Angling guide David Wolsoncroft-Dodds experiences ‘jawsome’ sport as he tackle’s shark on the fly off the UK coast…
Some years ago, while on a boat fly fishing for pike, my friend Tim Westcott and I mused on the possibilities of pursuing even larger and toothier beasties with our fly rods. We joked about chasing tope and even blue sharks with huge baitfish streamers. At some point these deranged musings changed from mindless prattle into serious discussions as to how we could go about it.
Andrew Alsop's White Water charter boat... a little different from thos we use on the Midlands reservoirs!
Tim researched knots and tackle requirements, I investigated (with help from the good people at Guide Flyfishing who import Sage and Redington kit) rods and reels. We looked at engineering flies that would both appeal to the sharks and survive being chomped.
It wasn’t long before we had sorted out the equipment issues and Tim proceeded to book us onto the White Water charter boat skippered by the redoubtable Andrew Alsop. His reputation as the top man for catching sharks out from Milford Haven is legendary (and wholly justified). We discovered that you need to book more dates than you want to fish because the weather gods seem to delight in frustrating the plans and ambitions of flyfishers. Over the last three years, more than half the dates we have booked have been blown off. The ‘unusual’ extreme weather that we have experienced of late can no longer be regarded as unusual!
Blue Shark Bounty
Tim flew solo on the first trip in 2014 – some serious health issues meant that I was in hospital. His results were mind-bogglingly good. He brought nine blue sharks to the boat with his 14wt fly rod and spent the following few days in a euphoric haze, nursing pains in muscles he hadn’t known existed.
Eventually, I managed to join in the fun and we enjoyed phenomenal sport. Our catch rates were far beyond any reasonable expectations. If anyone had eavesdropped on our conversations in the bar, they would have assumed we had drunk too much or were completely bonkers! Twenty sharks to the boat on every session meant that we experienced frantic action. A blue shark heading for the horizon puts a serious bend in a 14wt fly rod and makes your reel fizz! After my first take, Andrew asked if I had felt the shark mouthing my fly. I replied: “No – it just tried to rip my arm off!” Make no mistake, these beasties are seriously strong and battling them, one on one with a fly rod and a direct-action reel, is a severe workout! Blue sharks (like all sharks) have to swim all the time. They don’t have a swim bladder so, if they took a rest, they would sink through the depths and drown. This means they are supremely fit and need to be played hard to keep them moving. If you take a rest to ease your aching biceps, the shark will recover faster than you and you will never bring it to the boat. Smaller fish of 60 to 80lb are reasonably straightforward but larger beasties (we had them to well over 100lb) take some lifting if they have dived under the boat – we were fishing water that was more than 300 feet deep.
David Wolsoncroft-Dodds looks worried as a probeagle charges away! Is there enough backing on the reel?
Your tackle has to be completely sound and reliable – it’s going to be severely stressed! There can be no excuse for leaving a 10/0 hook in a shark trailing several yards of heavy wire. Every blue shark we hooked (other than the occasional one that dropped off) was brought aboard via the tuna door and expertly unhooked and released by Andrew. I have often been asked how we cope with unhooking these beasties. I put on an outrageously posh accent, wave my hand dismissively and explain that ‘our man’ takes care of such mundane matters.
David feels the burn as a powerful blue shark heads for the horizon while Tim Westcott winds his line in as fast as he can.
The action can be pretty frantic! On our trip last August, Andrew drove the boat hard for a couple of hours. He turned us broadside onto the drift and heaved the chum container over the side of the boat (this is a plastic carboy with holes to slowly release a trickle of oily mashed mackerel mixed with bran to attract the sharks). I had the first hook-up just 10 minutes into the drift. The powerful blue stripped out all of my fly line and my big Sage reel purred as the backing peeled off and shot through the rings. Andrew was alarmed – did I have enough backing on my reel? I reassured him that 500 yards of Gigafish Microfilament was loaded on my recessed spool – if that wasn’t enough, we had real problems!
From then on, the sport was fast and furious. When someone first hooks up, the other chaps reel in. The first runs are high in the water, fast and long. Later the blue dives and you slug it out with the shark deep below the boat. At this point the others can get their flies back in the water. Throughout the five-hour fishing session, we had a shark on virtually all the time and often we had a double hook-up.
The sport was amazing – so too was the wildlife experience. We had a pod of minke whales surface around the boat and saw more dolphins than anyone would believe – a pod came and danced in and out of our wake when we were heading back to the boat yard. There is also every chance of spotting fin whales. It is good for an Englishman’s soul to experience this other world off our coastline.
Tim and I felt we had got a grip on catching blue shark with our fly rods. Could we take flysharking to an even more extreme level? We had to give it a go and decided that we would target the larger, altogether meaner, porbeagle shark. We knew that they visited shallow water off the coast of north Cornwall in spring where, we reasoned, they would be a more realistic proposition than over deeper water. We found a skipper who specialised in catching these beasties (with conventional tackle) and set about persuading him to take us out.
Jerry Rogers of Fastcats understands porbeagles. He is a hugely knowledgeable skipper and can put you on the fish at the right time. He was highly sceptical about us using fly rods. He didn’t think our experience with catching blue sharks was adequate preparation for the much larger and much more powerful porbeagles. I explained that we had more robust rods than were generally available in the UK.
The 18wt Sharkmaster
A 16wt had been shipped in for me from the USA and my friend Mick Bell of Bloke Fly Rods had built me a ‘tool for the job’. Mick had been intrigued when he heard that Tim and I were determined to tangle with porbeagles. He rang me up and we talked at length about the characteristics that would be required in a rod suited to such a task. We agreed that lifting power would be far more important than casting finesse. A few days later a tube arrived containing the first ‘Bloke Sharkmaster 18wt’ – a 7ft, three-piece rod fitted with some serious lined rings.
Tim Westcott with our biggest blue shark of 2015. Caught in September, it weighed 151lb and (at the time of capture) was the biggest blue from the Welsh coast that year.
As of May 12th, 2016, to the best of our knowledge, the biggest fish taken from British waters on a fly rod was a porbeagle shark of 194lb. It had completely trashed the rod!
On May13th, Tim and I set out with the redoubtable skipper Jerry Rogers to a mark off the coast of north Cornwall. We had agreed that if our fly rods weren’t up to the job we would stop or use Jerry’s conventional tackle.
380lb Of Porbeagle
Ten minutes into the first drift, Tim had a take. The battle that followed was brutal! The Bloke Sharkmaster was bent into a hoop and the backing fizzed through the rings despite the full drag on the reel. Tim went through the pain barrier. Sweat poured from him. We passed him opened bottles of water and offered sympathy and encouragement. After almost an hour he was victorious – 380lb of ‘jawsome’ porbeagle shark was brought to the boat, measured and expertly released by Jerry.
Shortly afterwards, Tim had another take. He shook his head and silently handed me the rod. That fish got off after a few minutes. Later in the session, I brought a smaller porbeagle to the boat (hardly an anticlimax!).
A month has passed – I’m far from sure that Tim has recovered! Jerry is convinced. He has ordered a Sharkmaster rod and we are plotting the downfall of even more jawsome beasties in spring 2017.
Flysharking is not for the faint-hearted! When Tim and I got back to the boat yard after our August blue shark trip, we brewed 50 shades of Earl Grey tea to try and get back to normality. Neither of us could hold a cup! Every sinew felt as if it had been stretched by the Spanish Inquisition! Easing my battered body out of bed the following morning, I felt as if I had gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson.
Flysharking is not for the purist. Aesthetically pleasing casting isn’t possible with several yards of heavy wire bite guard and rubbing leader. The sharks are attracted in by an oily, fishy chum slick. We will even resort to attaching a lask of mackerel to the hook. It may not be pretty but it is muscle-wrenchingly exciting. We are fishing clear blue water and often see the shark come rocketing on to the fly. We aren’t using fighting chairs or harnesses – it’s a simple, one-on-one duel.
I’m looking forward to more adventures throughout this summer chasing yet more blue sharks. I will try to keep my impatience under control waiting for next spring and the chance to connect with jawsome porbeagles...
Hook – 10/0 Cox & Rawle Meat Hook Extra (these are supplied by Fishing Matters)
A huge baitfish streamer tied on a tube.
This is then mounted on a bite guard of AFW 49-strand shark trace (400lb) of around five feet, finished with a crimped Flemish loop.
This is attached (via a heavy-duty snap link) to a rubbing leader of AFW 49-strand shark trace (275lb) of around 12 feet. Sharks have skin like sandpaper, which would destroy a less robust leader. This is finished with a heavy-duty snap link that is attached to a short 100lb nylon link attached loop-to-loop to the fly line.
This allows the skipper to detach the hooked shark from your line and rod, reducing the risk of carnage and damage!
The fly line is a RIO Leviathan intermediate. This is built on a 70lb core. I’m not aware of any other fly line that is up to the job. I make a loop at the business end with three, eight-turn nail knots tied with 30lb fluorocarbon.
Lots of backing! I now use Gigafish Powerline Plus 80lb. It’s incredibly skinny and I can fit 500 yards on my reel.
A 14wt saltwater fly rod will cope with most blue sharks. I will be using my 16wt Sage Salt later in the season when they are at their heaviest. The Bloke Sharkmaster 18wt is the only fly rod I am aware of with the ‘grunt’ to tackle porbeagles.
Your reel needs to have a drag that would stop a Porsche! This, combined with strong leader, line and backing, will let you exert enough pressure to tire the shark. I use a Sage 8012 Pro.
One of Tim Westcott's big baitfish tube flies. Big flies for big fish
One of David's big baitfish tube flies. The big sage reel has a drag that can stop a Porsche and the 16-wt rod is perfect for the heavier, late season blue shark.
The big baitfish Streamer is tied on a tube. This means that it rides up the heavy wire trace and isn't trashed by the first shark that chomps it.
Every blue shark we caught in 2015 was brought aboard, expertly unhooked and properly released by Andrew Alsop
A full-time guide and writer, for many years David has been pushing the boundaries of fly fishing. He is best known for catching pike with a fly rod but is also an avid saltwater man. Recently he has been fly fishing for pollack over deep reefs and kelp, using tackle and techniques developed fishing for the huge lake trout in Northern Manitoba.