Species #146 — Atlantic Tarpon

Crazy how Florida’s top prize is silver and not gold.

Species: Atlantic Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus)
Location: Titusville, Florida
Date: July 8, 2018

I already wrote this one. You can find it below.

Ask any angler for a list of their 10 dream species, and Atlantic Tarpon will be on it.

Megalops atlanticus entered my dream species list the moment I first watched these silver slabs of muscle erupt from the water with enough headshake to cause whiplash, testing the anglers battling it to the very limits of their skill and hoping for a healthy dose of luck, to-boot.

Yes, tarpon were long a dream of mine.

The funny thing about dreams is how you react when they pass within striking distance.

I was in Florida this summer, and tarpon were just a few hours away. I had a rental car, and I had time to chase them, so I began looking into guided tarpon trips. This was really happening, and I was numb. Was I really about to catch a tarpon?

My dreams were crushed as quickly as they were revitalized. The least-expensive trips I could find were $400 for the day, and with a summer full of travel and fishing planned, I couldn’t afford to drop so much on a single day of fishing — not even for a dream species.

It seemed as though tarpon would remain just a dream.

Connections

As I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, dejected, I noticed a post from a trio of guys I’d gotten in contact with during my time in Orlando.

Pierce Sanders, Zain Khalid and Jessel Sanchez were a trio of friends who live to fish as much as I do. They’d put me on to a lot of fish, and I just happened to see a post featuring one of them fishing for juvenile tarpon on light tackle.

Sitting at the restaurant that night, I distinctly remember the food falling out of my mouth as I came to the realization that they’d done this from shore with bass gear. Then I realized that they might be willing to share their spot.

Lastly, I realized the woman at the table next to me was staring with a look of disgust.

I smiled. Not at her, but with anticipation.

My dream was alive once again.

Hell

It was a blur after that. The next day, I found myself in a car, driving up the Space Coast and into a salt marsh full of brackish canals, dirt roads and the rich promise of a tarpon.

The wet heat smothered me like a blanket the moment I stepped out of my car, causing me to gasp as mosquitoes began feasting almost immediately. The sun raged downward, and I wondered what I was getting myself into.

Filling my bag with tackle, a bottle of water and some bug spray, I began the long, surprisingly moist walk to the spot they’d recommended.

This place was unreal. I arrived to find several manatees just 2 feet away from a drainage pipe, apparently appreciating the flowing water in the summer heat. When the novelty wore off, I realized they were blocking me from fishing that side of the canal, so I begrudgingly switched sides.

Manatees are so cool.

Despite the heat, I found myself hopping spots frequently and trying a little of everything. I threw bait, spoons, swimbaits, jigs, spinners and even topwater, but nothing enticed the tarpon I knew had to be lurking beneath the churning cola-colored water.

Then, I tried a Rapala.

Almost immediately, I hooked a Ladyfish, a species related to the tarpon but much, much less glamorous.

I caught half a dozen Ladyfish before the gators got interested and moved closer to me. This was unnerving, but they were in the water, and I was on land, nestled between thick mangroves and standing above a number of drainage pipes. There was no room to maneuver, casting was a struggle and if I were to hook a big fish, I’d have a two-foot space to land one in. Still, the compact space made me feel safe from the gators.

Eruption

When the first tarpon hit, my heart skipped a beat. Imagine fishing with a trout rod when a four-foot silver blur erupts on your lure from less than a rod’s length away. But wait. Imagine it hitting so hard and fast that it comes three feet out of the water when hooked. As you react and try to fight it, it jumps again, this time five feet out of the water and straight into a mangrove growing right next to you, thrashing as you try to grab the flailing 15- or 20-pound fish at eye level.

Five seconds have now elapsed, and you watch helplessly as the fish flails and flops just out of reach while a gator moves even closer in hopes of a free meal.

Then the hook comes free, the tarpon hits the water and you’re left reeling in more ways than one.

Repeat this a dozen times, with some variation taking place every time. Sometimes the fish jumps five or six times. Sometimes it runs and stops. Sometimes you’re so surprising you flinch like you’ve been hit in the face.

Every time, you lose the fish.

It wasn’t a dream, it was a nightmare.

I steadily landed Ladyfish in between tarpon hookups, but after this tarpon scenario repeated more times than I could believe, my dehydration became real. It was over 100 degrees out with more than 100 percent humidity, and I’d finished my water hours ago. Soaked with sweat, I made the trek back to the car for more water, stopping only to throw a few casts and catch a small Common Snook right up against the mangroves.

Home stretch

After returning with water, I no longer feared keeling over from dehydration, but I was terrified of not landing one of these tarpon. Fortunately, I only hooked and lost two before one finally stayed pinned. I carefully pulled it up into my tiny landing window on the shore and lipped it. It didn’t love being lipped, and it let me know by shredding my thumb with it’s sandpapery mouth.

On a scale of 1 to Awesome, tarpon stands very near the top.

I grabbed a few quick pictures to commemorate my dream and let it go.

I’d hooked 15 tarpon and landed just one, but that one, 2-foot fish was enough to make that dream a reality.

Of course my only tarpon came when nobody was around to take a picture of it…

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #147 — Atlantic Spadefish.

Species #144 — Ladyfish

I couldn’t keep the Ladyfish away from me. Though I wanted a tarpon, trying to fight off the Ladies was nothing new, so I managed.

Species: Ladyfish (Elops saurus)
Location: Titusville, Florida
Date: July 9, 2018

Though Ladyfish can grow quite large, none of the 20 or so I caught while chasing tarpon were. I did manage to hook into one pushing 30 inches in length, but it spit the hook almost immediately.

I was fishing a stretch of Florida brackish swamp that was insanely hot, full of mosquitoes, riddled with gators, and had I not lost half a dozen tarpon early in the trip, I would’ve admitted defeat.

The Ladyfish pictured became bait, but even that couldn’t get a tarpon in hand.

After hours of sweating all available water weight, I was beginning to think that I was wasting my time. Then, on a whim, I cast out and caught something that wasn’t a Ladyfish…

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #145 — Common Snook.

Species #143 — Bowfin

Bowfin are awesome fish. They can breathe air, will hit everything from cutbait to topwaters, and they’re incredibly tenacious.

Species: Bowfin (Amia calva)
Location: Orlando, Florida
Date: July 8, 2018

My seventh and final new species of the day made for a grand finale. This was my third-best day for new species, taking the Bronze to Croatia’s Gold and California’s Silver.

The final species was one of my top targets, the Bowfin. Along with tarpon and gar, few things were up so high on my list.

Though Bowfin aren’t considered trophies by most, they are aggressive toothy predators often compared to bass and snakehead, though I find them cooler than either of the other species.

I’d struck out several times, mainly because catfish and gar and bass kept getting in the way. When I finally did hook one, it was short-lived. Almost immediately, the beast broke me off in a submerged snag.

I tied again and hoped for the best.

I didn’t have to wait long. My rod doubled, and I reeled in my first Bowfin. It wasn’t huge and 20 inches long and just over three pounds, but I was stoked.

You can totally lip a Bowfin if you grab it right.

As I was taking the above picture, my other two rods doubled over.

Unfortunately, one of the fish broke off and the other just came free. I have a feeling one was more than twice the size of my little three-pounder, but I was just happy to add a new species.

Heck to the yeah.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #144 — Ladyfish.

Species #142 — Dimerus Cichlid

I didn’t make the ID for this fish. I emailed the three different cichlids I caught that day. I caught several of each, and Ryan Crutchfield of fishmap.org helped me identify them.

Species: Dimerus Cichlid (Cichlasoma dimerus)
Location: Orlando, Florida
Date: July 8, 2018

“Dimerus Cichlid” is the currently-accepted common name for Cichlasoma dimerus. It looks different from Black Acara at first glance, but it’s hard to place.

Here are the key distinguising features:

1) It isn’t as dark.

2) The fins don’t flow or flutter out as much.

3) Its lateral line isn’t as strongly spotted or striped.

4) The dorsal fin isn’t as long.

Unlike the Jack Dempsey, its range is expanding across Florida. Since most cichlids can hybridize, identifying them is going to be even more fun moving forward.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #143 — Bowfin.

Species #141 — Jack Dempsey Cichlid

The Jack Dempsey Cichlid was so named for the 1920s boxer whose aggressive nature and toughness made him famous. Jack Dempsey’s are one of the prettiest fish around.

Species: Jack Dempsey Cichlid (Rocio octofasciata)
Location: Orlando, Florida
Date: July 8, 2018

The Jack Dempsey Cichlid was one of a few “longshots” I had on my Target List for my visit to Orlando. I knew they’d been recorded, but based on my research, only in scattered pockets, isolated ponds, and the like.

In fact, their range is supposed to be decreasing, rather than increasing.

Well, if the half dozen or so I landed are any indication, they’re still holding out in a few places, prancing around the ring and refusing to give up.

Apparently, they’ll need a knockout punch rather than a judge’s decision to finally admit defeat.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #142 — Dimerus Cichild.

Species #140 — Black Acara

The Black Acara is one of half a dozen cichlids common in Florida.

Species: Black Acara (Cichlasoma bimaculatum)
Location: Orlando, Florida
Date: July 8, 2018

I was told these would be easy to catch. Once I found them, that proved true. Unfortunately, I struck out several times before finding the sweet spot.

Alas, it was worth the wait.

When I did find them, I also found half a dozen other species, including sunfish, killifish, and two more cichlids.

The Black Acara doesn’t get very big, but is is a pretty species. Since cichlids are generally a hot mess in terms of genetic purity and capable of hybridizing with dozens of others. This made identification even more difficult, but I managed.

It was actually Ryan Crutchfield of fishmap.org who helped me identify it, as well as the surprise species I caught minutes later.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #141 — Jack Dempsey Cichild.

Species #139 — Coastal Shiner

If someone punches you in the eye near the ocean, you get a Coastal Shiner. #DadJokes

Species: Coastal Shiner (Lepomis auritus)
Location: Little Wekiva River, Florida
Date: July 8, 2018

One of my favorite professors in college used to say “If you haven’t ____________, you haven’t lived.” He honestly had a lot of great catch phrases, but this was my favorite — especially as it relates to fishing.

If you haven’t waited chest-deep in the tannin-stained waters of a central Florida stream in pursuit of a tiny minnow species, gators be damned, you haven’t lived.

One caveat: if you have done this and continue to make this type of choices, you probably won’t live very long. But hey, at least you’ll be living both sides of the best line from Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

***

When I arrived at the river, the sunfish came faster than I expected, but that happens from time to time.

With one fish marked off so quickly, I had to figure out how to spend the rest of my time. Darters are shiners were both present, but the river was running really high.

Orlando had seen a lot of rain, and there was no way I could sight-fish darters in the dark waters when I couldn’t even see the bottom.
After catching all of the sunfish (yes, all of them) in that stretch of river, I grabbed micro gear and decided to look for greener pastures or at least clearer waters.

The shoreline flora was impenetrable, and I’d already spent a lot of time and energy finding this access point to the water, so I was SOL (that’s Spanish for “sun”, kids).

I did a quick check for gators, and, seeing none, jumped in.

My first thought was “I really hope I’m far enough from the city to be out of hypodermic needle range.”

My second thought was “No, I’m good. This is Florida. Nothing bad ever happens here.”

Used hypodermic needles are endemic to Florida, but they tend to occur in isolated pockets around the state, closer to population centers. In recent years, the range of the used hypodermic needle has contracted due to prescription opioids. Pills have out-competed the less convenient and infinitely less sanitary method for destroying brain cells and soiling perfectly good spoons.

So S/O to pills.

Fortunately, apart from some broken glass, the creekbed was fairly forgiving, and the sandy bottom actually felt good between my toes, so long as I didn’t think about all of the reclaimed water that was flowing over them.

I waded across with a fluid grace you would’ve been impressed by and began moving in the shallower water along the bank, searching diligently for water moving slowly enough to hold micros.

Gators must not like white meat because I survived long enough to find what I was looking for: happiness.

Well, sort of. I found a small school of shiners which made me happy.

The current was so fast that I struggled to keep the bait in their face in the middle of the water column, but I finally did it and caught a Coastal Shiner.

Wading back across the river and busting brush to the paved trail wasn’t great, but neither was my last colonoscopy, and I survived that.

***

If you’re not a Species Hunter, you probably laughed nervously as I told this story, wondering why some dumbass would risk his life for a tiny fish. If you are a Species Hunter, you’re nodding quietly to yourself as you look around to fistbump me only to realize this is a story, and I’m not actually there.

That’s okay. If you haven’t forgotten one of my stories was just a narrative while reading it on your phone or computer at least once, you haven’t lived.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #140 — Black Acara.

Species #138 — Redbreast Sunfish

In Florida, I was caught ogling the Redbreast Sunfish, rather than slightly sunburned women. Little known fact: any sunfish will turn into a Redbreast Sunfish if it spends too much time in the sun. It’s true. I found it on the Internet.

Species: Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus)
Location: Little Wekiva River, Florida
Date: July 8, 2018

Though I was born and raised in Oregon, I’m a flip-flop man. I would’ve said I’m a thong man, but some of my students read this blog, and this isn’t the 90s anymore; “thongs” don’t have anything to do with feet these days.

This is a family-friendly blog, and this post is already about Redbreasts, so I have to choose my words carefully.

I have a confession to make, and this is a good platform to do it on. Here goes: I’m afraid I haven’t caught a lot of really common species.

I know, it’s shameful. I try to not to talk about it, but in the Species Hunting community, there are a lot of species most everyone in the community has but me. Cool cool.

Redbreast Sunfish, common across the United States, were one such species.

For that reason, I decided to target them in the same place I hoped to catch a few darter and shiner species.

And I’d done my research.

Pierce Sanders, who I met by stalking Instagram (@finnafishfl) and Fishbrain for hours and hours prior to my trip, gave me the down-low on the spot.

I’d watched his YouTube channel, Finna Fish, as I compiled my list of target species. I watched the video in which he caught darters, shiners, and sunfish from an overhanging tree branch in the very river I intended to fish.

It was “finna” be lit.

***

As I parked and walked to what I thought was the river, I struck out a few times. But hey, it’s Florida. You have to bring your A-Game, or you’re gonna strike out.

Fortunately, I got lost just as an attractive jogger stopped nearby to stretch. I used my best lost tourist face as I approached.

We flirted just a lot, but I had work to do, so I stopped appreciating Florida’s greatest natural resource, took her directions with a smile and a nod, and headed to the river through the jungle that was almost as thick as the jogger.

***

Growing up in Oregon, I never really feared poison oak. I fished all of the time, and I’d been exposed to it dozens of times. It didn’t affect me at all. Until the day it did.

On my first attempt at steelhead fishing, I managed to get exposed and suffered for weeks afterwards. It left physical scars in the short term, but the emotional scars stuck with me.

Thong man, err … flip-flop man that I am, I found the thick vegetation separating me and the river was unnerving. My bare legs and feet brushed up against vegetation I couldn’t identify but knew wasn’t any of the the “Big Three” urushiol-producing plants, so I pressed on.

Miraculously, I made it to the water unscathed.

***

Bluegill came first because of course they did, but Spotted Sunfish followed suit. I had both, but at least Spotted Sunfish are cool fish and something I don’t catch every day. Bluegill, on the other hand, are pretty mainstream, so I opted to leave the main stream.

Right where a small spring fed it’s trickle into the larger water body, a log split the river and made a small but deep pool.

It promptly yielded a Redbreast.

This spring was about 15 degrees cooler than the mainstem.

I landed half a dozen shapely, sun-kissed trophies, and I caught some fish, too.

I’m kidding, of course.

According to Steve Wozniak, my friend and legendary Species Hunter Ben Cantrell is the only Species Hunter “rampaging his way through … swimsuit models,” so I guess I’ll just have to stick with pretty fish instead.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #139 — Coastal Shiner.

Species #137 — Seminole Killifish

These fish are so cool. Getting a Seminole Killifish to sit still for a picture is a lot more difficult than getting one to bite.

Species: Seminole Killifish (Fundulus seminolis)
Location: Urban Park, Orlando, Florida
Date: July 8, 2018

My first killifish would prove to be one of the largest found in North America, but in order to catch it, I had to do some legwork.

I was told they could be found all over Orlando, and though I ended up catching 15 across two locations on the first day I targeted them, I almost gave up the hunt just minutes in.

My first day in Florida yielded five new species, and I wasn’t about to waste hours chasing a species when there was still so much low-hanging fruit all around me.

I tried two footbridges at the park where the tiny, pike-like fish were supposed to dwell and pulled in a lot of Bluegill before I saw my target.

I’d never fished for killifish before — let alone seen one — so I didn’t know what to look for. Suddenly, a small group of snake-like fish that resembled tiny pike more than anything cruised up.

I was use a small jig tipped with worm because I was told Seminole Killifish didn’t require micro gear. The ferocious little beast that smacked my jig proved that in a hurry.

I quickly landed the fish, grabbed a photo, and put it in my photo tank.

The second this lid opened, these fish were escaping faster than my students at the final bell on a Friday afternoon.

It promptly jumped out and started wriggling toward the water. I had the photo tank is flooded grass, and it almost made it. Though my dexterity isn’t on par with my brothers, both of whom were Division I athletes, I’m still pretty dexterous. Not to brag, but all other things held equal, I’m more comfortable on land than a fish.

Bold claim, I know, but I can back it up. I’ll sign autographs later.

How cool is this fish? I don’t have an aquarium, but these guys would certainly be in it if I did.

In short order, I landed six of the golden missiles, and I was hooked on killifish. They’re small but not micro, and any time I can avoid tiny, pre-snelled micro hooks that lodge in my skin and clothing seemingly at will, I’m okay with that.

***

Killfish are incredibly unique fish that can live in freshwater, saltwater, and brackish water with different tolerances depending on the species.

Apart from sculpins, they’re probably my favorite family of micros, and I look forward to catching all of them.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #138 — Redbreast Sunfish.

Species #136 — Dollar Sunfish

I couldn’t tell you their exchange rate, but I certainly like the feel of a Dollar Sunfish in my palm.

Species: Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus)
Location: Lake Fran Urban Wetlands, Orlando, FL
Date: July 7, 2018

You don’t need to go to McDonald’s to find the Dollar Menu because Dollar Sunfish are on the menu for damn near every fish in the Southeastern United States.

In Florida, this means bass and gar and Bowfin, as well as the myriad exotics that prowl the reclaimed waters and swamps of the Sunshine State are looking for ways to make a Dollar disappear faster than Disneyworld.

Fortunately for me, a friend told me where to find Dollar Sunfish, and his directions were right on the money.

If you’d like to catch a Dollar Sunfish of your own, look no further. The buck stops here.

These pretty little fish were somewhat rare in open water, but I found Dollars to be especially common in one type of habitat: close to the bank. Go figure.

The heavily vegetated shoreline in a host of waters seemed to fill a unique niche for Dollar Sunfish. Scientists have yet to write a whole lot about this behavior, but that’s likely because more has been written about the Dollar by economists than by icthyologists.

Mysterious behavior aside, most of us are just happy getting our money’s worth, so the Dollar retains its aura.

Considering they top out around six inches, they’re not seriously targeted by anglers, but they are popular with other fishes. It’s no wonder these little fish hide in the shadows; they’re so perfectly snackable that most predators eat off the Dollar Menu in Florida.

***

I didn’t see any in the water, but I knew they were there.

At first, I tried micro gear and managed to catch a few. It felt like a scene out of Little Rascals or a GEICO commercial, me sitting there with a Dollar on the end of a hook, flopping around in the wind.

Nobody came to try and steal the Dollar, though, so the comedic potential of the situation was wasted.

Unlike other species of fish, sunfish don’t typically have gendered nicknames like salmon or trout. That said, a male salmonid is called a “Buck”, and I think this is a fitting nickname for the male Dollar Sunfish, as well.

There were a lot of other species nearby that I had yet to catch, so I stopped chasing the almighty Dollar after palming half a dozen.

It was insanely hot and muggy but I had no plans to take off anything more than my shirt in pursuit of a single Dollar, so I turned on a dime and decided to chase something else.

After all, time is money.

***

The trip wore on.

Though one Dollar by itself didn’t seem very valuable, I invested a few Dollars in other liquid assets in pursuit of larger fish. I learned the true value of a Dollar when I managed to catch my first Bowfin using a single Dollar. Haha, single.

Wallet may be okay to spend a few Dollars here and there, as I did in pursuit of Bowfin, I found it beneficial to save every Dollar I could. Un-American though it was, I saved almost every Dollar that came into possession rather than turning it into blood money.

Everyone knows it’s a bad idea to bet your bottom Dollar and letting most fish go keeps the population healthy.

Nonetheless, after a long day of saving one Dollar after another, it was I who was spent. So I cashed out and headed to a restaurant to grab some much needed food.

***

The moral of this story is that a Dollar can go a long way. I hope this tale of Dollars made sense, but don’t call me a writer. When I hand out knowledge about the Dollar, I like to be called a teller.

I’m not a rude person, so let me leave with a five-Dollar tip, or rather, five tips about Dollars. If you follow these, I promise you won’t wind up a day late and a Dollar short:

1) Dollar Sunfish are small, and one Dollar doesn’t go very far, but a bunch of Dollars, working together, help to feed a lot of hungry fish. They’re an incredibly important part of the ecosystem, and each Dollar plays its part.

2) For just one Dollar per day, you can probably feed yourself in Florida. Bowfin, bass, and gar will all happily eat one, and then you can play the next part in the food chain.

3) This is about the only Dollar you won’t see at church. They simply don’t get large enough to make a good a fish fry.

4) If you didn’t like this column, I apologize, but I have to churn out stories and sometimes I get complacent and just look at work like it’s another day, another Dollar.

5) If you like fish puns, check out my blog, www.caughtovgard.com. It has a ton of other, typically shorter stories about fish that are pretty interesting even if they don’t fetch top Dollar.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #137 — Seminole Killifish.