In local fishing circles, Jimmy Eagleton is known as the Shark Man because he fishes for nothing else. But what makes him stand out is that he catches his sharks on conventional fly tackle, which had me, a pretty dedicated mountain-stream flyfisher for small trout, in awe. I had similar feelings when I heard about a Canadian who hunted nothing but grizzly bears, and then only with a bow and arrow.
Going after sharks
I got to meet Jimmy when he was giving a demonstration on how to tie flies that catch sharks. He knocked up a few lifelike imitations of baitfish, a prawn pattern or two and an unbelievably realistic crab imitation. That sharks would be tempted into snapping any of the flies he tied took no great leap of imagination, but that you could actually land sharks and then release them without losing a few fingers certainly did.
Jimmy’s enthusiasm was pretty infectious, and after dropping a subtle hint or two that I might like to try shark fishing myself, I eventually cracked an invitation to join him at one of his favourite West Coast fishing haunts. He swore me to secrecy on the place, not that it matters because you can catch sharks pretty well anywhere along our coastline.
On this particular day, we were going after sand sharks. But let me stop right there and take a little of the daring romance out of this. Although Jimmy catches a number of species of true sharks, sand sharks aren’t actually sharks at all, even if they look a lot like them. They belong to the family of rays and are roughly guitar-shaped, which is where they get their official name – guitarfish. You find them in shallow, sandy flats and estuaries where they hunt for mud prawns, crabs and small fish, cruising over the seabed like slow-moving vacuum cleaners.
They’re described as having blunt, ‘pavement-like’ teeth in a mouth situated under broad, flat heads, grow to around 1,2 metres long and can weigh as much as 28 kilograms. They are tricky to catch and getting your fly onto the sand right alongside them is a big part of the art and science of it. So it’s better to be casting to fish you have actually spotted, and obviously the clearer the water the more likely this will all come together.
We started the day in the ethereal half-light of a typical West Coast early morning mist, a surreal landscape of hazy outlines with countless birds flying out to sea like dark arrows fired into a grey-domed sky. We walked the edge of the river inlet making for the coast, a watery sun was trying to break through and when the mist finally lifted we were on the edge of a long, shallow bay running just behind the shoreline.
The water was just clear enough to sight sand sharks. They were browner than the pale sand and not difficult to spot once you know what you were looking for. I had a powerful 7-wt fly rod in my hand, a chartreuse-coloured floating fly line and a 10-pound nylon tippet with a lime green Clouser-type fly tied on the end. I noticed that it looked convincingly like a fleeing baitfish as I stripped it across the sand.
Jimmy pointed out a few sand sharks, but we couldn’t interest them. Occasionally we spooked one and it would swerve away leaving a trailing cloud of sand. Jimmy warned me to keep low, move slowly, twitch the fly right alongside the shark, and not to strike when it pounced but just to keep up a steady retrieve as if nothing had happened. That’s pretty counter-intuitive to a seasoned flyfisher. So, of course, I missed a few sharks to start with. Then I saw a big one swing at my Clouser, resisted the urge to strike and had him on.
Fired with enthusiasm
It felt like I’d hooked a beach umbrella in a high wind. The fly line tore across the bay with the reel singing and Jimmy barking instructions. When I got the fish in close enough to grab its tail I missed it a few times. Then finally I got a firm grip on 10 kilograms of solid, threshing muscle. We were using barbless hooks and I released the fish easily. Jimmy said it was maybe the best sand shark he’d seen from this bay. As the fish swam off I could still feel the deep thud of my pounding heart.
We caught sand sharks all morning until the tide went out and the bay got too shallow. Around us the scenery and birdlife were spectacular. On the side of the bay were tiny pans of fresh-water in flat marsh country. In one pan a flock of pelicans let me get really close before they lifted off. Wading birds bobbed daintily around us, shyly keeping their distance and gulls hovered on the wind, occasionally diving like knives into the water. Near midday a flock of flamingos, maybe 50 birds, flew overhead like a huge white kite, the flock momentarily turning a brilliant lipstick-pink whenever they banked. It was one of those fishing days you know you are going to chalk up as unforgettable.
Fired with enthusiasm, my next trip for sand sharks was only a week later, to Langebaan lagoon with two fishing buddies, Leonard Flemming and Sean Mills. Sean first caught sand sharks on the West Coast back in 1999, but then he’s a pioneer flyfisher in so many ways and for so many species.
Bright sun and luminous water
We were on a full moon with a spring high tide just ebbing, but we figured we’d get in at least two hours fishing. The water was ridiculously clear and luminous under the bright sun. There were pretty patches of seaweed and the distant gullies in the silvery flats showed up as bands of turquoise‑coloured water. With a fly rod in your hand, it was a scene straight from heaven.
We waded out about 100 metres in water that never got more than knee deep and spotted sand sharks whenever we took the trouble to stay still, wait and watch. We had bright Clousers on that were so heavily-weighted that they created small fountains as they hit the water. We were leading the sharks by a metre, letting the flies settle on the sand, then stripping line back to set up a steady, twitching retrieve. The shark would spot the fly, swing across and pounce on it in a swirling cloud of sand.
I can’t tell you exactly how many we caught, but I’d be surprised if it was less than a dozen. It was some of the most electrifying flyfishing I’ve ever experienced. It maybe lacked a little in poetry, but it made up for that in raw action. I realised the sand shark bug had really got hold of me and that I owed Jimmy the Shark Man big time.