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June 2011 cover image Those Remarkable Reds

Catch Me If You Can

Tarpon’s a silvery tease for both anglers and conservationists.

By David Sikes

Any angler who has stared into the hypnotic eye of a tethered tarpon has begged for a rematch.

For many anglers this quest is a compulsion rather than a choice. It’s not important whether the engagement ended in satisfaction or simply ended too soon. The mighty “silver king” is capable of haunting souls for a lifetime after a single meeting.

Perhaps it’s the tarpon’s commanding presence and stature that lure us, or maybe it’s the gravity-defying acrobatics and manic displays of desperation it performs with predictable regularity. Elusive and powerful fish such as this carry a potent allure. Part of the attraction may come from our perception that this ancient being is an enigma of evolution, a survivor of pure defiance.

Possibly it’s the way tarpon tease anglers. Their unusual threadfin dorsal taunts us like a strand of yarn to a kitten. And they do this within such easy reach of shore. Massive specimens swim in waters shallow enough for a person to stand in, and yet they’re capable of reaching tremendous depths in the open ocean. The way they casually roll at the surface within rod’s length on tropically warm flats seems to whisper “catch me if you can.”

Tosh Brown, fly fisherman and author of Megalops — An Angler’s Affair with Tarpon, suggests that the surface roll of a tarpon might be the fish sizing up its opponent before battle, like “the sly and wry glancing introduction of adversaries.” He writes: “This is not a fish that one can easily master. In fact, I can’t think of another angling adversary that swims around with a more bizarre résumé of physical and behavioral quirks. He’s a finicky eater, he’s hard to hook, even harder to land, and he wakes up on a different planet each and every morning.”

But when the planets align, what an exhilarating angling thrill.

Hooked the first time

My initial encounter with a tarpon came unexpectedly, about 14 years ago on the north jetty at Port Aransas. My ambitions for the day were not high. I hoped to catch a few spotted seatrout before the midday heat of South Texas chased me off the fabled granite blocks of a town once known as Tarpon.

It was one of those mornings that make even seasoned jetty anglers skip recklessly eastward with giddy anticipation. The Gulf was silky calm and transparent. A southeast breeze barely provoked a whisper from the cotton-topped bluestem along San Jose Island’s beach. Green sea turtles paddled among schools of mullet near the rocks, while herring and sparkling minnows of every persuasion attracted the attention of hungry brown pelicans, terns and laughing gulls.

My usual pause near the beach was cut short by the promise of waters beyond the surf. The pace of my gait hastened as I rounded the jetty’s curve and headed toward its farthest reach.

And when I arrived at the end, I dropped my backpack and surveyed the silence. When you’re alone at the end of the north jetty in Port Aransas, you truly are alone. It’s a rare but cherished circumstance.

There is a spot just north of the jetty’s tip where the stingy waters open. We call it a hole, but it’s really not. It’s a spot where the Gulf currents spin and twirl into a vortex, we assume. And regular jetty anglers know this eddy is a baitfish magnet. Predator fish found it first, I’m sure.

Carefully, I climbed to an appropriate perch and hurled a two-fisted cast northward into the hole. I counted silently as my lure descended to what I hoped would be the proper depth that day. Counting is a jetty angler’s method of measuring the depth of a falling lure. I repeated this several times, allowing the lure to drop a little farther with each successive toss.

Several small boats with anglers motored into the area and anchored about 30 or 40 yards from my perch. So much for solitude. I waved and shrugged at the fishermen to indicate I had nothing to report.

Soon afterward I caught a redfish to the approval of the crowd. And then something faster and more powerful, probably a toothy Spanish mackerel, snatched my lure and broke it off.

I tied on another jighead, attached a fresh Bass Assassin and returned to my rock. Before I could cast, something on the surface caught my eye. At first I mistook it for a sea turtle surfacing for a breath. I scanned the Gulf intently for another glimpse. And there it was, the green backs of three tarpon rolling within casting distance.

“Tarpon!” I yelled to the anglers in the nearest skiff. “Three of ’em.”

Before the swirl had settled I whipped a cast in the direction the trio was traveling. What happened next is a blurry memory enhanced by time and imagination. I set the hook hard. The fish surfaced headfirst and then rose with a tail thrust, exposing half its body and its gaping jaws. It shook vigorously, but only for a moment, before descending. I tightened my grip as the rod lurched forward. This was a 5-footer, at least. I reared back to set the hook firmly again with my thumb lightly pressing on the spool. I hoped the hook’s point was sharp enough to penetrate. I thought about the integrity of my knots.

Suddenly the fish came bursting from the surface and suspended completely above the foam in a horizontal writhe. The separation was at least four feet. At this point, I may have panicked a little.

Anglers from the three nearby boats shouted something like “Did you see that?” I held on tightly and watched the line on my spool slip away more quickly than I’d ever seen before.

The fish jumped once more only to eject my lure from its temporary seat. The show and encore were brief, thrilling and unforgettable. Disappointment rushed into my entire body as my lure bounced harmlessly onto the jetty rocks at my feet. But that feeling was quickly replaced with resolve to do better next time.

Unfortunately, such dazzling displays have diminished in Texas waters since Port Aransas was known as the Tarpon Capital of the World in the 1930s and ’40s. Some would argue that clever marketing back then stole the title from Florida, where tarpon continue to flourish.

Texas historian John Guthrie Ford suggests that tarpon fishing may have started in South Texas with the construction of the Aransas Pass jetties in the 1880s. More than this, Ford asserts, nonresident project engineers and supervisors, after spotting great schools of tarpon near Port Aransas, may have been responsible for starting the robust fishing guide industry in Port Aransas.

The Tarpon Club, a consortium of wealthy anglers, opened in 1896. These fishermen hired local boatmen to take them tarpon fishing, Ford suggested. “Hundreds of world-class fishermen descended on this area, bringing with them the best fishing gear and years of experience,” he wrote.

In 1900, Ford writes, anglers from the Tarpon Club introduced power boats to Port Aransas, sparking a golden era of fishing and boat building on Mustang Island. Photos of tarpon from this period and beyond are easy to find, thanks, in part, to glory pictures from marina owner and guide Barney Farley’s Tarpon Rodeo fishing tournament, which started in 1932.

Tarpon remain a catch-and-photograph species in this granddaddy of Texas fishing contests, which continues today as the Deep Sea Roundup. But rarely is one caught during the event.

On the wall of Port Aransas’ famous Tarpon Inn, about 2,700 silver scales are displayed. Most are inscribed with the date and size of the catch. Few scales are dated after the 1940s.

Tarpon decline in Texas

The tarpon decline in Texas has been as sad as it is puzzling. The species remains abundant in other places around the world, but it has been decades since Texans have used the word “abundant” to describe the state’s transient tarpon population, though they seem to be making a comeback.

For years, Galveston’s Gulf waters both near-shore and offshore have provided mostly summer and fall anglers a shot at catching one. Guides like Mike Williams have advertised since the 1980s that giant fish feed and migrate through a stretch of water Williams calls Tarpon Alley. Tarpon Alley is a traditional migration corridor in the Gulf. Near Galveston, it’s two to four miles offshore.

More recently, shallow water has provided anglers near Port O’Connor the opportunity to tease tarpon with artificial lures or flies. Most notable perhaps is fly-fisher Scott Graham’s 2003 tarpon that weighed an estimated 201 pounds and measured more than 7 feet. In 2006, Jeremy Ebert of Deer Park caught a new state record tarpon on Oct. 4 off the Galveston Fishing Pier. Ebert’s fish weighed 210 pounds, 11 ounces and measured 91 inches.

Researchers believe Texas tarpon represent two separate populations, one from Florida and a larger one from Mexico, where traditionally millions of pounds of tarpon are slaughtered annually for human or pet food. Kill tournaments are big in Mexico, particularly near Veracruz. The rise in these activities coincided with the decline of Texas tarpon in the mid-20th century.

A piece of proposed federal legislation called the Tarpon Conservation Act seeks to encourage a coordinated stock assessment effort among Gulf states. The law calls for a uniform regulation plan and development of an international management strategy.

The tarpon decline probably is not completely an international issue. In the 1950s and 1960s, many Texas rivers were dammed to create reservoirs. The resulting reduction in nutrients and freshwater inflow had a negative impact on crabs and other marine life that tarpon eat, biologists believe. This, in turn, makes the estuarine waters of Texas less attractive to tarpon during their migration.

Tarpon spawn offshore. Their larvae ride currents into freshwater or brackish estuaries, including rivers, where they mature. They return to the Gulf after reaching lengths of 4 to 4.5 feet. Tarpon don’t spawn until they’re about 13. They can live 80 years. Adults of 100 pounds or larger are migratory, traveling great distances for food and comfortable temperatures. Jerry Ault, noted tarpon biologist from the University of Miami, believes Texas remains on the tarpon migration route, but the lack of food may have pushed their route farther offshore and out of sight of many anglers. This would support Williams’ Tarpon Alley theory.

Longtime Texas angler David West recalls juvenile tarpon being caught 20 to 30 years ago near the warm-water discharge of an electric plant near the mouth of the Nueces River at Nueces Bay. And remnants of the tarpon’s past can still be found in the Nueces River, where juvenile fish can be seen rolling at the surface downriver of Corpus Christi’s LaBonte Park.

Each summer and fall, several dozen tarpon are hooked and/or caught from Corpus Christi’s Bob Hall Pier on Padre Island and near South Padre’s Brazos Santiago jetty. In 2010, a school of nearly 40 tarpon visited the Upper Laguna Madre near Corpus Christi. Locals assume the fish reached the bay through the newly dredged Packery Channel, which separates Mustang and Padre islands. These fish were in the 25- to 40-pound class, according to witnesses. Several measuring nearly 4 feet were caught.

Sketchy reports of palm-sized tarpon caught in cast nets have come throughout the Coastal Bend in recent decades, mostly from backwater ditches near Aransas Pass or along Laguna Shores Road in the Upper Laguna Madre. Many sightings go unreported.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is trying to change this. Since May 2009, 33 tarpon observations representing 351 tarpon have been submitted to the department through its Tarpon Observation Network, which can be found at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/tarpon. Observations have come from Sabine Pass to South Padre Island, but most are from the lower coast, south of Matagorda Bay. The effort has roughly doubled the amount of data about tarpon that TPWD had previously collected over 35 years of routine sampling.

While most tarpon network sightings represent sub-adults under 6 feet in length, reports of adults over 6 feet are not uncommon. Most tarpon sightings come from the surf from August through October. Sadly, five dead tarpon in the 12- to 24-inch range were reported in January. These were killed from a sudden drop in water temperature after a cold front and were found in a drainage ditch in Aransas Pass. TPWD’s Art Morris, who oversees the tarpon program, said the most remarkable observation involved a 30-inch juvenile caught and released about 23 river miles upstream from the mouth of the Brazos River.

Morris says the main goal of the program is to document where and when tarpon use Texas waters, with hopes of increasing their numbers.

“Already the program has opened our eyes on where we can find tarpon,” Morris says.

Relatively speaking, very little money and effort have been spent on this coveted sport fish. Traditionally, research dollars focus primarily on commercial species, reflecting a funding philosophy that seems to ignore the economic benefits of recreational angling. But sport fish research is on the rise because of funding sources such as the Florida-based Bonefish and Tarpon Trust and, in Texas, a science-based group called Tarpon Tomorrow, founded about 10 years ago by Corpus Christi angler/attorney Paul Swacina.

TPWD, the Saltwater Fisheries Enhancement Association and the University of Texas Marine Science Institute at Port Aransas have joined the effort.

Much of the research seeks the answer to a single international question: Are their tarpon our tarpon?

The best way to learn this is through the use of satellite tags, which can chart the movements of fish for months.

Ault believes a partnership between science and anglers is the most efficient way to put tags on fish. Houston angler/attorney Scott Alford agrees. Through a series of tarpon tagging tournaments, Alford has put 21 pop-up archival satellite tags on Texas fish. Since the effort began, biologists (with help from anglers) have attached 155 of the $3,500 electronic data-recording devices on tarpon in the Gulf, including some in Mexico.

The resulting data shows that their tarpon are indeed our tarpon. We’ve also learned that tarpon in the eastern and western populations mingle at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Ault also has concluded that tarpon migrating along the eastern Gulf and in the Atlantic along the Eastern Seaboard are a connected unit. We don’t know why some go left and some go right when they reach the tip of Florida, Ault says.

“We know they’re moving a heck of a lot farther than we ever expected,” he says. “And that there’s a lot more we have to learn.”

 

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