February in South Florida. The pale-skinned snowbirds arrive at PBI, flocks of gangly-legged people wearing Bermuda shorts and Tommy Bahama shirts, loudly demanding a Mercedes-Benz from their car rental company when only two Ford Fusions are left (true story, and because, as the elderly husband said, “My wife appreciates a nice car”). But winter in South Florida offers great fishing, and for the fly fisherman, it’s a great time to target jumbo Jack Crevalle and Spinner Sharks on fly.
I chartered with Quintin Hall, an excellent guide who fishes the area from West Palm Beach to Stuart – known as the Treasure Coast. My goal was to catch spinner sharks on fly, a fish best described as a Tarpon with teeth. Spinners arrive in West Palm Beach each winter around February and stay for 4-8 weeks, eating and mating in dense packs. Because this coincides with Spring Break, CNN and network news hype the dangers of shark attack each winter, with footage showing surfers and swimmers within yards of a shark army clearly uninterested in eating them.
Spinner sharks have their name for good reason: They free jump from the water like a cruise missile, spinning like a top before crashing back into the water. They do this, like Tarpon, for reasons no one understands (at least not I, my guide, or Google). But it is spectacular. And when they take a fly, they do the exact same thing, which is big fun.
With conditions sporty offshore, the day with Quintin started inshore, fishing Palm Beach Inlet, where another veteran fly guide and the inventor of the spinner shark fly game, Scott Hamilton, was fishing. Both I and Scott’s clients were using full sinking fly lines and heavy, flash-less flies on 11 wt rods, connecting with 5lb Jack Crevalle in quick succession.
I then got lucky, connecting with a much bigger jack on the edge of a color change in the inlet. After a good 30 minute battle, and with Quintin dodging mega-yachts left and right, I brought the 15lb Jack into the boat.
After the jacks left the inlet on the outgoing tide, Quintin and I ran down the intercoastal, and fished behind the mansions of West Palm’s richest residents. Unfortunately the water was muddy, and the fish nonexistent excluding a 30lb Jack that rushed Quintin’s teaser popper, getting my heart rate up.
With only a few hours left, we ran back to the inlet, peaking out and hoping the winds and waves had subsided a bit. Fortunately they did, and we ran South along the beach to Quintin’s go-to shark spot, stopping the motor just outside the breaking waves.
When we arrived, Quintin took a freezer-kept bonita (false albacore to me) and cut it into chunks. The chunks were placed into a mesh bag, which was hung off the boat in the murky green water. We rigged a 12 wt rod with a big red streamer pattern, cast it out behind the boat, and waited. Within minutes, big brown shapes started darting around behind the boat, and as one brown shape swam toward the boat, I felt a tug on the line.
“He’s got the fly!” Quintin yelled in his South African accent, and I set the hook, jabbing multiple times to make sure the hook was stuck. The shark took off like a rocket, making a run as fast as any tuna I have ever scene, leaping from the water and spinning. As soon as the shark hit the water, it changed direction, leaping and spinning, throwing water everywhere. Fly line, then backing, melted from the reel. And more backing…and more backing…
Eventually the shark stopped (thank God), which is when I started working the fish back in. This was hard – the shark was big, and strong, and the 12 wt felt underwhelming in power by comparison. The shark made a few more smaller runs, but after 15 minutes of work, I had him within 60′ of the boat. At this point, the shark began circling the boat, and I had no choice but to circle around the boat as well, sweating, once almost sliding off the deck into the ocean when the boat took a well-timed wave.
At about the 30 minute mark, I had the shark boat-side, and Quintin grabbed the leader. After a few pictures, Quintin dislodged the fly, and the 80lb shark swam away. After a quick celebration, I rehydrated, and Quintin offered his 14 wt rod for the next fish. I humbly accepted.
This time, we used a floating fly – essentially a red streamer like the first, but with a homemade foam head. We let it out behind the boat, and again waited. Like the first time, a shark came in hot out of nowhere and blasted the fly on the surface. Two quick jabs, and the fight was on, with another leap and spin, and long run. Thanks to the 14wt, this shark was boated in half the time, and after another round of pictures, it was time to head in. The wind was picking back up again, and the swells growing in size.
I was beat, and after a day of fighting Jacks and Spinners, my arms and legs were cramping. I took the banana I had hidden from Quintin and ate it (I’m not superstitious), and drained another bottle of water as we headed in.
If you are interested in experiencing South Florida’s Spinner Shark fishery, I highly recommend calling up Quintin Hall, Scott Hamilton, or Ron Doerr. I have fished with all three, and all are excellent, professional guides and great fishermen.