Zach Miller fighting a sawfish from a Florida bridge.
Over the 4th of July holiday, Florida shark angler Zach Miller and his brotherly cohorts of Team Rebel Fishing hooked three sawfish over three consecutive nights—a virtual anomaly in the angling world. And they did it from the same bridge each time.
Why It's So Rare
Sawfish are unique for several reasons. For starters, they’re more like a ray than a fish—they have a wide and flat, winglike shape, their gills are on the bottom of their bodies—to breathe a fish sucks air in and then expels it through spiracles on top of its head. Adults measure between 10 and 14 feet long, though biologists for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) have documented larger specimens.
But what makes sawfish especially unique is the long, serrated bill protruding from its face like Pinocchio’s nose. It doesn’t charge and catch food with its teeth like a shark. Instead, it swims up to its prey, swings its bill from side to side to stun or kill, then glides over the meal and sucks it up.
Photo from Wikipedia
Unfortunately, a string of factors like overharvesting (some anglers simply ignored the meat and kept the sword to adorn their den wall) and the animal’s propensity to tangle in nets and die led to a drastic reduction in their numbers, and the fish is now listed as a federally protected endangered species. To help with recovery efforts, Phil Stevens, a fish biologist at the Charlotte Harbor Field Lab, says anglers should report their catches to the FWC sawfish hotline.
“We take any information we can from the public and add it to what’s called the International Sawfish Encounter Database,” Stevens says. “In the big picture, catching a sawfish is rare. From a research standpoint, we really depend on angler reports because it clues us in to where we should go if we need to tag a fish for a telemetry study. Compiling the info helps us get a handle on the species distribution. As they recover, we hope populations expand, but right now, you could look at the data and see where sawfish are concentrated. Seeing their range increase is just one part of the recovery plan.”
Those are just a few reasons Miller’s story is so exceptional.
Miller is the founder and main force behind Team Rebel Fishing—a collection of friends with a shared affinity for land-based, saltwater fishing. Over the years, they’ve honed their equipment and techniques and have been able to do things, like catch massive hammerhead sharks from shore, that most anglers do from boats—all while standing on beaches, bridges or piers. If you want to get a first-hand account of how they do it, Miller was featured fishing with Field & Stream’s Joe Cermele on a recent episode of "Hook Shots."
“We just started trying to do stuff that other people never thought of doing,” Miller says. “We’re just trying to put our edge, our stamp, on fishing without taking ourselves too seriously. And when it comes to land-based fishing, I think we push the envelope. ”
On July 3, Miller and a few friends decided to test a new chum product in a local area frequented by small sharks.
“We hadn’t been doing anything but snook fishing for a while, so we decided to go out one night and try out a new product from one of our sponsors,” Miller says. “We went to a bridge with some light tackle with maybe 50- or 60-pound mono just because we don’t usually catch anything too big at this spot—nothing over 100 pounds. I dropped the chum in the water and let it spread for 40 minutes while I went on the other side and tried to catch some fresh shark bait. After about 10 minutes, a shark hit my bait and I missed the hookset, but the bait was still there, so I just let it settle back on the bottom of this 15 foot deep channel.”
A few minutes later, Miller’s reel moved again—this time slower than he’s accustomed to seeing. He allowed it to free spool for a moment and noted the line kept changing direction and doing other weird things like moving against the current and turning parallel with the bridge.
“Once I set the hook it just didn’t move. It just sat on the bottom, motionless. At that point I knew it wasn’t a shark,” Miller says. “When it did come to life, it started shaking its head with such force, that I tried standing back and raising the rod, but it was so violent, my rod just kept repeatedly slamming into the railing. That’s when I knew it was a sawfish.”
After an hour on the reel, Miller says he and his friends finally saw something break the water’s surface, guessing it was a sawfish bill. When it swung closer to the bridge, they looked down and saw that it was, indeed, a sawfish measuring about 16 feet long.
Miller and his friends enlisted the help of some random anglers that were fishing on the same bridge and passed the rod off so he could help secure a tail rope.
“The fish was motionless and fairly calm, so I wrapped the rope around my forearm two times and we start pulling it on shore. We got it about half-way to where we wanted it to be and then the thing just lost its freaking mind,” Miller says. “It kicked its tail with such force that all four guys holding the rope went straight into the water, and the tail rope came off the fish. It moved so much water we felt like we were in one of those typhoon water park rides.
"I was the first person on my feet and I could see the fish’s saw sticking up out of the water—it was probably 6 feet long. It swung its head 180 degrees like it was attacking and hit a rock with its saw. The rock broke! After that, I decided to stand back a little. With two kicks of its tail, it was gone. We didn’t get a single photo and I just kept thinking to myself, ‘when is the next time I’m going to get an opportunity like that?’”
The next day, Miller’s friend and custom rod builder Peter Barrett jokingly mocked him for not subduing the sawfish. In return, Miller invited him to meet on the same bridge the following evening to see if they could find another one, knowing the odds were extremely slim.
“It’s the Fourth of July, and around 9:30, there are fireworks going off up and down the river while I’m chumming off the side of a bridge,” Miller says.
He says he knew Barrett would arrive within minutes, so he cast bait out in preparation. As Barrett pulled up, the reel again began to move slowly, just like it did the night before.
“I didn’t even set the hook, I just yelled over to him ‘Dude, it’s got to be another sawfish, get out of your truck and get over here!’” Miller says. “I just couldn’t believe it. What are the chances we could have another opportunity to catch something like this, let alone two nights in a row. Fortunately, I came better prepared. I had 100 pound mono on the reel, and I set the drag to absolute terminate.”
In less than 10 minutes, Miller was able to get the fish to the bridge where he could see it was another sawfish.
“I had the butt of the rod under my arm, and I was applying so much pressure, that it cut off my circulation from my shoulder down. My whole arm was numb,” Miller says. “I gave the rod to Pete, and the next thing I knew the fish was in the bridge pilings—Pete wasn’t putting on as much pressure as I was, and the whole fight was over as fast as it started. You would think that after catching a sawfish and having 24 hours to plan how to land another we would have done a better job, but we failed even worse than we did the first night.”
Miller and his friends debated if it was the same sawfish from the night before or another, and began referring to it as Cecil the Sawfish.
After two big fights in a row, Miller was spent, and almost talked himself into throwing in the towel and fishing for bull sharks or something else. A comment on his Facebook page encouraging him to go back changed his mind, even though he knew his chances of hooking up with a sawfish for a third night in a row were practically nonexistant.
Back on the bridge, Miller and his friends chummed and waiting for action. After two hours without a hit, morale started sinking. Miller took it upon himself to rally spirit with a Braveheart-esque speech.
“We were just sitting around having a sewing circle on the tailgates of our trucks, and around midnight, I’m trying to rally the troops. I’m giving them this big speech about how we’re going to find another sawfish, and while I’m yelling, my buddy Chris’ rod gets a hit,” Miller says. “Jokingly, I yelled ‘There he is! There’s Cecil right now! Little did I know, it really was another sawfish.”
For an hour, the fish made long charges parallel to the 200 yard wide bridge, taking Miller and his friend from one end to the other. Then the drag on the reel began to fail. Three anglers exchanged rod duties over two and a half hours.
“At that point, the fish decided it was done playing with us, so it went to the bottom and just sat there, without budging an inch. I think it sat there for 45 minutes, and no matter what we did, we couldn’t get it to move,” Miller says.
Frustrated with the reel’s failure and the fish’s reluctance to come off the bottom, Miller took advantage of the moment and spliced the line to a new rod and reel.
“I’ve done it before, and it’s not fun. You can’t mess up anything,” Miller says. “Since the fish was just holding its position, a couple guys kept tension on the fish by hand while we took 40 yards of line off the reel. I cut the line with my teeth and spliced it to a new setup. If that fish decided to start fighting again at that moment, it would have been all over for us again.” You can watch him do it below:
A new rod, reel, and line gave Miller and his friends a much needed upper hand, but they still struggled to get the fish to move off the ocean floor, so they decided to try free spooling to trick the fish into thinking it was free.
“I’ll bet I didn’t give that fish 10 yards of slack, and it got up and started moving back into the current. I couldn’t believe it,” Miller says. “But once I put pressure on it again, it takes the biggest run it took all night and heads for a channel marker that I had been trying to avoid.”
Bird of Fortune
Miller moves to the opposite side of the bridge to get a steep angle on the fish, hoping to coax it away from the marker. But after ten minutes, things continue to look grim. That’s when, in the fourth hour of the fight, Miller and his crew caught their biggest break of the night.
“A blue heron flying in the dark, collides with our line,” Miller says. “Somehow, the line didn’t break and the bird just crashes out of the sky. I can’t even make up something that crazy, but something about the impact, or the vibration of it all, caused the fish to change its mind and steer clear of that marker.”
As the fight wore on to the five-hour mark, tempers begin to flare between those on the bridge fighting the fish, and those below, waiting to land it.
“Nobody thought we were going to land this fish,” Miller says. “But when we were finally able to coax it over to a landing area off to the side of the bridge, the guys that were down there hit it with some lights and we were able to see it for the first time. My friend Chris gets close enough to touch the tail. When he does, it spooks and takes another 100 yard run. It was just a muscled powerhouse.”
When they coaxed it to shore again, the men tried to square up for photographs, knowing the fish needed to be released quickly, but exhaustion and shock resulted in what Miller says were some of the worst pictures he and his friends have ever taken.
“When I went to cut the leader, the line was so frayed, I honestly think that a bluegill could’ve popped it,” Miller says. “It looked like someone put my line through a cheese grader.”
The fish kicked and the crew lost their grip on the tail rope. The rope came off altogether in the melee, and with two flips of its tail, the fish was gone. Miller and his friends could do nothing but stare, mouths gaping.
They elected not to go back for a fourth night.
“We saw the sunrise that third time out. People were showing up to get on their boats to go fishing with the families, and we were still on that bridge trying to land that sawfish,” Miller says. “Three sawfish in three days, from the same bridge—that has to be some kind of anomaly.”