Swedish version

Chokoloskee Tarpon
by George Anderson

  Our day started out badly. I was staying with my good friend, Captain and fishing buddy Bill Blanton, who lives in Immokalee Florida, and we were anxious to leave Bill’s house early enough to get to Chokoloskee well before sunrise. Chokoloskee was over an hour away which meant a very early start indeed though trailered skiffs speeding along in the dark is nothing new in south Florida. The day before we had scoured all our known early season tarpon hangouts near Chokoloskee, and found one shallow bay that was loaded with big fish. Now it was a matter of real urgency to get to these fish first, before anyone else found them.

  Tarpon fever had taken a firm grip on my brain and visions of big tarpon can cloud anyone’s judgment, even though I’d only left my home in Montana three days ago. When you get tarpon fever there is only one cure.

  We got up at 4 am, had a quick breakfast, and headed for Chokoloskee. I followed Bill in my vehicle, as he had an appointment in Naples later that afternoon, and I’d just head back to our place in Venice when we packed it in after fishing.

  Just as we were about to turn on the highway to leave Immokalee, Bill spun his Honda Pilot SUV around and went racing back towards his house. I knew that he must have forgotten something important. Yeah – like the push pole for his Maverick Mirage! Being an experienced Captain, Bill was running over his mental checklist for the day, and I was grateful that he remembered the push pole before we drove an hour down to Chokoloskee. It would have been tough sneaking up on laid-up tarpon with only a trolling motor. One of the fallacies is that an electric motor is just as good as a pushpole. This isn’t the case. The noise of an electric motor, even running at a very slow speed is enough to jolt a sleeping tarpon into full flight, and knowing how to use an old-fashioned push pole is the key to sneaking up on these “laid-up” tarpon.

  I know better than anyone what Tarpon Fever will do to a guy. I’ve arrived at the boat ramp at Gasparilla countless times without having my push pole, my fishing rods, my deck shoes, my lunch- you name it. Then it takes me an hour to make the round trip back to our home in Venice, get the right gear and drive back down to Charlotte Harbor. I know that I’ve lost that first critical hour of fishing light, when slow-rolling tarpon are easy to catch before dawn. Tarpon fever will cause all this to happen, so now I have a 4 AM fishing checklist pasted on the visor of my Pathfinder. Doesn’t matter, I still forget some essentials. I blame this all on tarpon fever, not being stupid.

  As we approached the Chokoloskee boat ramp, the sight of several other rigs ahead of us, waiting to put their boats in the water made us even more anxious. Then at the dock, I got in the boat to back it off the trailer after Bill had backed the boat trailer down into the water. We have done it maybe a hundred times, but this morning we were in a big hurry and there were several other skiffs ready to launch, and we were paranoid that one of these guys might beat us to the tarpon. A crazy thought, as there are literally thousands of islands and bays here in the Ten Thousand Islands, and the little bay we were fishing was a very non descript spot to fish, one that most people would never find, much less fish. We were still worried.

  Bill backed the skiff on the trailer into the water, and it was my job to use the boat motor to pull the boat off thre trailer and secure it at the dock while Bill parked his car. I fired up the motor and tried backing the boat off the trailer, but was going nowhere. Something was obviously wrong. We had forgotten to remove the tie-down strap in the early morning dark. Bill pulled the rig back up the ramp and with the flashlight we spotted the problem and removed the tie-down. We could feel the stares of the two anglers standing on the dock, rigging their spinning rods with jerk baits used for snook and redfish.

  They were starting to chuckle. And it was not a friendly chuckle. In highly charged situations like this, everything you do is scrutinized critically. Launching and retrieving boats from not always familiar ramps is a great opportunity for a little informal one-upmanship. Our audience was not about to miss their chance.

  Bill backed the skiff down the ramp again and this time I was sure that I’d just float off the trailer, but the boat didn’t want to slide off. I revved up the 60 HP Yamaha four-stroke in reverse but I wasn’t going anywhere. Bill had forgotten to unhook the winch strap attached to the bow of the boat!

  Now more guys were laughing at the idiots in the white skiff. When Bill got out of the rig and came back to see what was wrong now, I told the onlookers, “As slow as we are, we’ll still get to the fish before you do.

  We shot under the bridge near Everglades City and headed out across Chokoloskee bay in the dark. Finding Rabbit Key Pass in the dark would have been nearly impossible were it not for Bill’s lighted GPS. Bill knew from memory that current channel was not as it was depicted on the GPS map, and was positione perfectly, but when I glanced at Bill’s GPS, I could see we were out of the channel and about to run aground! I shouted to Bill, Watch it!” I was straining to see the oyster beds that threatened to rip off the lower unit on Bill’s Yamaha. Fortunately Bill had us lined us up perfectly between the channel markers. He didn’t have the time to explain to me the discrepancy between the blue chart map and our actual position, so he just told me to shut up as he put the hammer down on the throttle and we sped along in the dark. All part of the long winding road to early morning tarpon.

  Bill shut down as we approached our “secret” bay where we had seen so many tarpon the day before. I said, "You know, I have a feeling that something special is going to happen today, because so far everything has gone badly!" Bill showed no response. He had turned off his hearing aids to reduce the wind noise and he was tired of listening to my whining.

  As Bill got up on the poling platform and poled quietly into the mouth of our secret bay, it was evident that it was again packed with big tarpon. We could see several big tarpon make slow rolls, characteristic of early morning laid-up fish. The previous day we had gotten at least twenty-five good shots at laid up tarpon in this exact spot, and seeing that the fish were still here and unmolested gave us hope that we could catch some of them. I recalled the smirking faces at the ramp with pleasure.

  We had thrown everything in our fly boxes at those fish the previous day, but we didn’t get a single follow, much less an eat. I was hoping that today would be different, and that we would find a way to get these finicky fish to bite.

  Bill offered to pole first, while I fished. In the early morning light we could make out several big tarpon rolling. The water was murky, from wind and wave action over the silted bottom. Even with good sun, the visibility into the water was no more than two feet. But the bay was shallow, five feet deep at most, and the big tarpon showed up as gray shadows against the yellow/brown background of the bay. This is great sight fishing, but only works when the sun is bright enough to allow you to see the fish. Often all you can make out is a whitish looking object that is the tarpon’s tail suspended close to the surface, while the body angles down out of sight.

  Early in the morning these “laid-up” fish will often roll to take in air and then glide back down to their holding level, a foot or two beneath the surface. Bill sneaked up on one silently, using his push pole. I tied on my most lethal early morning fly, a yellow/orange/grizzly, tied on a 3/0 Gamakatsu SC-15 hook. I threw this in front of four or five big, slow rolling fish as the first rays of sunlight seeped through the tops of the mangroves. I knew that my casts were putting the fly close to the fish’s head where they could see the fly but the only move they made was to swim off slowly, into the depths of Benny’s Bay.

  I switched to an Enrico Puglisi Black and Purple 3/0, our go-to fly in Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound. This fly that is so good, that a friend says that he starts out tarpon season using this pattern, then uses through the middle of the season, and also at the end. He’s right – we don’t know why tarpon like it so much, but it is a proven killer. I was frustrated, casting to all these big tarpon, making one good cast after another and having the fish spook off the fly or just disappear into the murky water without making any sort of aggressive move toward my fly.

  Then I thought, go small. We had tried everything else, but maybe a 2/0 purple and black and purple Enrico would do the job. Immediately I had a fish eat the fly but I missed getting a solid hook-up on the hook set. Five minutes later, as the sun was getting high enough that we could see some fish in the water, we spotted a fish of about 80 pounds, and I got the fly right on the money two feet ahead of the fish’s head. I let the fly sink a few seconds before starting my retrieve, and the fish ate without hesitation. I leaned back to set the hook with rod pressure as the tarpon surged away. Suddenly, the fly came out, just as the fish broke the water. I stripped it back in to check on the status of the shock tippet and fly, and discovered that the hook had broken clean off at the bend! It was an old 2/0 Enrico that I had been using for snook and redfish, and perhaps it had rusted beneath the fly body materials and was weakened enough to break clean off above the bend of the hook.

  I told Bill, "That's definitely angler error and any time the angler has an equipment failure, it is grounds to vacate the bow and start poling." Bill said, "No, stay up there and take a few more casts. We'll call that a bonus fish, or bonus release as the case may be." I decided to accept Bill’s generosity, and started looking hard for another gray shape to appear in the dingy water that was 3-4 feet deep.

  Luckily big tarpon are fairly easy to spot in water this shallow even though the visibility into the brown water was only two feet. They love to find a spot like this on their migratory travels out of the normal boat traffic patterns, where they can "lay up" or sleep unmolested by anglers. It was an isolated spot with undisturbed birds roosting in a watery, marine forest.

  Bill had poled us into the middle of Benny's bay, which was perhaps two hundred yards wide and five hundred yards long at this point. The sun is now up high enough in the sky that with our polarized glasses and a broad brimmed hat to shade the eyes, we can begin to make out the shapes of giant tarpon under the surface.

  Suddenly, a massive, shape materialized a foot under the surface, sixty feet off our bow. I dropped my fly two feet ahead of what appeared to be the head of the fish and let it sink. When I thought the fly had sunk to the tarpon's depth, I gave it a little twitch with the rod tip. That was all it took. The big fish eased towards the three-inch long 2/0 fly and inhaled it like a Hoover vacuum cleaner. Then as they say in the old war movies, all hell broke loose!

  The fish didn't jump immediately but peeled off all the line and ran about 100 yd. into my backing with one strong run. When it did jump Bill and I saw how big the fish was. I said, "Holy shit, start up the trolling motor- we have to chase this one." At first I thought the fish was in the 140-150 lb class, but when it jumped we could see it was really much larger. It went ripping towards the mouth of our little bay, jumped a couple more times, then settled down into a steady run that would take it out of our bay and into the river running in from Rabbit Key Pass.

  I applied a serious amount of heat, got all the backing back and half of the line on the reel, and then really started honking on the fish. I had a 20 lb. Mason's hard nylon class tippet (10 KG) so I tried to keep a good 15-18 lb. of pressure on the big fish. In about fifteen minutes we had the massive fish to the boat and got the leader inside the tip-top, so we could call it a landed fish, but we really wanted to get our hands on this one! We needed to get it in the boat and put the tape on the fish, so we could see how big she really was. Now, along side the boat, the tarpon looked more like 170.

  The largest tarpon ever caught (at Homosassa) measured 76" x 42". Using the formula that tarpon anglers use to estimate the weight (Length x Girth squared in inches divided by 800), this worked out to 171 pounds. This fish was larger for sure. I got the tip-top of the rod about two feet from the big tarpon's head but this was one really powerful fish, and it was going to take more time to wear it out before I dared to try to haul it aboard. NO!! The fish was towing us toward Rabbit Key Pass at a speed of 2-3 knots; about half as fast as we would be able to go with Bill's Minn-Kota trolling motor running wide open! I didn't want to get to aggressive with the pressure I was applying now, as I have broken the 20 lb. class tippet on fish a lot smaller than this one when I have gotten impatient and simply "over- heated" them. This was a fish that we didn't want to lose.

  I backed off slightly on the pressure I was applying to the reel spool, over-riding the drag and as the fish towed us out of Benny's Bay and into the river running in from Rabbit Key Pass. The big fish sounded in the eight to ten foot deep water of the river. This was trouble. Fortunately, the tide was coming in, so we were headed towards Chokoloskee, rather than the Gulf of Mexico. I was more determined than ever to end this epic battle, but twice the big fish got close to the riverbank where barnacle encrusted mangrove roots threatened to shred my leader. We needed to force the fish back toward the middle of the river, so I told Captain Bill to make a run at the tarpon with the boat while using the trolling motor, while I pulled hard left trying to get the fish’s head turned back out into the current. Sure enough, when we ran the boat forward at the fish, the tarpon bolted back out towards the middle of the river, away from the mangroves. The fish was getting worn out, but so was I. It had been nearly a half-hour now and every muscle in my body was aching from the steady pressure. I knew that if I let up now and allowed the tarpon to get a second wind, it would be a much longer fight, with a greater chance of an unhappy ending.

  I kept unrelenting pressure on the fish, cranking the reel handle until there was no stretch left in the line, then clamped my palm over the reel spool, locking it up and over-riding the drag. Now I had all the bend back in the butt of my Sage 11-weight Xi2, trying to remember to not put more than a 90 degree bend in the rod, as I slowly forced the big fish back up towards the surface, inch by inch.

  Finally, the fish had weakened fighting the heavy pressure I was applying and did an underwater summersault. When this happens, you know that you just about have the fish whipped. Another minute and the monster was lying on the surface, exhausted. I yelled to Captain Bill, "Grab my rod and slack off the pressure and I'll try to grab the fish." Fishing on my own, I’ve found that the only good way for me to measure a tarpon is to lip-gaff the fish and quickly slide it up onto the casting deck. Years ago most of the good guides used lip gaffs to do this and rarely hurt any fish doing so. Holding onto a fish of his size is difficult if not impossible with your hands, so I carefully slid Bill’s lip gaff under it’s jaw and tried pulling the oversize tarpon up onto the casting deck where we could quickly measure the fish and then slide it back into the water unharmed.

  A hundred pound tarpon is not that hard for me to slide up on the deck, but this fish felt about as heavy as an engine block out of a ’57 Chevy. I hauled with all my might and finally the silver sided monster slid up onto the deck. Now, we saw how big the tarpon really was! We were shocked as we groped for a piece of monofilament to measure the fish. I quickly tied an overhand knot in the long piece of mono and Bill held the knot at the tip of its jaw, while I made another knot at the fork of the tail. Then we measured the girth and put a final knot in the piece of monofilament. Quickly we had the measurements and I slid the tarpon back into the water. I had to reach up to my elbow to remove the 2/0 fly from the roof of the big tarpon's throat.

  I had been “cheating” on the IFGA rules a bit, using an 80 lb. Fluorocarbon shock tippet that was longer than the legal 12 inches. I actually started out the day with about two and a half feet of shock tippet, but after tying four flies on, it ended up being 14.5 inches long. I had tied my 10 KG class tippet about five feet long so I'd have a better chance to avoid spooking these laid-up fish. If this had been a world record sized tarpon (it ended up being not that far off), it wouldn't have qualified for the IFGA record book because the shock tippet was 2.5 inches too long.

  Not only that, but the IGFA rules give an angler no provision to weigh a world record tarpon and release it as you can do with smaller fish like bonefish or permit. As long as you have a witness and an IGFA certified scale you can weigh and release smaller fish that qualify for world record s. Unfortunately tarpon must be killed and taken to an official weight station if you want to enter it as a pending world record. I’ve never intentionally killed a tarpon before, and if the fish had taped out to definitely be large enough to break the existing record, I still don’t know that I could bring myself to kill such a magnificent fish.

  When we measured the piece of knotted leader on Bill's fish scale pasted to the gunwale of the skiff, the measurements came to this - Length (from nose to fork of tail) - 83 inches. Girth: 30 inches. Something was drastically wrong. I was sure that my length measurement was correct, but in our rush to get the fish back in the water I just screwed up the girth measurement. Thirty inches would be the girth of a runt of a seventy-pound tarpon, not the monster we had just boated. I had obviously made a mistake. My big Homossa tarpon was “only” 76 inches long but had a girth of 42 inches, and this fish looked to be at least as large, and most likely even larger.

  So we guesstimated a girth of 42-43 inches. Doing the math this works out to a weight of between 183 to 192 pounds. The largest tarpon I've ever caught. Another tarpon adventure had come to an end for Bill and I, and for once we had the pictures to prove it. Once back in the water, I held the big tarpon by her lower jaw for a couple of minutes as Bill ran the boat slowly ahead with his trolling motor. She revived quickly and gave a strong enough tail –kick to pull out of my hands, disappearing into the murky waters of Rabbit Key Pass.

Article written by George Anderson

© 2008




To get the best experience of the Magazine it is important that you have the right settings
Here are my recommended settings

Please respect the copyright regulations and do not copy any materials from this or any other of the pages in the Rackelhanen Flyfishing Magazine.

© Mats Sjöstrand 2009

If you have any comments or questions about the Magazine, feel free to contact me.

Mats Sjöstrand, Sweden

Please excuse me if you find misspelled words or any other grammatical errors.
I will be grateful if you contact
me about the errors you find.