A donated tagging expedition raffle prize turned into an experience a local shark researcher will never forget.
It took more than 11 hours but Elliot Sudal reeled in a smalltooth sawfish while fishing with the raffle winner along a Sanibel beach last Thursday.
"It was so wild. By the end of it I was delirious," he said, adding he told himself three times he was not going to lose that fish. "I walked it out, it swam away strong and I just walked back in exhaustion. My hands were a solid blister. The whole palm of my hand. The amount of tension on this line was uncomfortable."
It took “shark wrestler” Elliot Sudal 11 hours and 10 minutes to reel in a smalltooth sawfish at West Gulf Drive, Access 6 on April 13.
Photo courtesy of Elliot Sudal
Eleven hundred raffle tickets were sold for the expedition, a fundraiser that was part of the Zonta Club of Sanibel-Captiva's "A Peek at the Unique."
Shelley Cottone was the winner. Sudal said Cottone wanted to take her grandchildren, a 1, 3, and 4 years old, out on the shark fishing and tagging expedition.
Since she had small children, Sudal recalled thinking that they could set up early in the morning and catch a small shark, rather than in the afternoon, into the night when he typically fishes as sharks are more active.
"With the kids, I figured we would set up early in the morning, do a couple hours, get a shark, a little four, five footer, tag it and name it after the kids and everyone is happy," he said.
Those plans quickly changed April 13.
Sudal arrived at West Gulf Drive, Access 6, which he believes is where most sharks hang out, around 6:30 a.m. to set everything up, which included kayaking the baits out about 500 yards using three rods. Cottone and her grandchildren arrived around 7:30 a.m.
The reels have up to 1,000 yards of line on them, Sudal said.
"I had two really big rods, for the bulls and tiger sharks and then I had this one smaller rod that I usually catch little four or five footers. Obviously the littlest one is the one that got hit. I got the bite and it pulled off a couple 100 yards of line and it got down all the way to the end of the reel. I picked it up and said guys, 'This is not a beginner shark" and said 'Are you good at fishing?" he said, adding that they replied they go out once or twice a year. "I took the helm and started cranking."
He recalled thinking that it was a big bull shark, or tiger the first hour. By the third hour, it had run all of the line out of the reel.
"So what I had to do is get into my kayak and hook the other reel to the back of the kayak, the bigger reel. Then I got towed way out in the kayak. When I could finally get some line back, I had this guy, Rick, reel me back in the kayak," Sudal said.
Hour five, or six came, revealing two military boats hovering close to shore.
"We heard rumors that (Vice President Mike) Pence was around and he was renting a house on West Gulf. I thought he was on Dixie Beach Road, but I guess when he went to the beach he would be out on West Gulf," Sudal said.
Six Secret Service officers then came into his view before turning around and heading back in the direction from which they came. They returned and went through Sudal's bags and removed all of knives and said the vice president was approaching.
"He came down with his family," he said of Pence. "He just kind of seemed like he was interested in the situation because this isn't something you see every day."
People started explaining what Sudal does, which was followed with him adding, 'This is something good."
Pence then radioed the two boats offshore that have sonar bottom readers to see if they could view what was on the bottom of the fishing line. Unfortunately they could not get a clear picture of what it was. Pence remained on the beach for up to an hour.
A crowd began to form, some people coming and going, while others remained the entire time Sudal was there.
Ten hours into it, 50 or 60 people were on the beach when three fins broke the surface. Sudal said at that moment he knew it was either a tiger, bull or sawfish. From there it went into "crazy mode" because sawfish are endangered.
Although Sudal did not know much about the sawfish, he knew they could not be taken out of the water, and that a sawfish can be dangerous.
"It was more intense than any shark I have ever dealt with," Sudal said, because "a five foot swinging head is crazy. It really looks like a chainsaw swinging back and forth."
The smalltooth sawfish was still extremely active when Sudal got it to the beach at 11 hours, 10 minutes. He said one of the men, a MMA fighter, was hanging onto its tail when it ripped his bicep, separating the muscle, which led to a hospital visit.
Sudal tagged it as part of the NOAA Apex Predators Program, before it swam away "super healthy" after being out of the water for two minutes. He said the sawfish is more related to a stingray, than to sharks.
When measuring the sawfish, Sudal used his new tape measure, which was 12 feet long. When he tried to get the tape to the end of the nose, he ran out of tape. Sudal said he believes it was more than 13 feet long.
He used a barbless high carbon steel circle hook to catch the sawfish because they rust out quickly. Sudal said he snipped the line a couple of inches away from the hook before it was released.
"It will fall out, rust out," he said.
Throughout the fight, Sudal spent a lot of time on the beach with a harness wrapped around his back and hooked to the reel while using the kayak as a brace.
"It was a lot of holding it there and keeping tension on it. It had crazy long runs. You would gain and fight for two hours to get it in closer and then it would just be like no and swim back out," he said.
About five years ago, the thrill of shark fishing captivated Sudal who works to educate people about the species while promoting conservation.
When Sudal graduated from high school, his parents retired and bought a house on Sanibel, affording him the opportunity to vacation on the island during spring break and winter break. He loved to fish, occasionally catching a small shark when out by the water.
"I was in Nantucket and had a viral video four years ago," Sudal said of catching a shark, which resulted in the nickname the "shark wrestler" and about 10 million views of the video in a week.
The video led to appearances on Good Morning America and Fox and Friends. Sudal said at that time he did not know much about shark fishing.
"I feel into that position and rode the wave for the last four years," he said. "It's been great."
Sudal, who went to school for biology and environmental science, works with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Now he spends the winters on the island working at Captiva Cruises, before returning to Nantucket during the summer.
Sudal has caught mostly bull sharks and lemon sharks on Sanibel. One of the lemon sharks, which was 10 feet, 8 inches, 460 pounds, was 54 pounds more than the world record. Since he did not want to kill it, he does not officially hold the world record.
"Lemon sharks like Sanibel," he said.
Sudal has kept a log of everything he has caught, including time of the year, water temperature and where it was caught. He said it is really interesting to study how it corresponds with the Caloosahatchee water releases.
"When they released water, I didn't catch a shark for seven weeks," he said.
In Nantucket, he has 250 tags a year from the federal government due to working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Ashton Marine Fishery Service, and the state of Massachusetts, for the sharks he catches. Last year he tagged 190 sharks, which is done on the dorsal fin, and 160 the year before that. Overall, he has caught 600-700 sharks and tagged 300-400.
"I have caught the same shark that I tagged a year earlier," Sudal said of Sanibel. "I have caught numerous sharks that I have tagged here."
He catches all of the sharks from the beach because he can get an accurate measurement and remove the hook.
"From the beach it's more controlled," Sudal said.
He wants to expand his work to Sanibel in regards to tagging.
"Sharks have been around for 400 million years and they are the most sensitive of any of the fish we have around," Sudal said. "You notice when there is red tide you don't see big sharks wash up because they are super sensitive to it. The oil found in their liver was actually used as an early barometer for the pirates and the early boat captains would take the oil and put it in a jar and when a storm was coming it would separate out. They are very in-tuned to environmental factors."
Fans can follow him at @acksharks on Instagram, or www.facebook.com/elliot.sudal.