We’re on our first drift of the evening, my father and I, when I feel a distinct tap at the end of my line. Just as I register what’s about to happen, my line tightens and my float disappears. It’s as though I’ve snagged a bridge piling and we’re drifting slowly away—that’s what it feels like as the tarpon sucks in my crab and turns to continue swimming.
I set the hook with a hard sweep, low and to my left.
“There we go!” Dad shouts.
A huge boil blooms where my cork was just floating. Line melts from my reel, then the tarpon is airborne. I wish I could slow the moment down: violent head shakes, contorted body, as if the tarpon is swimming through the sky. I point my rod tip, imparting slack to save my leader; always bow to the king. When the 90-pounder splash-lands I apply immediate pressure.
The tarpon leaps again, this time a backwards somersault, so quickly I barely have time to bow. By luck, the 60-pound leader holds. I walk to the front of the rental boat as Dad fires up the engine. He chases the fish while I regain line, maintaining pressure on the tarpon as it runs again. When it slows, Dad positions us two boat lengths behind the tarpon. Showtime is over—now the real work begins.
“Neutral,” I shout, when I’m close enough to apply the kind of pressure that will tire the fish.
“Neutral,” Dad echoes from the console. With the boat out of gear the tarpon will have to work even harder.
Pressure and Angles
Each tarpon possesses a unique personality. This particular specimen fights stubbornly and hugs bottom. For a few minutes we’re locked in a stalemate.
I’ve whooped 120-pounders in 15 minutes and gotten my ass handed to me by resilient 80-pounders. Regardless of a tarpon’s moxie, it’s vital to fight with the intention of landing them as quickly as possible. They don’t know you plan to release them, so they’re fighting for their lives. The quicker the fight, the quicker they’ll revive.
My job—as I wind down and pull back on the tarpon—is to break its spirit. It’s incredible how much pressure one can place on tarpon. For anglers raised on trout fishing, applying this amount of torque might feel absurd, as if you’re begging for a break-off. But maximum pressure—as hard as I can pull, and then a little harder—is the best approach for decreasing fight time with big tarpon.
My rod flexes deep, into the thick, powerful section near the handle. I never lift the tip higher than 20 or 30 degrees from a straight line to the fish. If the rod tip goes above my head—high-sticking, the guides call it—I’ll be using the thinner, weaker sections of the rod, thus applying minimal pressure, and this tarpon will drag us around for hours. I pull steadily, knees bent in an athletic stance, so I can react quickly when the tarpon surges or jumps.
The tarpon peels 50 yards of line, turns right, then left. It rises in the water column and rolls, gulping air in the process. The breath will give it strength and tack on minutes to the fight.
With the tarpon near the surface, I drop my rod tip below my waist and pull sideways against its lateral line, a technique called “down and dirty.” Applying pressure at such angles restricts a tarpon’s side-to-side movement and its ability to roll and gulp air. I pull back and to the side, against its intended path, sticking my rod tip toward the water. I want to keep the tarpon off balance, for it to know it’s not in control. With a high rod and minimal pressure, tarpon have freedom of movement and swim wherever they want. I’ve seen anglers high-stick tarpon for two-plus hours, barely reeling, just hanging on for the ride.
My line rubs against the tarpon’s side and it flinches, bolts, then leaps again. I bow to its jump. It flops into the bay lazily and I know it’s tiring. Twenty minutes into the battle the tarpon wags its massive tail near the surface.
To keep it on top I lift up on the fish, reel down a few turns keeping my line taught, then lift again. As I lift, I apply pressure to the spool on my baitcasting reel with my thumb so that line does not escape with my pulling; I’ll take every inch I can get. I repeat the motion—wind down nearly straight to the fish, then lift smoothly, pinching the reel to save my gains.
The tarpon swims with labored kicks directly away from me. I allow a moment of slack, and the fish turns and ducks beneath the bow. It’s amazing how quickly tarpon exploit mistakes. Act too slowly and the line might rub a gunwale and break; I’ve had it happen more than once. But I’m on top of it this time. I jab the rod tip below the surface and follow the tarpon’s track beneath the boat. The tarpon turns and swims away from the motor, and I resume the fight.
“That was scary,” I say.
“Really put the screws to it now,” Dad says.
He repositions the boat and soon we’re directly behind the tarpon. I’m pulling like hell. With short, smooth pumps, I lift the tarpon close to the surface. Its giant bucket mouth is open and its tail kicks are slower and more exaggerated. The late evening light shimmers off its large, prismatic scales.
“What a beauty,” Dad says.
I guide the tarpon toward the boat and Dad snaps a few photos. The leader rubs against the side of its gill plate. I wonder how long the fluorocarbon will survive.
To Grab or Not to Grab
With the 90-pounder boat side, I’m faced with a difficult decision: face-grab the tarpon by its lower jaw, or break it off and avoid the tussle.
When I started tarpon fishing 15 years ago, I wanted to grab them all. I looked forward to it; each face-grab posed its own challenge. I wanted photos of streamlined giants longer than me. A few such photos exist, but since then something’s shifted in me. Maybe the shift took place after I struggled to revive one particular face-grabbed tarpon, or when another jumped and smashed into the gunwale as I went for the grab, spraying blood over the deck. Grabbing an angry giant can be a violent, unpleasant experience—not for the faint of heart.
With those experiences and the best interests of this particular tarpon in mind, I choose to break if off. The tarpon slow-swims a rod-length away; if it were floating, I’d grab it for revival. I wind tight, point my rod straight to the fish, thumb-clamp the reel, then pull back with a sharp, 5-inch pop. The loop knot parts, and the tarpon slinks down and swims away. Sometimes the hook will straighten with this technique and I’m left with a bent souvenir. This time, I’ve given the tarpon a harmless lip ring and avoided the trauma of a face-grab.
Dad and I high five. “Great fish,” he says.
There’s enough light for another drift, so I clip the abraded end of the leader and tie on a fresh hook. Dad idles the boat using the GPS, returning to the area where we hooked the tarpon. I snatch a pass crab from the livewell, its legs scuttling furiously. Dad turns the boat sideways and kills the engine. We’re the only boat around.
“Well,” he says as I hand him the rod, “we might as well catch another one.”