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Beware of Tarpum

“…beware of a great and dangerous fish known to the natives as the ‘tarpum.'"

Boca Grande tarpon, 1908. Julian A. Dimock photograph from archives of Boca Grande Historical Society.


Tarpon fishing is an enduring pursuit. What else can we say?

Way back in 1876, hopeful Florida travelers received this advice from an article in Forest and Stream magazine:



“…beware of a great and dangerous fish known to the natives as the ‘tarpum.' A fisherman seeing tarpum should remove his bait from the water to keep his tackle from being destroyed.”

Obviously, you know what that fish was. And, you know the rest of the story. Never much good at following instructions, anglers eventually figured out how to catch these tarpum without destroying (much) tackle.

The operation can still be a little on the dangerous side.

One night, back in the heyday of the MirrOlure Purple Demon, I was fishing in a canoe in a Miami Dade canal. I hooked a tarpon which surged immediately under the boat, jumped on the opposite side and landed squarely on the back of my neck like a wrestler coming off the ropes. No way to see it coming—only the splash, rattle of gills and brutal slap of scales on skin.

That was a small “tarpum,” perhaps 30 or 40 pounds. With daylight and an actual boat under me, it would fall under the classification of “fun size.”

Big tarpon? Whole 'nother level of potential trouble. Many a veteran angler, if asked, would privately confess they'd rather not bother. “It's fun watching someone else catch a tarpon,” is a common refrain. “Jumping” a tarpon to preclude a grueling, hour-long end-game, is a bit like a fair catch in football. You might throw a little slack, or not throw slack, or just kind of pray.



Sometimes, though, a sudden end is just the start of your troubles: A giant fish vaults into the boat. Blood, slime everywhere. Broken rods.

There's also oddball stuff, like finding yourself dragged bodily under water by a tarpon through a field of sea fans. This happened to me off Islamorada once, sort of a complicated story—one or two observers may have their own versions.

Point is, tarpon fishing is bare-knuckles stuff.

Equally rough, in some cases, are the alleyways where we chase these fish. Inlets up and down both Florida coasts are famous for holding tarpon schools in summer. The same inlets are also famous for swamping boats. Much like a hundred-pound silver king with a hook in its jaw, any inlet is capable of giving you all you can handle. Outgoing tides push not only crabs and other forage, they also shove up steep waves. Throw in a few dozen boats and it gets really hectic.

Captain Bobby Woodard, a veteran of the Boca Grande Pass fishery in Southwest Florida, gives great tips this month on how to keep your crew safe—and courteous—inside the ring. His advice is sound not only for Boca Grande Pass, where Bobby fishes, but for other swift inlets around the coasts. The captain's “Golden Rules for the Silver King,” while pretty specific to Boca Grande, can—and should—be easily extrapolated to other places where we chase those “great and dangerous tarpum.”

And, if push comes to shove, we've got a first aid primer in our “FS Seminar: Boating.” Treatment of lacerations? Check. Heat stroke? Check. First aid kit? If you're going tarpon fishing, don't leave home without it. FS

Florida Sportsman Magazine April 2020




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