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Islander hopes celebrity will aid in shark research, bring awareness to the Gulf’s greatest game fish

By Staff | Jan 14, 2015

Elliot Sudal uses socks stuffed with sand to weight the baitfish. CRAIG GARRETT

He’s not rude. Get past the $200 sunglasses and the buff posturing, he’s quite soft-spoken, certainly intense, but very nice. You’d want your son to be like him.

But when Elliot Sudal is talking, sharing amazing stories in his short 26-year life, his eyes dart off in two directions, his words whispering off with the breeze. It’s vaguely disconcerting.

A few moments into this baffling head swiveling, it dawns that he’s closely monitoring the tips of several fishing rods, each parked in sand along Sanibel’s alluring Gulf shore.

Like a nervous tick, Sudal is looking for a faint flicker of the rod tip, two years of deep study and incredible success sharpening his senses to the wind/water movement, versus a fish working the bait.

At the first whiff of a strike, Sudal races to the fishpole and begins the hard work of hauling his game to shore. And it’s at this point that Sudal has earned a serious following on social media, some celebrity, also harsh criticism.

Elliot Sudal fishing the beaches of Sanibel. CRAIG GARRETT

Sudal is the so-called Shark Wrestler/Tagger, a moniker he earned after being filmed by a cousin using a cellphone pulling a Nantucket beach shark ashore by its tail. And not a baby shark, but a monster. That iPhone video went viral in 2011 and Sudal, an average kid from Connecticut regularly in Sanibel with his folks, became an instant celebrity, something that likely wouldn’t have happened pre-technology; it’s hard shooting a YouTube video with a dialphone.

Sudal’s sudden notoriety took him to network television shows, profiles in the National Geographic magazine, even a stint in a reality television show premiering this March. He will appear once in the show placing participants in a raft, an offshoot of the survivor motif. The show was filmed in Puerto Rico. He’s even sold T-shirts and a webpage was created in his honor. He may be positioned for his own reality show, based on his serious efforts to land big sharks, some here in Sanibel.

But it’s the gentler art of tagging and releasing sharks that has Sudal in his new evolution of thrill-seeking, that would be the theme of reality show. For about a year Sudal has caught big sharks, many just a few feet off the Gulf sand, pulled them ashore and affixed a tracking tag to a fin, rolled them back into the sea. He estimates having tagged more than 200 northern sharks, 40 or so in Sanibel and east Florida. The tag is authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a volunteer program tracking migration and other shark lifestyles. There’s the possibility of joining a university shark program to tag them with satellite technology, to better monitor the health and lifestyle of Gulf sharks, he said.

In his element, Sudal works his trade with a couple of large shark poles/reels, lighter poles used for bait fish or small sharks. He’s laid out thousands in equipment, and in research and travel. He uses a kayak to run mackerel and other bait hundreds of yards off Sanibel beaches, the titanium leader clenched in his teeth to paddle the kayak against incoming water.

His set-up is not unlike a military camp, the poles like sentries anchored in the sand, tackleboxes, bait and the tools of his trade arrayed behind the poles. Most successful shark fishing is in the evening or the dead of night, he said. He landed and tagged a couple of blacktip sharks in a random and cold evening last week. There were lemon sharks feeding a few feet offshore that he was unable land, he said.

As far as the critics and some of the more angry email he gets, Sudal said it’s misplaced animosity.

“The shark is a robust animal,” he said. “It can handle five minutes of fighting. And if what I do helps them in the long run — and it’s endorsed by the government for 50 years and 220,00 tagged sharks — what could be better?”