and tied it to the back corner of the boat. The top edge was only inches from the water, and when the bow lifted, the stern dipped close to the surface. The box had holes in it, from which bits of fish and fish oil oozed and created a lengthening, widening slick behind us. As the boat drifted, the bluish sheen spread out over the green troughs and moved up and over the edge of the swells and disappeared.
Conway loves to come out here alone in the cool mist and chum the water and wait and then stand on the heaving center console as eight- and ten-foot blue sharks circle. His fly line floating in long fluid loops, he casts to the most aggressive sharks.
Conway makes his living supervising recreation on a nearby city reservoir, but hopes to be one of the first guides on the West Coast to make a living taking anglers out to fly-fish for sharks. This is how fishing cultures get started, by the passion of one angler.
What is it about fishing that attracts you? I asked.
"I don't know, I think it's the tranquillity of it, just being on the water. The water really has something to do with it. Also, the freedom. I fish by myself much of the time. I think it's just me, getting away maybe. I don't know, some people say it's an escape. All the girlfriends I've had 'You're just escaping from reality' or something like that. But I'm most happy here."
I told him I always think of it as escaping to reality.
"Exactly!" he said, grinning. "That's the way I look at it." He pulled out another white bucket filled with chunks of mackerel and sliced them into smaller pieces. On most trips, he catches his own mackerel, but today he was in a hurry, and used the commercial bait. "I think it's the freedom, the sense of accomplishment. Fishing makes you feel worthy, it makes me feel worthy."
"You've done something, you've actually...I don't know how to describe it."
The slick stretched out behind us, widening. "Sometimes in the chunk slick, when there's a lot of birds, it means there's going to be a lot of sharks. They usually don't catch the birds but they do go after their feet."
Sharks are attracted to minute currents that come from the reaction of certain metals in contact with one another. The electrical impulses likely mimic the spark of life that means food in the shark's world. So Conway places a zinc plate on the bottom of the metal boat. "It causes some kind of energy that really gets them going," he said. The smallest sharks come in first, followed by the larger sharks, which often arrive a couple hours into the fishing. He wanted to slow the boat's drift, so he tossed out a driftback a kind of water-dragging parachute.
The slick deepened in color.
"People have a preconceived notion that sharks are vicious. Well, not really. Not most of them. Not the blue sharks. Fishing for blues is actually very much like catfishing, which I like to do, too. You sit, you do a lot of pondering. But then you see them coming, which is different from catfishing."
As we waited, he rigged the rods. He uses what he calls chunk flies, simple attractors that imitate (purist fly-fishers will not be impressed) the pieces of fish we were throwing behind us. Usually he sight-casts to the first sharks coming in, before they get to the chum bucket attached to the boat. If they reach the chum bucket they become spoiled by the ease of it. Because the day was overcast, it would be difficult to sight-cast.
A fin cut the water with a distinctive hiss.
"They're early," he said. Usually, the sharks take forty-five minutes or so to show up, but there was something different about this day. Five or six blue sharks, four to five feet long, circled us. One glided up to the boat, stuck its head out of the water, bared its teeth in a hideous smile, and proceeded to gnaw on the top of the chum box. The surface of the water was only a few inches from the top of the boat's stern railing, and the sharks were only a few feet away this one was less than two feet from my leg.
Conway handed me an oily chum bucket and instructed Jason and me to begin flinging the finger-sized chunks of fish into the sea.
Then he froze. "We have a situation here," he said.
"What do you mean situation?" I said.
"We have a mako."
Something about the way he said mako made me want to be home watching a National Geographic special.
As Conway took a 12-weight flyrod from a vertical rod holder, he explained why he considered this a situation. The slender, deep-water blue shark can be dim-witted, almost passive like a catfish that wouldn't mind having you for dinner. But the powerful mako, or mackerel shark, which can grow to over twelve feet and one thousand pounds, slices through the water like a jet fighter at speeds that sometimes exceed sixty miles per hour. When hooked, a mako tends to fly out of the water into a boat, jaws snapping: Jumps of twenty to thirty feet have been recorded. Essentially, the mako is a smaller version of the great white shark, but more aggressive.
Conway practices catch-and-release for ecological as well as safety reasons. "You do not want one of these fish in the boat with you," he said dryly. Thirty-two attacks on humans and fifteen boat attacks have been recorded, not a big number, unless you're in the number. He told us of one angler who had met his mako this way. "He had the shark hooked; it ran to sea then turned around and charged back, flew into the boat, and bit the fisherman's thigh. Cut the femoral artery. The guy bled to death in twenty minutes."
Makos, in their way, don't get mad. They get even. A few years ago, a ten-foot mako jumped out of the water and into the boat of a sixty-nine-year-old Fijian fisher. "Immediately, the shark proceeded to eat the fisherman," according to a newspaper report. "His five stunned shipmates tried to kill the shark, but were unable to either stop the attack or remove the shark from both the boat and their friend in time." Another, larger mako attacked a crew of four Fijians. "That crew was unable to remove the shark because of various injuries inflicted upon all of the boat's occupants."
The mako circling us was nearly six feet long. "Are you ready?" said Conway. "This is the ultimate fish on the flyrod. This is the first one I've seen out here. Look at him go! Look at him go!"
He handed me the flyrod.
"No, you do the first cast. It's your record." After Conway's stories, I wasn't too sure I wanted to hook the thing anyway.
"Jesus, can I?" he said, laughing.
"Of course! What do you mean, can you? Of course. It's your boat."
Conway's hands were trembling. His face had lost its ruddy color. If he caught this fish, he believed he would be the first fly-fisher to catch a mako off San Diego.
He lifted the rod and flipped a three-inch fly in front of the shark.
The fin hissed past, slicing the slick, the nose of the thing at a slight downward angle. It looked and swam nothing like the blues. It looked...mechanical, streamlined like a torpedo. The mako's back was bluish gray with an odd golden-brown reflection on top, gray on the sides, with a flashing white belly.
The fish was not eating, but cruising slowly, watching. If the mako became agitated enough, Conway explained, it would take one of the blue sharks. "If the blue is chewing the chum box or on a fly line, the mako will come up and bite its tail off and then eat him." This mako seemed meditative, focused. It made a wide arc and disappeared. Our hands were bloody from the chum, but none of us would wash them in the seawater.
Jason was standing at the bow of the boat, watching from behind his sunglasses. I was glad he was there, instead of at the stern. But I did not want to show my concern, just as, I am sure, he did not wish to show his. In fact, this felt good. It felt terrific, and probably not as much of a situation as Conway was making it out to be.
The shark returned, swerved past the boat, skimming the surface. I stepped back from the side of the boat.
Conway raised the fly above his head and back, and looped the line out over the water. It landed in the slick and moved with the swell. The little blue shark shimmied up to the fly and bumped it with his nose, which was good, said Conway, because it could agitate the mako. This was the moment of truth.
The mako paused just under the surface, ten feet from us. Suspicious, perhaps. Conway pulled the chum fly from the water and cast again, dropped it a few feet ahead of the shark as it made a small turn away from us. The mako slid two feet forward, its dorsal fin out of the water, opened its mouth slightly.
The fly disappeared.
Conway pulled the tip of his rod high in the air. Nothing. The shark had effortlessly bitten through the steel leader and taken the fly with it.
Rather than tie on a new fly, Conway quickly returned the 12-weight flyrod to the holder and picked out a lighter, 9-weight rod with chum fly already rigged. He did not expect the mako to return, but he wanted to be ready. He said the shark's run had been perfect because it was headed away from the boat, at an angle. He told me that if he hooked the mako, I would have to pilot the boat and chase the shark on fast runs of seventy-five to one hundred yards, and prepare for it to leap clear of the water like a marlin or swordfish. Conway's tackle was too light to bring the fish in directly.
Now the ocean seemed empty. The little blues had disappeared. We were drifting fast, nearly to the twelve-mile point, which may have explained the blues' behavior. The boat lifted on a swell, settled in a trough.
Then suddenly the mako was in front of us, three feet off the stern. It slipped around the corner, now inches from the boat. Conway dropped the fly in front of it. The shark moved forward.
Just before it could take the fly, he pulled up on his rod.
The fly dangled in the air. The mako flashed out of sight. This time for good.
Why had he thrown away his opportunity, his chance to establish a record to reach his goal?
"Too dangerous," he whispered. His voice was still excited, but with an edge of disappointment. "I couldn't do it. The shark was too close to the boat. It was too dangerous, especially with your son on board." Besides, he added, hooking a fish inches from the boat just wouldn't seem...right.
He turned the boat, and, with the engine grinding, we moved back to the nine-mile edge of the drop-off, stopped, and began the drift again. Conway looked up at the overcast, which was thickening, and felt the stiffening wind. If the wind increased, we would return. His boat was too small to handle large swells.
The blues came up to the new chum slick, and Conway handed the 9-weight to my son. Jason flipped the chum fly to a cruising blue, which took it, and Jason hauled it in, a look of sudden lightning in his usually quiet eyes. The shark, a kind of charcoal blue, shot this way and that and rolled frantically. Conway reached down with a thickly gloved hand, grabbed the fifteen-or sixteen-pound blue just behind its head, and twisted it out of the water. Its mouth was open wide, flashing, and Conway took a pair of pliers in his other hand and unhooked the fish.
"Did you like that, Jason?"
"Yeah. It was okay." He was grinning despite himself. So was I.
Conway handed me a rod, and I caught a blue. Conway usually unhooks them quickly in the water but this time, for each of us, he pulled a fish out of the water and held it up, its teeth flashing, and we posed for photographs, all of us smiling, feeling alive.
Hooking the mako had changed things. Now the waves had an added snap to them, serrated white ridges along their tops, and the wind was coming up. As we packed the gear, returned the rods to the upright holder, hauled in the chum box, he said he realized that some fly-fishers, the purists at least, look down their noses at fly-fishing for sharks, at flies tied to look like chunks of flesh.
"There's so much emphasis on being correct and perfect, on wearing the right clothes and using the right equipment. What I like about fishing for sharks is that it's very basic maybe the most basic form of fly-fishing you can do, even more basic than pan fishing with a fly-rod, because there's basically only one choice of fly. And maybe it seems more...primitive. You're sight-fishing, you're hunting."
And then he told me about one of his fishing dreams. "I've always thought about opening a fly shop, a different kind of fly shop." His eyes drifted off to the towers of the approaching urban skyline. "I'd have good outdoor literature in it. It would be a tackle shop, a bookstore, and a coffee shop also. It might even have its own microbrewery. Beer and coffee and fishing. Maybe a bagel or two. People would sit around and tell lies about their fishing. Not just go in, buy something, and get the hell out, but stick around, have some coffee, work at a fly-tying bench, tie flies, and tell some lies. Some good stories."
Hey, I said, you could call it "Flybucks."
"Well, it wouldn't just be about bucks. It would be about something that the fishing writer Russell Chatham said: It would be about going somewhere you didn't have to kiss one undeserving ass that you didn't have to."
Conway headed his little boat toward the thin line of smog and shore.
As the boat entered the bay, and he throttled down, he talked about second thoughts: how he wished he had taken the mako. "Silly, but when I first saw the mako, I felt kind of...threatened. He made me feel very uneasy when I saw him coming on to the line. The mako cocked his head to one side, looked at the boat, almost like he was saying, 'What are you doing in my area?' He has no enemies, you know, except us. And we have him."
In the months since our trip, Conway has returned often to the upwell. He's pursuing his dream, slowly moving away from his city job and out to sea, into the role of charter captain. He told me recently how he took a friend out fishing, and the friend, seasick, leaned over the edge and personally chummed the water just as a seven-foot mako roared by.
"That was a big fish," said his friend.
Conway decided then and there to buy a bigger boat.
He finally hooked and caught a mako on a flyrod a six-foot, one-hundred-pound shark. A friend piloted the boat. They chased the fish for an hour. Conway brought the mako in and quickly released it, so the record remained unofficial. And then he sat down, knees shaking.
Copyright © 2000 by Richard Louv