Shark on fly
In an effort to broaden his horizons with a fly rod, David Wolsoncroft-Dodds goes in pursuit of blue sharks off the Pembrokeshire coast.
Going to sea in a small boat has always been good for my soul. Realising that there is a whole other world surrounding our island nation helps me to feel part of life’s wonder and mystery. Wielding a fly rod without another boat in view and with the shore out of sight makes me understand that there are features and happenings below the waves.
An intrepid band of three chaps set sail from Milford Haven one August morning, on a fishing trip that was sure to take all of us out of our comfort zones. Skipper Andrew Alsop powered his White Water Charter boat towards the Celtic Deep. He has a fully justified reputation as a top shark fishing skipper and was confident that we would catch.
Tim Westcott and I had spent several evenings constructing bite traces from 400lb breaking strain wire and fitting them with enormous tube flies, tied to suggest baitfish. Our big saltwater fly reels had been loaded with hundreds of yards of microfilament backing. We had special Rio Leviathan fly lines built on much stronger cores than conventional lines. Brandon Davies, one of my regular pike guiding clients, had researched tackle and equipment, and our knots had been rigorously tested – we were ready for the adventure!
My alarm clock hadn’t been necessary – I was too excited to sleep heavily. Tim arrived at my cottage in North Wiltshire at 3:30am and we headed west.
The morning dawned calm and clear and we brewed tea on the dock whilst the skipper fuelled and loaded the boat. It was a long trip to the fishing grounds over the Celtic Deep, but worth it. Several pods of dolphins frolicked alongside us during the journey, and as Andrew killed the engines and swung us broadside on to the drift, a pod of minke whales surrounded the boat and checked us over.
Andrew mashed pieces of mackerel, mixed in bran and packed the chum into a container with holes which was tied to a rope and lobbed over the side. A steady trickle of oil and fishy bits formed a slick to arouse the interest of any sharks in the vicinity.
It worked. Ten minutes after paying my fly out with the drift and working it in the current, something tried to rip my arm off! I tightened the drag on my reel, struck by pulling back hard with my rod and hung on as a fish larger and stronger than anything I had ever hooked before tried to pull me overboard! The first run was unstoppable. The skipper panicked as my reel fizzed audibly and my backing followed my fly line towards the horizon. Because my microfilament backing was so fine (despite its breaking strain of 80lbs) he was worried I didn’t have enough on the reel. I reassured him and settled into playing my first shark. After a couple more long runs high in the water, the fish changed tactics and crash dived, bending my 14wt Redington into an alarming curve. Resolutely pumping the beast up from the depths, it felt as if someone had stuck a red-hot knife into my biceps. Andrew told me I couldn’t rest but had to keep battling the fish. If I gave it respite, it would recover as quickly as me and I would never get it to the boat.
It took 15 minutes to bring the shark alongside us. I have fought fish for 15 minutes many times before, but on fly rods no heavier than a 10wt. This had been very different. I hadn’t been ‘playing’ the fish, rather I had been engaged in a gruelling physical battle. Andrew took hold of the leader and gripped the 400lb bite trace. The door on the side of the deck was opened and the shark was smoothly slid on board.
I have since been asked, “How do you cope with unhooking a shark?!” My answer is simple, “I don’t!” A blue shark has an impressive armoury of teeth and demands utmost respect. Such matters are best left to those who know what they are doing. Andrew held the shark firmly, crushed down the barb on the big 10/0 hook and slipped it out. He calmly lifted the fish and, after an obligatory photo shoot, returned it to the water. I leant against the wheelhouse and took a rest!
The action was hectic. Over the next five hours we brought 20 sharks to the boat. Rods were bent; muscles ached and adrenaline surged. I marvelled at the blue sharks’ dazzling colours. Tim’s biggest fish, weighing an impressive 151lb, was reckoned to be the heaviest blue shark of the year (at that point in time) from the Welsh coast. Apart from the shark that we caught, we also saw many more cruising in the chum slick. Several times my fly line – marred by our quarry’s rough, sandpaper skin – was bumped by other fish as I was wrestling with a hooked shark. We saw dolphins flash under the boat, and pulsating jellyfish, too. Fulmars were also attracted by the slick, but they soon realised that it wasn’t safe to sit on the surface as the blue sharks surged upwards!
Time passed quickly. There were no slack periods to let us draw breath. This was full-on, non-stop pyrotechnics! Alas, Andrew eventually had to bring us down off the high and ask us to break down our rods and safely stow our tackle and baggage ready for the return journey.
The long ride back was a white-knuckle ride – the 200hp engine powering us towards the boatyard, bouncing on the swell. I felt as if I had hitched a ride on Boadicea’s chariot!
Once back on firm land, we settled down for a brew and relaxed prior to the drive home. Tim and I were still high on the excitement of the day. We talked incessantly and planned how we were going to catch even bigger beasties on the next trip.
This isn’t an adventure for the die-hard, purist fly fisher. The sharks were attracted by the chum slick. We didn’t make graceful casts with our 14wt fly rods. The heavy wire bite traces and the long rubbing leaders (to protect against the shark’s abrasive skin) meant that we simply lobbed our big tube flies over the side. We also attached a lask of mackerel to the 10/0 hook. But, whilst we weren’t practising the ‘gentle art of fly fishing’, it was dramatically exciting sport. The sea over the Celtic Deep is amazingly clear and we were able to watch as the sharks hit our flies with gusto.
Make no mistake, blue shark fight hard, and our 14wt rods gave us direct contact that let us feel every powerful surge. Interestingly, blue sharks don’t have swim bladders so have to swim continuously to avoid drowning. This means they are lean, lithe, solid with muscle and not lacking in stamina.
Battling a succession of hefty sharks to the boat is a real workout. The following morning, I felt as though I had fought 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. My hands were racked with cramps and I had to keep bending my fingers back. The area we fished is deep which means there can be swells to test the stomach of even the hardiest of sailors. We now resort to Scopoderm patches which are worn behind the ear and provide reliable protection against the symptoms of sea-sickness.
Shark fishing on fly is a real adventure for the fly fisher wishing to broaden their horizons and experience the thrill of playing a genuinely big fish on a rod that bends to the cork.
This fishery is a wonderful resource. If you were in the pub, talking about fly fishing for blue shark and catching 20 in a session, the people at the bar would assume that you had downed one too many glasses. Talk of dolphins, minke whales and even the huge fin whales, which are regularly sighted over the Celtic Deep, would surely confirm their assumptions.
Back in the 1960s, huge numbers of sharks were caught off the coast of Cornwall. Boats returned to harbour in Looe or Mevagissey with pennants flying to indicate the number of shark carcasses they had on-board. Since 1994, however, the Shark Angling Club of Great Britain (based in Looe) has promoted catch and release. Andrew Alsop’s White Water Charters, operating from Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, follows their lead. The number of sharks in the off-shore area of deep water that he covers is phenomenal. The conservation approach adopted by the skippers working out of south-west Wales should help ensure that their shark fishing remains truly world class.
Every year, British anglers jet off to exotic saltwater destinations. Many simply don’t realise that they can enjoy fabulous, productive sport off our own coast. It is affordable excitement, and every bit as thrilling as in those glamorous, far-flung locations. Indeed, Tim and I are now investigating 16wt rods and musing on the prospect of catching the even larger porbeagle sharks off the Welsh coast. Yes, we are well and truly hooked!