Imagine a gracefully contorted body, as big as yourself, quivering ten feet in the air, panoplies with a thousand glittering silver scales, reflecting, like facets of a great diamond, the rays of a tropical sun, surrounded by a halo of prismatic drops of flying water and all backgrounder by the massed black clouds and solid wall of falling water of a near approaching storm. The tarpon fights with all the spirit of the purest strain of race horse, product of a thousand years of selection and training.
When struck, your tarpon may leap straight up, or at any angle, or he may skim along the surface of the water, rising clear of it half a dozen times in as many seconds. The tarpon lends himself alike to the needs of the dilettante of the private yacht and the barefoot boy of the fishing boat.
Sometimes they will take the bait as it touches the water, at others I have vainly dragged it over a deep hole, from which the fish were rising to blow at the rate of five a minute, only to see it knocked three feet in the air by the contemptuous toss of a tarpon’s tail. The tarpon hook is attached to the line by a three-foot snood of braided flax or other soft and strong material and is baited with half a mullet.
Reel off a dozen yards of line, coil it loosely on the seat before you, light your pipe and muse on the infinite, or cut the leaves of the latest magazine, while your boat man “chums” from time to time by casting bread upon the waters in the form of fragments of fish. In a few minutes, or it may be hours, or even days, the line begins to run out, you lay aside your magazine and pick up the rod while your boatman takes in the anchor and sits down to the oars.
Then pressing your thumb firmly on the brake, “Strike for your altars and your fires.” Two hundred feet away a gleaming form of burnished silver leaps, gyrating in the air. The whirling handle of the reel raps your incautious knuckles and the friction of the line burns your thumb through the thick brake of sole leather.
Soon the line slackens, as the fish turns, and the multiplying reel spins beneath your nervous fingers as you labor to wind it in. Another leap, the strain on the line shows that the fish is well hooked, and with skill and care on your part, the chances are now even that you will conquer him.
He will twist the line around a snag or a mangrove root, cut it on an oyster reef, or if the struggle is too prolonged, grind apart the snood between his bony jaws. You should now give him his freedom, but if he is your first tarpon and you wish his scales or skin as souvenirs, you will strike him with the great steel gaff and probably go overboard to him in his final struggle.
If steel wire had been used you would have had to choose between cutting the line and being towed for miles until you could get the brute to the surface where you could shoot him or kill him with an axe. The sting-ray, unpleasantly armed and hard to handle, the saw fish which will tow you back and forth all day without seeming to know that anything has happened to him, and big three hundred pound Jewish, great inert masses, catching which is nearly as exhilarating as hoisting an anchor, but which on the Pacific coast are caught, weighed and labeled Black Sea-Bass.
The typical outfit is a dinghy with a little motor and a revolving chair in the stern in which the fisherman sits, facing backwards, also a boatman to do the work. While trolling, the fisherman is seldom bothered by other fish, although an occasional Spanish mackerel cavalry or grouper may strike at his bait.
If, instead, it catches in his bony mouth, the sportsman must keep a constant strain upon the line, through all the leaping, twisting, turning and sulking of the quarry. Even when success seems assured, in the big passes and among the outer keys, a fourteen-foot shark is likely to take in half of your six-foot tarpon at a single bite.
In fighting the tarpon, the fisherman holds his left hand as high as convenient on the rod and throws his weight backward against it. He is the slimiest thing in creation and can only be steadied for the work in his mouth by holding his jaw or inserting a few fingers in the outer edge of his gills.
Even the emotions of the tarpon can be inferred from the angry shaking of his head, or its gentle yielding to the persuasion of the line. He ought never to try this in the sweeping tide of the big pass, no matter how much of a water dog he may be, without a friendly boat at hand.
There is probably no danger from sharks, as these brutes apparently never attack living human beings in this country, yet after seeing the eagerness with which they gobble up tarpon from beside the boat, I have become conservative in acting upon my faith in their harmlessness. The game is a lottery without blanks, for if you miss the tarpon with your harpoon, the joy of the pursuit, the excitement of the near approach and the delirium of the throw, though it fails, is greater than even the capture of the creature by trapping methods.
Leave your hired guide at home and go forth with your friend and companion, in the lightest canoe or skiff that will carry you, paddling or sculling one another by turns. Find and follow the bayonet fin of the tarpon as it cleaves the surface of the shallow waters of the feeding grounds; explore the deep rivers and look under the dark shadows of their banks for the sleeping silver king; or paddle out to the tide rips in the big pass, to where a school of tarpon are rising to blow, at the rate of twenty a minute within the area of an acre.
If you are gifted with your weapon and your companion skilled and cautious with the paddle, you may get half the fish you follow on the flats, one in five of those you see under the banks, and succeed in hitting one in a hundred that rise in the pass to blow, within twenty feet of you. On the flats, beautifully spotted whip-rays will attract you, big, vicious sharks tempt your steel and huge saw fish tender you their four-foot weapons as trophies.
Less frequently you find wild orange, lime, mastic and tamarind trees, while an occasional royal palm lifts its magnificent head far above the forest which surrounds it. Rarest of all, a palmetto may be seen thrusting its slim, straight body upward through the hollow trunk of a wild fig tree, with its crested head twenty feet above the wide-spreading branches of the latter.
The sullen plunge of the alligator, disturbed in his siesta and his bed, is followed by the cautious lifting above the surface of the water of a pair of unwinding eyes which gravely gaze at you. Occasionally a quick step is heard, a startled deer stands in bold relief upon the bank for the instant preceding the toss of his white tail, which is the last you see of him.
Just as you have forgotten that you are fishing, there will come a tug at the trailing line, a cry from the girl who holds it and, if it is your first tarpon, the most glorious sight you ever beheld, the wild leap of the radiant silver king. When the early rushes are over and the tarpon settles down to business, the drag on the line is about equal to the pull against the bit of the average trotter.
You are quite on the level of the lad with the bare feet, who sits on a log by the stream with a pole, a string and a can full of bait and yanks in the fish that had scorned the orthodox flies you so skillfully tendered them. I had tied bits of bright worsted on the line to mark distances for the Camera-man, who was keeping in focus for possible jumps.
Then with a tiny swivel in the mouth, a hook in the tail and a slight twist to give the thing a wiggly motion, it becomes a great and successful deluded of the fish. Then you lay down your rod and walk along the beach till you find a sand crab scooting for his hole.
Catch him before he gets there, or if you fail, put your finger in the hole, wait until he takes hold of it with his biggest claw, and pull him out. I once knew the dean of anglers in this country to tie a mouse to a hook and let him swim across a pool past the lair of a big trout who feared not God nor regarded man.
Of course any fisherman on the coast will tell the angler the best time and place to catch fish, only no two of them will agree, and when one finds out for himself he will have to learn over again the next day. Instead of wading in ice-cold streams you walk out in the warm surf and cast among the breakers, or stroll inside the pass, on the shore of the bay.
In quiet water choose from the gliding forms the biggest channel bass and coax, tempt and badger him with a fly, thrown before, behind, all around and straight at him, until you rouse him to languid attention, growing interest, earnest desire and furious determination. You must mind your eye as the rod bends double; it isn’t a brook trout or a black bass that you have on your line, but a powerful creature that may wear you out before you land him.
Then you must run up the beach like a scared rabbit, wind in line as fast as you get a chance, letting it out only when you must. Always supplement the action of your rod with your legs and if, in an hour, or two, or three, the fish gives out first, you can decide in accordance with commissariat requirements whether your fifteen or twenty-pound captive is to be netted or released on parole.
Sometimes a school of mackerel swims past, tossing the water into little cascades as they break up an assemblage of minnows and devour them in detail, and you toss any old fly you have among them, assured that three or four will jump at it at once and you will have broiled Spanish mackerel for supper provided, however, that their sharp teeth don’t sever your line. If a two-pound lady fish, sometimes appositely called skip jack, strikes, you will have attained the Ultimo Thule of fishing with a fly-rod and light tackle.
Your reel will buzz an octave higher than you ever heard it, and your fingers will be blistered wherever they touched the line, while playing this splendid fighter who so richly earns the liberty you will surely restore it at the close of the performance. Sometimes I take a light Canadian canoe and with my boatman paddle out through the pass to fish in the surf, hoping thus to keep dry.
The boatman has learned to sit low in the canoe and exert himself mightily to keep it at right angles to breaking waves, and I have been taught to choose weather that is fair for tempting the surf with so frolicsome a craft. I have seen Mr. Herbert Johnston and the late Doctor Trow bridge catch five-to eight-pound channel bass by the light of the moon at Sarasota Pass.
The late Doctor Ferber, dean of fly fishermen on the Florida coast, coaxed to his rod every species of fish to be found in the Homosassa River, from the so-called fresh water trout, or big-mouthed black bass, down to the worthless gar and tiny needle fish. His record as a fisherman was handicapped by his conscience, for he habitually carried a tape measure and a spring balance which he religiously used before he spoke.
Big ones six feet and upwards in length can be found in passes, deep channels and broad bays near the coast, but can rarely be landed because the hard mouth of the fish strands the light line before he can be captured. Baby tarpon of eighteen inches and upward abound in small tributaries to the large rivers and the countless little inland ponds of mud and water.
Spanish mackerel are found in the currents of the passes and the rivers and, especially when traveling in schools, are ravenous, bite greedily and investigate afterward, which is good for the fisherman. The sea trout likes the neighborhood of oysters and coral reefs, and affects quiet water and snags, but cannot resist a bright-colored fly.
Man grove snappers collect under wooded banks in deep water and hide in hollow sunken logs, but when the spirit moves show greediness in their dash for the fly. The cavalry may be traced by the trouble he makes in schools of smaller fish and is then pretty sure to take anything in the likeness of a fly that is cast within his reach.
The sluggish sleepyhead rarely comes out from under his old wreck unless something more seductive than a bunch of feathers is tendered him, yet he has occasionally been taken on a fly. In Estero Bay a small red shark swallowed a cavalry that I was playing and then gave me an acrobatic exhibition by leaping like a tarpon several feet out of the water many times.
Poetic friends have deplored my fancied loss of sentiment for the brooks and the mountains, as if appreciation of the beauty of the one and the grandeur of the other could be lessened because for a time I revel in the quiet beauty of the open sea and take present delight in a broader horizon and the changing glory of storm and clouds. On a certain day, which, as I learned later, was the one following the great cyclone that swept the Gulf coast and devastated Mobile and Pensacola, the beach at Sarsaparilla Pass was alternately dazzling in the sun, and dark in the shadow of the blackest of clouds.
As I walked along the beach flocks of hundreds of gulls and white and brown pelicans rose and flew around me, seemingly stopping to pose when the background of clouds was most effective. Atmospheric brilliancy went to the brain of the Camera-man and in his craze for “human interest” in his pictures, he interfered with my fishing by embarrassing requests.
The clouds over the Gulf grew thicker, darker and massed themselves into a black, whirling column that promised a coming waterspout, when through haste in changing holders, a plate broke loose inside the camera, choking its machinery, to the despair of the Camera-man who had watched many days for the effect he was now losing, with a dozen fresh plates in his hands all aching to be exposed. He sat down in the wet sand and worked nervously until a solid wall of approaching rain threatened to flood his camera and drown him.
As we fled to the shelter of our cruising boat he expressed himself in language which, although perhaps adequate to the occasion, seemed to me unbecoming in an artist and a fisherman. From Lake Okeechobee to the Keys, southern Florida established itself as a fishing mecca from early settlement and beyond.
We're really pleased with how it turned out,” said Tom Twofold, director of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club. Courtesy of photographer Bob Coffeemaker, a huge portrait at the entry of the exhibit, captures the spirit of the sport.
The picture shows a freckle-faced boy, one eye squeezed shut and his tongue jammed sternly between his lips, struggling fiercely with his fishing pole. “Simulating the storefront and shop, the only thing missing is the fresh scent of a good catch.
A portrait of 1930s novelist Zane Grey, who was an avid fisherman, hangs beyond the Tackle Shop, along with photographs of area piers and waterways. Visitors can sit in the chair and let their eyes travel to the end of the rod, positioned in a make-shift “pond.
“There came a highly pitched buzz of the reel, a wild leap six feet in the air of frightened tarpon and my rod flew over the stern of the skiff, leaving a straight wake of the Gulf,” Di mock wrote. “I fancy that the whole outfit, rod and massive reel and 600 feet of costly line was an exhibit that night at some club of tarpon devoted to baiting fishermen.
Running up to the Home Sound area from Jupiter to avoid the sharks, Capt. Bill Taylor of Black Dog Fishing Charter has been getting good numbers of mangrove, yellowtail and a few short buttons in 40 to 60 feet of water using mostly thread fin herring and squid.
There is still a decent sailfish bite off of Jupiter and people fishing for them are also getting good numbers of dolphin as by catch. Working very specific depths from 100 to 115 feet, kings up to 15 pounds have been caught from the Boston Inlet and then following as they move south.
The sailfish bite is still holding steady off of the Boston area with many boats having several releases per trip. They are hitting goggle eyes, blue runners and pilchards on kites in 100 to 150 feet.
There have also been red grouper caught in the same depths using cut or whole squid on the bottom or slow pitching jigs. On the inside edge of the reefs off of Boston, lesser amber jacks, some keeper gray trigger fish, yellowtail and mangrove snapper are being caught.
Though the season is closed until Feb. 1, the bite for shook in the St. Lucie River has been excellent recently. Around the bridges spanning the St. Lucie and Indian Rivers there has been good action for black drum, pompano and bluefish.
In the Intracoastal Waterway in the channels a quarter mile north and south of the Boston Inlet, there has been an excellent bite for jack crevasse, lady fish, bluefish and some nice mangrove and mutton snapper. Also in the Ice, on the east side from the Santana Bridge up to the Shook Islands, there has been good action for sea trout and a few slot-size redfish.