If there’s one fish that every angler wants on their virtual “stringer” before they reach the pearly gates, it’s the legendary tarpon.
Adult tarpon are massive in length and girth with a 150 pounder considered average. Imagine then, those anglers relegated to the non-tropical habitats watching the cable fishing shows on whiteout weekends and seeing the acrobatic antics of a hooked tarpon producing screams of delight.
“Gotta get me one of those” goes on the mental to-do list for legions of fishing enthusiasts everywhere.
We here is Southwest Florida are blessed, one more time, for we are a waypoint on the annual migration of these piscatorial giants on their spawning run from their wintering venue in the Keys to their ultimate destination some 200 miles northwest of Tampa. The water temperature is the key to when the march north begins. It’s usually in late April or early May when the water temperature here hits 75 degrees plus. And those that are tarpon loco know that the tarpon road runs through here. So the phone calls begin right about now to charter folks with the standard question “Tarpon shown up yet?”
Now, you must understand, that for those that have a serious case of tarpon locoism, nothing stands in the way of the dream of standing on the pitching deck with a tarpon on the business end of a line trying to outsmart you. They will take sick days, accrued vacation, vacation money, their wife’s car, anything to fulfill the dream.
I had a customer some years back that had a terminal case of tarpon loco. Starting in the late winter, he would call with the tarpon question again and again. I tried to assure him that, I had his phone number and would call just as soon as the action started here ... to no avail. I’d assure him on Tuesday and he’d be back on the phone Thursday evening with the same question.
Finally, in the first week of May that year we began to seeing tarpon rolling in the Marco River which is a sure sign that the vanguard was arriving.
I called Roger that evening and left the information on his voicemail. Typical, he called back here just as we were about to turn the lights out.
“Oh wow! They are showing up! Are they big? Have you caught any yet? was the hyperventilated response. We talked dates. Next week?. I had Wednesday morning open and the a.m. tide would be just right.
He booked the date and then asked for a recommendation for accommodations here on the island. He would be bringing his 11 and nine year old sons for he wanted them to have the “tarpon experience.” He was driving down from the Atlanta area, he on accrued vacation and his boys on sick days. (Told you! Nothing stands in the way of tarpon locoism)
I cautioned him that the tarpon experience is very singular. We set up with baits and chum and wait, and wait. We get a strike; you take the rod belt and the rod and are into the fight for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half; the other anglers just sit and watch. Difficult to subject youngsters to that routine. If we’re lucky enough to get a second strike in time remaining a eleven or a nine year old usually don’t have the strength, experience or stamina to last the fight.
Roger listened but didn’t hear.
He and his two boys arrived at the dock on the appointed morning all bright eyed and bushy tailed.“ We got here yesterday; got to bed early and up at the crack of dawn; we are ready to go”
I explained the routine of getting bait. We used cut catfish and some thread herring. Roger stopped me right there. “Catfish … are you kidding? What kind of a world class game fish would eat a catfish?
“A tarpon,” I answered and continued on. After we acquired the bait we’d make a run south to Caxambas Pass and set up our chum and our baits.
We were on a good incoming tide that morning and with the water a little occluded, we had no problem acquiring the catfish in the river. We gold hooked some thread herring at the Pass Barge that was more of an effort. The kids were the best at hauling in a mess of threads. They would have been happy doing that all day.
So off we went on our appointed mission, arriving at our spot in the Cax Pass about mid tide at 9:30 a.m. and set our chum, both blocks and a liquid drip, and our three baits and the waiting began.
There were two other boats further down the Pass also set up for tarpon. We kept the glasses on them ... action there would heighten our possibility.
It was 10 a.m. Then, 10:30. We waited. Nothing. More chum. Change baits. The boys were growing more restless and beginning to wrestle with one another (not a good sign); 11 and we noticed some action on one of the other boats. Looks like they had a fish on and lost it. We’re energized. We’re next.
Sure enough less than 10 minutes later the clicker on the port rod goes off. At first with a click ... click ... click and then with a scream. I pull the rod and slam the drag down to set and a hugh tarpon takes to the air not 30 yards from the boat.
Roger has the belt on and I slip him the rod. ”Remember dip the rod when the fish jumps.” I quickly pull the anchor and the other baits and we are untethered and in full pursuit of this tarpon.
We take in 20 yards of line and the tarpon takes back 30 yards. The tarpon heads towards the Gulf; we follow. We take in another 40 yards and the tarpon takes back 50.
Noon. We’ve been in the fight for almost an hour. Roger is sweating bullets and complaining of cramping arms. The kids are tiring and restless.
Thirty minutes later. Still at it. Roger is running out of gas and the kids are saying things like “we haven’t even caught a fish ... some fishing trip.”
And then Roger does the unspeakable.
Assuming that he feels bad for the kids, he asks his 11 year old to put on the other rod belt and quickly transfers the rod in the middle of a tarpon leap.
That’s all it takes. The line goes limp and with it the anglers dream catch is gone.
It was a pretty quiet boat on the way home. Disappointment was etched on the kids faces as well as Roger’s.
But tarpon locoism has a great deal of determination. As they disembarked, Roger asked me to call him when the tarpon show next year.
I did. And Roger landed a 125 lb. class tarpon all by himself this time.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.