MIAMI -- When one of these big animals takes a fly, it zips across the flats so fast it kicks up a rooster tail, then leaps, twirls and peels off 100 yards of backing before the angler can take one crank on the reel.
Enticing this muscular swimmer to bite can take a lot of patience; once stung by a hook, it may stay in the vicinity, but will likely avoid any fly pattern thrown its way. Fighting it back to the boat can be time-consuming and often unsuccessful. To catch and release just one represents a workout worthy of a double Pilates session.
Nope, we are not talking about tarpon or permit here. This is all about the shark, which veteran Key West light-tackle guide captain Ken Harris considers the fly rod king of the flats.
"Of all the fishing I did, this is the most misunderstood by the general public," Harris said as he, his brother -- captain Dave Harris -- and I fly-fished for sharks at the Marquesas Islands west of Key West.
"Everybody thinks it's so easy -- you hang a fly behind a dead 'cuda and you get a bite. I'd say it is much easier to catch a tarpon on fly than these sharks."
Harris ought to know. He has been a professional guide in Key West since 1980, racking up numerous tournament wins and IGFA world records. Harris and charter-fishing customer Rick Gunion took the first-ever tiger shark on fly rod and they once weighed a 353-pound hammerhead caught on 12-pound tippet.
These days, Harris doesn't bother with world records. He guides a few longtime customers to sharks on fly rod aboard his Conch 27 called Finesse. But they let everyone go. The captain now spends most of his time on his new business venture with partner Billy Green: the Tiger Cat -- a large eco-tour catamaran specializing in trips to spot sharks in shallow water.
Since I had never shark-fished with Harris, I wanted to go. I quickly learned that he was right about the sport not being as easy as most think.
On a drizzly, blustery day at the Marquesas, it took us quite a while to catch a medium-sized barracuda on a tube lure to use as an attractant. When Harris finally boated the barracuda, he butterflied it and hung it on the bow of the Finesse.
PREPPED FOR BATTLE
We armed ourselves with two 12-weight fly rods with 20-pound tippets and a short length of 60-pound Steelon connected to bushy, red-orange chicken-feather streamer flies.
Drifting across flats and channels, the carcass hanging off the bow attracted several lemon and blacktip sharks. Harris said it was all about gauging the sharks' behavior, and getting them to eat the fly close to the boat.
"It all comes down to presentation," he said. "What interests me is: Can you make the animal eat when he is 15 feet away from the boat? The absolute most important thing is: Don't let the shark get between the fly and the dead fish hanging off the bow. If he's coming in high, you're gonna hook that fish. If he's deep, he's not going to bite. And if he circles around five or six times, he's not going to bite."
Probably the first 20 casts we made to lemons and blacktips, the sharks refused the fly outright, or nosed it gently and turned away, or snapped at it and missed. Harris foul-hooked a 100-pound-plus lemon behind its pectoral fin after a snap-and-miss, and watched it tear off what seemed like miles of backing before the hook pulled out.
The sharks kept coming and Harris' pronouncements turned out to be true. Telling them apart by their color and size, we quickly realized that once they had been stung by the hook or rushed in close enough to see the boat, they refused to bite.
After drifting for about 45 minutes, Harris decided to try anchoring on the flat. He said drifting with wind and current flowing in the same direction is not optimum for attracting sharks because it diffuses the scent trail from the dead barracuda. With current and wind in opposition, the drift is slowed and the scent is more effective.
Harris offered his 30 years of observations on which sharks he can expect to encounter in various shallow-water habitats.
"Blacktips love quiet channels that have a lot of snappers and things they can catch," he said. "Lemons like flats adjacent to channels. Bulls like the perimeters of flats; they like to be in that four-, five-, six-foot depth, but they'll move up onto the flats. If you want to find bulls, find tarpon. Hammerheads are more around basins and anywhere there is tarpon -- like Northwest Channel."
Sitting at anchor and dangling the oily barracuda carcass, we watched as many as seven sharks at one time -- lemons and blacktips -- come into the chum slick. Some would rush in as if escaping a house fire; others swam around languidly. Most ignored our flies, but we scored a couple of takes that ended with broken tippets or pulled hooks.
I had switched to a less bulky white streamer pattern that was easier to cast, and briefly hooked a large lemon, but it came loose.
Finally, Harris enticed a lemon of about 60 pounds to eat the fire-engine red streamer. The shark zinged the fly line off the reel in a splashy froth, and ran so far into the backing that Harris thought he might have to crank up and chase it. But he gamely fought the shark from the dead boat, and brought it up to be released after a 15-minute fight. It made me wonder what kinds of atrocities a 400-pound bull shark might commit.
As we headed back to Key West that afternoon, it suddenly occurred to me that the last time I went fly-rod tarpon fishing here, I went 2 for 6, including one fish in the 100-pound class. Shark fishing for the same amount of time, I was scoreless.
"It's OK for something to be difficult," Harris said, as if reading my thoughts. "It shouldn't be easy. Otherwise, how is it worth doing?"