A Surreal Alaska Experience
by Marcus Weiner
Photos by Wayne Norris
Cordova—In a state known for both its numbers and varieties of sport fish, one species has stayed below the radar of many anglers. As a cousin of the Great White and mako sharks, the salmon shark lives in a shroud of mystery within the vast expanse of the North Pacific. Questions abound concerning the species. “What do they eat?” an inquisitive angler might ask. Or, more common yet, “How large dothey get?”
“How many live in the waters of Alaska?”
“Are they man-eaters?”
“How do you catch one, and am I even strong enough?” Well, salmon sharks do get quite large; fish over 500 pounds are not unheard of, and it can take considerable brawn on the part of the angler to land one. As to how many members of Lamna ditropsis inhabit the coastal waters surrounding Alaska, biologists can still offer little more than a good guess.
However, it is suspected that the population is stable and maybe even on an upswing. In 2000, an Alaska Shark Assessment spotter reported approximately 2,000 salmon sharks were feeding near the surface at Port Gravina, Prince William Sound.
Since they live upon a diet comprised largely of pink salmon, it’s hardly a surprise large congregations fo the sharks can be found in the sound. In the area stretching from Whittier in the west to Cordova in the east, large even-year returns of pink salmon numbering in the tens of million fill the waters and are ample fare for the voracious salmon shark. July through the first two weeks of September are typically good times to find the pinks, and thus, the sharks, in PWS. Boats from Seward, Whittier, Valdez, and Cordova range across the watery expanse in search of this mighty predator.
Oh, yeah, though all evidence points to the salmon shark as the dominant predator of the North Pacific Ocean, there have been no documented attacks on humans, who wisely spend little time swimming in the frigid waters favored by the salmon shark.
For our excursion, we decide to fish with Bill Steffen of Sea Sound Charters. Bill has fished these waters for many years and has been intrigued by the salmon shark to the point of providing shark targeting charters. What will make this excursion unique is that we will attempt to hook and land one using a fly rod, reel, and fly!
In August 2001 we are first introduced to salmon shark fishing with Dave Wiley of Orion Charters in Valdez. It’s after that adventure when I first begin to wonder if we can catch a salmon shark on a fly rod. It seemed a stretch, to say the least, as these fish can regularly exceed 300 pounds, but with today’s fly anglers ever pushing the envelope, we figured to join the lunatic fringe that tries this seemingly ludicrous endeavor.
Step one is preparation. Knowing that we would need the stoutest rods available, we end up with a 15-weight Lamiglas and 15-17-weight G. Loomis. Both resemble pool cues more than fly rods. For fly reels, we acquire the Tibor Pacifica, Billy Pate Blue Marlin, and Penn 4G AR. All are the largest reels that these manufacturers make, and all three manufacturers are known for their quality products for blue-water fishing.
Salmon shark skin is similar to sand paper and very sharp. It will cut fishing line easily. Rather than donate fly line to PWS, we decide to spool the reels with 130-pound Spectra. To this, we will attach 20-foot leaders of 1/16-inch braided steel cable. From here is a heavy-duty swivel and then the fly. The fly is a concoction from master fly-tier Rich Johnson, a composition built of rabbit fur, large eyes, epoxy, and a 14/0 J-hook. These flies are tied to resemble small pink salmon. From the experience on this trip, we will be able to design an improved fly for future excursions. As a prototype, Rich—as usual—designed an impressive fly that allowed us to hook sharks.
The adventure begins aboard Bill’s boat C/V Sea Sound in the harbor in Cordova at a bleary-eyed 5 am. We are on an evening ERA flight back to Anchorage and get an early start to ensure the time for a few tussles with these enigmatic sharks. Bill’s boat is quite comfortable and with a big, heated, enclosed cabin, Wayne Norris and I sleep through the two-hour trip to shark country. Upon our arrival in the chosen bay, we are greeted by breaching sharks in all directions. Bill tells us that the sharks seem to go into a feeding binge (turn on) and then just as mysteriously, the activity can stop (turn off). For now, it’s clear that the sharks are turned on.
Bill has equipped the boat with an underwater video camera that has an accompanying monitor in the cabin to get a real-time look at what is happening underwater. We begin by attaching the camera to the downrigger line with a downrigger clip and then we connect the fly beneath the camera, independently attached to the downrigger cable. Next the downrigger is lowered to 50 feet. Slowly we begin to troll. All but Wayne and I retreat to the cabin to watch the action of the fly in the water on the video monitor. Soon, several sharks approach and inspect the fly, but none decide to take. Quickly we determine that the heavy steel cabin is pulling the fly downward and not allowing it to move freely in the water. We decide to thread a horse herring on the fly hook to give the fly more motion in the water and are quickly rewarded with our first hook up.
It went something like this: Bill yells out from the cabin, “Looks like he wants it, yeah, he’s got it!” Immediately, the rod is yanked downward violently and I rear back to set the hook. In the next two seconds, the shark comes skyrocketing to the surface and completely flies out of the water. This amazing act is greeted by silence and slack-jawed wonder. It immediately begins to roll at the surface and in the next five seconds has rolled up the entire steel leader and cuts the spectra with its skin. I estimate the shark at 400 pounds.
We hook one more shark on the troll and after fighting it for 20 minutes the tug of war contest is ended when the hook is straightened. I guess we’ll have to move to a larger hook on the next generation of fly! Action slows down, so we decide to drift and mooch. The up and down motion of the fly seems to excite a response and within minutes, we have hooked another big shark. This one takes its turn wearing out everyone, and then in a fantastic run, spirals downward, wraps the leader, and cuts the line with its skin.
We hook and play four more sharks over the next two hours but are unable to come close to landing any of them. Two straighten hooks, one cuts the line, and one simply comes unbuttoned. It’s very clear to us now that we are going to have to get lucky to land one. It’s at this moment when I hook a shark and make immediate progress in getting it towards the boat. In minutes I am already at the steel leader and gently line the shark to the boat. Its a smaller specimen, probably in the 250-pound range, and it relinquishes the fight long enough to snap a few photos and cut the leader. It is as if this shark did not know it was hooked. Whatever the reason, we are now among a handful of anglers who have landed a salmon shark on fly rod and reel.
Throughout the day, both rods creak and groan under the tremendous strain of fighting such large and powerful animals. The Lamiglas and G-Loomis rods performed admirably as did the Tibor, Billy Pate, and Penn reels. Bill and his crew did a terrific job in locating and keeping us in the school of sharks and it made it much easier to accomplish this difficult feat. In my opinion, this is far from true fly-fishing since we did not use any fly line and our flies were baited with herring to get the proper action. However, it was indeed an epic experience and with time and patience, it’s clear to me now that a salmon shark can be landed on conventional fly gear. Maybe you’ll be the one to do it.
Marcus Weiner is publisher of Fish Alaska magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org