Iwas on a mission. A serious mission. I absolutely had to break the spell of bad luck on my quest for a first big tarpon. Sure, I had caught some juveniles here and there and maybe some decent residents from time to time. Yet, I hadn’t had the right luck to engage in an epic battle with a worthy megalops atlanticus. This time, for sure, I was determined to change that.
Fast forward to the Paradise Coast in Southwestern Florida during the month of July. It’s a lovely place with the typical Florida fare of beaches, sun, palm trees, fast food restaurants open 24/7 and water, water, water everywhere.
As fishermen, every time we see a body of water, we see opportunity. Are there fish in there? There must be unsuspecting, hungry fish in there! What lure or bait would be productive? Which technique would be best? Such is the mind of the wayfaring angler, constantly asking oneself silly questions about how to catch fish. Southwestern Flori-
da is perfect substrate for such ponderings. From freshwater to saltwater, from lakes and rivers to surf-fishing beaches, the Floridian angler has the luxury of an over-abundance of choice and each season brings its promise of intercepting migratory species passing through.
The 10 000 Islands area
Arriving in the quaint city of Chokoloskee in scorching afternoon heat, we were greeted by military-grade squadrons of angry mosquitos and the smell of wild salt marshland. Chokoloskee might be considered the gateway into the endlessly meandering maze of creeks, keys and waterways known as the 10 000 islands. It’s not a bustling metropolis but has everything a visiting fishermen would require.
This amazing natural eco-system stretches from the Western Everglades further South nearly to Marco Island at its Northern reaches. In fact, just seeing the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) infrastructure here gives you an instant understanding of their importance in the marine food chain. Two-thirds of the area is composed of red mangrove forest. In this unspoiled environment, Mother Nature rules the game and has visibly installed herself comfortably.
Nearly 200 species of fish have been documented here and over 180 species of birds frequent the area during a typical year. Mammals to be found include raccoons, river otters and of course bottle-nosed dolphins. It’s also home to some threatened and even endangered species such as the Atlantic loggerhead turtle, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and West Indian manatees.
The obligation to arm ourselves with local knowledge was clearly a necessity. Contact was made with a “good old local boy” who had a satellite image of the brackish labyrinth burned in his brain and who was able to show us around. There is definitely a tidal effect in the 10 000
Two-thirds of the area is composed of mangrove forest. In this unspoiled environment, Mother Nature rules the game and has visibly installed herself comfortably.
When the tarpon bite isn't on, you can keep your arms warm with the numerous sharks populating these waters. This 6ft lemon shark provided an excellent warmup !
islands and a boat drawing shallow draft is of good use. In our case, a 22 foot center-console would fit the bill perfectly.
Venturing into the maze
Our plan was finalized, the weather was cooperating, albeit hotter than hot, and my motivation was off the chart. Some places immediately give you the feeling, if not the absolute certainty, that success is just a cast away. The 10 000 islands gave me that impression. In such a wild venue hospitable only to swimming or creepy-crawly creatures, how could this go wrong? It was with the typical hopeful enthusiasm we feel before each trip that we set off into the next day’s morning warm wind aboard a speeding boat.
I’d venture to say that you can’t do this alone. Maybe you could, but you might end up on Gilligan’s Island or like Tom Hanks in the movie Lost spending your time talking to a coconut. It’s just too dense. The waterways glide left and right for miles and miles and everything looks similar. A little key here, a mangrove forest there, marshland, trees, birds, oyster beds and endless water. Getting lost in a boat here would be instantaneous unless you were equipped with GPS or Sat-Nav capabilities and even then…
We finally idled into a tranquil mangrove-lined bay at 8 a.m. precisely in the middle of nowhere. Not a sound to be heard. Even our voices seemed to be out of place in the midst
I’d venture to say that you can’t do this alone. Maybe you could, but you might end up on Gilligan’s Island or like Tom Hanks in the movie Lost spending your time talking to a coconut.
of nature’s quiet zone. Anchor down, hopes and adrenalin up. Time to get serious. Time to concentrate. I’m on a mission.
Tackle and technique
Tackle-wise, I would be using a Shimano 6500 size spinning reel wound with braided line and a medium-action 7 foot rod. I attached a 40 pound fluorocarbon leader using my trusty connecting knot I learned on YouTube (every fishermen has his secrets…)
I’d planned on using my trusty Storm bait shads that were productive for tarpon further North in the Charlotte harbor area. You do have to work these lures attentively and concentrate on the action you impart as you try and imitate bait fish. A variety of sizes and colors from mackeral to white were ready to go.
For sharks, it seems in this particular area the common catfish is considered a delicacy. The routine consisted of catching medium to small catfish on shrimp with light tackle right next to the boat. Easy enough to do, just drop it, hook ‘em and the watch out for that barb! The next step required cutting the poor catfish in half and using the “tail half ” as bait. Final setup was catfish tail with 6/0 circle hook free-lined with a 2 or 3 ounce weight into the bay where there wasn’t much current.
Let the games begin
Brother and Dad fooled a few lemon sharks and that made for some excitement as the morning
Tarpon have an amazing aerial defense. This specimen battled for an hour although the water temperature was very high.
went temperatures went directly from hot to super-hot. We suddenly spotted some rolling tarpon in the distance which reminded me I was here for a reason. Unfortunately for me, it was my pesky older brother who jumped the first tarpon of the day. It was a typical tarpon take; a bump and a nudge, then a hard rush followed by a rising line… then whoosh, aerial tarpon display as it threw hook and lure. Hate it when that happens! Smiles and loud voices, self-critiques and perhaps a sigh of regret broke the silence as we watched the splash fade away.
I was at the bow at this point, looking back over the stern with a watchful eye on the water, when I detected my line quickly taking a different tack in the water toward the rear of the boat. My heart stopped as my rod tip took a major bump. The next few seconds are blurry in my memory. I really wonder if I didn’t float back to the stern in slow-motion, suspended in mid-air in absolute silence, like Keanu Reeves in the movie Matrix.
“Reel, reel, reel!” I recall hearing as I desperately tried to take up the slack in the line. Got the tension back, felt the weight and then boom, I set the hook as best as I knew how. Fish still on, feeling heavy and firm. Is he hooked? Am I on? Is this a tarpon or a shark? How many thoughts can one have per second? I felt the danger of initial break-off disappear when the fish put in a massive rush while I held on admiring the arc of my rod. It felt quite solid. Whatever it was, we were connected. I could tell by the sound and fury of the braided line screeching through the rod’s line guides that this hook-up was leading me into a fight. Just what I wanted.
My line suddenly line took a sharp up-turn and I sensed a jump coming. Reeling in the slack as fast as I could, I got ready for what was inevitable. Breaking the surface with a spectacular headshake, a big, beautiful tarpon cleared the surface and took flight. Respectfully, I bowed to the King, re-connected and held on for dear life. The reel’s drag complained loudly as it took off again. This tarpon was getting angry and decided to give me a piece of its mind. Between runs and jumps, then re-runs and re-jumps, I was feeling the stress and the mental tension.
We had lifted anchor and now we were drifting, or rather we were being towed around. The boat had left the bay now and was making a large half-circle in open water escorted by a tarpon. By this time, maybe 30 minutes in, I had conceded atleast 180 yards of line. I was down to a third of a spool and getting
“Reel, reel, reel!” I recall hearing as I desperately tried to take up the slack in the line. Got the tension back, felt the weight and then boom, I set the hook as best as I knew how.
After a hard fight comes a happy hug followed by a release !
nervous. The fish was so far away that it seemed quite small visually but still heavy and stubborn physically. 15 more minutes and we’re at a standoff. I gain some line, he takes it back. I pull hard and it pulls back. I’m wondering what to do. The fish wouldn’t budge.
I had a flash recollection of the passage in Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” where the author began conversing with his adversary. I felt the same way with this tarpon. We both had the same objective; to win the battle. I wanted the fish to know I meant it no harm, that I would release it safely. I wanted the fish to understand it was im- portant to me to make this catch and that I would humbly respect its life. I found myself pleading with it to remain hooked.
Finally, after about 90 minutes of stress and tetanized forearms coupled with some lower lumbar pain, I got “color” near the boat. A beautiful Sliver King had surrendered after a dignified battle. This was a big tarpon, my biggest by far. With great care and attention, we brought the fish boat-side and gently removed the hook. The warm water and long fight had exhausted this fish and we knew it had to recover. Slowly working the water through its gills, it soon came around perfectly and signaled
its readiness to part company. I neither bothered nor cared about its length or weight. After fighting a fish of this magnitude for so long, I could not reduce it to mere measurements.
This was a magnificent living creature that fought for its life for the sole pleasure of my amusement. Yes, my mission was accom- plished but I was humbled as we observed the fish alongside us in the water. I gave it quick, thankful embrace and got my proof; a quick photo.
It was then with great respect, gratitude and a feeling of awe that I watched my adversary swim gracefully away from us.