Monday, 14 October 2013

Big girls ain't easy By Phil Wakeford

Not only are Big Girls far from easy but they can prove very expensive to entice as well and many men have been chasing them all over the world without bagging one, though they may have seen a good many and tried to tempt them. They may even have had to suffer the indignity of seeing a competitor suitor make off with the big girl they were after and whom they had spent many a restless night dreaming of. Yes these girls have got it all and don’t they know it? They often flaunt themselves in the sun near some of the most beautiful beaches in the world for all to see, but when it comes to actual physical contact then suddenly they are all coy and may disappear altogether without so much as a wink. Yet like all of their sex there are also those rare days and the right set of circumstances, when they seem to throw caution to the wind and will literally force themselves on the first suitor that happens along and makes any sort of half hearted offer to them.

Yes big tarpon can be the most fickle fish in the world when they are “not in the mood”. I can’t exactly recall when I was first attracted to a big silver king/queen (as they are often referred to) but I can say that it was a mighty long time ago. Images of tarpon adorn many T shirts and can be found in any big game fishing book, together with impressive stories of their fighting capabilities, written by famous anglers like Zane Grey and Ernest Hemmingway. Sadly they do not swim in British waters, but whenever I have found myself in warmer climes, where they are to be found, my enthusiasm has been rekindled to have a go for one.

My first opportunity arose on a family holiday to Florida back in 1998. With our young son in tow, we had done the usual visits to Universal Studios, Bush Gardens and Sea World. We had travelled south in a hire car via The Everglades and Sanibel Island ending up in the Keys, for our second week at Islamorada, right in the heart of tarpon country. One afternoon, following a recommendation made in a bar the evening before, we visited Robbie’s CafĂ© on Islamorada to feed the fish, and what a sight they were. Perhaps a hundred tarpon milling around under and around the landing stages, with sizes ranging from about twenty pounds to seventy or more. For a buck we bought a small bucket of sardines to hand feed the fish, and these girls were certainly not backwards in coming forward, nearly taking my wife’s fingers off (only joking) so keen were they to take the free offerings before another in the shoal snatched the prize away from them.

Fishing for these semi-tame (but free to leave) tarpon was naturally forbidden, as they are a tourist attraction, but feeding them and seeing/touching them at close quarters certainly leads you to the conclusion that they can’t be that hard to catch and sure enough before long I was enquiring after a captain, with boat, to take me out after them. At the time my finances were not great, and as my mate Rodders told me I was “prudent” with my money. That said these days I am retired and he is working his socks off, but I digress. Anyway a trip was booked with a local captain and the cost shared with none other than a Vietnam War veteran whom I had befriended in the aforementioned ‘Safari Club Bar’ aka ‘The Dead Animal Bar’, which is still going strong today.

The fishing proved far from easy but despite this, and the session being temporarily interrupted by a thunderstorm, both the vet (David, who had some impressive bullet wounds in his lower legs) and myself, caught modest tarpon of around 20 lbs plus a mangrove snapper of perhaps 8 lbs on the small live-baits fished under the nearby bridges.

Even though I’d had a taster of tarpon fishing I didn’t feel as if I’d been there and done that sufficiently to tick off the species on my fishy bucket list. Interest was re-kindled some years later in 2001 when discussing the species with a mate at work, Andy Hunt. Andy was fresh back from a family holiday on the island of Tobago in the Caribbean, where he had hooked and lost big tarpon from the beach and caught some reasonable ones out in a boat with a guide called Kester, who I recognised as having fished with Matt Hayes on a program for Sky TV.

Now selling a holiday to Tobago to the Mrs was not altogether difficult, though we did end up booking into the Rex Turtle Beach Hotel in the month of August which as I later found out is not an ideal time of year to chase the Big Girls. The holiday was one great success all around, and having tracked Kester down I did manage four or five morning sessions after tarpon. Having done some homework regarding tackle I had taken quite a bit with me including an up-tide boat rod (previously purchased for Mahseer) and borrowed a big baitrunner reel loaded with 65 lbs BS braid.

On my first morning out with Kester, again using small lives as bait (known generically as jacks on the island), I hooked and lost the biggest tarpon encountered on the trip. We had used the small boat to get out to the sea side of the reef at Pigeon Point, and cast baits at a pod of cruising fish in about 4 feet of water. My first cast at this pod produced a confident take and as I set the small circle hook I experienced that classic tarpon performance as five feet or more of silver king took to the air in an impressive aerial display of silver and green all covered in sea spray. This is a common reaction of a tarpon upon feeling the hook and is the image captured on a million T shirts by artists such as Guy Harvey.

Kester had told me what sort of bite to expect, how I was to let the rod be pulled down by the fish until it was pointing at it, before reeling in on a straight line and unbent rod to set the circle hook. According to him the fish would likely jump (as it did) and then head out to deeper water in its attempt to escape. Wrong! This one had other ideas and had clearly not read the book. Once the fish dropped back in the shallow water after jumping it was off at high speed across the reef. We did not have an anchor down as we had been sight fishing so we prepared to follow the fish along the reef. But as countless numbers of tarpon hunters will tell you everything is happening on fast-forward mode once you hook your fish. This is when the braid proved to be a poor choice for line as the fish ripped perhaps a hundred yards off the reel before we got underway. I felt a rasping sensation through the now fully compressed rod before it sprang, sickeningly back. The braid had been cut on the reef and my fish was again free. How big was she? Kester said 90 to 100 lbs and I had no reason to argue with his estimate.

Other trips were made during our stay which commenced with Kester picking me up at the hotel at some ungodly hour in order to launch the boat at Pigeon Point and be out on the reef for first light. We averaged a couple of tarpon per session plus some small barracuda to 20 lbs (remember the island record is 70 lbs plus!), some small tuna and Rainbow Runners and a single African Pompano.
My best tarpon from both this trip and another some 2 years later, was a modest 65 lbs but I enjoyed the sessions greatly and at 100 bucks for a mornings sport it was great value that I seriously doubt would be on offer today.

More years slipped by. Other holidays came and went, including a memorable one to the Maldives in 2010, when a single mornings fishing produced two impressive Sail-fish and a Wahoo. Jeez these big saltwater, tropical fish know how to fight and really do put our smaller freshwater species in the shade. With work out of the way (eventually) I started to think of that fishing Bucket List once again. 2012 saw an out and out, and very successful, fishing trip made to Texas after Alligator Garr in the company of Watto, Stevie Younger and Mark Gabriel, the trip written up by Steve for Pike and Preds magazine. But where to go in 2013?

The married readers amongst you will realise that being let off the leash as I had been for Texas could not be repeated on an annual basis, assuming you want to remain married that is. I considered the options for somewhere with good weather, good food and with perhaps good fishing thrown in for good measure too. Thailand was rejected following a previous holiday there which revealed that the coastal waters had been seriously denuded of many, many fish leaving some of the small, well stocked lakes on offer but they did not appeal. Antigua, Cuba and Mexico were all ruled out for one reason or another but what about a return trip to Florida?

Irrespective of what you think about the Yanks (who have many pros and cons) one thing you simply cannot argue with is the fact that they look after their fish and know the meaning of the word sustainable, which most of the world do not. To give you an example they had a very cold (for Florida) Winter a few years ago in the Keys which apparently killed off many of the Snook. So the taking of Snook for food was banned for a few years whilst the species recovered and now they are on the menu again. The taking of all species is regulated and tarpon are particularly protected. So you can fish in the waters of the Florida Keys in the full knowledge and indeed expectation of encountering good and protected fish stocks.

Exactly where and when to visit the Keys were the next questions that arose before making any booking. I had learnt from bitter experience that just booking a holiday, when it suits you and the family, is unlikely to result in good sport with the few exceptions to this for me being the fishing lakes in Thailand and my lucky morning in the Maldives. Some tarpon are resident in the Keys year round, with pockets I have seen at Robbie’s and other marinas such as that at Key West, but the main population migrate down the Atlantic Coast and pass through the Keys en route to the Gulf of Mexico during April, May and June of each year.

Having decided to stay in the Florida Keys during the month of May my wife got involved in exactly where we would rent and went searching on the internet having on-line conversations with numerous owners and realtors. Eventually a house was booked at a place called Key Colony Beach, which is part of Marathon Key, in the Middle Keys which I THOUGHT was in the heart of tarpon territory. This decision proved to be only partly true as I shall explain.

The tarpon migrate in their thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands for all I know, travelling down the east coast of America heading for the Gulf of Mexico. Much of their passage is blocked by the Keys themselves so that they are channelled through the passes between Keys and pass under the bridges connecting the Keys as the road runs from Key Largo (made famous by the Humphrey Bogart film of the same name) in the east and running out to Kew West some 100 miles away. The most famous of these bridges is without doubt the Seven Mile Bridge which connects Marathon to Bahia Honda, which on paper anyway put our holiday location in the right place.

All of the proper tarpon fishing takes place from boats as trying to control and eventually land a big tarpon from the shore is pretty much out of the question. I had intended to have a few trips with local guides/captains, to learn the ropes from them and then to hire a boat myself and do my own thing, which would obviously be cheaper and hopefully a lot more satisfying though no doubt more demanding.

By a massive stroke of good fortune I was given free use of a 22 foot boat fitted with a 90 HP engine, ideal for fishing for tarpon.
All I needed was a convenient bridge or two to head for. Problem, though we were close to a small bridge at Vaca Cut there was both heavy boat traffic through its narrow confines as well as very strong currents running either one way or the other between the Atlantic and the Gulf. My wife Maggie and I did fish here on several occasions catching barracuda, various types of snappers and grunts, some decent Nurse Sharks and a few tarpon, but none in the 100 lbs class that I was targeting.

A big consideration dawned on me now that I had tarpon fishing literally on my doorstep. Pretty much all of the guides took their clients to the larger bridges either anchoring directly under them or drifting in the vicinity of them. If I ruled out Vaca Cut, for the reasons given above, where was the next, more suitable one. Well even though we were staying on Marathon I found that the start of Seven Mile Bridge was about 7 miles away by road and considerably further by sea/boat due to shallow water. OK, you might say it’s just more time and expense for fuel and that is correct but also we need to remember when the tarpon bite best i.e. at first and last light, meaning that at least one of the journeys to and from the bridge would have to be conducted in the dark. This has it’s own problems of navigation etc as well as being in somebody else’s boat and I am a renowned prop bender.

The waters around the Keys are shallow for the most part. The boat I had available was not fitted with an echo sounder and even if it was you needed to know what the underwater topography was like and you don’t learn that overnight. The ever present risk of getting grounded, damaging the boat or more likely the prop or having a close encounter with a bridge support (remember those fast moving tides) or with a power boat “controlled” by a drunken Yank made such journeys even less attractive.

Having asked around the local bars (another tedious but necessary task) I tracked down a guide based right next to Seven Mile Bridge by the name of Bobby Manskey and Maggie and I met up with him one evening to try for a big tarpon. Bobby had been out and about earlier in the day with his cast-net and had a dozen or so prime mullet waiting for us in a cage near his mooring. I should add that mullet are the prime bait at this time of year as they too use the Keys for their migration and the tarpon feed on them heavily. But you can’t catch the mullet on bait and also they don’t last well in a net before getting in poor condition or keeling over so you need to get them within 24 hours of your trip. Not something that the visiting angler can easily do especially if they are not skilled in the use of a cast-net.
Bobby Manskey 

It was not long before we were dropping, or rather positioning our anchor at a known good spot between the new and old bridges. The tide was running fast, about as fast as the Wye flows at Ross in the Winter, and the water had masses (no exaggeration) of floating weed streaming through with it, meaning that the line had to be mended on a regular basis. Tackle consisted of a one piece 7 ft rod suitable for 20 to 40 BS line and a Shimano 6500 Baitrunner loaded with 30 lbs mono and a fluorocarbon, rubbing trace of 50 lbs. A float (known locally as a bobber) and finally a good size (7/0), good quality, circle hook on which to lip hook a live mullet, completes the set-up.

Getting the anchoring just right, so that the boat ends up between the bridges, does not rub on the bridge supports and most importantly holds in the tide can take a few attempts but without too much trouble we were soon set and sent out a couple of hapless mullet to await their fate. We were not alone and there were ten or so other boats fishing the same general area but though a couple of fish were hooked it appeared that these were lost after various periods of time being fought. So clearly we were in the right area and Bobby had hooked up a tarp here the previous night. Would I get my chance?

One of the things I like about fishing (even for carp) is the suddenness you sometimes get when a bite happens. With pike a run is often preceded by a few bleeps of the optonic or dips of the float to pre-warn you of a pick-up. Well it ain’t like this with tarpon, or at least it wasn’t with the bite I got that evening. The mullet was taken in a huge, powerful spash and associated impressive vortex. The rod was pulled down and I successfully set the circle hook by winding on a straight, pointed rod. At this point all hell broke loose as the tarpon decided to put as much distance between itself and us in as short a time as possible.

Time is now of the essence as line is leaving the oversize spool at an alarming rate and if you are not quick on your toes you would soon be spooled. There were four of us on-board (but only me fishing) and Bobby’s little helper Liah, ran to the bow of the boat to cast off the anchor line, complete with buoy, to aid location later. Quite a while later as it happened.

With the boat free and under power we were able to follow the fish, retrieve some of the lost line and indeed got the fish on a short line, where it was jumping and wallowing after about 15 minutes. Bobby shouted something to Liah and she came along-side me trying to touch the line, which I was none too keen about in case she broke the line or pulled the hook out. Apparently if you can touch the leader with the fish on then it counts as a “caught fish”. However this was not something I had in mind and wanted to fight the fish to a stand still and if possible get her on-board for a photo. Nevertheless Liah did touch the leader and I could have claimed my catch there and then and cut it off. No thank you.

At this point the tarp got its’ second wind (or was it still her first wind?) and decided to tow the boat, first in and out of the bridge supports and then way out in the Atlantic for a mile or more. I’m hazy about how far we were towed because though we had hooked up the fish in daylight it was now pitch black. Fighting a strong and largely unseen monster of a fish in the dark brings its’ own problems. Where is it? How far away? Keep it away from the prop. Get that sea grass off the line. I hope the hook holds and the line doesn’t fray. What if the commotion attracts one of the massive Hammerhead Sharks known to inhabit the area that literally eat the tarpon off the line?

After the fight of my life, lasting over an hour, we got my prize along-side and Bobby was able to lift her into the boat with the use of a hand-gaff placed in the bottom jaw and me lending a hand. With a great sense of urgency, as none of us wanted to keep this beautiful and massive fish out of the water for longer than necessary, I eventually held up my Big Girl for the camera.
Phil holds up his first 100 lbs plus Tarpon up for the camera assisted by Bobby Manskey

Admittedly the pictures we took are not the best, but I hope the reader can get a good impression of the size and beauty of my estimated 120 lbs tarpon and I have a permanent image to remind me of that special evening afloat in the Keys. A dream had been realised after many years of trying. I had done battle with one of the World’s greatest sporting fish and won. During the rest of our stay other great fish were hooked. Some came off, for one reason or another, but other monsters were brought to the boat (no more brought on-board though) including several other hundred pound plussers up to an estimated 165 lbs. At that stage I had learnt a bit about how to tame the Big Girls in less than an hour by really taking the fight to them and constantly trying to throw them off balance with side strain.

I could go on even longer about fishing for these magnificent creatures in fantastic surroundings but I don’t want to spoil your day more than I probably already have. Go on, save up your pennies and convince the Mrs that you should spend some time in the Florida Keys chasing some of the local Big Girls.
A Strong Tarpon est' at 140lb swimming away