by John Skinner
I had a five night shot at shore-based tarpon on last week's trip to the lower Florida Keys. Arriving on the heels of a cold front, the fish were a little off, evidenced by the fact that I didn't hear a single splash the first two nights. Still, I was doing OK, landing 3 of 14 hookups, with one of those being a trip-maker in the 80- to 100-pound range. I was real happy. Tuesday night was the last time I saw the temperature drop below 79 degrees, even in the middle of the night. It was in the mid-80s with strong sunshine during the day. By Wednesday night, I knew things were going to be different when I heard the first surface busts as the flood current began to weaken.
The next two nights were among the most exciting and frustrating I've had fishing. Big migratory tarpon were moving through and were responding to my swimshads. Over the two nights I had 5 jump-filled battles with tarpon that lasted between 15 and 25 minutes. There was one pulled hook, one cutoff on a piling, one break of brand new 50-pound-test braid when a jumped fish must have come down on the line with its gill plates, and two that chafed through 80-pound-test leader material. Having relatively little experience fishing for tarpon, this was the first time that 80-pound leader material was insufficient. In addition to these extended hookups were 17 fish that threw the hook on the initial jumps. I was now 3 for 36. I've read that the normal landing rate for hooked tarpon is about 1 in 10, but most of that is from boats.
My final night I arrived rigged with 100-pound leader material, but it was a slow start and it didn't seem that the great action of the previous nights was going to materialize. I began to think back with satisfaction on my 5 days and nights of fishing. I had actually landed a big tarpon, along with smaller 20 and 40-pound-class specimens. I had some intense jump-filled battles that I'd never forget. Despite the wind, I had managed a couple of enjoyable days fishing for barracuda on the flats in the lee of one of the larger keys.
The rare moment of reflection was interrupted by a solid jolt, and I knew from the deep rod pulsations this was another big fish. The first jump was the most spectacular I had seen in the well-lit night setting. The huge chrome fish 4 feet out of the water and flying easily 15 feet through the air laterally in front of me. It crashed to the water and just kept going with the flood current. It made several jumps on the first run and didn't stop until my spool was over two thirds empty. It was in open and obstruction-free water. A tug of war ensued for about the next 15 minutes as I gained a lot of line back as the current weakened, and finally slacked. This was the perfect scenario of fighting the fish with slow to no current. I had done the same the previous night with the first fish that broke the leader. After about 20 minutes the fish crossed in front of me, and then was in the difficult position of being downcurrent in the strengthening ebb. I didn't realize how far away the fish was until it leaped out of the water and grazed the same piling that the fish had frayed my line on the night before. This fish seemed to spook from the piling and move into the current, allowing me to gain some precious line. Throughout all of this were occasional jumps. If they don't throw the hook, jumps are good when fighting a tarpon because they zap some of the fish's energy. After each jump I'd aggressively try to put line on the reel before the fish recovered from crashing on the water.
At what I think was about 30 minutes into the fight, I had the fish in front of me and close, but we were in a standoff. The fish finally somewhat weakened, but angling its immense profile against the current. I felt a violent tug and the fish jumped close enough to splash me when it hit the water. I saw my opportunity to exploit the effects of the jump and pulled hard enough to turn its head toward me. With two more sweeps of the rod I grabbed the leader and pulled it into a corner formed by the small cement structure I was standing on and the rocks that lined the shore. I had already surveyed the water beneath me for a possible landing and knew it was only knee-deep with a firm and level bottom. With the rod in one hand and the leader in the other, I jumped in beside the fish, released the leader and grabbed the fish's lower jaw and led it a few feet into the small corner. I feared the fish would give me a nasty thrashing, but figured I could just let go if I couldn't handle it. Instead it just wobbled back and forth a couple of times and came to rest.
I knew I had little time. As I've done with stripers many times, and one other time with a tarpon, I grabbed the 10-year-old Pentax Optio from the side pocket of my surf bag and sat it on one of two perfectly positioned rocks at the water's edge. It took three button pushes to commence a series of five photos. I cut the leader, stepped back with the fish, and let the camera do the rest. I needed only to hold the fish in front of the camera as the pictures were fired off at five-second intervals. In one more button push, I was able to confirm that the fish was reasonably framed. I then grabbed my leader spool, made a loop, and hooked it over the lower jaw of the fish while I ran the line straight back to the fork of the tail. I snipped that, stuffed it in my bag, and then ran another length of line around the midsection, just ahead of the dorsal fin. There was only a jig hook where the swim shad used to be, and it popped out of the inside of the fish's mouth pretty easily. Less than two minutes had passed since leading the fish to shallow water. Reviving the fish was facilitated by the flow of the ebb-current, which now had some force behind it. It took little time for the fish to regain its strength and propel its way back into the channel. That would be my last cast of the trip.
I measured the length and girth leader segments the next day. The fish was 75 inches long with a 37 inch girth. The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust tarpon weight calculator converted that to 151 pounds. The fish was landed on a 7-foot Penn Legion Inshore 15-30 rod with a Penn 560 Slammer with 50-pound-test braid and 100-pound-test leader. A lifetime memory for sure. Now it's striper time...