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.