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Catch & Release: Surf Fishing for Sharks in Florida

Surf fishing for sharks in Florida is a rapidly growing sport that is producing some huge fish.

And the monsters – 10, 12, as long as 15 feet – are being caught and then released right off the very same beaches many of us swim in.

Take our favorite spot on Okaloosa Island on the Gulf of Mexico at Fort Walton Beach, in an area of Northwest Florida’s panhandle known as the Emerald Coast. Just down the beach from where we have been staying this week, I met up with Lewis “Rip” McLendon.

Rip runs a charter service called Family Land Based Shark Fishing and Tagging. He was setting up for a charter for a vacationing father and his daughter and he let me hang out with his party for the afternoon and evening.

Catch & Release: Surf Fishing for Sharks in Florida 1
McLendon pushes through a four foot roller as he hauls bait out from shore in a kayak

Last year, McLendon caught over 400 sharks while surf fishing for sharks in Florida. He’s fishing from the same beaches kids make sandcastles on and in the same water sun-burned tourists lazily float about on air mattresses.

What kind of sharks? Makos, Tigers, Bull Sharks, Duskys, Hammerheads and Sandbar Sharks. A friend of McLendon’s even caught a Great White from the beach a few miles east of us in Panama Beach last year.

couple caught this huge shark while surf fishing for sharks in Florida
McLendon’s clients caught this huge shark just down the beach from us a couple of nights before

Are the Sharks Dangerous to Beach-Goers?

“This is their home,” said McLendon, sweeping his arm out and across the rolling waves. “They aren’t out there that far, either. They’re cruising up and down the beach all the time. People find it hard to believe that such big sharks are right here in the Gulf, right in front of their condos,” he says.

Are they a danger to swimmers? No. Shark attacks in the clear waters of the gulf are extremely rare. Sharks don’t eat people. They eat fish.

When there is an attack it is usually because the shark is confused in murky water and even then, most sharks stop biting as soon as they realize their prey is not a fish. Guess we humans don’t taste all that good.

Large fishing poles cast into surf, waiting for a shark to bite
Waiting for a shark to bite bite on the beautiful Okaloosa Island beach in Florida

Still, I’ll admit it: It is a bit unnerving to realize that the ocean’s Alpha Predator is so close and reaching such gigantic sizes. Makes me think of the Jaws Movies. Come to think of it, Jaws 2 was shot right here in Fort Walton Beach. Hmmm.

But I shouldn’t worry.

Jennifer and I have enjoyed several trips to the Emerald Coast with nothing to worry about. It’s actually one of our favorite go-to places. If you’re interested in visiting, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of Emerald Coast camping.

Steel leader that attaches to shark hook
The steel leader that attaches the hook on McLendon’s fishing poles is rated at 1,000 pound test. The line itself is 170 pound test.

Strictly Catch and Release

All these big sharks are really a sign of how healthy the Gulf of Mexico is and a testament to the success of worldwide shark conservation efforts over the past several years. McLendon releases all the sharks he and his charter clients catch after measuring them and tagging them. “We don’t want to hurt the fish in any way,” he said. “It’s strictly catch and release.”

Woman in red sweatshirt standing over large shark before releasing it
Another big shark recently caught on one of McLendon’s charters

He typically puts out three or four rods, using a kayak to carry the bait far out from shore. The hooks he uses are circle hooks, with no barbs, so the fish can be quickly released and put back in the water with little injury to the tough-mouthed and very toothy predators.

He releases all of the sharks unharmed.

In fact, see the picture at the very top of this post? That’s McLendon’s son. He’s actually about seven feet away from the shark. Just in case. After the photo was taken, McLendon tagged the shark and released it back into the water.

The very same shark was recaptured 82 days later by a long line fishing boat 65 miles offshore. It was again released. McLendon’s tagging provides valuable research information on shark populations, their movements, and the general health of the ocean.

How Surf Fishing for Sharks in Florida Works

On the day I hung out with him, McLendon used an 18-inch bonito, a similar-sized yellow snapper and a large chunk of stingray as bait.

Through four-foot rollers, he kayaked the first line out almost 500 yards from shore in about 40 feet of water. The second bait was dropped about 300 yards out, in about 25 feet. The first bait was 200 yards out in about 20 feet of water.

Catch & Release: Surf Fishing for Sharks in Florida 2
McLendon readies another bait to haul out on the kayak. That’s a chunk of raw stingray on the hook

“It’s just like fishing for catfish on a trotline,” said McLendon. “There’s no pattern, no real system. You put your bait down on the bottom and hope a cruising shark thinks it looks tasty enough to grab.”

When that happens, the big shark reel starts zinging out line. It makes a loud, high-pitched whine that can be heard up and down the beach. The battle to land the shark can last as long as two hours, he said. “Sometimes we get to the point where we’re begging for volunteers to help us reel it in,” he says.

Father and daughter waiting for shark to snag their fishing line
Two of McLendon’s clients, Jeff Davis (right) and his 15-year-old daughter Georgia (left), wait for the line to start flying off the reel, signifying a shark on

How Often Do Sharks Bite?

Alas, on the charter I hung out with, nothing was biting.

But we witnessed an awesome sunset, and, as darkness came, a black velvet sky dotted with millions of stars.

Catch & Release: Surf Fishing for Sharks in Florida 3
We fished till 10 PM after a gorgeous sunset gave way to a beautiful starry night

Getting skunked on one of McLendon’s trips is very unusual. Two nights before, on just about the same spot on the beach, one of his clients pulled in a 10-foot Bull Shark.

A couple of days before that, it was two big Tiger Sharks. He fishes the gulf beaches from Panama City to Pensacola almost every day, typically from 4 PM to 10 PM.

Measuring an eight foot long Tiger shark caught on the beach of the Emerald Coast
Measuring an eight foot long Tiger shark caught on the beach of the Florida panhandle’s Emerald Coast

McLendon catches a lot of sharks, as the photos accompanying this story attest. Again, all the sharks you see here in the photos are still alive (note McLendon’s hand above making sure the Tiger doesn’t decide to raise and bite) and were released back into the gulf right after the photo was taken.

Want to go Shark Fishing?

Are you interested in surf fishing for sharks in Florida? You can see more, book a trip with him and even watch some videos on McLendon’s Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/Familylandbasedsharkfishing.

Catch & Release: Surf Fishing for Sharks in Florida 4
He was this big!!!!

We RVers may wander far and wide but it’s true for most of us that we end up with some favorite “Go-To” places – places that draw us back again and again.

Florida is one of those places for us. And we know it is for many RVers looking to get away and explore during the winter. 

That’s why we’ve created three guides, covering Florida’s Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the Keys. 

Each of these guides is a seven-day guided exploration of one of the coasts. And each stop is a curated view of the best things that we’ve enjoyed on this trip and want you to experience.

All together these guides are over 300 pages of content! 

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