As a second generation Sarasota native, I've always viewed the Tarpon with curiosity and admiration. Growing up, one of our favorite places for day-trips was to Boca Grande - the “Tarpon Capital of the World.” I’d hear my dad's stories of the crowded chaotic pass and camping on Cayo Costa. I am proud to say that my dad gifted me his love of the ocean and fishing, and showed me how to reel ‘em in when I was just a toe-headed tot. He took my brother out tarpon fishing as a young kid, and I remember the awe I felt looking at the photos from that trip. No doubt I knew I'd have to catch one someday.
As an adult, I’ve spent many a solo beach day in the summertime squinting my eyes toward the sandbars, watching for flashes of schooling silver. I've had the opportunity to go out on two tarpon trips previously; got skunked both times. Personally, I'm happy as a damn clam to simply be out on the water any chance I can get, so it never thwarted me that I hadn't managed to hook one of these elusive pre-historic sea beasts that I've heard so many stories about. I knew my time would eventually come, and spotting them was enough of a joy.
Recently, Steve and I had an opportunity to head out with friend and local captain, Joe Peters. It was a steamy summer Friday afternoon. The tides were noted to be some of the best of the season thus far. Summer thunderstorms were building out east and slowly creeping towards the gulf. Rumbles of thunder clashed with the crashing of waves, and rain drops started to meld with the white caps, as we poked circle hooks through pass crabs and staggered lines behind the boat.
The sun was gradually smothered by ominous dark nimbus clouds as the winds picked up and we waited for the tides to turn. We watched nearby boats maneuver the pass as their fish took the lead and put on an acrobatic spectacle. I got giddy with every fish I saw jump. So much beauty and power. And then it was my turn.
One second I was shaking the rain out of my eyes; the next the fish was on. She flew out of the water and I grabbed ahold of the rod. My adrenaline engulfed me. If I'm honest, I really didn't know what in the hell I was in for or how things would actually play out in the action of it. I knew I was going to forget everything I was instructed to do... the “bow,” this, that and the other - and I did. I was breathing hard as hell, rod butt digging into my hip and slipping on my drenched rain jacket, knees pressed tight up against the gunnel. I felt every ounce of muscle on the other end of the line. A few obscenities were thrown as I moved to the bow of the boat.
She jumped a couple of times. I have not the slightest clue if I “bowed” properly; I honestly blacked out for a couple of minutes. What I do know is that these fish can weigh upwards of 300 lbs and grow to over 8 feet in length, and that they are known for their stamina and fondness of explosive acrobatic stunts. They've battled and withstood the test of time, dating back 125 million years ago. Their robust silver suit of armor is impressive to say the least. To put my fight into perspective, the fish on the other end of my line was within 15-20 lbs of my own weight.
We fought for somewhere around 20 minutes, before managing to meet her at the side of the boat. I was exhausted, yet entirely exhilarated. I could feel every muscle in my body. She was swiftly unhooked and passed onto me. With guidance, I slipped my fingers under her jaw and held her big ol’ dinosaur mouth in as tight a grip as I could manage keeping her steady. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about a bull shark in the waiting about to run up on our embrace. I held her as she quickly regained her power. And then on her cue, she was sent off to see another day.
It was truly indescribable to look into the eye of a creature that can see in an even more vivid color spectrum than we can. And did I mention that they pre-date T-Rex? The "Silver King" are fascinating beasts, with a paralleled amount of beauty. A new level of respect has been garnered and I am so grateful for my experience. Large times were most definitely had... I’ll be dreaming of the next encounter.
It should be noted that tarpon are catch-and-release only in the state of Florida (the exception being a purchased permit, with which more regulations apply), and that tarpon of more than 40 inches fork length must remain in the water at all times until release.
Resources for Conservation Efforts and More Information: