Michael Hengel and his dad, Chuck, had an eventful evening in the Florida surf on Feb. 12. Standing on the beach of Virginia Key at sunset, they hooked a giant bull shark that could have potentially broken the state record. It was dark by the time Hengel landed the shark, and even though they estimated it weighed around 550 pounds (the current state record is 517), he decided to cut it loose.
“I knew this shark had to be well over the state record,” Hengel told the Miami Herald. “I can dead-lift 500 pounds, but I couldn’t move it.”
The Allure of Battling Sharks from the Beach
Hengel, 22, tells Outdoor Life that he’s been fishing for sharks since he was 13 years old, when he first saw an angler land a shark on the beach at Sanibel Island. He also tends to get seasick, so he’s always preferred surf fishing to fishing from a boat.
“I just love it,” he said. “With the boat, you can follow [the shark] around when it’s pulling you. But on the beach, it’s you versus the shark.”
The lifelong Minnesotan explains that his family spends winter vacations on Captiva Island, where they can escape the snow and ice that coats their hometown of Minnetonka each year. And while the sharking can be great on the Gulf side of the state, he says he recently heard from a good friend that some big sharks had been caught on the Atlantic side.
“Elliot is a good buddy, and he told me the water quality was better and warmer, with no red tide near Miami,” he says. “So, we headed over there [on Sunday] to go surf fishing, and it worked out pretty well.”
After getting to the beach southeast of Miami, Hengel and his dad rigged up a couple of extra-heavy offshore rods. Hengel’s Avet 80 wide reel was spooled with 1,300 yards of 200-pound braided line, complete with an 800-pound steel cable leader. He tied on a 20/0 circle hook and baited it with a 20-pound bonito.
Casting this huge, unwieldy rig into the surf would be a challenge to say the least, so Hengel hopped in a sit-on-top kayak and paddled out with the bonito while his dad free-spooled the reel from the beach. Once he got out a few hundred yards to deeper water, he dropped the bait, paddled back to the beach, and waited.
He says it was right after sunset when the rod started going off. He grabbed hold with both hands and set the hook.
After a battle that lasted roughly an hour, Hengel eased the shark into the shallows. A couple beach walkers who were passing by helped the two men as they wrestled the big female out of the waves and onto the wet sand.
The two anglers worked quickly to measure the shark. They taped it at 114 inches long, with a 55-inch girth. Then they plugged these measurements into various length-girth formulas to get a rough idea of the shark’s weight. (Determining the exact weight of big fish, and especially live sharks, is difficult. These formulas serve as broad guidelines, and they vary considerably depending on the species.)
Their math came out to around 550 pounds, which could have easily replaced the current Florida state record—a 517-pound bull shark that was caught off Panama City Beach in 1981. However, the only way to determine the true weight of Hengel’s shark would have been to kill the fish and bring it to a certified scale with witnesses present.
He decided to release the shark instead. After slipping out the barbless circle hook, they carried the shark back into the surf and watched it swim away. The whole process took about 60 seconds, he says. Of course, the release also means that someone else might get the chance to do battle with the same bull shark in the future. Who knows. There might even be a 13-year-old kid watching.