Capt. Robert Moore, Frank and I arrive at the ramp early — so early that dawn is still gray. As we motor out of the basin, I check over my tackle one more time: Penn Battle 6000 spooled with 50-pound braid on an 8-foot Star Stellar Lite rod, 60-pound fluorocarbon leader, 3-inch oval Styrofoam floats, Owner 7/0 Mutu Light circle hooks. Everything looks to be in order — time to make it happen.
We come up on plane and head out into the open Harbor. The sun is still below the horizon, but it’s starting to get light enough that we can see. All eyes on the boat are peeled, looking for the telltale disturbed water of a school of threadfin herring — it looks like the water has rain falling on it, but only in one small area.
We run for a few miles before sighting any, then suddenly spot two schools at once. One seems to be a little larger, so we aim the boat in their direction and drop down to idle. Threadies are easily spooked by the boat, so we idle their way from upwind, then kill the engine 100 feet out and let the wind drift us to them.
Threadies are livelier when they’re caught on a sabiki rig, so I break out a light rod and tie one on. The school is getting close enough to try a cast, so I chuck the sabiki out past them and jig it gently through the school. I feel one hit, so I stop reeling and bounce the rig right where it’s at, seeing if I can hook a couple more. The rod suddenly gets heavier, so I reel like heck, trying to get the baits to the boat before the mackerel can pick them off. I’ve got four.
As I swing them into the boat, one falls back into the water. Typical. I shake the other three into the livewell. Frank’s right behind me, dropping two more into the well. Our subsequent casts get no interest, and now the school is too close to the boat. They go down and don’t come back up.
The captain fires up the motor and we begin the search again. There are lots of schools out here and we find another quickly, but they have no interest in the sabiki. That’s often the case in the Harbor, though off the beaches threadies usually hit a sabiki pretty well. We decide to break out the net. Castnetting threadies is tough — you can make a perfect throw on a big school and still come up empty. Capt. Moore’s using a big and heavy 10-foot net to better our chances. Still, his first two throws come up empty. On the third toss, he lucks out and bring in an even dozen. That’s enough bait for us — time to go fish.
Although there are tarpon all around Charlotte Harbor, we decide to fish the Pirate Harbor Hole. It’s usually a fairly consistent spot, but we’ve picked it because Frank had a solid report of fish here yesterday. Networking is important — call the tackle shop, your favorite charter captain or even your liar fishing buddies. If we hadn’t gotten the information we did, we would have been out looking for rolling fish, which is a great way to find them. It’s often best to hunt your own tarpon, because an unmolested school is more likely to eat.
As soon as we pull up, we see silvery flashes reflecting the just-risen sun — rolling tarpon! The fish are here, and there’s not another boat anywhere nearby. The plan is simple: Set up a drift and see if we can get lucky. Frank dips a threadie from the well, puts the hook through the hard cartilage between its snout and eyes, and hands me the rod.
I cast it out — not too far, because a baitfish cast a long way hits the water pretty hard, and I want a lively bait. The current can do the rest, drifting the bait out far enough. Frank’s got a second bait ready and casts it out as well. Frank stops his about 50 feet out and puts the rod in a rodholder. I let mine drift out to 100 feet then do the same. Keeping the baits staggered lets us double our chances of a hookup without tangling lines.
I double-check the drag on both setups as we start drifting. You don’t want your drag too tight for this type of fishing, but you also don’t want it too loose. I set it hand-tight, which means when I wrap the line once around my hand and pull it, I can peel drag without the line digging into my skin uncomfortably. It’s better to have the drag too loose than too tight — you can always feather the spool with your fingers or palm if you need to add more pressure. A drag that’s too tight is a great way to lose fish.
We drift and wait, and drift and wait, and drift and wait. We’re keeping a close eye on the baits. Lots of things besides tarpon eat threadies, and Frank has to replace his after about 15 minutes because a mackerel chomps it. Luckily, the sharks leave us alone. Waiting can be tough, so it’s good thing we all like each other and have things to talk about.
Frank’s in the middle of explaining his pink fishing rod theory when my drag starts screaming. Capt. Moore shouts, “Fish on!” I look over just in time to see a bright silver rocket launch up out of the dark water. I’m only two steps from the rod, but as I’m getting there I almost trip over my own foot in excitement.
The fish is back in the water and running as I pull the rod out of the holder. Hopefully, the hook is set solidly — that’s why we leave the rods in the holders while waiting for a bite. Frank reels in the other bait as I get ready for the next jump. A tarpon double-header would be fun, but probably not for long.
My line starts coming up to the surface, a sure sign that the fish is going to leap again. And he does not disappoint, coming fully out of the water and shaking his head violently. I point the rod straight at the fish and lower the tip, creating a bit of slack. This is called bowing to the king, and it prevents two bad things: If the line is fully taut, it’s more likely to break and the fish is more likely to throw the hook. Even when you bow, the hook may come free. This time, it doesn’t. That’s not skill; it’s luck.
I brace myself for another leap, but this tarpon has a different plan: He’s going to Mexico and leaving me here. Line is melting off the reel spool at a mildly alarming rate. I turn to our captain and say, “We’re gonna have to chase him.” He cranks it up and we start moving slowly in the direction the fish is going. Never chase a fish faster than you can reel. I’m pulling hard against the tarpon the whole time. In a few moments, I’ve regained half the line I lost. Capt. Moore shuts the engine down again. It’s not good to have too much line out, but we want to keep the sport in sportfishing.
Now we’re settling in for the fight. It’s a good fish but not huge; maybe 110 pounds. But tarpon of any size are tough customers. This isn’t like pulling on redfish, this is bona fide big game battle. At this point, I’m mainly applying opposite pressure: Whatever direction the fish wants to go, I pull him the opposite way. He goes left, I pull him right. Then he goes right, so I pull left. The idea is to wear the fish down as quickly as possible. With tarpon, a shorter fight is better. The longer you fight it, the worse off the fish will be at release.
I’m starting to get the tarpon in closer to the boat now. This is a dangerous time. A tarpon will often spook at the boat and make another run, and there’s no telling which direction he might go. And of course that’s what happens. I’m standing in the bow of the boat, pulling the fish toward me, when suddenly he freaks out and makes a panic run — toward the stern, and then under the boat.
I stick the rodtip as far into the water as I can and scamper toward the stern, the reel howling the whole way. If the line touches the boat or the motor, that’ll be the end of this tug-o-war. Just as I reach the stern, the tarpon comes up in another gill-rattling leap 40 yards out on the other side of the boat. Because I’m still trying to keep the line off the motor, I don’t have a chance to bow.
The hook manages to stay stuck anyway. Sometimes you can do things wrong and get lucky. Other times you can do everything right and still lose the fish.
The last-minute run has taken most of the steam out of this tarpon. He’s not pulling as hard now, so I get him muscled back to the boat in fairly short order. He’s also trying to surface more. Tarpon can breathe air, and they’ll often come to the surface for extra oxygen during the fight. Every time he comes up, I pull on him as hard as possible — if I can get him to expel the air he’s just taken in, I can significantly shorten the battle and release this fish in better condition.
He goes left one more time, and as I pull right he rolls over, showing his belly. That’s a good thing to see — it means this fish is whipped. Now it’s just a matter of hauling him to the boat and getting a hand on him.
I pull the fish alongside the boat. Capt. Moore leans over the gunwale and grabs the tarpon firmly by the lower jaw. The hook is buried in the corner of the mouth, just where you’d expect a circle hook to dig in. Frank reaches over and pulls the hook out. Circle hooks usually have to be backed out, but this one’s just barely in the skin and comes out way too easy — how this fish stayed on, I don’t know.
The job’s not done until the tarpon swims away healthy. Sometimes they’re ready to go as soon as they get to the boat, especially in strong current and cooler, well-oxygenated water. But today the water’s warm, and we want to be sure this tarpon has every chance to survive. I like to release my own fish, so I grab the jaw and the captain gets the motor started. We idle the fish into the current, putting water over his gills but not stressing him out by going too fast.
The feeling of holding onto something this powerful is strange and a little frightening, but in a good way. He tries to pull away a couple times in the first minute, but I hang on tight — he’s not ready yet. I wait until I can feel him starting to swim rhythmically again and then let him go with a little push forward. We all watch as he swims off, slowly for a few seconds and then faster as he disappears from sight.
I sit down and guzzle a bottle of water. Then I look up at Capt. Moore and say, “What are we waiting for? Let’s go get another one!”
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor, and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing tips, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.