Blistering Lowcountry heat can't dissuade when it comes to tarpon fishing

cdad@hiltonheadisland.netJuly 30, 2013 

Columnist Collins Doughtie is pictured leadering a tarpon.

Unless you work outside every day it is hard to handle the furnace-like heat that is a part of living here in the Lowcountry from mid-July on through September. For example, yesterday I had a few things to do in the yard and in less than two hours I had to switch out my T-shirt three times. No matter where I went, there was nary a breeze and the humidity had to have been near 90 percent. Maybe it's because I am getting just a bit older, but whatever the reason, I have adopted a somewhat Latin lifestyle of chilling out during the heat of the day and coming out later in the day when it is a bit more bearable.

I know what you are thinking, old Collins is getting soft, but I swear I'm not. I prefer to think that I am getting smarter and wonder why I didn't take up this way of life long ago. Regardless of what you think of me, there is one thing, and one thing only, that can make me get out in the heat on these brutal summer days: tarpon fishing. I'll even go as far as to say that even if it was 105 degrees in the shade and I knew the tarpon were around, I would gladly sacrifice my skin and balding head just for a chance of hooking into one of these incredible prehistoric beasts.

A throwback from the age of the dinosaurs, tarpon have changed little in all that time. With scales the size of silver dollars, the anatomical structure of these fish are as primitive as any creature on earth. Just their heads alone are pretty much solid bone and cartilage; getting one takes hooks that have been filed down so they are razor sharp and even then there are no guarantees. In most occasions, when a tarpon takes your bait the very first thing it does when it feels that hook is to use every ounce of its power to explode out of the water and shake that huge head furiously. Many of the tarpon I have caught have reached as high as 10 feet above the water, and a few have gone as far as doing a complete somersault. Others greyhound across the surface, some skitter and then there are the deep sulkers, never once revealing themselves until you get them boatside. All I can say is, what a fish.

Most folks think of Boca Grande Pass in Florida when you mention tarpon, but if the schools of baitfish like menhaden are here in mass, you can be sure that tarpon will be right behind them.

When I was just a kid, the only tarpon I ever saw were those caught in a shrimper's net. It wasn't until the mid 1980s that Capt. Fuzzy Davis figured out there were schools of silver kings roaming our waters during the heat of the summer. Even then, there were but a handful of us who regularly fished for them. All I had at the time was a 14-foot aluminum jonboat and believe me when I say it could get pretty darn sketchy fighting one of these fish from that little boat. I had one that took me on a Nantucket sleigh ride that lasted more than two hours and towed that boat just over 4 miles. The rule of thumb is to add 10 minutes to the battle every time the fish comes to the surface and takes a big gulp of air.

My best year for tarpon was in 2005 when I managed to land 48 fish in a month while losing at least that many. To say the least, tarpon are masters at throwing a hook. A rule of thumb when fighting one is to drop the rod tip when you see that the fish is about to jump. Called "bowing to the king," this maneuver can save the day when hooked up to one of these amazing fish. I think one of the neatest aspects of tarpon has to be that no two fight the same. It's almost like they have different personalities. As I mentioned earlier, some will jump 20 or more times, while others will dive straight down and dog you the entire fight. Another cool feature happens when tarpon take to the air. Their scales are so big around, you actually hear them rattle as they twist and turn in the air.

I have to admit that at the time I am writing this, I have yet to go tarpon fishing this summer, but for the next two days I am going come hell or high water. I know they are here, and my plan is to hit the "silver backs" in Port Royal Sound tomorrow and then the next day try for one of the monster "gold backs," often over 150 pounds, that come up into the creeks. The golden hue of these creek tarpon comes from the tannic water that stains their scales.

So wish me luck and hopefully next week I'll have a story to tell about the one that didn't get away.

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