Shore-based charter shark fisherman John McLean led a group of four clients to the catch of a lifetime on Feb. 12. The group hooked, battled, landed, and promptly released a large great white shark from Pensacola Beach in Florida’s far western panhandle. White sharks are rarely caught by land-based anglers.
McLean, who operates Big John Shark Fishing Adventures, specializes in catching big toothy critters, but he wasn’t expecting to hook a great white.
“I was not targeting great white sharks, I was attempting to catch my clients the largest shark possible,” he told Fox News. “It is very rare to catch a great white in this area, especially from the Gulf Coast.”
White sharks are a prohibited species, meaning they must be released immediately.
McLean had help that day from Pensacola charter Capt. David Miller. It was Miller who paddled a small one-person kayak 900 yards off the beach to drop a massive tuna head for shark bait. Only a giant shark would be big enough to gobble down the large bait.
McLean usually employs a small remote controlled boat to send baits off a beach. But the tuna head was too large for the RC boat, so Miller offered to paddle through the Gulf surf and drop the bait far out where big sharks roam.
In a YouTube video detailing the catch, McLean says Miller had just returned to the beach from dropping the bait offshore. When a heavy fish took the bait, the battle was on.
All four anglers were actively engaged in battling the shark with heavy offshore tackle and stout braided line. The rod was set in a four-station gimbal mount rod holder, like those used on offshore trolling boats. The heavy-duty rod holder was anchored into a pair of PVC pipes driven deep into the sand of Pensacola Beach. McLean calls the setup a “shark rack.”
“My fishing gear was pushed to the limits, but it was up to the task to effectively reel in this massive white shark,” McLean says. “Since I used proper equipment, we were able to make a quick release. Shark fishing and conservation starts with using the right gear.”
Each of the four charter anglers took turns on the oversized big game reel, gaining braided line with each handle crank. At times, all anglers and captains had to help hold and stabilize the “shark rack” during the fight.
In his YouTube video, McLean says the reel got loose on the rod because of the torque of fighting the heavy shark from a stationary position. There was no usual pump-and-reel in catching the shark, just brutal winding of the reel while it was in a gimbal mount. All the while, beach visitors sat nearby watching the battle.
“The great white shark my clients caught would have never been reeled in from a boat,” McLean says. “My clients reeled this white shark in with a fight time of just over an hour, but had they been attempting to reel in a shark of this size and weight from a boat it would have been a five-hour fight.”
Fighting big sharks in deep water takes more time, says McLean, because the fish can dive below the boat, while a shark hooked from shore has to fight in relatively shallow water.
“This fish is the strongest fish I’ve ever had,” McLean says in his video. “It’s the only time I’ve seen my fishing gear pushed to the absolute limit.”
He says once the fish was drawn into the surf and identified as a great white, the only thing he wanted to do was cut the line and release the shark as quickly as possible.
The tired shark in the surf was handled by the men using a large rope with a tail loop. McLean straddled the shark, then opened its mouth to insure the hook and cable leader were gone. Then the men led the shark away from the beach, where it eventually swam out into deeper Gulf waters and disappeared.
“I did not measure the shark,” says McLean. “[But,] based on the amount of 12-foot sharks my clients have landed, I knew this was something bigger than anything I had seen before.”
McLean and others estimated the shark was 13 feet long. Its weight is unknown.
Great White Sharks in Florida?
Ocearch, a shark tracking website, documented a white shark nicknamed “Maple” not far off the Florida Panhandle on March 6. That fish was measured at 11 feet, 7 inches when it was fitted with a tracking device, and Ocearch scientists estimate it now weighs 1,264 pounds.
Their research shows that great white sharks can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, and if McLean’s fish was 13 feet long, it’s possible the fish weighed over 1,000 pounds.
“I grew up in Minnesota and had no saltwater fishing experience until playing my last year of professional hockey in Florida in 2017,” McLean says. “I transitioned careers into shark fishing after connecting with some amazing friends, Henry Everett and David Miller, who introduced me to the sport.”