Fishing

Tarpon! Tarpon! Tarpon! How an overgrown sardine haunts anglers to dangerous obsession

A fishing enthusiast describes a trip to Florida to fish for tarpon in Florida Bay and off Pirate’s Cove. The water boiled with tarpon, but the only one he succeeded in catching broke his line.
Hundred-twenty-pound tarpon jumps into the boat. Thrashes about. Breaks the client’s leg. Jumps back into Florida Bay wearing a deck chair for a necktie. Evidently, these fellows are not brook trout.

As we pole into position, Sid Bryant, the guide, continues explaining, sotto voce, the eccentricities of our prey. Gills rattle like tin cans. Tarpon get to flying horizontal. Tail-walking is only the first book of the Bible; when the shrimp move through the Keys on a warm night in June, the sound of these scaly dogs busting the surface is like God dropping bowling balls on the ocean. It’s violent, it’s visual. Bryant whispers: “The only thing missing is `Roar.'”

But I don’t have to be convinced. I am seriously juiced. This is like the time in the Holiday Inn in Billings when I was 17, in love, and so was she, and what was coming was going to be far, far better than even I could imagine it.

First time out.

What I am trying to say is 10 tarpon are already circling the boat. Bryant, originally from Georgia, is not just whistling Dixie here. We’re the center of the clock, and they’re the ticking sea serpents cutting the smooth stone surface all around us, rolling across the flats, inexorably closer. Makes me sweat, and that’s on top of the weather, which is beyond balmy, for a Montana boy who was skating the ice of the frozen creek behind the house a couple days before. This morning Hurricane Edouard lies across our noses like some troublesome French wind sock, 235 miles south-by-southeast, or so sayeth the Weather Channel.

Problem is, the tarpon are not biting. They’re smiling. That girl (now a mother of three and, for all I know, the holder of several computer patents) back at the Holiday Inn, she was smiling, too. But tarpon…! don’t know if that strange side-swipe gash of a bucket-mouth they were born with can ever be said to portray true mirth. The girl in Billings was sincere. These tarpon may not be.

At this point, I am not sure if I care to ascribe intelligence to what in actuality is no more than a giant sardine, largest member of the herring family. Though these King Oscars exhibit no more than royal diffidence to the live pilcher fish at the end of my line.

Suddenly, softly, like the jingle of a reindeer’s harness, the little pilcher turns twitchety.

“Don’t do a thing!” Bryant shouts, whispers and commands at the same time. “Let ‘er come tight.”

I don’t and it does.

“Wait’ll he turns, then strike him good. Tarpon has a jaw like a brick. Don’t forget to bow to the King!”

The west side of the Florida Keys, fronting the Everglades off Islamorada, is called the Backyard by fishing guides. Minus many tall mountains, it reminds me of my own backyard, only underwater; an endless flooded pasture of waving aquarium grass with all manner of critters crawling about in plain view: rays, sharks, bonefish, herds of bait, tarpon. You want to take the net and just jump out of the boat and nab them: fork ’em, they’re already on the plate. But this would be wrong. Wouldn’t be sporting.

I say this with some bitterness because the hook has just pulled free. I reel in. Bryant examines one very dead pilcher, my former bait. Probably died of fright.

“Dang, look at the teeth marks. Shark.”

Meanwhile, the tarpon have passed us by. Their arrogant tails wave back at us like Esther Williams, while three butt-dumb–looking nurse sharks seem to have taken a liking to our boat. Any more free baitfish?

Bryant says, no longer quite whispering, “I’ve been in the midst of hundreds of rolling tarpon, tried every bait known to man, and nothing works. Are they feeding on something else? No, they’re just done feeding.”

It’s a bad sign when the guide starts asking questions of the wind during a calm, and worse when he begins to soliloquize.

“It’s awful tough to start up that boat,” continues Bryant, “move to another spot, when you see tarpon rollin’ all around you like here, ’cause you might not see another fish, next four spots you stop. But 89 degrees is hot enough to boil lobsters.”

Bryant’s ahead of me on this tarpon thing. He’s leaning over, studying the water thermometer. Edouard, that arrogant little Gallic blow, is beating us to the boards. Tarpon won’t bite if the water’s too hot.

Ten a.m. and it’s over.

Next morning we scoot through Channel 2 to Indian Key, then do Channel 5, which takes us off Long Key. We anchor, and the talk is good.

“This place is notorious for sharks and ‘cudas hitting the prey,” whispers Bryant, and I admit, looking over the neck of pass current, and also down at the great gray brow of Edouard looming up on us to the south, that I wouldn’t want to fall out of the boat just now. But the tarpon seem to have gone north on us, probably sipping blue margaritas in some pastel bistro in South Beach, no doubt muscling their way to the bar by now, with their big goggle eyes and that conspicuous lack of shoulders.

The waters off Long Key are beginning to remind me of the Great Salt Lake. Nothing can live here. Sometimes, fishing, you get a feel for a hole. Either it’s going to be outrageous, or it’s going to be pitiful.

By the end of the morning I’ve reamed everything about tarpon except how to release them.

In fishing, as in life, it is often best to admit defeat and move as quickly as possible (by cover of night, if need be) to happier waters. My mother lives a couple hours’ drive north of Islamorada, and a jog around Miami, at the Winn Dixie epicenter of a town called Stuart. There’s a marina in town I like to frequent, Pirate’s Cove Resort, which is built of such staunch brown stucco and cement that I believe it might withstand even a French hurricane.

Though my mother’s condominium lies only five minutes away, I am reluctant to go fishing with her, since, at 92, her best tarpon days may be behind her Since tarpon fishing is best at rouge of dawn, however, and my mother is best at brunch, I think I can get the business done, guide willing, before noon.

From Pirate’s Cove, the tarpon grounds in Stuart are easily accessible. You roll out of bed and take the elevator down to the quay.

“Where’re we going first?” I ask Capt. Warren Gorall.

“The Club Med.”

Capt. Gorall, an older gentleman, scares me in his brevity. But he gets the job done. Thing I like about good guides is they don’t jet-boat you around the tulles. They know where the fish are. If they’re there, they tell you how to whack ’em. If they’re not, you’re back at the dock by breakfast, crying in your curried eggs.

We boat out to the Club Med, an upscale compound just as you may envision it, minus topless Parisians, since this is Florida. The estuary narrows here. Palms rise above the mangroves. Australian pines are scattered between beautiful houses with bug screens surrounding their swimming pools. The water is brown but translucent, lusciously so to my way of thinking, since half a dozen tarpon arc scooting about, sucking up invertebrates.

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Capt. Gorall suggests that my son Cody, 7 years old and along for the ride, cast his bobber and shrimp anywhere.

“Bounce it off the bottom. Don’t worry about hanging up,” he tosses in, as an afterthought.

Then Gorall gets serious with the paying charter. He hooks me up with a 9-weight flyrod, superseded by a 10-weight line, at which point the 7-year-old announces, “My bobber’s gone.”

We investigate.

Cicadas blast away in the Australian pines. There exists no longer a shrimp at the end of the kid’s line.

The tarpon tail closer to the Med, spuming our advances like girl dolphins in a cross-species Brazilian movie.

Gorall takes my rod and cranks it bitterly. “Forget it. They’re down. That was history.”

On the way out to the narrow jetty where the Atlantic meets the Port Saint Lucie Inlet, Gorall explains about double-hauling, how to pull back the heavy line with your left hand while you move the rod forward to 10 o’clock with your right, and about how it’s slow and jerky for the tarpon and fast for the barracuda, when Cody shouts, “Dolphins!” and we pause in deep water off a drawbridge as seven or eight bottlenoses cruise us, and I know we are having fun yet, though fishless. “See those tarpon?” Gorall asks. “Cast to midnight.”

Over by midnight is a new pod of silver pigs, tailing. I cast, with a studied clumsiness. They dive.

“Yes,” says Capt. Gorall. What he means to say is no.

Next stop, at the rock jetty entrance to the Atlantic, we fish the last of the incoming tide, hence the captain’s urgency. I cast something called a Terror-Eyz-Er, in a rootbeer color, manufactured by a local company called D.O.A.

Later, Gorall will explain: “You see the tarpon coming toward you, you cast five, six feet in front, start to strip back from him, since nothing littler than him ever goes anywhere else but away.”

Damn fish grabs the plastic and jumps clean out of the water My first-born son is goggle-eyed and I’m cranking to beat hell. Four-foot sardine tail-walks right at us.

I should explain to you that the tarpon fell on my line and broke it. Gorall sighs.

How-to-do-it addendum: The tarpon walks across the water on its tail, you best bow the rod to the salt, give slack, or your leader is gumby. Bow to the king, or eat curried eggs.

Tarpon fight hard and like to jump–I’ve seen midsized fish clear the water by 10 feet. It’s said they can broad-jump a full 20 feet, which I believe. Tarpon are also fast, long-distance runners, especially on the flats, where they can’t sound. One I caught recently off Lower Matecumbe Key peeled 230 yards of backing from my reel in less than a minute, from hookset. It could have been two minutes; I wasn’t looking at my watch. It sure seemed like less than a minute.

Size

Adult tarpon weigh 35 to 220 pounds. Thirty-five is considered puny (fish smaller than this are called “baby tarpon,” but on light tackle they make fabulous adult sport); 50 to 75 pounds is medium; and anything 100 pounds or more is a good fish in most places. One hundred fifty pounds and up is a trophy. Two hundred pounds is the elusive number, the Grail of tarpondom that motivates the Ahabs of the game, of which there are many. My own preference is for the lighter fish (55 to 100 pounds), which jump and run and make your muscles bulge without reducing them to lactic acid jelly. Hooking into a huge tarpon is like snagging the rear bumper of a Peterbilt: hard to budge, exhausting, even tedious to haul in on sporting tackle. The big fish do look very, very good, however, when eased up alongside the boat, ready for a lip-gaff.

Tackle

If you can afford only one rod, make it a four-piece, 12-weight graphite. Some experts like a 10-weight rod for tarpon under 120 pounds, which is great–for experts. Beginners who find themselves attached to an 80-plus-pound fish will appreciate every ounce of rod power at their disposal.

A good reel is crucial. It should have a dependable disk drag, be anodized against saltwater corrosion, and hold at least 300 yards (preferably 350) of 30-pound-test Dacron backing and a full length of forward-taper floating flyline. If you expect to find tarpon in river or open-ocean situations, add a spare spool of fast-sinking flyline (or better, a running line connected to a high-density shooting head), so you can get your flies deep into the fish zone.

The best tarpon flies are rarely as large as newcomers expect, generally measuring 1 1/2 to three inches in length, tied on 1/0, 2/0 and occasionally 3/0 hooks. You can catch a lot of tarpon with two simple patterns: the Cockroach and the Stu Apte Tarpon Fly. For deeper river and ocean situations, Dan Blanton’s Whistler patterns (in assorted color combinations) are hard to beat.

Castling, Hooking and Playing

Must you be able to cast 100 feet in a headwind to catch tarpon? No. On the flats, quickness and accuracy are more important than distance, which is usually within 70 feet. Practice fast-casting at home, standing on a cooler or footstool to mimic a skiff’s fishing platform. Strip 50 feet of line from the reel, spreading it neatly at your feet. Hold the fly by the hook’s bend and roll-cast forward, releasing the fly. Before line or hook touches ground, begin your back-cast. Follow through with one false cast, then shoot the fly to your target.

River and open-ocean situations (where one seldom casts to visible fish) require much less finesse; you simply get the fly out in the current and let it sink, paying out line if necessary to reach the desired depth. Anyone can do it.

When casting to visible fish, the biggest mistake is striking too soon. You see a big silver head approach your fly, see the vast mouth open wide, and you rear back on the rod, hooking only water. The guide screams, the tarpon flees. Misery.

Better to delay the strike until you actually feel the take, which may be surprisingly light but nonetheless palpable–an increased weight on the fly, if nothing else. Then set the hook, hard. To increase the force of your strike, combine the lifted-rod motion with a sharp downward pull of your line hand. It’s well known that tarpon have iron mouths, so hooks should be honed and inspected often. Strike solidly once, twice if necessary, but avoid hammering the rod upward over and over as was once fashionable, as it leads to pulled hooks and instant break-offs.

When a tarpon is on, the fun begins–and also the labor. The main keys to success are: 1) “Bow” to a jumping tarpon by pushing the rod toward the fish. This keeps it from snapping a tight leader on the jump or fallback. 2) Pressure the fish by pulling the rod sideways (not straight up), opposite the line of the fish’s run. 3) Don’t be tentative. Fight close to the limit of your leader’s breaking strength. A 100-plus-pound tarpon should be whipped in 20 minutes or less. This is good for the fish, which can be caught and released without being exhausted to death; and though quick battle may at first seem arduous, it’s actually easier on the angler as well, who otherwise finds himself playing give-and-take, tediously, for am hour.

The Trip

You’ll need a guide, of course. Luckily, every marina, tackle store and tourist info stand in tarpon country can give you referrals. You can usually find someone to take you out even on the spur of the moment, though the very best guides are booked solid and should be approached a year m advance.

I strongly recommend beginning your tarpon quest in an exotic location, such as Costa Rica, Belize, the Yucatan or Venezuela. Here you can find incredible numbers of tarpon in lightly fished waters, and you’ll learn more about the sport in one week than you would in years on the Florida flats. What the beginning tarpon angler needs more than anything is practice: spotting cruisers, casting, setting the hook, playing good-sized fish to the boat Package prices for a week of Latin American tarpon fishing are surprisingly inexpensive, in most cases amounting to considerably less than you’d spend for an equivalent amount of time in the Keys.

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