Tarpon are without question kings of Florida’s inshore waters, even though the largest are actually queens. They are the most silvery of fishes; in direct sunlight, the dollar-sized scales flash like a hundred plate glass mirrors. Given that, and their kingly size, the “silver king” nickname is a natural.
But tarpon take a long time to reach large sizes; Dr. Roy Crabtree, the nation’s leading tarpon-researcher, says that a 100-pounder is likely to be 15 years old. They’re thought to typically live to 35 to 50 in the wild, and fish of that age are likely to weigh between 150 and 200 pounds. One captive specimen reportedly made it to 59 before swimming off to that great flat in the sky.
Just-hatched tarpon are bizarre creatures that have a transparent, eel-like body and a prehistoric-looking, fanged head. They remain in this form for about 30 days before starting to transform into normal-looking fish.
Anglers and biologists are not in agreement on tarpon spawning; many anglers have reported seeing release of milt during the circling “daisy chain” ritual where many fish rotate nose-to-tail in a continuous ring over the grass flats during the spring. On the other hand, researchers say they have never captured larval-size tarpon inshore in the areas where the anglers see these activities. Where they do get them with some consistency is at the edge of the continental shelf, as much as 100 miles offshore in the Gulf and three to 15 miles in the Atlantic. So they conclude that spawning takes place when the fish leave the passes and beaches in July and head offshore.
Who’s right? It’s hard to say, but Nature rarely allows for wasted effort, and it would seem that for the tarpon to spawn 100 miles out, thus subjecting their offspring to running a gamut of predators before they can reach the shallow, brackish estuaries they must have to survive would go against the Grand Logic.
In any case, young tarpon seek out the most secret creeks, ditches and sloughs, sometimes using the full-moon high tides to get into swamp-like areas that are otherwise landlocked. They can live in water that has very little dissolved oxygen by gulping atmospheric oxygen from the air as they roll at the surface.
After they reach lengths somewhere over a foot, which takes one to two years, they head into the estuaries, growing in tidal creeks and shallow bays.
As they approach maturity, at weights of more than 60 pounds, most head offshore to join the migrating schools of adults. These fish head south to the keys as well as to the depths offshore during winter, then push back northward in summer. On the Atlantic Coast, some travel as far as the waters off Virginia by August. They also swim all the way into the northern Gulf of Mexico. Separate stocks of tarpon are also found off the coast of Brazil and Central America, with some of the most abundant fisheries on the east coast of Costa Rica. A few have even traveled the Panama Canal and built a small population.
But the tarpon migration is not like the kingfish migration, an all-or-none movement. When there are tarpon in the north end of the range, there are also plenty of fish in the south end; they settle into any habitat where they feel comfortable and where bait is abundant. Their favorite water temperature range appears to be 75 to 85 degrees; when temperature drops be-low 70, they become scarce. Tarpon begin to die at water temperatures below 55.
There are strong late summer fisheries in the back waters of big bays like Charlotte Harbor, Tampa Bay and Apalachicola Bay; the fish show up around the end of July and stay into October, feeding in the blackish runoff from the summer rains. Some also prowl far up coastal rivers at this time of year.
Dr. Randy Edwards of Mote Marine Labs in Sarasota says that the fish survive catch-and-release fishing very well provided they’re not brought aboard the boat. In his tests, Edwards radio-tagged dozens of fish at Boca Grande, and found that not only did nearly all survive, most quickly returned to their feeding areas.
Before the $50 tarpon “kill permit” was put in place in 1989, some 4,000 to 5,000 tarpon per year were killed and brought to the docks, most of them in tarpon tournaments. By 1997, reported kills had dropped to fewer than 100 annually; the waste was brought to a halt, and the fish seem to be thriving as a result. At tarpon gathering spots like Boca Grande Pass, anglers have reported a steady increase in the average size of fish released in recent years, and both numbers and sizes of fish seem to be rising at Tampa Bay. So long as the low-salinity estuarine areas needed for survival of the young fish are protected, the future of Florida’s silver king looks bright.
(Thanks to Dr. Roy Crabtree of the NMFS and Dr. Randy Edwards of Mote Marine Laboratories for information used in this report.)