Klae Hochstetler didn’t know what was pulling at the other end of his fishing line.
“I was just kind of confused,” he said. “And all I see is just a huge saw come up from the bottom.”
He realized he had hooked an endangered smalltooth sawfish. The big ray has been protected since 2003, and their numbers have dropped so low that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission now has a hotline to report sightings.
The last remaining stronghold for the population exists between Charlotte Harbor and the Florida Keys.
Early Thursday morning, Hochstetler, 18, of Bradenton, said he caught the 10-foot sawfish near Boca Grande Pass, at the northern tip of the Charlotte Harbor watershed.
It didn’t give much of a fight, which lasted about five minutes, except for a few violent shakes of its head, Hochstetler said.
“I‘ve even caught really big bull sharks and Goliaths (grouper) before, but this headshake was crazy. I haven’t felt something like this before,” he said. “It almost pulled me off the rock I was standing on.”
Sawfish can get as long as 16 feet and as heavy as 700 pounds, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They are important to coastal and estuary ecosystems because of their role in preying on sick or injured schooling fish and crustaceans. But they are also prey to sharks.
This means sawfish tend to stick to the seabed, where they are safer and camouflaged.
Hochstetler pulled this sawfish from about 10 to 15 feet of water, he said. And he didn’t even realize when he got it up to the surface.
“I just couldn’t see him and he was right at my feet,” he said.
Hochstetler said he reported the catch to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission immediately.
The wildlife commission recommends anglers who catch a sawfish cut the line as close as possible to the hook. But Hochstetler said the sawfish kept shaking its head and swinging its sharp-toothed rostrum at him.
“I’ve never even seen a fish be able to shake like this fast,” Hochstetler said. “I wasn’t gonna take any chances unless I had some 10-foot pliers.”
But he said he made sure the 10 inches of remaining line wouldn’t get tangled in the animal’s teeth.
Smalltooth sawfish used to be plentiful in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Now, they are only seen in the waters off Florida. In the last century, the population declined by about 95%, according to a 2011 study.
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Researchers estimate there are only between 200 and 5,000 mature sawfish left in Florida, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s why people like Tonya Wiley, the director of Havenworth Coastal Conservation, are tagging and tracking the rays across Tampa Bay.
Wiley saw the photo of Hochstetler’s catch online after his father, Aaron Hochstetler, posted it to the Tampa Bay Fishing Club Facebook group.
“I mean, it’s always a surprise because they are rare in Tampa Bay,” Wiley said. “But usually the reports we do get are mostly large juveniles and adults.”
Wiley said reporting sawfish of all sizes is important because it helps researchers build a better picture of what habitats are supporting the animals.
Hochstetler has fished these waters all his life and still goes out every night after closing the restaurant he manages. He said he’d never seen a sawfish before.
“I honestly didn’t think I’d ever even see one in my lifetime,” he said.