April on Pine Island means that tarpon season is just getting underway. I’ve written dozens of articles about chasing and catching this species over the past few years so this month I’m just going to toss out a bunch of random tarpon trivia that you might find interesting.
Tarpon are one of the oldest fish currently swimming in the ocean. Their fossil record dates back to over 100 million years ago and there are two distinct species: the Atlantic tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) and the Indo-Pacific tarpon (Megalops cyprinoides.) Atlantic tarpon are found from South America to the west coast of Africa, and that includes Florida. The much smaller and Indo-Pacific tarpon are only found around northern Australia and a few scattered islands north of the continent.
The very first recorded Atlantic tarpon ever caught on a rod and reel happened right here in SW Florida in 1885 off Punta Rassa, at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. The angler was William Wood from New York and his tarpon weighed 93lbs. His guide was a Finnish immigrant named Capt. John Smith who lived in St. James City and fished from a home built wooden row boat.
Atlantic tarpon can grow to over 300lbs. The current International Game Fish Association’s all-tackle world record was landed in 2003 off Guinea-Bissau in Africa and weighed 286lbs. Larger fish in excess of 300lbs have been hooked and released on conventional tackle but did not qualify for world record status due to the IGFA’s strict guidelines. The Florida state record tarpon weighs 243lbs and was caught off Key West in 1975.
The current fly rod record tarpon weighed 202lbs and was caught in Homosassa, FL in 2001. A 225lb fish was caught on fly off Boqueron, Puerto Rico a few years later but was photographed and released. I knew guide and fished with the angler a few days later. He showed me the photos and wasn't exaggerating.
All those world record fish were female. Male tarpon rarely exceed 60lbs. Both sexes can live over 50 years. They don’t begin to spawn until they’re at least 7 years old.
Tarpon have gills just like all fish, but they also have a very primitive lung, which is actually a swim bladder lined with red blood cells. This enables them to gulp air off the surface and lets them live in both salt and fresh water with very low oxygen content. It’s not uncommon to see baby tarpon rolling in man-made canals, lakes and even golf course water hazards all along the Florida coast.
Tarpon are phenomenal jumpers, rivaling the blue marlin, which is the main reason anglers even bother chasing them since they have no food value. Their meat is coarse and bloody and has never been commercially harvested in the States. Unfortunately, they were routinely killed by guides and sport anglers as dockside trophies until that practice was made illegal here in Florida in 1989.
Tarpon are currently one of our most heavily protected gamefish. Any tarpon longer than 40 inches can’t even be legally removed from the water for a photograph.
If you want to kill a tarpon for any reason, such as weighing it on dry land to qualify for an IGFA record, you’ll need to purchase a $50 tag from the state in advance. Fewer than a dozen of these tags are turned in each year here in Florida.
Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams was a fanatic tarpon angler and helped accelerate the sport in the time between baseball seasons and his military service with the Marine Corps. After retiring from both he spent half his year on Islamorada in the Florida Keys and is credited with landing over 1000 tarpon on every kind of tackle. He released almost all of them.
The largest tarpon I’ve ever had a client land happened four years ago just off Bokeelia, on the north tip of Pine Island. That fish weighed around 150lbs and took an hour to land on a 10-weight fly rod. The angler was 16 years old. He hooked and lost a much bigger tarpon on the same spot two years earlier.