Jillian Sanders hopes to be declared “Angler of the Year” come October. It’s the title given to the winner of the Fort Myers Beach Tarpon Club’s annual tarpon competition. And so far this season, with three tarpon landed, including a 7-footer that was estimated to weigh 180 pounds, she is in the lead. On Friday night, she was looking to add to her lead when she hooked into a fish that would have blown all competitors out of the water, if it had only been a tarpon. Instead, it was a monster smalltooth sawfish.
Sanders was walking by the beach with her fishing tackle as the sun was setting and saw a couple of tarpon rolling out near some wake buoys, too far for a cast. She thought that if she could get her bait out there, she could add to her tarpon total. So, she asked a friend to swim her line, with a hunk of ladyfish attached to the hook, out to where the buoys were.
“My bait wasn’t in the water for more than 20 minutes when all of a sudden it just took off,” she told Field & Stream. “I knew it wasn’t a tarpon because it didn’t jump. I thought maybe it was a ray.”
After an hour-long struggle, as darkness settled over the beach, she and a crowd of what she says was at least a 100 people found out exactly what it was. “I knew it was big,” she said, “but I didn’t realize it was going to be so massive. I mean its nose was longer than my arm span and that would be 4-1/2 feet.” Sanders’ boyfriend, a three-time Fort Myers Beach Tarpon Club Angler of the Year—whom she says taught her all she knows about tarpon fishing and has caught several sawfish of his own—said hers was the biggest he’d ever seen. “All of 16 feet,” said Sanders. “Which would put it between 800 and 1,000 pounds.”
Smalltooth sawfish, like the four other types of sawfish in the world, are listed as critically endangered by the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Related to rays and sharks, their skeletons consist entirely of cartilage. Once abundant from the coasts of New York to Brazil, their range has shrunk considerably over the past century, though they are still year-round residents of peninsular Florida. One contributor to their demise has been that their rostrums (or saws) are susceptible to getting caught in commercial fishing nets.
For Sanders, who grew up in Kentucky catching bluegills and bass, tarpon was a big step up. But a sawfish was in a whole different league. “Oh my gosh, my arms were tired,” she said. “I was about to give up and say ‘screw it’ and cut the line, but the crowd gave me the motivation to keep going. My arms were shaking so much. But when I saw it I was in awe.”
Like other rays and sharks, smalltooth sawfish take years to reach maturity. They can live up to 30 years and can reach 17 feet and 1,000 pounds. Last year, two washed up on a beach in the Florida Keys, one of which was 16 feet and an estimated 900 pounds.
When Sanders’ boyfriend snipped the line close to the massive saw, Sanders said, there were a few 3-foot sharks swimming around the colossal fish. They follow the sawfish and eat some of the creatures it stirs up from the bottom with its saw, she explained.
So, even though she didn’t get her tarpon, she reeled in a giant and rare prehistoric fish with a few sharks in tow. Seems like that ought to count for a few bonus points in the Fort Myers Beach Tarpon Club’s Angler of the Year competition.