Monday, April 15, 2019

Not Catching a Tarpon

Leaping Tarpon
As my close friends know, fishing is a favorite hobby of mine. I go fishing often and really enjoy a quiet, sunny day on the water whether I catch fish or not. Of course, actually catching fish improves the day immensely.

I frequently share pictures of fish I’ve caught in my home waters of the northeast US, and sometimes I share pictures of fish caught while travelling to Florida or California. Once I even fished in Hawaii and had a great day catching bill fish, tuna, and dorado. A quick list in my head just now approached 40 different species that I’ve caught. With a little time for thought, I think the list might hit 50.

From time to time, I target a fish species I haven’t yet caught. Back in 2013 I wanted to catch a King Mackeral down in the Florida Keys. I chartered a boat and we had a great day, catching several different species and, in the end, I caught a beautiful King Mackeral that put up a good fight and leaped 10-15 feet out of the water along the way. Years before, tuna and sailfish were on my list, and it was a thrill when I got to check those boxes. In the case of the tuna (yellowfin, blackfin, albacore), they were delicious to eat as well, while in the case of the sailfish, the fish were revived and set free.

Tarpon, a beautiful game fish in southern waters, has long been a fish on my list. Sometimes called silver kings, these fish live close to shore but grow to 50 lbs or more, and fish of 150 lbs or more are sometimes caught. When in the Florida Keys, some large Tarpon can be seen every day swimming lazily around the docks at marinas. People even feed them! But catching a Tarpon in the wild is a surprisingly tricky proposition.

I had been Tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys twice before, but didn’t manage to catch one. The first time was on a charter with my brother in law, and the one Tarpon bite that day was his turn. He landed a nice 20 pounder and I'm sure that he has that photo somewhere. The second time, I was on two-day fishing trip with my son Rich. Day 1 was Sailfishing (we each caught one) and Day 2 was Tarpon fishing. On day 2 we caught lots of sharks and even a sawfish, but no Tarpon.

It was try number 3 for me earlier this month, when I chartered a boat in Key West for a 4 hour early morning Tarpon trip. We began by fishing several spots near to the marina while we waited for the tide to start coming in, but saw no action. After about an hour, we eventually settled into a spot where we would fish for the rest of the morning. Within 10 minutes, we began to see lots of tarpon “rolling” at the surface, meaning they would surface and arc their long bodies in a way in which their long silver backs looked like a wheel just breaking the surface. Some appeared to be well over 50 pounds. Some looked pretty close to 100 according to my guide, Sean.

Our first real opportunity came when a good sized tarpon took one of our live baits and started peeling line off the reel fast. I had to let him run or he’d break the line. After a minute of pulling line, the fish leaped and flipped, about 30 yards behind the boat, and then threw the hook. Sean estimated him to be 50-60 pounds. Though I was disappointed to not got a shot at this one, it really was a thrill to see the fish run with all that line and leap out of the water.

Over time we saw a few more fish roll, and Sean was able to pitch a bait right near one of them and the big fish picked it up and ran. I got the rod and Sean quickly untied the anchor line, leaving it connected to a float so that the boat could follow the fish as I fought it.

What a great fight I was in for! The fish briefly showed itself near the surface and Sean said it was a big one, maybe 60-70 lbs. It was peeling off line, but from time to time I was able to get some line back. Sean moved the boat so as to relieve tension on the line and also so that together, by the direction of the boat and by the way I angled the rod tip, we could keep the big fish from moving into areas with fish traps and floats. If the big Tarpon moved that way, the line could get tangled in the traps and lines and we’d lose the fish.

As I fought the fish, he stayed down more than we expected. At one point, based on the way the Tarpon was moving, Sean wondered whether he was also being stalked by a shark. We never did find out, though. At one point a good 10 minutes into the fight, I was able to get the fish up to the surface, running away from the boat on the right (starboard) side. What a beauty! It was a big one and I got a good long look at it as it cut through the water at the surface, looking every bit the sea monster. Since the fish was at the surface and the boat was moving, I was able to get some line back -- but then the Tarpon dove down and doubled back crossing the bow. I had to run toward the bow to avoid the line getting caught. Sean wanted me to jump up onto the bow to keep the line clear but I’m not as good at “jump” or “balance” as I used to be, so I got as far forward as I could and extended to the rod to protect against line snags. The fish moved back and forth and stayed down a lot. It took line, I got line back. About 20 minutes into the fight… slack. The line had broken, and the big fish was gone.

I don’t know if there was a shark involved, or whether when the Tarpon crossed the bow the line scraped and got weakened, but the line was broken and the fight was over. I was disappointed, of course, but also exhilarated. That was a beautiful fish that I fought for 20 minutes. My heart was racing and my arms were tired. I got a good look at the fish swimming powerfully near the boat. Had I actually caught the fish I wouldn’t have been permitted to bring it into the boat anyway, but only bring it alongside for a photo. 

This time, I don’t have a photo I can share with all of you, but I’ll make due with the very clear motion picture in my mind. That fish was a beauty, that fight was exciting, and the fish gets to swim away and live to fight another day. (For those wondering about the hook, we use circle hooks that reliably move to the corner of the mouth, out of the way, and if the fish doesn’t throw the hook the same day, it is designed to rust quickly and fall out. That fish will live on!).

So, although I got closer this time, Tarpon is still on my list. I hope to be back to Florida to chase them again next year. Meanwhile, the positive memory of that beautiful morning fishing earlier this month will stay with me.

Thanks for reading! A blog works best with active participation. If you enjoy this blog, leave a comment, and share it on your favorite social network. More readers will drive more discussion.