Dateline: August 1, 2011 – Chokoloskee, Florida
“Thank God, it’s a small one.” This is not something we hear very often in the fishing world. But that is exactly the phrase a group of 4 of us uttered in a remote bay in the Everglades this summer.
In species hunting, there is weird and there is WEIRD. Some species are hard to catch, or rare, and others are simply “off the table.” The Sawfish is one of these “off the table” creatures. They are very rare – listed by the IUCN Red List as critically endangered, and are totally protected from being kept by fishermen in the state of Florida. They rarely bite a bait, and even when they do, they are so large, so strong, and so dangerous that it would never be a good idea to land one. So naturally, this post is going to be about trying to catch one.
From time to time, people fishing for Shark or Tarpon hook a Sawfish. Most of the time, it ends quickly and badly with a broken line, but sometimes, the situation worsens because some idiot actually tries to land one. It’s one thing when a fish can bite off fingers, but it’s another thing entirely when it might try to knock the end off your boat. You heard me. A mature Sawfish can reach 18 feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds, and a good portion of that weight is a rostrum lined with chainsaw-like modified denticles that resemble teeth. I’m willing to get bitten or spined to catch a fish, but bisected is out of the question.
I had tried to catch a sawfish before – see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/communing-with-manatees/ – and I was not successful. (Which may actually have been for the best – depending on whether you’re looking at things from a species or safety perspective.) It was right after that trip, back in March, that I met the Arosteguis. Marty mentioned that a guide friend of his in Chokoloskee – the deepest, darkest part of the Everglades – had discovered a pattern in mid-summer where Sawfish were seen in shallow areas and could actually be fished by sight-casting. He even mentioned that some of these creatures were juveniles, which would mean that I could be photographed with them and maybe only risk a finger or two. This stayed in my head through the spring and summer, and by the time I arrived in Miami, I was positively rabid about the idea of catching one.
Turns out the name was Indian, rather than Polish as I has suspected.
The drive to Chokoloskee is a long, flat dragstrip of a road that goes right through the Everglades, and it was fascinating to watch the sun come up and see countless exotic birds starting their day. There is an unbelievable variety of wildlife here: river otters, manatees, bears, panthers, and numerous escaped anacondas that can eat unpleasantly large stuff, like deer and Smart Cars. It’s quite an isolated place, but the Arosteguis had quite a bit of faith in the area and especially in our guide, Ray Culver. There are a bunch of guides in this area, whom the Arosteguis collectively refer to as “The Infestation Brothers,” because every time you call them about a particular fish, they’ll say “the place is infested with ’em.” (Or, alternatively, that “the place WAS infested with ’em last week.”)
On the other hand, if the fish aren’t biting, Ray will be the first to tell you so. He is a great guy – if you want to do any back country fishing in this area, look him up at http://www.floridalighttacklecharters.com/captains_rayculver.htm or call 941-628-1355. This part of the Everglades is jammed with Tarpon, Redfish, Snook, Speckled Trout, and about anything else you would want to catch in the back country, and it’s an easy day trip from Miami. But please don’t ask him to try to catch a Sawfish.
It was a long run to Ray’s secret Sawfish spot, through a pretty much trackless maze of islands, cuts, mangrove swamps, and assorted places where rescuers would never find you. It was absolutely beautiful, until I noticed what I thought was haze over each little patch of land we passed. After a few minutes, I figured out that these were clouds of mosquitos. I hate mosquitos. I figured we were fine if we kept going, but when we stopped, I knew I would prove once again that there is no such thing as an effective mosquito repellant.
A typical back country scene. I am not sure if those clouds are condensed water vapor or mosquitos.
We parked well out on the mud flats waiting for the tide to get just right, passing the time by catching Speckled Trout after Speckled Trout – nice, solid fish.
After about an hour of this, Ray declared the tide was correct and we moved into a small bay, beached the boat on an island, and began to walk the shoreline and look for cruising Sawfish. The mosquitos found us in 14 seconds, and despite my wearing a host of allegedly repellent substances, I was bitten repeatedly and must have looked ridiculous trying to focus on the water while hopping around, holding a fishing rod with one hand and slapping myself all over with the other. The Arosteguis mentioned that this was actually the off season for mosquitos, so if I come back, it’s going to be with full netting or perhaps a suit of armor.
We play mosquito fodder.
About 15 minutes (or 228 mosquito bites) later, we spotted a nice Sawfish cruising about 2 feet off the shore. I missed the hookset. Over the next hour, we had several shots at fish in various sizes, ranging from maybe three feet to something a bit more dangerous. I missed them all, and as the tide was running out, I knew the pressure was on and we would have very few additional chances.
I am not above letting a guide cast at something, especially in dire circumstances such as this. Ray landed a cast right in front of a cruising Sawfish, and I took it from there. It was a spirited fight, more brawn than speed, and we eased the beast up onto the shoreline. It was a perfect fish, juvenile, about 3 feet long. Within seconds of each other, we all said “Thank God, it’s a small one.”
Of course, then came the issue of how exactly to approach and pick the fish up. It was flopping this way and that, and could swing that saw around in unpredictable directions with impressive force. Naturally, I let the guide handle it. Ray gently but firmly picked up the fish as it was making a move back toward the water, and removed the barbless hook. Below are the photos of one of the most amazing creatures to swim in our oceans.
The Smalltooth Sawfish. There is also a Largetooth Sawfish, which, as you can imagine, has fewer, larger teeth. No, I am not setting a trip to look for one.
The dangerous parts. Imagine this scaled up to 18 feet and 800 pounds or so. And for my old friend “Hedge Witch,” I repeat that the fish was quickly released, unharmed, with a pat on the head and a free Sardine. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/the-yogurt-knitters-strike-back-daily-mail-uk-article-sparks-furor/ for details.)
Once the mission was accomplished, we needed to head back to Miami to finish packing for Bimini, so we made an early day out of it. On the ride back to the harbor, both Marty and Martini did something that I thought was impossible in a racing, bouncing boat. They both fell asleep, while we were crashing along at 40 miles an hour.
This kid can sleep ANYWHERE.
Once we got back to the Arostegui’s house, Martini and I finally got our chance to try for “the boathouse Goby.” Martini had no idea what species they were, but he was certain that there were thousands of them in their boathouse, and so, with #18 Sabikis and shrimp in hand, off we went. While Marty looked on with faint amusement, I dropped the rig down and was promptly swarmed with small but enthusiastic Gobies.
The day’s other species – the Crested Goby.
The little beasts turned out to be the Crested Goby, Lophogogius cyprinoides for those of you who are playing along at home, and for the record, Martini was the one who actually made the identification. But the Sawfish was clearly the thrill of the day if not the year, and as I went to sleep that night, I recalled (loosely) the words of Caesar – “Veni vidi pisces vici” – “I came, I sawfish, I conquered.”