Land based shark fishing 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, who 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.
Last year, McLendon caught over 400 sharks, fishing from the same beaches kids make sand castles 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.
“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.
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.
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.”
He typically puts out three our 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 niles offshore. It was again released. McLendon's tagging provides valuable research information on shark populations, their movements and the general health of he ocean.
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 abut 300 yards out, in about 25 feet. The first bait was 200 yards out in about 20 feet of water.
“It's just like fishing for catfish on a trot line,” 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.
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.
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.
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.
You can see more, book a trip with him and even watch some videos on McLendon's Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/Familylandbasedsharkfishing.