Tiger on the Prowl

Everyone on the pier stopped talking at once. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I heard the sound I had been waiting not just all night, but weeks to hear. In the corner of the pier's "T", my Avet 80w had begun a low, guttural growl as line began slowly coming off the spool. It was the sound of a fish that had just eaten an 8lb bait in one bite and now, without urgency or panic, was moving steadily out to sea...

It was a trip that almost didn't happen; one friend who was supposed to pick up carcasses from the headboats at a local marina backed out at the last minute, as did the friend who was supposed to bring the kayak we use to take our baits offshore. The plan had been to fish Blind Pass on Sanibel island, dropping baits about 300 yards offshore, hoping to intercept the sharks that were still moving south for the winter. There were only two of us now that still wanted to fish; myself and friend Dylan. We were texting back and forth, debating whether or not it was worth it. Finally I replied "Screw it, we'll just go fish the pier and catch our own bait." Then on my way to his house I did something which isn't like me, I made a bold prediction and sent a text that read, "I'm feeling a tiger tonight".

After loading up the gear we made our way north to the Sanibel pier. This pier, which sits under the overlook of the Sanibel lighthouse, is situated on the inshore stretch of beach on the point outside the Sanibel Causeway. It has gained a reputation, and rightly so, as a prime snook hangout, but is largely overlooked as a shark hotspot. We parked and made our way out to the "T" which although close to shore, sits over about 15' of water. We still had no bait and were about to rig up the small rods to try for some. Our luck changed when we saw a group of kids on the pier with what was easily a 15lb crevalle jack. After some negotiating, we were $10 poorer and one jack richer. We now had some prime, and fresh, bait. Dylan rigged up the head-half on his 14/0 Senator and lobbed it directly out into the channel off the pier. I hooked up the tail section on my 80w along with a balloon further up my leader and let the bait drift out to the Gulf with the outgoing tide. In a half hour my balloon was about 50 yards off the pier and parallel to the beach where it showed only as a dark spot on the water which was otherwise bright with the moon's reflection. A quick pop of the rod and the balloon burst, allowing the bait to slowly sink and settle on the edge of the channel where it would be easily detected by any shark that might be cruising the beach.

My 80w setup waiting for a run.

Dylan's big 14/0 Penn further down the pier.

With rods set, I opted to straighten up all the gear and bait and settle in for the wait next to my rod. Meanwhile Dylan rigged a light casting outfight with an egg sinker and a chunk of mackerel, and dropped it next to the pilings. Time passed slowly as we made small talk with the other anglers on the pier and just enjoyed the evening and the fresh breeze that kept the sand flies at bay. An hour had gone slowly past by the time the clicker on the light outfit began singing. Dylan quickly engaged the reel and bowed up on a hefty fish that was set on making its way under the pier. The fish proved to be too much for the rod which let out a loud crack and bent at an odd angle for a few seconds before giving way. The 50lb braid held though, and the head of a big bull redfish finally broke the surface. I ran down the pier and jumped over the rail onto the beach and waded out to the fish. I leadered it and drug it into shallower water where we could get a handle on it. An onlooker tossed me a measuring tape and we taped the fish at a solid 42''. After pictures and a revival the fish kicked off and swam steadily down the beach.

The big redfish that snapped the rod.

Back on the pier the broken rod was set aside, and a heavier outfit rigged up and put out in its place. The redfish had us wound up and we double-checked our shark rigs, ready now for something bigger. They sat untouched though, still holding steadily in the slow current. The night continued to wear on and with the excitement of the redfish now passed we began to slip into the trance between sleep and consciousness. Dylan finally caved in to his exhaustion and went down the pier to the benches where he was soon dead to the world. I opted to sit up against the rail by the rods and watch the stars. After another quiet hour of listening to the night herons and gentle waves, some other anglers, a couple, came down the pier and set up not far from me. We conversed to pass the time and as usual I was asked about the large shark gear we had. I enjoyed the distraction and explained to them the gear we used and how we targeted sharks, and eventually the conversation turned to my tagging equipment. I described how to insert the tags and all the information you can gather by recording recaptured tags. They asked how many sharks I had tagged and I had to explain that I hadn't had my kit that long, and how I have had the worst luck with sharks since I had started trying to tag. No sooner had those words left my lips when my new 80w reel began making the sweetest, most spine tingling sound I had ever heard. No sound gets your attention faster than a rolling clicker, especially when you know its rolling because something just managed to fit your entire 8lb bait in its mouth. I quickly grabbed the rod and rested it on the rail, allowing the line to continue pouring off the spool and giving this shark plenty of time to eat. "Dylan", I said. Line continued rolling out at a steady pace. Then a little louder,"Dylan!". Finally I yelled "DYLAN!" and saw his outline in the dark quickly sit up and start running down the pier once he realized what was going on. The fish had now had the bait for about 20 seconds without changing speed so I decided to go ahead and set up on it. I yelled for everyone that had gathered behind me to clear a path, threw the drag lever up to "strike", put the rod over my shoulder and with a death grip on the foregrip and butt ran down the pier throwing my entire weight into the rod as I pumped it to set the hook. I made it about 3 yards when I hit the brick wall of the fish's full weight and was spun 180 degrees and dragged back to the rail. With the rod now on the rail I was able to get a more comfortable hold and better leverage on whatever I had hooked. I bumped the drag up just past the "strike" position and was now holding about 45lbs of pressure against the fish. I had managed to fish my phone out of my pocket and Dylan was now trying to snap decent pictures with it to no avail. Meanwhile the fish continued a steady pace seaward and taking a decent amount of 130lb test line with it. I had the butt of the unlimited-class rod at a 45 degree angle on the rail, but the tip was doubled over and pointing right at the horizon. Finally the shark turned and began angling back inshore, running parallel to the end of the pier. I began winding like mad trying to gain as much line back as I could until the shark was only about 20 yards out.

The only picture of the fight.

We knew we should be able to see it at any second and finally the massive outline began rising to the surface in the beam of the flashlight. We could clearly see by the size of the silhouette that it was a big fish, but we still hadn't been able to tell what species it was. It had already put up much more of a fight that the usual lemons or small bulls that the spot was known for. After pumping the rod a few more times and gaining a few more feet of line the fish finally broke the surface. The characteristic squared-off snout and faded stripes showed it for what it was, a big tiger, and a rarity for this area. We couldn't believe it and Dylan began clearing lines and yelling for people to move so that we could walk this beast to the beach. We had the fish beat and beside the pier. Dylan grabbed the leader and pulled him closer, making it a legal catch. Although the fish was now technically "caught" we still had to get it to the beach for pictures and measurements, and lastly, to tag and release. I was making it down the pier fine, until the big tiger caught its second wind. It opened its jaws wide, revealing rows of odd shaped teeth that tigers are known for. It shook its massive head from side to side trying to dislodge the big trailer hook that had caught perfectly in the corner of his jaw, and gave one last surge. His head happened to be facing to pier at that moment, and when he pumped his giant tail he made it under the pier. I railed the rod and leaned my entire weight into it in an effort to leverage him out. But it was futile. The leader had caught on the low concrete underside of the pier and parted just above the wire, and I flew backwards. Exhausted, I laid the rod down and collapsed in the corner trying to catch my breath. I didn't know whether to feel elated or depressed. Here I had just caught my biggest shark to date and one of the rarest of the big-shark species on the Gulf coast, but I had broken it off before I could get a photograph to prove it was true. Plenty of people saw the fish. It was an easy 8 feet from snout to tail, and I have had several people tell me it was even bigger at 9 feet, especially with the longer tails that tigers have. I'm not trying to stretch it, so I have stuck with 8 feet as my final estimation. I no longer care about not having any pictures. I would love to be able to show such a fish off to everyone else, but I was able to see it for myself and know I caught it, and that's good enough for me.

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