I’m a fishing adrenaline junkie. I’ll admit it to you before we dive into the depths of chasing this addiction. Based out of the warm, sub-tropical waters of Southwest Florida, I have spent countless sleepless hours the past several years chasing a silver king. This shallow water juggernaut has teased and tested the might and minds of anglers in our local waters for over one hundred years. Successfully targeting tarpon throughout the season requires a great deal of dedication, stamina, and of course, luck.
During the early spring months, migratory tarpon begin to appear in their northward journey along coastal beaches near Sanibel and Captiva Islands. This event can begin as early as March, but often fully kicks off by mid-April. Water temperatures play the biggest role in the appearance of these mighty kings. Abundant forage will follow these prime water temperatures that begin around 78 degrees.
Once these water temps are achieved and tarpon begin to arrive, my addiction flares up. I choose to target these fish near coastal bridges under the cover of darkness in my Hobie kayak, waiting until blazing daytime temps have cooled comfortably. I only fish weeknights, so local boat traffic is minimal to nonexistent. Most importantly, at night, when the tide becomes perfect and the bait begins to flush, the magic starts. The water begins to churn and erupt from the beasts below.
I’d like to tell you about a single tarpon catch, but each one of these fish is a lifelong memory for me. Obviously, catching the fish is exciting and a great accomplishment. My love for this goes beyond the numbers and photos. It’s about the heart, soul and sense of adventure chasing a world-class predator at night in a kayak. You’ll want to leave your ego at the dock, because these fish can quickly humble the most seasoned veteran. Right when you think you’ve got the tarpon all figured out, they completely change their behavior and leave you behind.
It’s difficult to do justice to what this event actually looks like and more importantly SOUNDS like. I’ll try to paint a picture; imagine yourself kicking along slowly in your Hobie kayak, the waves lapping again the hull. The tide is just starting to pull from the bay as the moon rises above the horizon. You have to keep your rudder about 20 degrees into the current to maintain a straight heading. There is partial cloud cover tonight. The moonlight comes and goes every few minutes as you paddle further into the darkness. The water is a dark green, but in the sporadic darkness it appears almost black. The sandy ocean floor is some twenty feet below you. When you shine your headlamp into the waves you spot large brown shadows under you. Following you. Your mind races for a moment, imagining a creature hunting you, but from experience you know it’s created by the headlamp luminescence. You continue on.
Approaching the bridge, you can already see tarpon breaking the surface. These fish aren’t small. Most are medium to large adults, sixty to seventy five inches in length. Their backs are well over a foot wide, some, much wider; ranging in weight from ninety to nearly two hundred pounds. In the darkness to your left, you hear violent splashing explosions as if some crazed individual was dropping twenty-pound cinder blocks from the roadway above. These are massive tarpon smashing through the densely packed bait schools, pushed tight to the surface. The violence from these strikes can startle even the saltiest of anglers. They come unexpectedly, from all directions and without warning. When targeting them by kayak, it’s very common for tarpon to ambush bait against the hull, literally smashing into you while feeding. All of this splashing has piqued your senses. Your heart beats faster. Sweat beads from your forehead. Adrenaline courses through your veins. You don’t even feel your legs and you push the Mirage Drive against the current, putting yourself in position to cast into the mayhem.
Depending on the night, I may take several minutes to sit, kick and listen to the tarpon’s nighttime symphony. It’s a pre-game amp up session. You are getting so stoked on the game you can’t wait to take the first shot.
The first cast lands twenty feet ahead of a nearby feeding boil. The 1-ounce jig and black 10-inch Hogy Jigging Eel are allowed to sink for several seconds. They drop midway into the water column, about 6 feet below the surface. I flip the spinning reel’s bail by hand and engage the handle. The sensitive braided line offers a direction connection to sense every wiggle of my jig. With each rod tip twitch, the bait darts and swirls on the drop. I tense my arms in anticipation on each drop of the jig. That short moment of weightlessness on my line is shattered. The rod tip bows deep toward the water. I rear back on the rod, letting the spine of my eight-foot rod absorb the shock of her strike and drive the jig head into her jaw. I keep a tight drag on my reel spool, allowing the hook point to fully penetrate before the line begins peeling off. In less than four seconds, she has taken thirty yards of line and erupts on the surface.
She’s well over six feet in length and soars at least that distance vertically above the water. I arch my arms foreward while holding the rod, bowing to the king, giving her just enough slack to absorb the shock of her might. At this moment, the clouds have cleared the sky and moonlight illuminates her thrusting body. While airborne, she thrashes her head side to side six or seven times before breaching sideways into the water. The splash is enormous. For a split second, the line goes slack. The rod then bends violently ninety degrees in the other direction. She’s quickly run twenty yards in the opposite direction and prepares to launch herself skyward again. My arms are twisted sideways struggling to hold the rod while bowing to her leap. As she lands, I’m able to square the kayak up to her and begin pedaling toward her. She is still peeling line off the reel and is at least sixty yards away. I can no longer see her, but I feel the rod tip shaking as she continues a series of leaps across the surface.
It’s five minutes into the fight and it’s about to get down and dirty. Her initial acrobatics were unable to free her from the line. She begins to go deep, pulling hard toward the ocean floor, towing me right behind her. As she pulls, I adjust my rudder to hold a thirty-degree angle against the fish, maximizing my resistance, wearing her down. This tug of war continues for another ten minutes, and then she comes to the surface, belches and takes a large gulp of air. Now she pulls with all her might. I’ve got the rod bent well into the butt, lightly palming the spool to prevent the drag from pulling. I’m letting her tow me two knots against the outgoing tide. She returns to the surface for another gulp of air. Each of these oxygen rich breaths fuels her to continue on.
After the third gulp, she stays near the surface, worn but still very alive. I pull her alongside the Pro Angler and admire her beauty beneath the glow of my headlamp. These animals are made to feed and fight. Wide, thick shoulders are connected to boney, thick-lipped jaw, designed for sucking up large prey and preventing anglers hook from connecting.
I’m always cautious during this end game. Being connected and in very close proximity to a fish well over a hundred pounds requires quick thinking and a nimble balance. Handling these fish is difficult no matter how you look at it. I use AFTCO gloves to keep my hands from being torn up by the highly abrasive mouths. Unhooking the fish requires a majority of your body weight hanging over the same side of the kayak as the fish. With great care, the Pro Angler 14 offers a stable platform to safely handle these fish boat side. High side rails and a ton of buoyancy keep me safe and able to get to revive the fish.
It’s always quite sketchy when towing a tarpon by hand to revive them. Our local waters teem with monstrous hammerhead and bull sharks that arrive each season with the migrating tarpon. While reviving these fish, it’s important to never tether yourself or the Hobie to the fish. I use a firm grip of the fist to tow them into the current for a few minutes while they revive. Fortunately, most fish are landed in less than twenty minutes and are still quite “green” while being unhooked. This allows for a quick and successful release of the silver king.