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Original Issue

The tempestuous tarpon

To many anglers the joys of spring are incomplete without a tangle with tarpon

After a southern winter of unequaled nastiness sportsmen will be comforted to hear that the tarpon remain undismayed. Unlike the hapless angler who was hard put to escape the elements, all the tarpon had to do was go straight down and stay there until the weather brightened. Now these muscular fish are again tumbling and rolling in silvery hordes along Gulf and Florida coastlines. And to many sport fishermen there is hardly a more thrilling sight or more thrilling news. For the tarpon is a gregarious and perpetually famished fellow and particularly so at this time of year when he is migrating northward. There are few lures or natural baits he can resist, and when he realizes that the angler has foxed him with a prickly bit of hardware he becomes strikingly indignant.

Time after time he will hurl his flat body out of the water, scales shining like silver dollars, gill plates rattling. Long ago these tempestuous acrobatics earned him the title "silver king," and it is a happy circumstance for anglers that the king's domain is a vast and accessible one. It reaches (for all practical angling purposes) from both coasts of Florida to Brazil and there are a myriad of bays, inlets and rivers within it where an itinerant angler can jump a tarpon or two almost any time. And, even though he ranges in weight from mere ounces to well over 200 pounds and six feet in length, the fact that he is generally found in shallow water and jumps rather than runs makes him a much favored quarry on light tackle.

I caught my first tarpon 10 years ago from the quay at Christiansted on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. After dinner I would walk down to the harbor and cast feathers and plugs to a school of small tarpon which rolled every evening in thin shafts of light from quayside lamps. When I hooked one he would arch upward as only a tarpon can in his frenzy to throw the hook. Usually he did throw it, for a tarpon's mouth is very hard and a sportsman is fortunate if he hooks a third of the fish that strike. But one night I snagged one securely, and as he plunged around the harbor a gallery of islanders packed around me and I felt like a tennis player must on the center court at Wimbledon. For 20 minutes my ancient plug-casting tackle held together, and to a ringing shout from the gallery I pulled a 30-pound tarpon onto the quay. The shout, though, was not an appreciation of angling skill. Food is dear in the islands and even a malodorous and gristly tarpon is food. The gallery pounced on my trophy and carried it away for the pot.


Since that first one, I have taken many more tarpon and released many in many places. To my mind, however, from April until July (though there are some tarpon there all year) the Florida Keys is the finest tarpon country there is, and sooner or later every light-tackle angler with a bent for tarpon (and bonefish) will find his way to the tiny community of Islamorada, 70-odd miles south of Miami on Upper Matecumbe Key. The guides there and on neighboring Keys are master tarpon anglers themselves. They charge $40 for a long day's fishing and can supply tackle.

There is little else to do at Islamorada but swim, bake in the sun and after fishing enjoy an incomparable meal of green turtle soup and stone crabs at the Green Turtle Inn.

A day for tarpon out of Islamorada begins an agreeable time after sunrise. The flat-bottomed skiff holds two anglers and the guide, and he likes to fish, too. Pushed by a 40-hp outboard motor, the skiff skims through a maze of channels. The water changes from bright green to blue and back to green. Cormorants perched on channel markers crane their necks and flop foolishly away. A pelican glides by. Blue and white herons stalk the shallow flats, and now and then the guide chases a twisting, frightened porpoise around the channel. The skiff passes the Rabbits and the Arsenickers and other Keys of mysterious name. They are uninhabited except for birds, and birds have yet to build hot dog stands and festoon them with neon lights. Eventually, 12 miles from Islamorada, deep in the Bay of Florida, the skiff stops at always productive Nine Mile Bank. There are tarpon closer to Islamorada, but the "back country" is known well only to the guides, and there is a lot of it.

The guide tips up the motor and poles along the edge of the bank. A shadow appears ahead of the skiff and a tarpon rolls briefly. An angler tosses out a plug and retrieves it slowly, twitchingly. The plug disappears in a boil of water and a shimmering tarpon of a hundred pounds or more bounds skyward.

Often a school of tarpon is located in one of the "lakes" or patches of deeper water between Keys and flats. They are feeding on mullet and the water will be a milky white as terrified mullet and purposeful tarpon churn up the bottom with their milling. Tarpon are less boat shy then, and I remember one hot June day when my wife San and I and Guide Dick Williams staked down on the edge of one such lake.

The tarpon, looking like gigantic cigars in the murky water, glided by within a few feet of the skiff, too close for an orthodox cast. Instead, using a swinging motion, we plopped our plugs in front of the cruising fish and ducked as they struck, jumped and hurled the plugs back at us. San picked up a spinning rod and looped the plug in a generally tarponward direction. Her cast was short and she reeled in to try again. But before she could lift the plug from the water a tarpon mouth which seemed as vast as a hippo's gaped a foot from the skiff. For a fraction of time we looked down a long tarpon gullet and then the mouth snapped shut on the plug. San dropped her rod, Dick Williams clamped his foot on it and we cringed. The tarpon started to run and the line parted. Up he went in one awesome jump, plug and a wisp of line trailing from his mouth. When he came down the skiff rocked and we were drenched with spray.

Although fishing around the flats is, in my frankly biased opinion, the most exciting and productive way to chase tarpon, it is not by any means the only way.

Under every Key's bridge, for example, there are tarpon of various size. At night (more rarely during the day), as the tide tears shrimp, crabs and other tarpon fare from the flats, they feed actively, sounding like a shooting gallery as they leap after bait and fall back into the water.

Many sportsmen anchor a skiff up-tide and cast into the shadows of a bridge. Some fish from the bridge itself or from the bank. Others troll. There is no dearth of thrills around bridges and the tarpon are willing.

Then, too, there are schools of small, five-to 30-pound tarpon on some hard flats and it is wonderful sport to wade after them with a fly rod. Fly tackle for tarpon is roughly the same as salmon tackle, and the more adept practitioners with rod and streamer are now boating tarpon of over 100 pounds.


I am still waiting for my first 100-pound tarpon. I have had him hooked many times and once almost had him on the scale. I was fishing with spinning tackle in the deep water under Bahia Honda Bridge, below Marathon on the Keys. I had fought the tarpon for over an hour, and he was so tired that he lay on his side no more than 10 yards from my skiff. Then, without warning, he jumped high and after him rose the stark, T-shaped head of a hammerhead shark. My tarpon was unceremoniously clipped in two.