The Florida Keys Sawfish AKA Mud Marlin

I met one of my best friends while attending the University of West Florida in Pensacola over 20 years ago. Parker and I were in a class together and had a mutual friend. When we figured out that we were both South Floridians with the same passion for fishing, the transition from classmates to best friends to roommates was rapid.  We shared an apartment for three years and fished every chance we got. We’ve since had countless fishing adventures together from Pensacola and The Tortugas to Canada and Costa Rica.

Having both spent countless family vacations in the Florida Keys growing up; we had developed a mutual love and near-infatuation with the island chain. Every college spring break we would make the 13 hour road trip and rent waterfront houses there. Little did we know at the time that a few years later we would both have homes in the Keys. And by complete coincidence, we wound up living 3 miles away from each other. He got a degree in business and became a fishing guide right out of college. I’m pretty sure that was his plan from the start. I studied social science education and taught middle school for almost ten years before I gave into my obsession and followed his footsteps. Now we are both fortunate enough to do what we love for a living.

Most fishermen have at least one species of fish that has eluded them. The sawfish was one of mine. Captain Parker on the other hand had become somewhat of an aficionado on them; catching and releasing a few each season while shark fishing. The species that frequents the Florida Keys and Everglades National Park is the smalltooth sawfish. Shallows from the Carolinas to South America used to teem with them, however in the last hundred years or so, they were hunted for their bills (called rostrums), their fins and their meat and destroyed by fisherman who found them to be a nuisance when they tangled in their nets. In 1992 they were put on the Florida Endangered Species List and in 2003 they received Federal protection.

One morning last spring, I received a call from Captain Parker. He said, “A lot of the guys have been seeing saw-dogs this past week around Flamingo. A few have caught and released some beautiful ones. Keep your eyes out and you may see one.”  I said, “What do I do if I get one? “ “Hold on tight!” he said. “Seriously though, the chance of seeing one, let alone hooking one is slim. If you do get into one, do your best to reel it in and remove the hook as gently as you can just like you do a shark. I will tell you this though; without a big conventional rod, at least 100# leader and wire and an extra-strength hook you won’t have a chance.” We wished each other good luck fishing and hung up.

My clients showed up at my dock a few minutes later. We jumped on the boat, started her up and were on our way. They were a super-nice father and son from New Jersey named Ron and Anthony Iannacone. Fishing was good and we had gotten some nice trout and several ladyfish in the boat. We were near Flamingo and decided to do some shark fishing. I staked up the boat on a flat near the edge of a channel and pitched out a half of a lady fish we had caught on one of my shark rods. For big fish I use heavy 20# spinning rods with the largest Shimano Baitrunner they Make. I have them loaded with 50# braid, to 100# leader, to 100# wire to and 8-0 circle hook. I am a big believer in ‘less rod more fight’. Meaning I’d rather be outclassed by a fish and have a good fight than pull a fish in easily on too big a ‘stick’. For that reason I use spinning reels as opposed to big conventional rods/reels like a lot of guides do.

I put out two big rods when I shark fish. One with a live bait on the surface and the other with the front half of lady fish on the bottom. Then I’ll dice up the back half and one or two others and spread the pieces out as chum. Before I could grab my second rod we noticed several big fins darting around on the flat near us. “Great.” I thought, “Just what we need, a pod of dolphin around the boat to mess up our shark fishing.” Suddenly, I did a big double take as I realized they were not dolphin. What I saw resembled four enormous sharks, but something just didn’t look right about them. The color was off and instead of a dorsal and a tail; it almost looked like there were three fins in total. Suddenly it hit me. Sawfish!

There were four to six of them zipping around and under boat in two feet of water on the flats and in the deep channel. They resembled airplanes in the middle of an underwater dog fight. They looked to be from 12 to 15 feet long and they were awe-inspiring creatures! Ron had his video camera rolling and we were watching and filming when suddenly there was a boil near the back of the boat. We had been so transfixed by the aquatic acrobatics that we had forgotten all about the fishing!

The sawfish had not. With a crash and a huge spray of muddy water, one of them took off with our bait! My shark rod screamed like it was on fire! It was in the rod holder and bent to capacity. It was as if the hook was connected to a Volkswagen Bug instead of a fish and dumping out line at an alarming rate. I struggled to pull the push pole from the soft mud of the flat and stowed. I started the engine, put it in gear and started towards the direction of the fish. By moving forward, I was able to get enough slack so that I could pry the rod out the holder and hand it to Anthony. I strapped a fighting belt on him and we prepared for battle!

I had Anthony move as far forward in the cockpit as possible as I followed the fish with the boat. Had I not put the boat in gear and followed its movement, it would have already spooled the fishing reel by this point. “Keep the rod bent at all times and reel steady. When it takes line, just hold on and keep it tight. Don’t reel against the drag.” I said. We followed the fish 100 yards north and then a hundred yards south and then back again. It found the deep water of the channel and sounded, hugging the bottom and keeping true to its name of ‘mud marlin’. This was a serious animal and we were in the middle of the  fight of a lifetime. Definitely the biggest fish I’d ever hooked in this boat.

sawfish - flamingo - back country - fishing charters

We had had several close calls with channel markers and I had to pull some serious boat maneuvers to keep the fish from getting around a couple of them. Anthony was seventeen and a high school athlete. That was a good thing because an hour later he was still putting up a heck of an effort. We had finally gotten to the point where we were at a dead heat. The fish was under the boat. We didn’t have the power to lift him up and it didn’t have the strength to take much line. Something had to be done. I had to make a move.

I was going to have to ‘wire’ the fish. This is commonly performed when landing big marlin. It is done my grabbing the leader and wrapping it around your dominant arm (right in my case). You ‘get a wrap’ with the leader on your forearm,  lift up as high as you can, hold the line with your other hand, unwrap your right and then wrap it lower with your right arm again. All the while you keep lifting. The idea is to work your way down the leader to the fish. The downside is that if the fish makes a sudden, hard run and you can’t disengage, you can go in with it. There have been occurrences where mates have been taken overboard with 1000 pound billfish and never seen again.

This crossed my mind as I began to leader this monster mud marlin. I said ,“Step as far back as you can, lift  the rod up and whatever you do, hold on tight!” I wrapped my gloved right hand once around the leader and lifted. The fish shook its head fiercely, yanking my upper body from side to side with it. I applied firm pressure and lifted with as much force as I could. This thing was a monster! Slowly, but surely I inched it up. I lifted and wrapped, lifted and wrapped. Gradually we started seeing color. Suddenly it popped into view! I got chills. It was breathtakingly beautiful and enormous! It was at least 12 feet long ! As it broke the surface it jerked its head violently and rolled hard on its side.

sawfish - Tavernier - backcountry - fishing charters
It appears

At that moment the line snapped in my hand. With a final explosive splash, the sawfish was released. I few great flicks of its massive tail and it was gone. “Wow!” said Anthony as he fell back into the front seat, exhausted. “Awesome! I think I got some great pix!” said Ron as he looked down at his camera. We had just taken part in a monumental battle. Anthony had done a great job fighting the fish of a lifetime for over an hour. I had driven the boat and leadered it up. Ron had done and fantastic job with the camera. Teamwork at its finest!  We took a moment to take it all in and regroup. Finally, I put the big rod in the rod holder and sat down.  I looked up at the line and followed the leader down until I came to the hook. Or what was left of it. It had snapped it in half! Captain Parker’s words rang in my ears, “Extra-strength hook”.

sawfish - Tavernier - backcountry - fishing charters - fishing trips
A Distinctly Male Flamingo Sawfish
sawfish - Plantation - backcountry - fishing charters - fishing guide
Final roll