About 5 p.m. Friday, the fish stopped biting 30 miles off Anna Maria Island. Joe Maisano looked at the water and saw a large, gray figure circling below his boat. So, the 26-year-old charter boat captain grabbed an 8-pound chunk of bonito and tossed it overboard.
"My first thought was: 'That looks like a great white shark," ' Maisano said. "That's one of those things that's kind of hard to believe. It's kind of like seeing a unicorn."
The battle that followed lasted for more than three hours before Maisano finally cut the line. The fight, captured on videotape, generated a flurry of media attention, including segments on Good Morning America and CNN.
When Dr. Bob Hueter, the top shark researcher at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, saw the tape, he was skeptical. Great whites are seldom seen, let alone hooked, by recreational anglers in the gulf.
But after talking with Maisano, whose boat runs out of Treasure Island, Hueter said that he was "not 100 percent positive — but fairly sure, that this was a great white shark."
The species, which can grow to 18 feet and over 3,500 pounds, is occasionally caught by commercial long-line fishermen in the gulf in winter.
Hueter said anglers often confuse the great white with the shortfin mako, another member of the mackerel shark family. The great white shark, the top predator in all the world's oceans, is protected under federal law and prohibited from harvesting.
"They may be caught on rod and reel as long as the sharks are released with minimal harm," Hueter said. "Even though a shark may not appear to be injured, a long fight time can seriously affect the chances of the shark surviving catch-and-release."
Hueter said if a fisherman encountering a great white should use heavy tackle to reduce the length of the fight.
"As soon as possible after recognizing the shark is a prohibited species, the fisherman should cut the leader and let the shark go," Hueter said. "White sharks are rare, and every one that is released in good condition can help to rebuild depleted populations of this magnificent species."
Hueter said the details of Maisano catch has stirred up some Internet controversy. "We could have sat and pulled on that thing for a couple more days if we wanted to," Maisano said.
Maisano said he has years of experience catching sharks and knows when they're exhausted. This one, he said, still had plenty of energy when he cut it loose.