Just 20 or so years ago I couldn’t understand why the tourism departments at the Gulf of Mexico beaches weren’t helpful with my requests to find a guide to catch sharks. It seemed like a reasonable request—especially for a body of water that large and popular. Sharks live there along with the glory species: tuna, redfish, tarpon, and red snapper.
The “Jaws” factor never hit me. Call me dense. I was the Narragansett-slugging Quint to their Amity Mayor Larry Vaughn, who wanted peace and calm for the sun-starved beach tourists. Finally, the light shined one day and I got it. But I still wanted to catch sharks because the Gulf of Mexico isn’t just a big, shallow pool. It’s a breeding ground for sharks, tarpon and more.
I caught a big hammerhead fishing south of Venice, Louisiana, for tuna. My guide said I could cut the line but I wanted to see it. The small sharks I finally caught off the Alabama coast only whetted my appetite for more. Once, while fishing in Florida Bay, I had fun with a bull shark that smashed a big topwater popper and zoomed a bazillion yards before the line snapped.
But seven guys from Idaho topped all those experiences with their March 3 trip at Pensacola Beach, Florida. While fishing with retired professional ice hockey player John McLean, who now is a fishing guide (Big John Shark Fishing Adventures), the Idaho group hooked and landed a great white shark.
Yep, a great white. Off the beach. It’s nothing new, though. Great white sharks have been in the Gulf as long as anyone knows. Tracking monitors to help with research ping when they get into the Gulf. They’re not found as frequently as in the colder waters of the Northeast. But they are there, and sometimes show up in the northern Gulf.
“I told them, ‘I’ve been doing this for five years and you guys just caught a great white about an hour and a half into the trip,’” said McLean, who owns Big John Shark Fishing Adventures. “You may never see this again.”
“I would say it’s an 80 percent chance that you’ll catch (a shark) on one of my trips, but it’s fishing so you never know,” McLean told the Pensacola News Journal “The coolest part with it for me is, you never know what’s going to be on the other end of the line. So this was just so unique and obviously a catch of a lifetime.”
The 40-minute fight kicked into high gear when the shark got close to a sandbar about 350 or more yards off the beach. The crew was fishing at night with 16-inch bonita. The oily, bloody bait works great to attract sharks and other offshore species. Fortunately, Gulf Breeze Bait and Tackle had some of the big bonito and everything clicked into place.
“I’ve caught 12-foot tiger sharks and hammerheads, so one thing with these bigger sharks is, sometimes they don’t always know they’re hooked,” McLean told the newspaper. “The shark really didn’t start fighting until he saw the second sandbar, which is roughly 350 yards from the beach. If you watch the video you can see where he’s just really pulling line.”
McLean posted the video of the catch to his YouTube channel. He estimated the fish to be about 12 feet long and 1,200 pounds. After landing and quick photos, the fish was released safely. McLean uses a de-hooking device that helps him stay at least two feet from the sharks.
More than a dozen sharks are known to live in Gulf of Mexico including the bonnethead, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, tiger, lemon, bull, shortfin mako, sandbar, thresher, dusky, silky, Atlantic sharpnose, blacknose, finetooth, spinner and blacktip. Great white sharks have appeared and been tracked for years, with one weighing more than 2,000 pounds tracked off the coast of Louisiana in 2020.