The Gladiator in Silver Armor

Reprinted from

Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Tarpon,the Silver Kings of the shallows, have had a long time to perfect their way of life. They coursed through tropical seas 125 million years ago, when the White Cliffs of Dover were being formed from decaying bodies of tiny one-celled animals and the age of dinosaurs was coming to a close.

The tarpon's rudimentary lung, then and now, allows it to take a gulp of air at the surface from time to time, and thrive in oxygen-depleted water. They are spawned offshore, and their eel-like larvae fight for existence in the living soup of oceanic plankton.

After three or four months of rapid growth, these nondescript larvae change form and take on the unmistakable appearance of juvenile tarpon, complete with shining scales and oversized eyes. The juveniles head for the estuaries, running a gauntlet of predation, knowing instinctively that they will be safe only when they reach waters so fresh or so stagnant that their enemies can't live there.

Everything about this great fish is major league. In the clear waters off Homosassa or the Florida Keys, You see a school of tarpon headed your way. Sunlight bounces off their mirror-like scales, their pugnacious jaws protrude from huge heads, and each fish is as long as your own body. You don't know whether to reach for a fishing rod or a life preserver.

It's their red-rimmed eyes that are intimidating. Their family name is Megalops, "big eye", and up close, no matter what the angle, you're sure the fish is staring at you, and you only.

You think, "Can I possibly LAND that thing?"

Yes,anglers do land them, from the waters of every coastal county in Florida. Tarpon range from Brazil northward past Cape Hatteras, throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and along the coast of western Africa. But nowhere are tarpon protected as well as they are in Florida.

And nowhere are tarpon anglers any more proficient. One rarely catches a tarpon accidentally. Of ten encounters with anglers, the tarpon wins probably nine of them. The average tarpon weighs 60 to 75 pounds, and if it ran flat out instead of exhausting itself with towering leaps, landing it would be nearly impossible.

And how they do leap! Typically the tarpon strikes, feels the hook, and takes to the air repeatedly, three or more times. Its jumps are wild, frantic,delirious explosions of energy, a creature hurling itself out of its own element and into a strange one with no thought of the consequences.

Tarpon reenter the water head first, tail first, sidewise, skidding, sometimes seeming to bounce like an elongated ball. The fish's pattern is first to perform aerial maneuvers, make a short run, and jump again. By that time the angler has had time to recover a semblance of equanimity, get tangles out of the line, and prepare for a long and arduous fight.

Techniques for catching them vary widely, but locating the fish in calm waters is easy. Even when cruising, the Silver Kings surface from time to time, taking that gulp of air. Recent research indicates that this supplemental oxygen is essential to their survival. Anglers go where they think the tarpon should be, turn off their engines, and look. In utter stillness, the telltale gulp can be heard as well as seen.

Heavy tackle, live or dead baits on the bottom, and a quick release anchoring system is the most reliable technique. Many guides like this system since it allows relatively inexperienced clients to succeed.

In the deep waters of Boca Grande Pass the charter boats will hold with the current, live baits at the level where chart recorders show the fish to be. The strong tides make anchoring not only difficult, but dangerous.

Off the coast of St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the tarpon guides get bags of fish bycatch from the shrimpers for chum and search for sighted fish. They drift and set up a chum line, using big hypodermic syringes to inflate the dead fish so they can be seen at the surface. When the tarpon join the sharks, jacks, and other feeders, the guides drift baited hooks to them. Tackle varies from very heavy, for novices, to superlightfor experienced anglers seeking line class records.

With luck and persaverance, anglers in small boats can catch tarpon on standatrd bait casting tackle. They strike jigs; mirror-sided plugs and crank baits; and many different soft baits, including the same plastic worms used for largemouth bass in fresh water. Small boat anglers need to plan just how to respond, however, if a tarpon decides to jump into their vessels.

Perhaps the number one technique, both for thrills nad for challenge, is taking tarpon with fly rods in clear waters. This sport is growing rapidly and combines the most exciting aspects of hunting and fishing.

Today's fly rod specialists, using graphite composite rods, nylon and dacron lines, and reels as expensive as a chronometer, are always taken aback when they read "The Book of the Tarpon," by Anthony W. Dimock. After catching their first tarpon in the Homosassa River in 1882, Dimock and his brother subsequently fished all over southwest Florida.

The two, each of them septuagenarians at the time, took dozens of tarpon using split bamboo fly rods and single action reels, fishing from canoes. In landing the fish, they sometimes just rolled them into the canoe.

The Dimocks fished more than 90 years ago. The brother was a photographer, using a box camera with silver iodide plates for film. To see how high a tarpon can jump, refer to this incredible book and it's photos.

Nevertheless, stalking big tarpon from the deck of one of today's flats boats, with a guide or capable angler poling the boat is one of angling's great experiences.

Catching a tarpon on a fly is not easy. John Cole, a fine writer and lifelong angler, tried for three years with the ablest of guides, before he landed one. He chronicles his failures, and eventual triumph, in a fascinting book, "Tarpon Quest."

In recent years researchers have collected tarpon larvae at the surface in water as deep as 1600 feet off Charlotte Harbor. Larvae have also been found from as close as five miles off the Florida Keys, but 50 to 100 miles off the Lower west coast. Like other species that spawn in open water water, female tarpon release enormous numbers of eggs, often in excess of 10 million.

Although more research is needed, it is known that at least 13 years is required for female tarpon to be sexually mature. Aging studies done with otoliths (ear-stones) taken from dead Florida tarpon show that their average age is about the same as that of a university graduate student.

Killing a tarpon destroys a creature that took the ocean more than 25 years to create. On landing the fish, get a quick estimate of its length and girth, and the taxidermist can prepare a less expensive, longer lasting, and more beautiful mount than the original fish. Release the fish carefully, watch it swim away with no ill effects, and go back home with no regrets.

Note: There is a $50 tarpon tag required if you want to keep/kill a tarpon.

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