The Unknown

Editor’s Note:
We are bringing you another vintage article written by Billy Sandifer and published in this magazine in the January 2004 issue. A devout conservationist, Billy’s writings have always included exceptional and valuable fishing advice blended with conservation messages. His byline; “If we don’t leave any there won’t be any,” is more than a catchy phrase. It is what he practices and what he strives to have others practice. Hopefully, Billy’s health will improve soon and he will back down the beach more regularly, bringing us more tales of fishing adventure and observations of the natural wonder we know as Padre Island National Seashore.

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One of the most intriguing aspects of fishing in the surf is the element of the unknown. Unusually strong and fast fish that denude reels of all line in extremely short periods of time, leaving no clue as to their species, are fondly remembered for a long time. Veteran surf fishers call them freight trains.

They are the stuff of legend and they are the essence of what drew men to challenge the sea in the first place. Regardless of where one fishes certain fish species are expected but, the surf doesn’t fit the mold. I know of sixty-five species of fish having been encountered in the North Padre Island surf and I have no doubt that number sixty-six will show up sooner or later.

Yesterday something picked up a live-lined finger mullet on 10-pound line and in mere seconds took 250 yards off the reel so fast the loop knot in the 50-pound leader was pulled in two. Minutes later a second fish struck and the reel simply could not keep up with the speed at which the line was traveling, even though the drag was set properly, and snapped the line. The line was badly frayed for 6-feet above the point where it had parted.

As I went through the list of possibilities I discarded each for one reason or another and was left with only one glaring fact. I don’t have a clue what species of fish was involved. But I do know that there is a pattern to this type of incident as I can clearly remember other times the same thing has taken place while fishing in the same manner, in like conditions and at the same season of the year.

One incident I immediately recall was when a fish completely stripped a spinning reel and broke the line at the knot before I could cover the four steps separating me from my customer. Now, I believe it would be fair to say, that critter was moving right along.

Likewise during the dead of winter, fishing for surf-run speckled trout with 51M MirrOlures, we will occasionally hook up on freight trains in the rather small but deep holes located in the wade gut.

The light strike is typical of the winter trout but upon setting the hook the line screams off the reel at an outrageous pace racing to one end of the hole, then immediately reversing direction without slowing down and running to the other end of the hole. And then just about when you think you are finally going to get the slack out of your line and catch up with the fish, it returns to the center of the hole and charges directly offshore through the cut across the sandbar and rips the hooks from its mouth. Same scenario each time, never any variation.

I would like to believe that it is learned behavior exhibited by that monster speck I have been chasing all my life but, in reality, nobody has a clue. All I know is to re-hook with 3X or 4X strength hooks on your 51M MirrOlures rather than the 1X strength trebles they come equipped with.
At the other end of the spectrum, large Penn Senator reels are occasionally stripped of line and stainless steel aircraft cable leaders up to one eighth inch in diameter are bitten in half by unknown adversaries in short order. Here again the angler finds himself in dazed disbelief and awe of what it might have been.

One would expect this from the only beach I know of in North America that can boast of having a record of a mako shark being landed from shore.

On 20 February 1999, Mark Davidson, of Alice, Texas landed a 9-foot 2-inch mako from the surf of the Padre Island National Seashore.

And now, almost unbelievably, we have another record, as on 7 December this year Eric Ozolins and his fishing partner, Scott Nelson, landed a 9-foot 6-inch female shortfin mako on the same beach. Even more incredibly, they managed to tag and release the fish.

The capture of this large apex predator of the open sea from the beach is accomplishment enough for any angler during his entire fishing career but, the subsequent successful tagging and release are definitely one for the history books.

Still quite lively and with an estimated weight of 500-pounds, this was an extremely dangerous marine creature to be anywhere around, much less to physically wrestle in the surf, free of the leader, and then tag it and return it to the sea. This was an extraordinary feat accomplished by two extraordinary young anglers dedicated not only to the sport of shark fishing but also to the future of the resource.

By sharing their belief in the need for catch and release with others, and acting on that belief with unselfish acts that are not without a certain amount of heroism and personal danger, they lead the way into the future. The mako was not the only shark released by these two that day as they also released three other sharks greater than 6-feet in length.

I read an entry on a fishing message board today regarding this event in which the poster asked, “OK, now having done all this what do you guys intend to do for an encore?”

My guess is they are plotting on that right now and I have no doubt we’ll be hearing plenty about the exploits of these two for a long time to come. My hat is off to you fellas; I am big time impressed and I do not impress easily.

And by the way, please do not e-mail me for information concerning exactly where and how this catch was made as the two anglers have expressed a desire to not give that out in order to further protect the resource and certainly it is their right to insist on this.

For far too long it has been accepted by many anglers that it is impossible to successfully release large sharks caught from the beach. In certain cases this may be true but in many others it isn’t true at all. On my charters we have been successfully releasing sharks over 8-feet long for years and so have many other anglers as well. The most common justification for killing large sharks landed from the beach has always been that the fish swallowed the hooks and was injured too badly to survive.

The numbers of incidents of this happening can be diminished to a large degree by modifying both our terminal tackle and our techniques. The number and size of hooks placed in a single bait can be downsized to cause less damage. And setting the hook quicker on the strike will often result in a hook up before the fish has the opportunity to swallow the bait.

The longer the fish is allowed to run with a bait prior to hook setting obviously increases the odds of the fish being gut hooked. Large circle hooks are also an option and gut hooking will be a thing of the past with them. A word of caution on circle hooks—do not offset a circle hook. If you offset a circle hook it will no longer work as designed and will gut hook just like any other style of hook.

An old marine biologist pal of mine once told me that if you could catch a mako off the beach then, in reality, all the rules went straight out the window and the potential existed to catch any other open sea creature in the same area.

Another very reliable and long-term experienced saltwater fisherman pal of mine once told me he hooked a 40-pound yellowfin tuna on a finger mullet one fall several years ago in the first gut down near the Mansfield jetties.

I wonder what type of topwater I have in my box that might interest a yellowfin tuna.