By Capt. Josh Olive
What happens if you fall in the water in Boca Grande Pass during tarpon season? Will those bull and hammerhead sharks eat you alive, or will they ignore you because you’re not a big silver fish?
Turns out it could go both ways, as 72-year-old Texas angler Paul Kelly can attest.
According to a report in the Fort Myers News-Press, Kelly was on a six-hour fishing trip with a friend and a boat captain in the Pass on Wednesday. They had a double header hooked up, and in the confusion of getting it sorted, his shoe slipped on the deck — and over he went.
The fish pulled him under momentarily, and he felt something hit his leg. Then the captain (identified by several sources as longtime local guide Capt. Danny Latham) pulled him to the boat with a fishing rod, where his friend grabbed him by the belt and slung him onto the deck.
Only then did he learn how lucky he was: The captain told him what had hit his leg was bull shark, estimated at 8 to 10 feet long. Apparently it has been in pursuit of the tarpon, and when presented with alternative prey, opted to take a nibble.
Kelly then noticed the gash on his left knee and calf.
In such a situation, blood loss can be a rapid killer. Kelly was fortunate to be with an experienced captain who knew what to do: They wrapped a belt around his thigh and called for emergency help while racing for port. The Boca Grande Fire Department and Lee County EMS met them at a dock off Bayou Avenue, across from the Pink Elephant restaurant.
EMS transported him to the Lee County Mosquito Control helicopter pad, where he was then airlifted to Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, where surgeons treated his wounds. He required surgery for a torn tendon in his knee the next day. Recovery was expected to be quick; Kelly and his wife planned to return to Texas early this week.
The last shark attack in Boca Grande was in 2005. The Sun reported 19-year-old Austrian tourist was bitten by a shark while swimming at a state park at Boca Grande Pass. The man was left with bone-deep puncture wounds to his right foot and ankle. None of injuries were life-threatening.
Despite the large numbers of sharks in local water, bites are rare. Robert L’Connor, the trauma surgeon who treated Kelly, said he’s seen alligator bites, but this was his first shark.
“They aren’t that frequent, to be honest with you,” L’Connor told the News-Press. “It’s something everybody is concerned with when they get into the water, but it’s the first one I’ve seen in 10 years.”
Speaking from the Lee Memorial Hospital on Saturday, Kelly, said it was a good trip overall — but there’s one little bit he wished had gone better.
“We lost the fish, of course,” Kelly said. “That was the worst part.”
Sun reporter Steve Reilly contributed to this report.