A Shot at Tarpon

I’m on Florida’s Tampa Bay onboard Capt. Tyson Wallerstein’s skiff. We are within sight and sound of I-275, where morning rush hour traffic is building. Bill AuCoin is standing in the tower watching the water.

Wallerstein and I are in the bow. He’s holding an industrial strength spinning rod tipped with a D.O.A. soft plastic shad; about 3 1/2 inches long threaded through the back with a single hook. Similar to a rig you’d use for largemouth bass.

Only we are not gunning for largemouth bass.

Speaking so softly that I have to strain to hear, Wallerstein explains the approach. His tone suggests that he wants his instructions followed precisely and that he does not wish to repeat himself.

“You have to be close enough for a shot and you have to be accurate.” (He casts to an imaginary fish.) “Put it about three feet in front of him. If he rolls so you can see him he’s probably going to stay close to the surface but if he just barely breaks the surface he’s probably going back down to the bottom. I want to use a steady retrieve; like this.”

Here he turns the handle in slow motion as though counting ‘one, one thousand, two; one thousand . . .’

“When you feel him just keep reeling steadily to set the hook.”

There’s a light breeze and a slight chop on the water. Wallerstein points toward a spot on the water then points again; this time farther out and to his right. I fail to see either fish. Then, beyond my casting range, I see a flash of silver in the morning sun. A tarpon.

Another fish surfaces. I launch a cast but the plug lands far short and wide of the target. Wallerstein, who is kneeling in front of me with his hand on the trolling motor, says nothing but I have the feeling he is not happy with my sloppy casting. I’m not happy with my sloppy casting.

A dozen or so cranks of the reel and the line tightens then stops. I set the hook; hard. Then set it again. The reel begins to whine. I am connected to a tarpon.

Nearly 20 minutes pass, during which everything seems to fade except this thing I am connected to. Aside from a couple of suggestions from the captain the boat is quiet. Early in the struggle Wallerstein says, “He doesn’t know what’s happening yet.” He must be talking about me.

The fish  jumps four times that I can remember; clearing the water each time. During the first two jumps I forget to bow the rod and instead keep the ling taut as a guitar string. It’s a miracle we remain connected.

But we do and somehow I bring the fish to the boat; its silver scales the size of quarters. It looks at me with a marble size eye. It’s a creature from ancient times.

Wallerstein grabs the fish under the fill plate then instructs me to hold it and I do. A softball would fit into its mouth.

AuCoin appears with a tape measure.  54 inches long and a 27 inch girth. The captain estimates 60 to 70 pounds. A few photos and the fish is released. It rights itself then swims slowly away.

A tarpon. Wow.