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Kings of the Caloosahatchee

The river’s had its ups and downs, but the tarpon are still rolling along.

 

By the ripe age of 11, Kyle Wrenn had posted over 100 tarpon releases–one of which was this monster on the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers.

The Caloosahatchee River is as storied as any in the annals of tarpon fishing. In fact, the river’s mouth was the site credited with one of the great turning points in angling history—the place where the first tarpon was taken on rod and reel, in 1885.

 

Less than three decades later the Caloosahatchee’s mid-reaches were featured in the first and, some would say greatest ever tarpon treatise, A.W. Dimock’s The Book of the Tarpon.

 

Today the Caloosahatchee only faintly resembles the meandering stream that once began in a waterfall at Lake Flirt—long since dynamited by pioneer dredger Hamilton Disston. Disston thereby connected the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Okeechobee via the river of the Calusa. His dredge work was greatly expanded by the world’s greatest plumbing firm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which with the South Florida Water Management District has denuded the river bottom of every oyster and blade of grass it once fostered, through devastating freshwater releases from The Lake.

 

Even so, the Caloosahatchee just keeps rolling along as a tarpon fishery—arguably the most consistent tarpon hole in Lee County, which counts among its destinations the waters off Sanibel Island, Charlotte Harbor and world famous Boca Grande Pass. One tarpon attractor those spots don’t have is the Florida Power & Light plant that keeps the river just downstream of the Orange River outflow, at the point where Interstate 75 crosses the Caloosahatchee, a steamy 10 to 12 degrees warmer than the ambient water temperature. Like other old-fashioned plants with no recirculating cooling pond system, the Fort Myers operation is famous for attracting manatees by the hundreds. But manatees aren’t the only critters that avoid migrating to more southerly waters by hanging out in the Caloosahatchee.

 

At the peak of winter weather a boater on the river might be surprised to see, by some unseen command, several hundred tarpon roll up all at the same time for a breath of frosty air. The fish that do that trick are mostly juvies—tarpon of less than 40 pounds or so—but their mamas and papas also overwinter in the power plant effluent, if not so conspicuously. And it is those fish that provide what likely is the surest shot at a tarpon a spring angler can hope to take.

 

Those who would argue are not among the members of the Cape Coral Tarpon Hunters club, largest in the county. Many of its members get a jump on the annual club contest to see who can catch the most ’poons in a season by focusing on resident river fish, before the arrival of migrant tarpon coming up the Gulf shore from the Keys. And lately, all have been humbled by Kyle Wrenn, who won the Cape Angler-of-the-Year contest at age 11, largely by employing the river strategy.

 

In the 2003 season Kyle rolled well past the century mark in lifetime tarpon releases, a quest that earned the Skyline Elementary student status as a club master angler. That is a milestone not yet reached by Kyle’s dad, Mike, although that’s due more than anything to the traditional interpretation of angling that says credit for a catch goes to the fisherman wielding the rod. Mike Wrenn does everything but, and is a true master of river tarpon fishing.

 

Thus last May 1 was truly a Mayday day for the local tarpon population, when Kyle and Mike rolled out of their home Cape canal and motored little more than a mile upstream toward the Midpoint Memorial Bridge. Kyle already had two dozen notches in his rod(s) for the season, although he was in a temporary slump. Only days before he had gone 0-for-7 on tarpon hookups without getting a fish to the boat, and the lad’s disposition clearly did not bode well for any tarpon that dared pick up his baits this day.

 

Mike pulled the boat off plane as it glided into a marked channel running between the Okeechobee Waterway and channels coming off the Cape shoreline. Even at first light, one boat already was fishing at a channel intersection, but Mike preferred idling up a shoreline channel—actually a dredge hole parallel to the river bank—closer to the bridge. On the way to his spot, the black glints of tarpon backs breaking through the onyx surface made dropping anchor anywhere a serious temptation.

 

Mike finally shut down in 20 feet of water near the channel’s edge, about 100 yards upstream from a channel marker. The winds were light, so he put out only 30 feet of scope in order to give boat-circling fish as little rope as possible with which to hang themselves up.

 

One thing that makes deep holes along the Caloosahatchee shorelines especially attractive to tarpon are continuous 1⁄4-mile manatee buffer zones in which boats travel no faster than slow speed. That minimizes traffic from boaters who have no patience with such restrictions, and it virtually eliminates panicky flight by the tarpon as boats idle past.

 

With tarpon rolling all around, Wrenn wasted no time preparing and putting out baits, one at a time on 7- and 8-foot rods with 60-pound mono spooled on 4/0 reels. In fact, many anglers might choose to add a little time to Wrenn’s routine, which is expedited by reaching into a livewell boiling with live hardhead catfish, and grabbing them barehanded before quickly halving them on the adjacent cutting board. Wrenn is careful when grabbing cats to take them into his hand head-first, with his thumb and forefinger clasped around the pectoral spines, and the dorsal spine positioned harmlessly between them. It is worth noting that catfish spines are covered by a venomous sheath that inflicts severe pain and can cause serious infections. An alternative handling method is to catch a live cat in a dip net and grasp it by the roof of the mouth with pliers.

 

In neither case is it necessary to debarb the cat, which only injures and sometimes leads to fatal handling of the bait. Because Wrenn believes absolutely fresh cats are one of the keys to his success, and because he likes to catch them the evening before he goes fishing, he puts them in the livewell with no more handling or other trauma than necessary.

 

Wrenn preps his tarpon baits by cutting off a cat’s head with a slice angled slightly forward, from just behind the dorsal spine, down to the pectorals. Subsequently trimming off the tailfin lobes keeps the bait from spinning and reduces resistance when retrieving, besides making the tail resemble a tarpon ice cream cone. The cone topping in spring often is a gob of gelatinous eggs that Wrenn believes makes a bait particularly appealing. The heads, also oozing eggs, are put on ice for use if tails end up in short supply. They are good baits—not so castable as tails, with a tendency to float if the air bladder isn’t popped, but
good enough. Again, no debarbing is necessary, as long as the heads are carefully handled. The tarpon just don’t care.

 

One thing about a catfish tail is it can be cast a nautical mile, which Wrenn does in a circular pattern around the boat. He and Kyle fish eight or nine rods at a time, giving them a spread of more than 200 feet, with almost no way a tarpon can pass without getting a snootful of irresistable eau de hardhead.

 

 

Local anglers utilize two basic cutbait strategies for tarpon. The Wrenns favor putting their reels on click and laying the rods athwart the beam, waiting for a telltale tick before picking up the rod. Some anglers prefer to lock down their reels with the rods in a holder, on the theory that the tarpon will do the best job of setting the hook when it swims tight against the rod. That method especially is favored by those who use circle hooks, although it also works with J-hooks. The Wrenns simply prefer to put the onus on themselves.

 

The first click of the morning came before sunup, and ended with a small sailcat ruing the day it tried to sneak off with half of an unfortunate cousin. With tarpon rolling here and there, all around the boat, the second run ended with a slimed leader, the sure sign of another sailcat. Were it possible to tell the difference between the bite of a catfish and a tarpon, little anxiety would have resulted from such inevitable false alarms. But the fact is that some tarpon bite and run as lackadaisically as their lowly prey, and a full scale reaction is the only safe way to play it. So if Kyle wasn’t happy about starting the day with two anticlimaxes, his temperament was only magnified when a tarpon cleaned a third rod with a screaming run that ended as quickly as it started, with a pulled hook.

 

None of which boded well for the fourth poon that went for a catfish breakfast. Kyle picked up the clicking rod, pointed it at the fish while locking down and reeling tight, and slammed home the hook. Because the Wrenns often fish at the river’s very mouth, along the Sanibel Causeway, they load all of their reels with 60-pound mono for extra stopping power around the bridges. Thus, when Kyle slams home a hook, the outraged reaction on the other end often is reciprocally violent.

 

A tarpon every bit the equal of the sturdily built 5th grader erupted from the river in a golden shower, scattering the sun’s first rays in an explosion of crystal droplets before crashing back again and again. Five jumps later the tarpon was so close to boatside that Mike was able to grab the leader at the swivel, purposefully holding with no give as the fish jumped a final time for a technical catch and self-release.

 

Were tarpon something targeted for meat, such heavy-handed play would not constitute a perfect catch. But because there is no finer encounter than to wring the aerobatics from a tarpon before bidding it a fond farewell—with neither fish nor angler much the worse for wear—Wrenn is quick to take advantage of the club’s leader-touch requirement for releases.

 

One reason for that is to make the most of a good bite. Tarpon in river holes are loose schoolers that don’t dwell long in one place. So it really pays to strike while the fish are hot and close. To that end Wrenn is quick to redeploy the rods, every one of which is reeled in and temporarily laid upon the T-top whenever a fish is hooked up. Other boats might not employ the same strategy, since leaving baits out frequently results in multiple hookups during the course of an average 25-minute fight. But Mike focuses entirely on maximizing Kyle’s chances for releases, one at a time.

 

Kyle is well schooled in fighting tarpon. When they jump close enough to the boat to throw the hook on a tight line, he bows to give them slack. When they bore away he lets a firm drag do its dirty work. And when they try to rope-a-dope a breather out of him he bears down, pumping and reeling every inch of line he can take—frequently goading them into bone-wearying leaps.

 

His second fish of the day ends in a relatively fast victory—another leader-touch release that is number 26 of the spring, and number 100 of a lifetime. There is something to say for 8-foot leaders, which most tarpon hunters prefer in breaking tests of 100- to 130-pound mono. Few tarpon anglers find fluorocarbon is worth the considerable extra money in such strengths, largely because tarpon are not shy biters of big cutbaits.

 

Kyle’s third fish is a horse of another color—a bigun that heads across the river for Fort Myers, finally jumping so far away that a golf ball held at arm’s length would blot out the splash. The fight is long, with Mike coaching Kyle all the while for the team’s third leader touch and jump-off release.

 

Even so, it is only a little after 8 a.m. when another tarpon frees itself on its first jump. That’s tarpon fishing, but Kyle is not happy until his fourth fish of the day is solidly hooked and jumping so close to the boat it splashes the occupants. That fish is unluckiest of the four releases, requiring hands-on procedures that ultimately lead to a snipped leader, leaving the fish to deal with the deeply imbedded hook. Held at boatside for a few minutes, it recovers quickly and swims downward with strong strokes.

 

And so the morning ended, as do

 

many tarpon bites on the Caloosahatchee. They frequently bite early in the

 

morning, throughout the night, and during the day at times that often coincide with solunar peaks. And they just as frequently can be maddeningly tight-lipped. That’s just about the only consistent thing about tarpon fishing. That, and the Caloosahatchee River.

 

 

 

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