On The Hook: Tarpon lunacy

BILL WALSH

Of all the great fish species that ply the salt, the tarpon has engendered a position of eminence especially for our fabled “now” generation; eyes roll and palms sweat when they are even mentioned. They are the Porsche Boxter with fins and a “gotta have” sooner than later.

So, here we are in one of the world’s premier tarpon fishing spots, and in the opening weeks of the “season.” The tarpon are rolling in the Passes and all along the Marco River and it’s “Game on.”

Now, I, like many other of the charter captains have an annual list of customers to call the instant the tarpon vacate the winter warmth of the Keys and head north on their migration. Those calls evoke a mass of urgent airline bookings or last minute road trips as well as many requested long weekend work holidays to care for a “sick aunt.”

And as the tarpon nuts pour in, normal fishing routines are abandoned. Traditional morning and afternoon charter fishing time schedules are ditched in favor of pre-dawn or post-nightfall starts to catch just the right tide. And there you sit and wait; and wait in total darkness, with odoriferous chum spreading astern always anticipating that faint twitch of the baited line to signal tarpon interest.

But, to give the perceived luny tarpon aficionados credit, the thrill and energy of a tarpon strike and fight is like no other. It’s one of those craved lifetime events long remembered.

And for those in the instant gratification assemblage, once the tarpon thrill is experienced, it must be boastfully shared with others even to a fault. Our story this week takes us in that direction.

Howard had his name on that tarpon list for years. He even would call and remind me several times during the winters not to forget him the instant they showed. I’d always call he never made the trip with the excuse of pressing “family issues” at home, aka Emily, his wife and two kids wanted to take the holiday if Howard did.

But this was his “man-up” deal; he never relinquished position until he couldn’t stand the waiting any longer and last year planned his tarpon holiday to include everyone after all, they would thrill to behold his angling prowess as he landed this behemoth fish of a lifetime.

Still remember the phone call when he announced his intentions and picked his date.

“Howard, if I got it straight, you’d like a 6 a.m. start on that Saturday, and you’d have your wife and two little guys along with you, right?”

He responded, “Right. This will be a family affair fishing trip.”

Politely reminding him that sitting on dark boat, with bait on the bottom and chum flowing in the current, with nothing else to occupy their time will drive the youngsters to distraction and probably, get Emily out of sorts, was dismissed out of hand.

“I’ve told them about it, and they can’t wait,” he chortled.

But that didn’t seem to be the prevailing mind set when they showed in the sultry morning darkness the following Saturday. Beleaguered would be a better description.

With a half dozen cut catfish as bait and a couple boxes of chum in the cooler, we made our way down the Marco River planning to set up on the outside edge of the Keeywadin flats and catch the beginning of a formidable incoming tide.

As we dropped anchor, the first bands of dawn were showing in the east accompanied by light puffs of an northeasterly breeze. There were “oohs and ahhs” from the kids as we hooked up the catfish baits and got them set up astern. Got the same reaction from Emily when we opened the pungent chum boxes and filled two chum bags.

All that done, we all sat down and began the indeterminable wait; all except Howard who paced around the confining cockpit like an expectant father.

It’s now coming up on 7:30 a.m. Nothing has happened. The sitting has become squirming. Howard is incessantly yanking on the chum bags to increase the flow. First rays of the sun peek through and we see we’re in a group of three other boats all doing the same thing. Waiting; 8 a.m. comes and goes and the kids are now grumbling and the wife is immersed in a book. Same thing in the other boats .... no action. A few tarpon rolls in between boats but the bite is apparently off; whatever force drives these mammoth tarpon has turned off the feeding switch. But Howard, now visibly distraught, is still yanking.

Two of the other boats weight anchor. Enough is enough; 8:30 a.m. and the two kids are planning a mutiny. Emily puts down the book and asks “How much longer ?”. Howard, exhausted, stops yanking and asks me “Can we finish up doing something different for the kids?”

Have a few light rods aboard and some leftover shrimp in the well and suggest some drifts for pompano or mackerel over near Sand Dollar Island. Kids jump on the idea. Emily is just glad to do something different and Howard is heartsick but resolved with the outcome.

We weight anchor, recover our baits and move south.

The water is placid along the beach and we are just yards away from some early morning shellers working the shoreline as we start our drift working tipped jigs into the current. The kids enjoy the antics of the hooked ladyfish as does Howard’s wife who has joined in the fishing. Howard laments and refrains from picking up a rod.

We’re maybe 50 yards off the beach when it happens. Folks on the beach are watching as Emily casts towards them all of a sudden the water explodes and a huge tarpon goes airborne; it has engulfed the tiny jig and now heads north with the 12 pound line melting off the reel. We fire up the engine and take chase.

Emily moves to the front of the boat and recovers some line as the tarpon sounds in deeper water. The kids are yelping Howard wants on that rod but Emily won’t give it up. Suddenly, the tarpon reverses direction and goes directly under the boat and the line parts with a “pop.”

The excitement level sustains as we head back to the marina. Who would have “thunk” that Emily would have latched onto Howard’s dream.

You just never know about those tarpon do you?

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 dawnpatrolcharters@compuserve.com.

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