Publish date:

The Life and Death of a Tarpon


In May and June big tarpon are plentiful in the backwaters of the Florida Keys. And plentiful, too, are the conjectures put forth by fishermen, guides and scientists to explain where the fish came from, why they are there and where they are going. Do the tarpon spawn in the shallows? Some people think so, saying that the "daisy chain," formed by small groups of tarpon, is a mating dance wherein the females eject eggs to be fertilized by the males. Others ask: If this is so, why then are the fish found in larval form far at sea? How do the eggs get there? A few tarpon are stay-at-homes and will remain in the Keys, but one day at June's end thousands will move out into the Atlantic gathering for a short time at the five-fathom bank to await the mysterious signal that will send them off to roam the deep seas, leaving many unanswered questions behind them.

Looking more like eels than tarpon, the larvae (above) are transparent at this stage and about three-eighths of an inch long. After moving to shallows, the young fish (right) find shelter among the mangroves.

The daisy chain may be a mating ritual, but no one has sampled the sexes of the dancers, nor has the middle of the ring been strained for milt and roe.

A week after the full moon in late May or early June comes the night of the polychetes, when millions of these tiny worms surface to spawn and then be eaten by the tarpon.

Late in June the tarpon stand on an offshore reef, close to the deep cut of the Gulf Stream. In a day or two they will be off into the blue water and away, not to reappear until autumn.

The tarpon's death generally results from an attack by a shark or from a bait cast by man. Here the elements of doom are linked, with a hammerhead killing a hooked fish.