NAVARRE BEACH — The first thing Jeremy Utter wants you to know is that catching a great white shark is a team effort — and the fish has a say in things, too.
Utter, the 39-year-old owner of a Huntsville, Alabama, fence company, spends two months in the area each winter as part of the True Blue shark fishing team, hoping to hook a shark or two or three. And if he can, he'll come back for a few days in the summer with the same hope.
On Tuesday afternoon, Utter was manning the rod at the Navarre Beach Pier with other team members standing by when he hooked a great white shark — the first ever caught at that pier — although the team didn't know at the time what was on the other end of the line.
"It's never one man," Utter said of True Blue catching, tagging and releasing the great white shark, a 10-foot male weighing an estimated 700 pounds. "Everybody has their role to be played. If anybody ever says. 'Oh, I caught a 10-foot shark,' don't believe them. One guy can't catch a fish of that type."
As a protected species, great white sharks can't be kept, so True Blue tagged it for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Apex Predator Program, which studies distribution and migration patterns of important shark species, along with their age and growth.
"From the videos (taken from the pier by bystanders), you could see it swim off pretty strong," Utter said, "so we're pretty confident he's out there still swimming, and hopefully, in three, four or five years, they can catch him again and we can see how far he's traveled and how much he's grown."
"The fight was probably about an hour long," Utter said Wednesday as he recounted the catch. At one point, he said the shark had unspooled about 600 yards of fishing line.
"It's up to the fish," Utter added. "Sometimes they can come straight to the pier in 15 minutes, and sometimes you've got a two-hour battle. ... The whole time the fight was going on, you could never really tell what it was, because it never surfaced or anything like that."
While Utter was manning the rod, True Blue team members were offering assistance and advice.
"The whole time, you're asking for advice," Utter said. "Should I let it go? Should I reel it in? They're rooting me on the whole time. ... They were ready to give me drinks, they were ready to take my glasses off when I needed it ... and we do that with every shark; it doesn't matter if it's a 10-foot great white or a 5-foot sandbar."
When Utter got the shark to the pier, Earnie Polk, leader of the informally organized True Blue team, helped him lift it just above the water. It was then the team knew they had caught a great white shark.
"One of the members on the team saw it first," Utter said, "and he knew immediately it was a great white — which is a one-in-a-million fish."
"The shark fought good," Polk said. "It was pretty tough there around the pier for awhile."
"At that point, it was all just shock," Utter added.
From there, other team members roped the shark and moved it toward the beach for tagging.
"For 45 minutes, he (Earnie) pretty much had a great white shark by the leash," Utter said, "and when we got it to the beach, we knew we had to get it tagged and get it released quickly."
Utter first got interested in shark fishing during family vacations to Navarre, when he would watch True Blue fishermen.
"I talked to Earnie, and he said, 'You get you a rod, you get you a reel, we'll show you the ropes, and if you like it, great," Utter recalled. "I started out with a small reel, and three, four, five years later, here we are."
Reflecting on landing a great white, Utter said, "I've never seen one, never touched one, never thought I would see one. ... It's like seeing a unicorn. If I live to be 100 years old, I'll never catch another one."
But then — as if not to jinx himself — Utter added, "It can happen again, it's just very, very unlikely."