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The fish that catches men

May 11, 1959
May 11, 1959

Table of Contents
May 11, 1959

On Playing Possum
Derby
Spectacle
  • Nevada's flamboyant desert flower is in full bloom, nourished by gambling's easy money and adorned with lavish shows

Boxing
Walker Cup
Summer: The Quarterly Sporting Look Preview
Baseball
Fishing
Las Vegas
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

The fish that catches men

The leaping tarpon has an unmatched fascination for fishermen. Once hooked, he is never forgotten

On a hot, sultry day several years ago, in the gently rolling surf just off the beach at Port Aransas, Texas, a man was fighting a fish. It was not a very good match. The fish, which had great silver scales, a tough fighter's jaw and a short temper, was almost as big as the man and in far better fighting shape. He kept jumping into the air to glare at his opponent, and occasionally he would splash a bucketful of water into the boat. Finally, after an hour or so had passed, the man turned to his companion, an old fishing guide named Barney Farley.

This is an article from the May 11, 1959 issue Original Layout

"Look," said the fisherman, "how much is this outfit of yours worth? Rod, reel, line and all?"

"Why, I don't rightly know," said Farley. "I reckon around $40."

"O.K.," the man said, and turned back to the fish. "If you want it that bad," he called across the water, "you can have it." And he threw the whole outfit overboard, paid Farley the $40 and went home.

The next day he was back to try again. Megalops atlanticus, the tarpon, had caught another man.

To a tarpon fisherman, this jut-jawed, armor-plated, silver-flashing rocket of a fish is the most spectacular and sporting creature that lives in the sea. "He is a largemouth bass that grows up to weigh 100 pounds," said one. "Where else can you find a fish so big that can be taken on such light tackle, in clear, shallow water, on an artificial lure? And where else can you find anything that jumps like that?" By the more mundane standards of cash value in prize money the tarpon is also rated high: this week in Florida three separate and distinct tarpon tournaments are in preparation or under way, with prizes totaling $56,000. St. Petersburg, opening May 9, offers $18,000; Sarasota, starting May 16, offers $13,500, and Tampa, which launches its contest on June 6, is putting up a total of $25,000.

It is not that tarpon are particularly hard to find or that, once found, they must be teased and tempted with delicate cunning into taking the lure. Around this time of year they migrate northward in vast schools over a wide range, rolling through the pale-blue flats of Florida Bay, up the east coast past Miami Beach, up the west coast past the Ten Thousand Islands and Boca Grande and Pass-a-Grille, along the Gulf Coast past the Mississippi delta, Southwest Pass and Grand Isle to Galveston and Port Aransas. During this period from mid-March to midsummer, tarpon are available to those who fish from skiffs as well as cruisers, from piers and docks and beaches, in daytime or at night. They are pursued by trollers and casters and still fishermen, with plugs and bait and spoons and feathers and flies, on heavy boat rigs and light casting equipment, on spinning tackle and fly rods. They can be found in deep water just off shore, in the surf, along the flats or in the bays. The smaller tarpon—and there are thousands of them throughout the estuaries and rivers and canals of Florida and parts of Texas—can even be found in fresh water.

The secret of the tarpon's fascination is that he is so very hard to catch.

There are only a few spots in the tough, leathery mouth where a hook can penetrate—a narrow strip of skin along the lip and a thinner membrane in the corner of the jaw—and even here there is no guarantee the barb will remain fixed. Those famed aerial gymnastics—a tarpon can jump as high as 12 or 15 feet and sometimes cover a distance of more than 25 feet in one great arching plunge—are a most effective way of dislodging the hook. When he comes out of the water, head shaking and gill covers rattling, the tarpon frequently sends the lure, whatever it may be, whistling right back at the angler who cast it. A lot of veteran tarpon fishermen bear scars.

Fishing from a boat and using 30-pound test line, a good fisherman can expect to land perhaps one out of four or five tarpon which he hooks. But the moment he moves down to lighter line—or the moment he leaves the boat and tries to catch a tarpon from a bridge or pier, regardless of what strength tackle he has in hand—the odds in the tarpon's favor soar to something usually far better than 25 to 1.

The world record for rod and reel, hauled out of Venezuela's Lake Maracaibo three years ago by a man named Mario Salazar, is 283 pounds. A tarpon measuring 8 feet 2 inches in length and weighing an estimated 350 pounds was caught in a net at the Hillsboro River Inlet, north of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on August 6, 1912. But these giant specimens and others like them, which occasionally turn up throughout the range, are freaks and not the wonderful, leaping fish that anglers know so well. A tarpon in the 60- or 80- or 100-pound class, measuring five or six feet in length, can be as rowdy and boisterous an adversary as any fisherman could want.

The tarpon probably gets much of his desperate energy from simple primitiveness. One of a group of herringlike fishes, he is of even more ancient vintage than his relatives, the salmon, bonefish and trout. According to Dr. Charles M. Breder, the curator of fishes for the American Museum of Natural History, Megalops allanticus has been swimming around in virtually the same form ever since the Cretaceous period, some 100 million years ago.

Among the many explanations for the tarpon's successful struggle to escape extinction, one stands out: he was well designed to begin with. Unlike other fishes, the tarpon has a large lunglike air bladder, and it is to keep this filled with oxygen that he comes to the surface at frequent intervals, his metallic blue-green back flashing in that rolling motion so familiar to fishermen. He takes in air through his mouth and exhales through his gills. Because he is not totally dependent on receiving his oxygen supply from the water, the tarpon is able to live for great periods of time in brackish, muddy, sometimes contaminated pools and ponds where other species cannot survive.

His temperature tolerance—University of Miami Marine Laboratory experiments place the range between 64° and 104° Fahrenheit—makes him definitely a warm-water fish. He can also live in either salt or fresh water, and tarpon are frequently found in lakes separated as much as 100 river miles from the sea. Small tarpon can withstand direct transfer from one medium to the other, and very small baby tarpon can survive for hours without any water at all. Buck Starke, one of the famous guides of the Keys, once found a handful of two-and three-inch tarpon in a land-locked pool among the mangroves, and put them in his hat to show the folks back home. The hat was wet—it had been raining—and apparently this was all the moisture the little fellows required. When Buck dumped the contents out on the kitchen table four hours later, they were still breathing, so he put them in the sink. His son transferred them to a fresh-water tank a few hours later, and the next spring they were released back into the bay. By then they were almost a foot long.

The large adult female tarpon will carry more than 10 million eggs into the spawning season each spring, odds which insure that a large number will survive the early depredations of certain varieties of voracious plankton which feed upon tarpon eggs. Baby tarpon, like any small fish in the sea, are vulnerable too, but once the tarpon reaches maturity he has everything in his favor. He is big and strong and well armored, and his speed and terrific acceleration keep him out of danger. And, apparently, he is distasteful even to the shark, his lone enemy and old traveling companion through the ages. Only the hammerhead shark, which will take a bite out of just about anything that comes along, really seems to relish tarpon flesh.

The range of the tarpon extends throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, south to Venezuela and Brazil, north to the Carolinas and even Chesapeake Bay. Strays are occasionally found as far south as Argentina and as far north as the mouth of New York Bay, where a few are taken each year in pound nets. Twice, years ago, tarpon were reported in Nova Scotia, and across the Atlantic they are quite common off the northwest Africa coast. But for some reason, tarpon are not found in the Pacific. There is a close relative, the oxeye herring, or Megalops cyprinoides, common to the Indo-Malaya region, from the north coast of New South Wales around Australia and up among the islands to the north. But this is a smaller fish, seldom reaching four feet in length, and it has a much larger eye. While tarpon are present in the locks of the Panama Canal and abound in Gatun Lake, with easy access to the Pacific, they never venture more than a few miles from the western outlet of the canal.

The great tarpon fishing waters of the Northern Hemisphere are at the mouth of the Panuco River or at Port Aransas (which was once named Tarpon) or at Grand Isle or at any one of several Florida locations, including Boca Grande Pass, Cape Sable in the Everglades or at Bahia Honda, between Marathon and Key West. But for the man who wants excitement and thrills and sport at its best, there is no place to compare with that vast area of sparkling water and mangrove-dotted islets between the Keys and Everglades known as "the back country" of Florida Bay. Here are the perfect conditions for tarpon fishing: crystal-clear water over the flats and hordes of big, hungry fish. Casting for giant tarpon from a small skiff with ultralight tackle in clear, shallow water is one of the most delightful fishing experiences known to man. Here are combined the anticipation of the hunt, the thrill of the stalk, the skill of expert casting and a type of fight unequaled anywhere else.

Because you can actually see the fish in the water from a great distance, there is first of all the dramatic impact of viewing the great shadowy form which is the prey. With the outboard motor raised from the water, the skiff is poled slowly and carefully toward the fish. Once within casting range, the lure must be presented at just the right moment and to the exact spot, usually about six feet ahead of a slow-moving tarpon. An improperly placed plug will either startle him into immediate flight or else fail to attract him at all. And then, of course, there is the fight. The tarpon, wherever he is caught, will jump. But sometimes he will go down to fight, too, if the water is deep enough, and eventually in most places he usually tries this. But in the back country of Florida Bay, where the water is measured in feet instead of fathoms, there is no place for him to go but up.

The greatest practitioner of the art of fishing for tarpon with light tackle—plugging or fly rod—is Gerald Coughlan, a man who in his spare (nontarpon-fishing) time manufactures soot destroyers in New Jersey for the chimney-sweep business. Coughlan, who has fished for practically every game fish in the world's oceans, considers the tarpon the greatest fish of all. He has caught them by the hundreds, including 53 weighing more than 100 pounds. He has won the Metropolitan Miami Tournament so often that they are about to give it to him for keeps. Recently, he was persuaded to give his views on tarpon and how to catch them.

"It's mostly hard work and experience," Coughlan said. "There are still those who say this kind of fishing is trick fishing, that big tarpon were never meant to be caught on such light tackle. But there is one simple test: if you consistently catch fish, using any kind of tackle, then there is nothing tricky about it. Of course," and Coughlan smiles when he says this, "you can't make any mistakes when you have a big tarpon on this kind of tackle.

"I use a torpedo-shaped, surface-type lure when plugging. The underwater lure will catch more fish, perhaps, but you lose that thrill of the surface strike.

"When you do strike, strike him again, two or three times, hard. It's better to risk pulling the hook out then than to fight him for an hour and then lose him at the end.

"Once the fish is hooked, the real secret to catching tarpon, if there is one, comes in. He is going to jump very quickly, once, twice, three times. When he does, don't fight him too hard. In the first few minutes, when he is fresh, no matter how hard you fight him, a big tarpon is going to take out line. So don't overdo it then. Wait until he gets that first burst out of his system, then fight him as hard as you can. The rod should be bent right up to the maximum, with pressure on the line to near breaking point. Wear him out.

"Then, when you have him up near the boat, be very careful. A tarpon can be lying on his side on the surface, apparently completely done in, and suddenly he will begin to vibrate, give a few flips of that tail and go straight up in the air all over again. Handle him gently at the boat."

If, Coughlan was once asked, you like to fish for tarpon so much, why do you bother to fish for anything else?

"I'll tell you," he said. "Fellows used to walk up to me and say 'Don't start talking to us about what a great fish the tarpon is. Wait until you get hold of a big marlin.' Or it was a sailfish or a tuna or something else. So I went out and caught sailfish and marlin and tuna and just about everything else.

"Now, when they come up to me with that old story, I just say 'I have. I've caught them all. The tarpon is still the best.' "

HOW A TARPON GROWS

Washed into protected coves, tarpon eggs (1) develop into prolarval stage (2). Next is leptocephalus stage (3), an elongated, ribbonlike larva first positively identified two years ago by Earl Deubler, an ichthyologist of University of North Carolina. In postleptocephalid stage (4) this larva shortens and thickens and grows into the true baby tarpon (5), an inch or more in length, a voracious feeder of copepods and other plankton forms. Within a few months he is fully scaled (6) and within a year may be a foot long. Staple diet is shrimp, crabs and small fish. At four or five years tarpon reach the spawning age. Their rate of growth is slow but continuous up to more than 100 pounds; giants of 200 pounds or more are almost certainly abnormal specimens.

1 1.7 MM.
2 1.9 MM.
3 18 MM.
4 18.8 MM.
5 46 MM.
6 80 MM.

AN ACKNOWLEDGMENT

For their invaluable aid in the preparation of this study, the writer and the editors wish to thank Dr. C. M. Breder Jr., head of the Department of Fishes and Aquatic Biology, American Museum of Natural History; Dr. Robert W. Harrington Jr., Entomological Research Center, Florida State Board of Health; Dr. John E. Randall and Tom Mc-Kenney, the Marine Laboratory, University of Miami; and Edward C. Migdalski of the Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory at Yale.

SEVEN ILLUSTRATIONSJACK KUNZPHOTOTARPON KILLERS GERALD COUGHLAN AND GUIDE JIM ALBRIGHT IN ACTION