When Ian Atherton crossed the pond from his home in Fleetwood, England, to the Space Coast of Florida for a vacation in April, one of the things he had on his to-do list was to catch a shark.
He had always imagined what it would be like to become tangled man-to-fish with one of the ocean’s most fearsome predators.
How does this saying speak of the best-laid plans?
Atherton was able to catch and release a giant sea fish, but it wasn’t a shark. Instead, it was a distant cousin and something much rarer – and some might say much cooler – than a shark.
What in the world?
Atherton joined Captain Jon Cangianella of Fin & Fly charters in Cocoa Beach on April 9 for an early morning half-day to start shark fishing and then try and catch some of the other popular fishing targets in the coastal waters of The Atlantic Ocean.
Cangianella steered Atherton from Port Canaveral to a spot in about 35 feet of water a few miles from the entrance. He deployed a piece of bluefish, an oily fish that attracts sharks from great distances once the scent of the fish enters the ocean currents.
Soon there was a bite. Right away the line started to pull away from the reel – not fast, but steady and strong. Atherton squeezed in to set the hook and began his rod and reel battle. The standoff lasted about an hour. As the fish approached the boat, Cangianella knew that what Atherton had might not be a shark after all.
The rostrum, or saw, came out of the water. It looks like a hedge trimmer and on a large sawfish it can be up to 4 or 5 feet long. The fish uses it in the wild by swinging it back and forth through a school of small baitfish. A saw shot will stun a small fish allowing the sawfish to pick it up from the bottom since its mouth is located under the large fish. They also eat crustaceans and other benthic organisms.
Sawfish are actually very closely related to stingrays, not so much to sharks, but are sometimes caught using the same methods. They inhabit Florida waters, but their population in the wild is only a fraction of what it was before pioneer families 120 years ago began fishing the coastal waters with nets.
Let it go
Cangianella freed the sawfish from its hook without removing it from the water, and the sawfish swam away healthy and strong. After the single encounter, they headed to another spot with different bait where Atherton landed some king mackerel.
Unfortunately, his dream of catching a shark did not come true. However, he could never have imagined that he would catch something as rare and mysterious as a sawfish.
Another skipper with Fin & Fly charters, Captain Parker Miley, led a Wisconsin family to a sawfish catch in the same area in August 2021. Another angler in 2021 encountered a healthy sawfish in the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County.
call it a comeback
The smalltooth sawfish can grow to about 16 feet in length. They are one of five species of sawfish in the world and the only species of sawfish found in Florida waters. Historically, the species has been found along the eastern seaboard of the United States and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, including the waters of Indian River Lagoon, Charlotte Harbor, and the Everglades.
But sawfish easily get tangled in fishing nets used by commercial fishermen looking for other target species. Since the early 1900s, sawfish populations have declined dramatically. Sadly, they became the first marine fish species listed as endangered in 2003 under the US Endangered Species Act.
For more information on ongoing sawfish research and recovery efforts in Florida, visit FWC Sawfish and the Sawfish Recovery web page at sawfishrecovery.org.
To report sawfish sightings, call the Sawfish Hotline: 1-844-4SAWFISH, complete an online report form at floridamuseum.ufl.edu/sawfish/report-encounter, or email [email protected] .com.
What to do if you catch a sawfish
- All sawfish caught in US waters must be immediately released unharmed or you could face federal charges.
- Keep the sawfish in the water at all times.
- If it can be done safely, untangle the line if it is wrapped around the saw and remove as much of the line as possible.
- Cut the line as close to the hook as possible.
- Do not handle the animal or attempt to remove the hooks from the saw unless you have a long-handled dropper.
- Do not remove the stand or saw.
Florida Sawfish Encounters 1782-2017
- Total: 11,523
- Monroe: 5,939
- Lee: 2,726
- Charlotte: 1,020
- Necklace: 974
- Martin: 177
- Palm Beach: 135
- Broward: 122
- Saint Lucia: 71
- Miami Dade: 53
- Pinels: 41
- Brevard: 40
- Sarasota: 32
- Manatee: 27
- Indian River: 26
- Hillsborough: 25
- Volusa: 16
Source: International Sawfish Encounter Database