Great encounters with the mighty tarpon

cdad@hiltonheadisland.netAugust 29, 2012 

I know I'm odd, but sometimes I just can't help myself. I often wonder if any other person on Earth thinks about some of the things that I think about. It certainly wouldn't help my cause by laying a few on the table, because it would no doubt only further convince you that I need some kind of specialized care.

Without taking it over the edge, one wish I have always had has to do with time travel. I often wonder what it would be like if I went back 100 years but with all the modern conveniences -- such as a powerboat and the latest tackle -- and went offshore to some of the spots to fish. How different would the fishing be? Instead of just getting one grouper and a couple of red snapper, I would be willing to bet that I could catch both these species by the truckload.

Taking that time machine farther back to the time of the dinosaurs, I think a bigger boat would be smart, especially if I had the intention of trying to catch a megalodon shark, which often grew longer than 60 feet. Now that I think about that one, maybe the 100-year mark is a bit more prudent.

I know "if wishes were horses, beggars would ride," but during this past week, I have had a blast fishing for dinosaurs right there in Port Royal Sound. These dinosaurs are none other than the "silver king" or tarpon. Having changed little in thousands of years, tarpon are the ultimate sport fish. With mouths that are solid bone and cartilage and having the ability to come to the surface and gulp air, tarpon can be some of the most frustrating fish that swim when it comes to hooking them.

Every year they migrate from Florida and enter Port Royal Sound, but for some reason, they have not appeared in any great numbers for the past five years. But about a week or so ago, all that changed and I have seen hundreds of them rolling on the surface on any given day.

So why are they here in such numbers this year? My theory is the baitfish (menhaden) are here in larger numbers than I can ever remember, plus they are huge compared to their regular size. As the tide rolls in, waves of menhaden are coming into the sound, and some of these waves are three acres or more in size. Even neater to watch than these waves of bait are the huge explosions that erupt under them as tarpon go after an easy meal. It's as if Navy destroyers are dropping depth charges -- the explosions are almost that big.

I'll admit that I have given tarpon a break since I hurt my back, but when I saw all those fish rolling on the surface, it was too much to bear and I had to give it a shot. The first time I went out, it was in my little 16-foot boat. I managed to put one tarpon in the air but didn't hook it. When I say "in the air," I mean exactly that. Once a tarpon feels that hook, they almost always come blasting out of the water and when a fish that big does this, it is a sight you will never, ever forget. They have scales larger than silver dollars, and you can actually hear them rattle as the fish vigorously shake their heads trying to throw the hook.

On Day Two, I put four more in the air, and each one managed to shake free in the space of the first 10 seconds of being hooked. All I can say in my defense is that I was a bit rusty. My best year here was in 2005 when I managed to land 48 tarpon in one month, which is pretty darn strong no matter where in the world you go for these magnificent fish.

Feeling a bit gun shy, I called on my buddies Don McCarthy and Will "Catfish" Thompson and convinced Don to take his boat, the Manatee Mac, out for a try. I had told them about all the bait and tarpon I was seeing, so it took little convincing to get them to go. Like any fishing, there are no guarantees from one day to the next, but luck was with us as we sat anchored in a spot I had seen hundreds of fish the day before. "There's one!" I would say, which would be followed closely by Don saying, "There are three more!" Our window of opportunity was there so I encouraged Will to chum for all he was worth as I put fresh baits on all four lines.

Just about then, I saw one of the rods rock -- as soon as I picked it up, I knew it was a tarpon. The weight was unmistakable. But as they often do, just as I set the hook the line went limp. Not 10 seconds later, another rod started to bend double and Don grabbed it. Setting the hook, that fish came out of the water shaking its head, but this time the hook held fast.

After seven or eight jumps and 30 minutes later, we had him boatside, where we released him to fight another day. Both Don and I have caught tarpon but it was Will's first encounter with them. I guarantee he will never forget that fight. I once told you that wahoo was my favorite fish to catch, but meeting up with "Mr. T" again has me rethinking that statement. Tarpon are sheer power -- amazing aerobatics combined with an elegant grace. Best of all is you only have to go to Port Royal Sound to catch them. With fuel prices like they are, tarpon fishing is definitely the way to go.

God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.

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