What is the world’s greatest sportfish? This question has caused much debate among generations of fishermen. It’s the kind of question that warrants a convicted response passed down from your forefather or earned by experience.
You might’ve eyed the title of this article and began mentally rebutting, “Sailfish, blue marlin, permit, bluefin tuna, giant trevally,” reading on in the spirit of opposition.
Or, if you’re like me, you’re convinced there’s only one indisputable answer to this question—the Atlantic tarpon. I’ll give you several reasons why.
There’s something enchanting about tarpon; their very presence is a spectacle.
A school of 100-plus-pound fish pulverize a calm surface to gulp air with mouths like gallon buckets. A mile-long chain of indigo armor weaves along a coastal cut in water gin-clear, sending a shudder through even the most poised angler. When hooked, a man-sized extraterrestrial launches airborne, belligerent and beautiful, head shaking, gills clapping, silver flashing.
If you do anything long enough, some parts tend to lose their luster. Not with tarpon. Every encounter is electric, even if you never cast a line.
Throughout their life cycle (which can span over 50 years), tarpon cover a lot of ground and inhabit a diverse spectrum of marine ecosystems, making them an accessible species for anglers of all skill levels.
While they spawn offshore, juveniles eventually head inshore where they thrive in stagnant backwater wetlands, brackish rivers, and urban lakes and ponds where they can be fished from shore or small, stealthy boats. Fun-sized and lively, many people prefer targeting these “babies” because the fight is thrilling yet short-lived and requires less strength and energy.
As adults, tarpon school up and hit the migratory circuit chasing food as far south as Central America, along the U.S. Gulf Coast, and up the East Coast to the Mid Atlantic.
If the seasonal tarpon migration is to anglers what Christmas is to children, then Florida is the North Pole and the “Silver King” is Santa Claus.
Like clockwork each year, schools of prehistoric fish travel the coastlines holding up in deep cuts, passes, and river mouths, offering endless opportunities for getting a dream shot at this trophy species once described as “dinosaurs with fins and tails” by the world’s most tarpon obsessed angler, Capt. David Mangum.
No matter what style of fishing you’re into, if you have the will, you’ll make the way to catch a tarpon. Shore casting beaches. Sight fishing flats. Drifting passes. Ocean fishing for migrating monsters. Even surprise fishing when you were looking for something else and found tarpon instead. With what other species is this possible in the same season?
So, finding tarpon is one thing. But, catching them is a totally different program.
Part of the endearing spirit of the aptly nicknamed “silver king” is that they are respected, esteemed in the highest regard both physically, shown by careful handling and proper revival, and emotionally, from optic admiration to full-blown obsession.
And there’s only one way to become respected—by earning it. And so, the tarpon does.
The big ones wear you down mentally, physically, and emotionally. You can be the most knowledgeable, dialed-in tarpon angler and you’re still bound to fail more times than you succeed.
Some days, you might drop a crab just an inch too far from where they’ll eat it. If you tied on a purple and black fly pattern, they’re probably only chasing chartreuse that day. If ideal conditions have you betting on a hook-up, chances are the tarpon’s finicky nature will send you packing zero-for-zero anyway.
However, there’s that one defining moment that makes it all worth it. In a split second, your time, effort, and frustration dissolve into an obsolete blur. Your heart stops. And the sound you’ve been waiting for triggers adrenaline surging through your veins: ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!
Bow to the King
He’s hooked! You let him run for fear of breaking off if you pump the brakes. You’ve awakened a one-way freight train hauling ass and taking your line with him as he goes. All you can do is lean back, crank down, and don’t forget to bow to the king when he airs one out.
When you’re first starting out, most everyone forgets to bow. The feel of vibrations in the line tell you he’s traveling vertically in the water column, barreling toward the surface. Your eyes widen, fixed on the water where you know he’s about to breach. In a matter of seconds, this giant creature fires into the air, thrashing his head, captivating you into paralysis. Bowing while reaching your rod toward the fish gives enough slack to reduce the chance of him spitting the hook in flight.
If the fight wages on, you’re in for a back-breaking, stamina-draining, tug-of-war that can last for hours. Getting him to the boat is half the battle; then, the face grab must be executed with fearless certainty and a firm grip on the lower jaw. I once watched a full-grown tarpon shatter the sunglasses on a man’s face with one unforgiving head shake.
As the fish is revived boatside, he is both cursed and commended, thanked for his unforgiving spirit, then released with a characteristic tail slap, splashing water to your face as if bidding a, “Farewell, sucker.”
While drawn-out this justification may be, I’d boil it down by saying this:
Tarpon are the most well-rounded contenders of the sportfish lineup. No other species offers all the critical criteria worthy of a “world’s greatest” title—enchanting performance, sheer size, power and beauty, accessibility in more places at various life stages by all skill levels, relentless in battle, puzzling, unpredictable, and highly-regarded.
With one of the biggest cult followings of any species on the planet, the prehistoric Atlantic tarpon have spawned a unique and obsessive fishing subculture that thrives for four months out of the year.
Many tarpon guides make their annual income solely during that time, grinding through long hours, no sleep, multiple trips per day, and the unseen, never-ending work that comes with the occupation. It’s pure hell for a guide, but secretly, also a love affair.
The Atlantic tarpon is indisputably the world’s greatest sportfish, in my mind and in many circles. If you aren’t convinced, I recommend carrying on the conversation with your fellow fishing friends. The important thing is that you stand for something and defend it—there’s no room for indifference when the “world’s greatest” title is on the line.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.