About this time of year, I get to tell a fish story. You might know that I like to fish. I’m not very good at it, growing up on the concrete and asphalt streets of Baltimore wasn’t conducive to knowing anything about fishing. But my time in Charleston, S.C. and specifically in Jacksonville has given me a real education in fishing.
“That’s why they call it fishing, not catching,” my friends recite to me after a day where not much was biting. Still, there is a certain feeling, call it serenity (some call it boredom) that comes from spending time on the water. I can’t pinpoint it, but I know it when I feel it. That’s why when a couple of months ago my friend Ernie invited me to Southwest Florida to fish for tarpon, I put it on my calendar and looked forward to it almost every day.
Boca Grande is a well known hang out for those in the jet set. Multi-million dollar real estate, and the beautiful people are an every day staple. That’s not where I went. I was on the “other side of the tracks,” actually the other side of Charlotte Harbor in Bokelia, one of the small fishing towns on the north end of the southern banks of the Harbor. Bokelia is where the road ends, literally. You drive until the road ends, and you’re in Bokelia. So nobody’s just “passing through.” If you’re in Bokelia, you’re either lost, or you meant to be there.
Ernie’s friend Alan has a house there, and was hosting the Second Annual Bokelia Invitational last weekend. It’s what you would hope a fishing tournament is about: lots of food, drink, friends and most importantly fish. From this outpost across the Harbor from the beautiful people, it took us about 12 minutes to get to one of the most famous fishing holes in the world: Boca Grande Pass. Famous because you can’t pick up a fishing or outdoors magazine these days that doesn’t say somewhere, “and the world’s best tarpon fishing can be found at Boca Grande Pass in southwest Florida.” If it’s that famous, people are going to find it, no matter how difficult it is to get to or how remote it is.
So as the sun came up behind our backs, Ernie and I, along with our guide Brian skimmed across the Harbor as part of an armada intent on fishing the pass. The scene that greeted us just after 6 am is hard to describe. One of my fellow fishing competitors said later, “remember when you were a kid and rode the bumper cars? It’s like that, only without the rule that you all have to go the same way.” I thought that was a pretty apt description. In an area smaller than two acres, at least 75 boats were working their way through the pass, some drifting with lines in the water, others looking for a spot. It was bedlam, chaos, crazy, funny, confusing and amazing all at the same time.
“The pass is just the pass,” one guide noted, “fishing rules apply everywhere else, but in the pass, everybody knows what they’re getting into.”
I saw boats with fish on, screaming through the mass of boats, separating them like a hot knife through butter. Generally. Sometimes the captains were otherwise occupied with their own fish, and didn’t have a chance to get out of the way. Lines were tangled, fish were lost, hooked tarpon were flipping in the air between boats, hooked by some distant angler in a far away boat. Marine scientists estimate as many as 20,000 tarpon are migrating through the pass at any one time this time of year, so it’s no wonder it seemed like an equal number of boats where there to catch them.
We had lines in the water for over an hour, and I had hooked the bottom twice and felt the small “tap, tap” of a tarpon once before I knew what it was. Right after eight, Brian threw a line in the water along side Ernie and me and before his rig got to the bottom he screamed “fish on!” A scramble to reel our lines in ensued, with Brian handing me the screaming rod and reel and commanding me to the fighting chair on the bow of the boat.
Tarpon can grow big, and they’re solid muscle. Smaller tarpon fight longer than the big ones, but big tarpon let you know they’re not happy about being hooked in the mouth. As I tried not to be yanked overboard, the reel continued to scream, as Brian put the boat in gear, trying to track the fish down. We were parting boats, zig zagging our way through the pass. “Reel down,” Brian screamed. “Tell him that won’t do any good,” I told Ernie witha laugh, “this fish is still taking line out faster than we’re chasing him!”
Knowing the possibility that this tarpon could be cut off my line at any second, I was determined to get him to the boat quickly. So I “horsed” him a little tougher than I might in different conditions, and after about 10 minutes, we saw him roll about 20 feet to starboard, right on the surface. He got a look at us, and dove back down, taking plenty of line with him, leaving my arms shaking worse than before. But this time I got him to the surface a little quicker, and as I felt the tide turning in my favor, not 15 feet in front of the boat, I saw a scene I thought only happened in the movies. The fish came to the surface, and a bull shark, at least 10 feet long, hit it broadside with it’s mouth.
We’d seen our fish twice now, and knew it was big. Well over 100 lbs. The bull shark tossed the tarpon around like a dog bone, but for some reason didn’t bite through it or cut the line. The shark let go, and I quickly drug the stunned tarpon to the side of the boat. “I’m not reaching over there,” Brian said with the calm demeanor of somebody who knew what he was doing. “That shark is hiding under the boat, just waiting.” We did need a measurement, so Brian quickly worked up a lasso for girth and a quick length estimate, and sent the tarpon on his way. The fish swam freely back toward the Gulf, but as if on cue, the shark reappeared and devoured him in about three bites! We all stood there is a stunned silence, mouths agape, looking at each other with that “did you see that” look.
Our official numbers were 38 inch girth and 70 inch length (which I swear is smaller and shorter than the fish actually was) which adds up to, according to the formula, to about 134 lbs. It was good enough for third place in the tournament, for which Alan presented me with a very nice trophy. It’s another fish story I won’t soon forget.