Tarpon season arrives in near-record fashion at Lady's Island

gmartin@islandpacket.comJuly 18, 2012 

Bobby Mack was fishing for shark in the waters off Lady's Island last weekend when line began tearing off his reel.

He grabbed his rod, and a two-hour battle -- and the unofficial start of tarpon season in the Lowcountry -- was under way.

Mack didn't realize it was a tarpon until the famously indefatigable fish made the first of many leaps in St. Helena Sound.

"I was surprised," said the Gaston resident, who was assisted by his stepfather, Jody Hutto. "I'd never caught, never even seen one before."

At 6 feet, 4 inches long and 127 pounds, Mack's first tarpon wasn't much smaller than the 154-pound state record caught off Hilton Head Island in 1987.

Its capture signals the start of a relatively short local season for the prized gamefish.

"That's probably one of the first ones to be caught here this summer," said David Harter, president of the Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club. "They spend the bulk of their time off the coast of Florida."

They migrate up the coast in warmer months, Harter explained, following and preying on schools of menhaden, a smaller fish.

In summer months, Harter said, tarpon can travel all the way up to Maryland, though he called the waters off Beaufort County "one of the farthest-north dependable fisheries" for the species.

He added that the primary allure in tarpon fishing -- a favorite pastime of novelist Ernest Hemingway and baseball legend Ted Williams, both of whom had homes in the Florida Keys -- was the fight, not the food.

"They're worthless as a meal," Harter said, calling tarpon too bony and tough to enjoy. "But if you can get one to the boat of every five that you hook, you've done well."

Those hoping to land one have a relatively brief period to do so.

They're the last major gamefish to migrate up the coast each summer and among the first to leave, Harter said. They tend to leave in September as the water cools.

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