Ian Sands of Oak Island went fishing on the afternoon of Aug. 20. The Oak Island resident and his son set up on the beach with a pair of surf fishing outfits hoping to catch a bonnethead or Atlantic sharpnose shark. The were both surprised when they caught a six-foot plus tarpon instead.
"I thought it was a shark most of the fight," Sands said. Even when the son of a fellow fisherman who came to his aid first called it a tarpon, I still wasn't sure. It had jumped several times, but there are blacktip sharks here that jump, and I hadn't gotten a good look, so I wasn't convinced it wasn't a shark until we got a good look at it later in the fight."
"The surf had been rough for several days and calmed on Sunday, so my son and I headed to the beach to fish a while," said Sands, an art teacher at South Brunswick High School. "It was high tide and I hadn't caught much for bait, but I baited one line with a spot and the other with a crab. I waded to chest deep water and cast them as far as I could. Once I got everything set up, I pointed to the rod with the crab, which I thought would get eaten first, and told my son it was his and to keep an eye on it for a bite.
"It hadn't been very long, maybe 20 minutes, when I saw the line on the rod with the spot bending down and turned to check it," Sands said. "Suddenly it bent hard and the fish just took off. It ran hard for a long time and then it jumped the first time. It was way out and I couldn't see it well, so I thought it was a blacktip that had wandered in and found my bait. Even at the distance, I could tell it was big — far bigger than anything I had ever caught before."
"I would get the fish close and then it would spook and run again and take all the line I had just got in. I didn't know Mark Dutton then, but he and his son were fishing near us on the beach and he realized I had something big on and stopped fishing to see if he could help. He stayed with me as I followed the fish along the beach trying to tire it out.
The fight lasted 30 to 45 minutes and the tarpon jumped several more times. After one of these jumps, Dutton's son was the first to call it a tarpon. I thought that was wishful thinking at the time. We had seen its dorsal fin several times and I was pretty sure it was a shark."
Sands said when the big fish finally tired enough that he could get it up near the breakers, his right arm was really pumped up and tired. Dutton waded out to help beach it and this is when he finally got a good look at it and yelled that it was a tarpon. The tarpon may have been more tired than Sands at this time and Dutton was able to grab it and pull it to the beach.
"I think we were all in a bit of shock," Sands said. "It was a huge tarpon. Mark lifted its head as high as he could and it was still longer than we were tall — and I'm over six feet. We didn't have a tape to get accurate measurements, but this was by far the biggest fish I've ever caught and probably my fish of a lifetime."
Sands said they quickly snapped a few pictures and removed the hook, then he and Dutton eased the tired tarpon back into the water. It took a few minutes of them holding it facing the waves and Dutton working its tail back and forth, but it revived and swam off.
Sands was using a 7/0 hook on 3 feet of #9 (105-pound) wire up to a swivel and a section of 100-pound mono shock leader, and a 4-ounce pyramid sinker to hold in the surf. He was fishing an 11 foot Penn Prevail surf rod and a Penn Spinfisher V 6500 reel filled with 60-pound test braided line.