UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA CIRCA 1975
Oh, I have fished for Tarpon before in many places and in many ways, but none can compare with this sport-fishing that lies at our doorstep. The old-timers claim that "Tarponitis" is worse than alcoholism. You can tell yourself over and over, we'd better not plan to go tonight, but as the sun sets and your thoughts turn to the challenge that awaits you, you find yourself hustling around in preparation for just a quick trip. And before long thermos in hand, babysitter all set, bait in the cage (caught that afternoon by your little boys) and boat motor running, you're off to a different world.
As the boat glides out of the marina channel, the horizion lights up with a string of glittering bridge lights. You begin to wonder, will they be there, the big ones, or the little ones? Will they be crafty or reckless? You leave the world of the big city and find yourself on a bay with the phosphorus in the water turning the spray into a metalic green, above you a million stars to wish on, and cool salty breeze unruffling that beauty parlor hairdo. After a busy day with four little one, the peace and quiet is almost unbelievable. You aim for a favorite light that has brought luck before and as you come nearer, cut the engine in order to glide under the bridge quietly and secretly. Rod and reel in hand your eyes strain to see the shadow line where the great fish will be slowly be moving along in search of a tasty dinner.
There they are! Three long black shadows only a foot below the surface, but you are still too far back. You cast the line as lightly as possible, but the splash of your bait sends a spray of phosphorus, and your crafty game swiftly flees form the unknown. But you know they will be back. After the boat is tied under the bridge, you're all set. Your husband reminds you for the hundredth time to keep your bait just perfect; in sight under the surface, just on the shadow line, not too far back nor too far out beyond the line. As you wait the infinite glory of the sea fascinates you. School after school of bait flick by, and out beyond the line are catfish playing and crashing bait. The water is alive with activity of the crabs, shrimp and unidentified fish passing you by. The popping sound of the Drum near the pilings breaks the silence of the quiet summer stillness.
Within minutes you hear the call, "Two on the left, hope for the big one." Your heart almost stops as the giant shadow approaches your wiggling pinfish. And you don't dare breathe for fear he'll sense your presence. You watch as he eyes your bait, he makes a half turn away from it and cuts back to grab it. You find the muscles in your arms screaming, "yank it," but you know better. The quiet of the night is broken with your voice saying "let him go, let him go, easy now, take it boy." Then it's time. You throw on the break and strike home. Once, twice, and with the strength and courage, the mighty Silver King leaps into the air shaking his head with fury to thow the hook that has been set in his mouth of bone. His silver scales glisten in the bridge lights and the battle has begun.
Now he dives long, hard and deep. The line sings as it strips from your reel, and you find yourself hanging on for dear life. You husband starts up the engine to move away from the bridge, and you prepare for a long hard fight. You are not sitting in a Captain's Chair with your rod in a holder, and the boat dragging your fish; the engine is now of, and the real challenge begins, your strength versus his. The line is taut, but is beginning to rise so yu know he is going to jump again. All the quiet breathlessness of before is broken now with excited phrases of his beauty, size and strength. He jumps over and over. Thirty minutes later, you find your arms are nearly paralyzed, your hadns fee frozen to the reel, and you wonder of you won't go down in defeat. You hope this last run was his last, surely he'll tire soon. Once again, you begin to pump the line in slowly. he seems tired, and then you see your mightly challenger turn on his side, but you can't be shire his strength is gone. Cautiously you bring him alongside. You want to touch the leader to get an official release then the Tarpon is considered caught. But as your husband's hand reaches over to grab the leader, the last burst of fight begins, and with a final jump, this great and beautiful fish has won the battle. The line and hook fly free and you are left with shaking arms and a feeling of despair.
But only for an instant; what a battle, what a challenge, the thrill, the excitement, the beauty; it was worth every minute of it. Quickly you turn back toward the bridge. For there will be another fight, and maybe next time you will be the victor. The real sadness sets in as you realize the hou, and leave the magic world of the Silver King to return to your busy and complicated world of the city. But you'll return night after night, summer after summer, to meet this great Challenge.
The Tarpon arrive first at the Gandy, Frankland and Cortney Campbell bridges in the spring as early as Mid March. Some small ones stay around the Gandy draw bridge all year it seems. They feed at night along the shadow line cast by the lights. They will strike all sorts of things, including the shrimp, sardines, menhaden, pinfish, bumpers, and beeliners they find there. Your bait should ideally offer variety because the fish will prefer on on the first trip, something different the next. Try to have a dozen pinfish, 3 colors of nylures, and a dozen greenbacks (threadfin herring) or sardines. The pinfish can be caught at the end of both channels out of the Tampa Bay Marina and east of the pipes on the west side of rocky point.
The sardines, etc. , will come by cast net out at the bridge. It will be seen under the lights generally on the uptide side of the bridge which incidentally is the side you mosty fish. Now you have you bait. Did you take you dids to help you catch pinfish? Yes? Okay. Pass to the tackle rigging class. The mustad 5/0 (7691 tarpon hook) is 99% correct for sardines, shrimp, greenbacks and squid. You will want to use the 4/0 or even 3/0 when your bait smaller. Pick your own size seven strand wire or monofilament for leader between 60 and 100 pound test depending on the size of the Tarpon sighted and bait used. Selecting to heavy on the tackle could put you in the fish killing category and flunk you out of class.
How to close the gap between bait and boney mouth. Pull under the bridge into the tide, look for a drain hole in the underside of the road edge, stick your bridge rigged pole up into it, the device will lock in and then slip the bungge cord on the end of the bridge rig rope around the back side of the front bow cleat so its ready to be thrown off on hooking a Tarpon. Well known Captain James "Jimmy" Bradley or Jimmy Sass Dockmaster at Tampa Bay Marina will show you how to make the pipe, cross piece, spring, line and bungee cord.
Put two rods from the bow, baits separated and not on top of each other, hold the line so the bait is on the shadow line six inches deep. If it's a Nulure, make it vibrate if a Tarpon is nearby. Don't jig it, just make it quiver.
Look for Tarpon they will travel parallel to the shadow line about a foot behind it or lie stationary nose up tide. Both moving from spot to spot and staying for hours in the same spot are successful depending on what the Tarpon are doing. I prefer the former. Keep your eyes, ears open for fish splashing or rolling out in adjacent waters, then move in. (QUIETLY). Set the hook fast on a Nylure. with the live bait count five while freespooling before you throw the lock and set the hook. Let's go to some brief pointers:
1. Avoid catfish by quietly lifting the bait and setting it in the water admidships. If you splash they will come in on the sound.
2. Tarpon turning or circling the bait, moving in a semicircle, cracking in the next bay are feeding period signs. Be i fish during this period even if you work to the St. Petersburg end to find them.
3. When the fish spook we tried no talking, walking, or bright white shirts. We found that with 10 foot rods we could fish the other side of a piling without the Tarpon knowing we were there. A sharp noise will scare them so be quiet.
4.If they spook time and again, I'd move to a span with no light.
5.The outgoing tide is best and if you really press Mary Anne Kearney her record points to the last hour of the outgoing tide. She also likes the incoming tide on the new moon.
6. Phosphorus on the line is taboo. Move the bait out slightly into the light.
Now that I have spilled my guts of a few secrets, I want to tell the Skipper Smith Story. He went out at the wrong time, tide and place; fished with catfish bait and boated a very nice fish while I was on the dock, talking and waiting for the right solunar period, tide and moon phase. Tarpon experts like Bradley, Kersey, Cavallo, and Goodyear are all willing to give advice, but the more they know the more contrary the advice gets. So it boils down to decent tackle and being in the right place at the right time that produces action from the slimey, beautiful, scavenging, fighting, lockjawed Silver King.
Bridge Fishing: (Frankland, Gandy and Cortney Campbell Bridge) - The best advice I can give about the bridges is to carry as many different baits as you can get. some of the beat baits have been Menhaden, Sardines (Whitebait), big Shrimp, Pinfish, Threadfin Herring (Greenbacks), Grunts (Pigfish), Bumpers, - Oh yes, I must not forget beeliners.
On artificial baits the best action seems to be on a Nylure or Roysler. Try different colors. Yellow seems to work the best. Again let me say that a prepared fisherman will have as many baits in his well for a night of fishing.
Bottom fishing: Again just like any type of Tarpon fishing, one day they hit one thing, the next day something different. Pinfish and Grunts (Pigfish), have taken over as the most widely used bait, although many Tarpon are caught on Mullet, Ladyfish, and catfish. Menhaden are the favorite bait of those who know where and how to catch them. Tarpon are caught on Trout, Jimmys, and many other types of smaller fish. Most bottom Tarpon fishermen who fish 4 to 8 rods out at a time will fish several different baits if they have them.
Live Bait (not at the bridge): This typeof fishing is a highly skilled technique because you cast to the fish. Many different baits are used. Pinfish, Grunts (Pigfish), Crabs, Sardines (Whitebait) and Threadfish Herring (Greenbacks) are the most widely used. Menhaden are an excellent choice if you know how and where to catch them and how to keep them alive. Small Mullet produce Tarpon.
Artificial Baits: A Nylure is the most popupar artificial bait, but many baits are just as good. Super Dudes, Mirrolures, #6 Capt. Action Spoons, Royslers, and many other popular plugs and jigs.
Trolling: This type of Tarpon Fishing has slacked off in the past few years. Many fish have been caught trolling. Various baits have been used. Popular trolling baits are Nylure, Roysler, #6 Capt. Action Spoons. Budge Kearney had good success trolling Rebels. Budge Kearney also jumped and caught Tarpon trolling live Menhaden off of Apollo Beach. Super Dudes have also been effective. In closing I must say the Tarpon are like women, very unpredictable, very smart and very pretty! Catch one, and you will have TARPONITIS for life!
To be continued.
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