Gulf­side tarpon

Sportfishing Adventures - - Content - Text and pho­to­gra­phy by Do­rian Jo­seph

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.

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