Beauty and the Tarpon

In every epic fish fight, there comes a point when the voice in your head starts screaming BREAK IT OFF. When the fish is your first tarpon, you'd better do as you're told.

Field & Stream Online Editors

A guide once told me a story about a woman who lost her right hand to a bottlenose dolphin. She was leaning over the side of a boat, feeding it dead baitfish. With each offering, she raised her hand higher so that the dolphin had to jump like a dog reaching for a treat. At one point, the dolphin clamped onto the woman's arm above the wrist. Her husband caught her from behind before she was jerked overboard, but the hand was ripped away by the weight of the descending dolphin. The woman survived and was cited for harassing the mammal, a federally protected species.

Some hazards originate from well above the waterline. I was tarpon fishing with a friend one afternoon near Florida's Skyway Bridge, which crosses Tampa Bay, when a young woman jumped off the center span. She fell nearly 20 stories, the wind catching her skirt and turning the fabric inside out past her face. She let out one long scream and landed in a sitting position that made a smacking noise. After a minute or so, she appeared on the surface, treading water.

"Holy cow," my friend said. "She's alive."

Fishing in a boat near the center span is risky, as up to a dozen people leap from the bridge each year, descending at a rate of 75 mph. But along the coast, away from the inland waters of the bay, the pursuit of tarpon brings its own brand of dangers to anglers, as well as to innocent bystanders who get in the way of hooked fish.

I went fishing one morning with my wife and my sister. Initially, my sister didn't want to make the trip. I talked her into going. She said, "Okay, okay, I'll go. But I'm only coming along for the boat ride. You know I don't like to fish."

Maria is my younger sibling by 13 months. Her wholesome appearance is not purchased over the counter but softened and made lovely by natural design. While we were growing up, most of my friends used to fall over themselves trying to get close to her. Even now, when I meet one of them, the first question I usually hear is "So, how's your sister doing these days?"

We left the dock late. It was after 9 A.M. and we were still weaving through the channel. I was standing in the tower of the 22-foot Bay Stealth with my legs parted, the shorts loose around my thighs. My wife, Becky, looked up. "Hey," she said. "How come you're not wearing underwear?"

"I forgot."

She made a face. "We can see everything from down here. It's gross." My sister looked up, squinting. "I can't see a thing." She placed a consoling hand on Becky's shoulder. I crossed my legs.

Within an hour of leaving the pass, we were onto a school of tarpon. I turned off the motor and spun the wheel to let them pass ahead of the bow.

As the pod of fish, about 50 strong, drew near, my sister seemed uneasy. "How can we ever catch one of those?" She was about to find out.

The tarpon showed clearly below the surface, their wide bodies striped by bands of sunlight. They formed a circle, revolving languidly in a clockwise pattern, using just enough energy to stay in motion. Within a week, the full moon cycle would draw them 100 miles into the ocean to spawn. But for now, they played out their courtship ritual close to shore.

I sent my bait to the edge of the pod. The crab sensed the stirring below and worked its legs to slow its descent. A tarpon flashed and took the bait, his body turned sideways.

"I've got one on," I said.

Both women looked at me, and then at the rigid line in the water. Bending forward, I forced the rod up. The fish surged toward the surface.

"Watch this," I said. The tarpon broke through as if launched from a catapult. Strings of water rained off his scales as he spiraled through the air. He jumped again, this time higher, reentering the water 10 yards from where he came out.

"Oh, my God," Maria said.

I leaned from the tower to hand her the rod.

"Don't you dare give that to me."

"Just take it," I insisted.

She reach up, hesitant. I came down quickly and led her to the bow.

"Don't point the rod at the fish unless he jumps," I warned. "Hold it up and keep a good bend in it."

Maria was very tense. "I really don't think I can do this," she said.

"You'll be all right. Just hang on and don't reel in when he's taking out line." I secured the fighting belt around her waist.

"I told you I didn't come here to fish," she complained. Nevertheless, she braced herself with her feet apart. The rod was alive with the flight of the fish, wrenching her forward each time she tried to pull back.

"I really don't think I can do this," she said again.

"Yes, you can. Try to relax."

She leaned back farther, bearing her weight against the strain. "Relax? Are you kidding me? The fish is bigger than I am."

The tarpon was moving fast, the rod vibrating as line fed through the guides in halting bursts. Already, 150 yards of main line had left the spool. Maria struggled with the reel, turning the handle as if she were grinding coffee. I urged her on.

"Bring the rod up as high as you can and then reel down. After a while you'll get the hang of it and the fish'll come to you."

She brought the rod up an inch and reeled in a fraction of line.

"Yeah, that's good."

I asked Becky to start the outboard and follow the tarpon. As the boat advanced, I cautioned Maria that if she left any slack in the line, the fish would come off. She reeled faster. "Can you hold me so I don't fall in the water?" she asked. I assured her that she would not fall in. "But it feels like I could. He's pulling so hard."

"You're not going anywhere," I promised. "I'm right here." Just to be sure, I hooked one hand through the fighting belt.

As we closed in on the fish, the tarpon jumped. Both women screamed, and before the spray had time to settle, he took to the air again, landing on his back. Maria turned to me and said,

"Please don't make me do this." I studied her carefully. Her face was red, marked by lines of sweat on her brow. "Are you sure?" I asked.

"I'm scared to death," she said. "I mean it."

I asked Becky if she wanted to bring in the fish.

"I wish you would've hooked a smaller one," she said.

I took the rod and wedged the butt against my hip.

"Sorry," Maria said. She removed the fighting belt and sat on the cooler. The fish towed us closer to shore. I leaned to one side and applied pressure away from the beach as Maria stood and waved her arms at a group of people swimming nearby. "Hey, you guys," she called. "Get out of the way." The swimmers looked up, blinking. I told Becky to head in closer.

"But we're getting too close to the beach as it is," she said.

"Just go forward so I can reel in line."

"But what about those people in the water?"

"Don't worry about them," I said. "They'll get out of the way."

A small crowd had gathered on the beach, following our progress. We were about 60 yards from shore. The tarpon swam deep, and then his tail swiped the leader as he charged upward and punched through the swells. His body rotated, and as his head pointed down, his tail kept rising until the fish blotted out the sun for an instant, darkened in silhouette before reappearing like a blaze that ignited and shattered the surface.

All at once, there was a mad scramble for dry land. People were screaming and pushing one another. A man shook his fist at me; a woman crouched on the sand where she had fallen, shouting something I could not understand; two small children wearing arm floats were nearly trampled and ran crying from the surf.

The tarpon swam over a shallow bar that ran north and south, his back showing above the surface. A number of spectators backed away as if he might drive himself directly onto the sand where they stood. He entered a narrow, deeper swash and turned, swimming parallel to the coast and hugging the shoreline several feet from the water's edge.

On land, the crowd was growing. The tarpon could be seen clearly from shore. A man yelled,

"Are you out of your mind, fighting a fish this close to the beach? What if you hurt someone?"

Another man, jogging to keep up, called out, "Wow, look at the size of that monster." We headed north. Up ahead, more and more people crowded the water. A group of kids were snorkeling. Surf fishermen dotted the shoreline, and a young couple in a kayak paddled in our direction.

The fish had to be led away from shore. Becky stopped the boat. I held the spool in one hand and applied more pressure than the line should have withstood. The rod was shuddering as if it might fracture in my hands. I let go of the spool and reeled down and drove the rod up and reeled down some more, pushing the limits of the tackle by using all the strength and leverage I could apply.

The tarpon shook his head, refusing to be led away from the course he had chosen. The safest option now was to cut the line.

My sister almost caused a mutiny. "What's the matter with you? I'll throw you off this boat if you do that."

I asked my wife for her thoughts. She turned to Maria. "It'll be easy if I grab his legs and you get his arms."

I went back to fighting the fish.

We made our way along the coast for two hours, the tarpon never venturing far from shore, the crowd on the beach swelling in size, my wife steering the boat around human obstacles, my sister yelling at people, and me, standing in a pool of sweat, wondering how I would ever induce the fish to seek deeper water.

Occasionally, a new onlooker shouted questions. "Where did you hook him? What kind of bait were you using?"

A heavyset man offered to help land the fish. He said, "I'll grab his tail for you and bring him right up on shore."

"That's all right," I answered. "Thanks, anyway." He wore a tight bathing suit that appeared to be vacuum-sealed to his midsection.

"Are you sure?" he asked, stepping into the water.

"Yes, please, we're okay for now."

The man stopped and placed his hands on his hips. Maria turned to Becky. "Did you see the boobs on that guy? I'm jealous."

We encountered a surf fisherman with two lines out, the outfits in rod holders anchored in the sand. He sat under an umbrella.

My sister shouted, "Hey, mister, get that crap out of our way!"

The man did not budge. The tarpon swam through both lines.

I loosened the drag on the reel as Becky inched us closer to shore. The lower unit touched bottom, and the outboard had to be raised. Maria held the rod while I stepped off the boat.

"You'd better hurry," she said.

I waded in water up to my knees and, reaching out with a knife, cut through the man's lines.

He shot out of his chair.

"What're you doing?" he demanded.

I seline several feet from the water's edge.

On land, the crowd was growing. The tarpon could be seen clearly from shore. A man yelled,

"Are you out of your mind, fighting a fish this close to the beach? What if you hurt someone?"

Another man, jogging to keep up, called out, "Wow, look at the size of that monster." We headed north. Up ahead, more and more people crowded the water. A group of kids were snorkeling. Surf fishermen dotted the shoreline, and a young couple in a kayak paddled in our direction.

The fish had to be led away from shore. Becky stopped the boat. I held the spool in one hand and applied more pressure than the line should have withstood. The rod was shuddering as if it might fracture in my hands. I let go of the spool and reeled down and drove the rod up and reeled down some more, pushing the limits of the tackle by using all the strength and leverage I could apply.

The tarpon shook his head, refusing to be led away from the course he had chosen. The safest option now was to cut the line.

My sister almost caused a mutiny. "What's the matter with you? I'll throw you off this boat if you do that."

I asked my wife for her thoughts. She turned to Maria. "It'll be easy if I grab his legs and you get his arms."

I went back to fighting the fish.

We made our way along the coast for two hours, the tarpon never venturing far from shore, the crowd on the beach swelling in size, my wife steering the boat around human obstacles, my sister yelling at people, and me, standing in a pool of sweat, wondering how I would ever induce the fish to seek deeper water.

Occasionally, a new onlooker shouted questions. "Where did you hook him? What kind of bait were you using?"

A heavyset man offered to help land the fish. He said, "I'll grab his tail for you and bring him right up on shore."

"That's all right," I answered. "Thanks, anyway." He wore a tight bathing suit that appeared to be vacuum-sealed to his midsection.

"Are you sure?" he asked, stepping into the water.

"Yes, please, we're okay for now."

The man stopped and placed his hands on his hips. Maria turned to Becky. "Did you see the boobs on that guy? I'm jealous."

We encountered a surf fisherman with two lines out, the outfits in rod holders anchored in the sand. He sat under an umbrella.

My sister shouted, "Hey, mister, get that crap out of our way!"

The man did not budge. The tarpon swam through both lines.

I loosened the drag on the reel as Becky inched us closer to shore. The lower unit touched bottom, and the outboard had to be raised. Maria held the rod while I stepped off the boat.

"You'd better hurry," she said.

I waded in water up to my knees and, reaching out with a knife, cut through the man's lines.

He shot out of his chair.

"What're you doing?" he demanded.

I s