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October 25, 2001

Sea Saws

Here is some general information on the sawfish genus.

Q: I recently visited a fishing museum that displayed a long "saw" off the nose of a sawfish. How do sawfish use these saws? How big do sawfish get and where can I catch one? - Art Meyerson, Manitoba, Canada

A: Sawfish (Prisits spp.) use their saws to stun or kill small, schooling baitfish by swinging their heads from side to side, slicing through the water just above the bottom. They've also been observed stirring muddy bottoms in search of food by moving their saws backward and forward.
Related to guitarfish and rays, the seven species of sawfish live in warm, shallow coastal waters around the world. Sawfish stay very close to land, usually in partially enclosed waters only a few feet deep. Sometimes they lie in deeper holes on bottoms of mud or muddy sand. They seem to prefer areas near freshwater rivers and often enter large rivers such as the Amazon, the Mississippi and Florida's St. Johns River.
In the western Atlantic, two species range from New York to Brazil, the smalltooth sawfish (P. pectinata) which has a long saw - up to one-quarter the length of the fish - with many small teeth on the saw (at least 24 on each side), and the largetooth sawfish (P. pristis), which has fewer but larger teeth on a shorter saw.
Sawfish bear live young, about 2 feet long at birth, which can grow to 20 feet and more than 700 pounds. While still inside their mothers, the young fishes' saws are encased in a protective sheath. Though their saws can be dangerous to anyone handling or disturbing a sawfish, they're not normally considered aggressive or dangerous to humans. They are, however, an annoyance to commercial drift nets, seines and shrimp trawls.
The International Game Fish Association lists an all tackle-record of 890 pounds for a sawfish caught in Panama in 1960, but does not keep line-class records for these fish. Anglers can easily catch sawfish on fresh-cut bait, but since these fish are slow-growing, live-bearers with restricted habitats, they should not be killed.