What’s cooler than fishing for half-ton sharks off the coast of California? Doing it with a fly rod. No need to adjust your television sets folks, you read that right – big, nasty, neat-eating, flesh-shredding, Mako sharks on the fly. The typical angler might ask how that’s even possible… but if you’re Costa Endorsed Guide, Conway Bowman, your only question is, who’s taking the first cast? In our latest Costa “Behind the Guides” Activation, we get up close and personal with 12 rows of razor-sharp teeth and the man who dares to bring them to his boat. This isn’t one you’re going to want to miss.

Flylords: Who is Conway Bowman? 


Conway: My name’s Conway Bowman. I live in Encinitas, California, just North of San Diego County or San Diego, California. I’m a Husband to my wife Michelle, a father of 2 wild boys, and a guide for Mako sharks on the fly, based out of Mission Bay. 

Flylords: Going back to the beginning of your story, what was your life like growing up? Did you spend a lot of time outdoors?

Conway: I’m a third-generation San Diegan, so I grew up right here in San Diego. My father and I, from an early age, were always out fishing. Every weekend, my father would take me fishing somewhere. By the time I was two years old, I caught my first – a Rainbow Trout. My Father was a big outdoorsman. He loved to bird hunt, he loved to fly fish, he loved to conventional fish – he loved it all. 

Conway (Right) and his Dad (Left).

He had a small skiff that we would take out into the bay and I would watch him fly fish for bonito and barracuda as a young kid. I would watch him up on the bow casting, and I would just marvel and look at him going, “Wow.” He actually looked just like Ernest Hemingway, which was fitting for who he was. [With him] is where the seed was planted. However, I didn’t get into saltwater fly fishing until many years later, but those early experiences on trout streams really molded me into who I am today.

Flylords: So, when did you start to dabble in saltwater fly fishing?

Conway: Well, I started dabbling in saltwater fly fishing, when I was probably in my early 20s. Growing up, I fished everywhere I could; I fished the ocean, I fished the lakes, I fished the rivers… I fished anywhere there could be fish. In the Summers, my dad and I would spend our summers in Stanley, Idaho. He was a schoolteacher, so I was fortunate that every summer, we spent two months in Stanley, Idaho fly fishing. During that time I got to fish all the great Western rivers and creeks, including Henry’s Fork, and Silver Creek. Then we would come back to San Diego during the school year anyway.

Young Cinway with a stringer of trout.

But with all that fishing, I still didn’t really start fishing Saltwater until I was in my early 20s, and I had a friend who was a commercial fisherman. He was like, “Hey, man. You got to try this.” So he took me out. Instead of paying for trips, I taught him how to fly cast. In exchange, he took me out and showed me the ropes of sort of nearshore saltwater fishing on a fly. He was a guy who knew where the fish were.

And I remember the first fish I caught on a fly was a six-pound Calico Bass, which is a pretty big, big fish for a fly rod on the West Coast. And then from there, it just took off. I just got totally hooked. And I mean, I haven’t stopped since. But when I was a kid, I used to sit in my dad’s library. He had these great books about saltwater fly fishing around the world, big pictures of tarpon and marlin, and I would look at that and go, “That’s something I want to do one day”. Now, I do it for a living.

Flylords: Outside of fishing, what did your early 20’s look like? 

Conway on tour, on a different set of sticks.

Conway: In my 20’s, I was kind of in and out of school. I was going to college, but I didn’t really like it. I was also playing in a band. I was the drummer, and we would tour every Fall and every Spring break. I was really involved in the band, and during that period, I kind of got out of fishing. I had an aspiration to be a drummer in a punk band.

But I’ll tell you, I had this moment. We were in this van driving into Vancouver, British Columbia. We crossed this bridge and I looked down and there was a guy fly fishing. And at that moment, I go, “You know what? I need to be doing that and not sitting in a van wanting to be a drummer.” And so right after that tour, I came home and that was it. That’s when I really got back into fishing. That’s also when the saltwater fly fishing bug really got going. From there, I never really looked back.

Flylords: Moving from that very moment through learning how to fly fish in the salt and uncovering yourself there, what were the formative steps that got you in the headspace that you might want to do this for a living?

Conway: My first guide trip, no joke, was when I was nine years old in Stanley, Idaho. My dad was a guide in the summertime, and this guy came in from New York City to this lodge called Redfish Lake Lodge. The guy walks in and asks, “Hey, can I get a fishing guide for tomorrow?” My dad’s like, “Well, I’m booked, but you can take that guy right there”, and pointed to me – a nine-year-old standing on the front porch of the lodge. And the guy goes, “That guy?” My dad’s like, “That guy will put you on fish.” So I took this guy from New York up to my honey hole that was loaded with bull trout – I mean loaded. So I took him up there and we smoked ’em. He handed me $40 bucks and that blew my mind.

And so we go back to the lodge. My dad’s sitting in there and asks the guy how it went, and he goes, “You know what? That was the best day of fishing I’ve ever had.” I count that as my first guide day. So I think that moment really built the foundation, and from there, it was natural to me.

By the time I was 16, I bought a boat and my dad said, “Okay, man. Keep it in the bay.” It was a small, little, aluminum boat. He’s like, “You can put it in the bay, but don’t go outside the jetty where the open surf is,” right?



Of course, the first day I had the boat, I launched it and I went out into the bay. I could have made a right turn that would’ve taken me back into the bay, while a left turn would’ve taken me out in the open ocean. Well, guess what? I took the left turn and went out into the surf and over the surf against my dad’s will. Once I broke the plane of those jetties and got over that surf line, man, that was a moment that changed my life. I realized then that this was a much bigger universe than I had realized, and that I needed to be a part of it. It was a weird feeling and it had nothing to do with fishing. It was just sort of being in that environment – in that open ocean clinging to a small boat.

Flash forward to my 20’s, and I got another aluminum boat but was now exploring the waters, looking for fish. In that pursuit, I began running into Mako sharks taking my catch. Sure enough, they were taking my flies too. I realized quickly, knowing Makos were a common target for anglers in my area, “This, for me, is the greatest game fish…” I remember the first Mako I ever saw. It came into the boat and it circled the boat and I’m like, “Holy moly.” That thing wanted to attack the boat. And then if I fell overboard, it was going to attack me. But, at the same time, there was a connection to that fish, and all I could think was, “That’s what I want to target on a fly rod.”

So I just worked through that. I tried different methods, new flies, new gear – everything in hopes of figuring out how to catch this big game fish. It took me three years to get my first Mako on a fly out of that little, stinking, 17-foot aluminum boat. From there, I was totally obsessed, and after reflecting, really stupid. But, after all that, I’m still here today.

Funny stories aside, it was still probably three or four years after starting to explore shark fishing that I finally had the confidence to take people out fly fishing in the saltwater for Makos. I wanted to make sure that I had it wired because it’s not like fishing a trout stream where the fish are there every day, every year. These fish move around. It’s cyclical. So I wanted to do my research first. During this process I worked with a lot of commercial fishermen who knew the shark’s routes, and where they commonly fed. That was a big part of the puzzle coming together for me. Since then, which was around ’95, I’ve been holding strong in that pursuit.

Flylords: What did your first year of guiding look like? 

Conway: My first trip ever, was with this really super high-end dude. On our first morning, he, naturally, shows up late. So I’m left standing there at the boat, all high and tight – extremely nervous. He was late because his polo horses needed to be washed or something – something weird. When he gets on the boat, I quickly realize this guy is kind of an A-hole.

But, I put that aside and I get him out there for sure enough, a really hard day with no fish. We were winding down our day when all of a sudden, I see this big boil of yellowtail come up. Yellowtail is like an Amberjack – very hard to catch on a fly. And at that point, only a few guys I knew of had caught one. So I just said, “Hey, dude. Throw a cast into these yellowtail,” and in seconds, he hooked like a 20-pound yellowtail. 

Flylords: What did you take away from that that you applied to the rest of your guide career?

Conway: With my first-ever trip ending on an absolute unicorn of a catch, I quickly realized I must be the luckiest guy on earth. Luckily, over all my years, it seems that luck has stuck with me.

Luck aside, the most important thing I learned was to just be resilient. Don’t let somebody get in your head. Just stick to your plan. Just, “Hey, this is how it is.” Fishing is fishing, right? We’re either going to catch some or we are not, but you have to have a very solid foundation, you have to be mentally prepared to handle that. Don’t get rattled. Just have confidence. It’s all confidence.

Flylords: So, your initial shark encounter aside, why did you choose to stick to Makos?

Conway: The first thing I always tell people is: I live in San Diego. I don’t have Tarpon. I have the Mako sharks, and they’re within just a very short boat ride from my back porch.

They are, in my opinion, and the opinion of many big-game anglers and anglers in general, the greatest game fish in the blue water. No matter where you go in the world, whether it’s Panama, whether it’s Africa, the East Coast, the West Coast, and they’re right here in San Diego. They have great eyesight. They can swim up to 40 miles an hour in the water. They are an apex predator.

A Mako shark Chasing a topwater fly.

Because of their predatory nature, they instinctually attack stuff. But what makes them so great for a fly angler is it’s the only fish that you can sight fish to in California. They come right up to the boat, and you’re connected to that figure while making that cast. You’re engaged with that fish as they take that fly. You have a personal connection with them at the end of that line. Then, when they grab that fly and run, they run out from the boat and they do these leaps three times their body length. They’re going 20 feet in the air, and they’re doing that several times as they’re screaming away from the boat. 

A mako jumping in the air. Photo courtesy of Gregory Stutzer

And I always say fly fishing for Mako sharks is kind of the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest in surf trunks. You can hook a really big one, sure, but the odds of getting a really big one to the boat are fairly slim. But you know what you’re going to get? You’re going to get the most amazing aerial display you’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. And that’s it. In a small skiff, with you’re right there, right in front of them – that’s what makes it so special.

Flylords: What are some of the main differences between targeting Makos on bait vs. a fly? 

Conway: The main thing is with bait, typically you’re setting the bait out away from the boat and you’re not engaged. You’re not bringing them in 20 feet, then picking a fight. With a fly, it’s right at the boat most of the time. A lot of bait guys will fish balloon rigs and let them sit out there. That feels a little too impersonal to me.

With a fly rod, you have to size up the fish to your tackle. So you have a 12 weight? Well, you’re set up to catch an 80-pounder. But, when you have a 500-pounder’s coming around the boat, that’s when we’re going to go to the big stuff: the custom rods and all that stuff. That’s where you build a personal connection. You’re watching that fish come right at you.

That’s the thing about Makos, unlike any other game fish in the world, they are hunting you down. You’re not hunting them. They have no fear, and they come around the boat and they circle the boat, they roll up and they look at you. They want to attack the boat. You are a food item for them, and they want you more than you want them. That’s a dynamic you don’t get with any other fish – it’s horrifying and exhilarating. 

Flylords: What are some techniques you’ve developed to be able to find and catch these fish, safely and successfully? 

Conway: Well, first off, you have to adapt to the take. It takes a lot of patience to even hook these fish. It’s not a violent take. Makos sip flies off the surface like a brown trout rising on a big fat hopper. Then, when they realize it’s not what they thought it was, they turn away from the boat and they run away with it. That’s when you set the hook. You can’t set the hook coming out when they’re coming at the boat. If you do, they’ll jump in the boat….that’s where it gets really dangerous.

That being said, Makos aren’t touchy. They can be a little weird, but they’re not touchy. What’s cool about that is because they’re such curious predators, I can actually call them in. I have this little PVC pipe, and I’ll go, “Bump, bump, bump,” and I’ll hit certain things on the deck – it brings them in. It’s like calling in an elk, really. Interestingly enough, the big ones respond to that really well because you’ll have a big Mako out in the slick, let’s say 100 yards, finning back and forth, that won’t come to the boat. I’ll just take that PVC pipe and I’ll hit the deck of my boat and you’ll see the fin turn and start to come right down the slick towards the boat. 

Flylords: What’s the biggest Mako you’ve ever hooked? 

Conway: Probably 1,300 pounds – but it was on conventional gear. Still, it took me five and a half hours to get it in. It was a pretty scary experience, actually…

See, I hooked it on a whole bluefin tuna head on very heavy tackle, and I was hooked into a fighting harness belt, and it was on stand-up gear. Immediately once I hooked into this shark, I realized this thing was mean – and it was angry.

So, over the course of five and a half hours, we chased it down for 10 miles, 9.5, 10 miles. Four hours into the battle, I slipped on the deck and almost went overboard. And the only thing that saved me was the deckhand grabbed that belt, and as I was hanging on the gunnel rail of the boat. I could have gone over, and if I had, I would’ve been dead. That weighted belt would have pulled me right to the bottom of the ocean, if the shark didn’t get me first… I have dreams about that moment pretty often, still. 

But, I do know It’s a dangerous game. With clients, I’ve had big ones almost jump in the boat. A few years ago, had a really big one almost do so. The client hooked it. It went under the boat. I had to take the guy’s rod out of his hand to kind of handle the fish. This thing was probably 600-700 pounds. There were three guys on the boat. Two guys were up on the bow, and they ran to the stern, but the angler got pinned to the rail. 

It was then the fish went under the boat, and then jumped on the starboard corner where those two guys were standing, and it went straight up. If it would’ve leaned into the boat, it would’ve landed on those guys. But thank God it leaned out and then it winged out and swam away. That was pretty freaking scary.

Flylords: In terms of gear, can you talk about which Sunglasses, and why they’re important to the success of your craft?

Conway: I’m dedicated to my Costa Diegos (not because I’m from San Diego). They have Insanely good coverage, and they fit my head great. Costa’s done a great job with those. I need that coverage. I need to be able to see down into a heavy glare, or I need to be able to see those fish coming from a long distance.

Find these Frames, HERE.

The lenses I use are the Green Mirror Polarized Glass lenses. They just cut up the ocean glare better than any pair of sunglasses I’ve ever used – which is extremely important to me, as these sharks can camouflage themselves really well in the water. I need to be able to pick up on tiny details. Plus, I’m a total bozo. I drop my glasses all the time, and the glass lens is so durable. I love them.

It’s also just great to see Costa making a push into West Coast because I know they have a great presence in so many other places, but I think out here, it’s time people really started seeing what a great product it is.

Flylords: If you were to give advice to some up-and-coming guides, young kids who just wanted to get out and not necessarily target Makos, but wanted to just break the mold and do something different, just like you did, what’s some advice that you’d give to them?

Conway: My best advice is to just do it. Don’t listen to people. Don’t listen to anybody that says, “You can’t do that,” because people used to say that to me. Don’t listen to them – just do it. If you need to buy a boat, go buy a boat. If you want to target whatever species, go do it, because there are no boundaries.

And the Mako shark for me was a fish that was never even really thought of. And now, at least for me, it’s kind of defined what I do. But many people said, “Oh, man, you don’t want to do this. It’s too dangerous,” or, “it’s not this,” or, “it’s not that”. I just found that sticking with that plan, not getting diverted by other people’s opinions or anything like that and it’s paid off.

Flylords: What’s next for you? Anything big?

Conway: I’m just gearing up for Mako season. I’m repowering my boat next week, getting everything dialed in for that. The opening day is May 1st, so first thing that morning, I’m hitting the ground running.

Thank you to Conway Bowman for spending the time to sit down with us and talk through his one-of-a-kind pursuit. To learn more about Conway or book a trip, you can check out his website, here. Thank you to Costa for keeping this series running over the years, and allowing us to go behind the scenes with some of the best guides in the world. To check out Conways’ select setup, you can CLICK HERE.  Lastly, make sure to be on the lookout for more “Behind the Guides” features coming soon.

Behind the Guides: Captain Chris Wittman

Costa Behind the Guides: Paula Shearer


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