From this month's Nautical Mile newspaper:
Let's start with the story behind this photo. That shot was
taken exactly ten years ago this month in the Marquesas, an
isolated ring of islands twenty five miles west of Key West. And
that's me holding what's left of a formerly six foot tarpon that had a run in
with a much larger shark. What makes this scene really
remarkable is that the dismembered fish wasn't even hooked before its
Even though it was the middle of June and the height of tarpon season, we
were actually looking for permit that morning. I was poling my
skiff close to the eastern shoreline of the islands hoping to
find some tailing fish on the rising tide. My client that week was a
very skilled angler who was obsessed with this notoriously
difficult species and had recently created the
"Ultimate Permit Fly" that he was
convinced would change saltwater angling forever and make him
famous in the process.
We had just caught and released a small six pound permit on his
"ultimate" fly (the only one he'd catch with it all
week) when we both noticed a strange roostertail of water ripping between
us and the mangroves. It was about fifty yards away but I could easily
make out the light grey dorsal fin poking through the surface.
The water was only three feet deep on this particular flat and the fin was just
as tall, the unmistakable feature of a big hammerhead.
This shark was clearly after something and it tore across the shallows at
full throttle for about thirty seconds before we saw several fish leaping
from the surface in front of it. I started poling toward the action as
fast as I could just in time to witness an eruption of froth and blood
and the front half of a tarpon come flying out of the water just a few
boat lengths in front of us.
The hammerhead kept zig-zagging around for a few more seconds, searching for
the other part of its meal, and nearly collided with my boat before
spooking off the flat. It was easily a twelve footer, by no means full
grown but still big enough to cut a tarpon in half with one
bite. I'd seen bigger hammerheads in the shallows, some as long as
my seventeen foot skiff, but never one this close. Once I was convinced
that the shark wasn't returning to finish its lunch we floated over and
pulled what was left of the tarpon on my deck for some
photos. My angler and I each took turns holding it for the camera
and then slid the remains back into the water.
The entire event lasted less than three minutes but to this day is still one
of the most impressive things I've ever witnessed on the
water. Seeing a shark eat a tarpon is not uncommon
when the fish is hooked and struggling. There are scores of You Tube
videos of it happening all over Florida, especially here in the Boca Grande
Pass area. But the real drama of sharks chasing down free swimming
tarpon is played out across the ocean thousands of times each day and
so few people ever get to see it. I was extremely lucky to have a front
row seat for such an amazing event.
If you feel bad for the tarpon in this story and photo, you shouldn’t. They are not an endangered species and there
are far more tarpon in our waters than big hammerheads. In fact, almost all shark species are in
serious decline because of overfishing worldwide and the horrible practice of
finning. You should really be rooting
for the shark in these situations. They
are way too important to the health and balance of the oceans.
But this doesn’t mean that as tarpon anglers we need to sacrifice every
hooked fish as soon as a shark appears. There
are several things we can do to get them in quickly and release them
unharmed. Using heavy tackle is a
given. When I’m guiding fly fishermen
for the huge beach tarpon I prefer 12-weight rods, 30# tippets, and 80# shock
leaders. You can put a remarkable amount
of pressure on the fish with an outfit like this and even 150 pounders can be
boated in less than an hour. When I’m
chasing the juveniles of Matlacha Pass I’ll still use an 8 or 9-weight rod and
20# tippet. I’m not interested in
setting IGFA records, just getting them in quickly and in one piece.
When I land a big tarpon after a prolonged fight the first thing I do is
start the boat’s engine and slowly drag the fish through the water while
holding its lower jaw. This forces water
across their gills and gets their oxygen levels back to normal, while the
engine noise also keeps any prowling sharks at bay. The fish will kick itself away from your grip
when it’s ready but this can take several minutes in most cases. Don’t try to hurry it.
Sometimes the sharks are just too quick and are on the tarpon right after
they’re hooked. There are a few quick things
you can do to give them a fighting chance and the first is to slam your hand on
the reel to stop the drag and break the leader.
Second is to make a lot of noise by banging your feet on the deck and
starting the motor and revving it in neutral.
This usually works surprisingly well since sharks on the flats hate
Fishing is obviously never going to be a bloodless sport, even for a strict
catch-and-release species like tarpon.
The truth is that nearly all of them will eventually fall prey to a
bigger shark. When it happens on the end
of your line it’s kind of sad. But when it happens as nature intended, like it
did in that photo, it’s purely amazing.