HERNANDO BEACH — On any given day from May to early July, one or two dozen boats, most manned by experienced guides, troll the shallow waters off Hernando County. Their hunted game is silver king tarpon, a behemoth of a sport fish that's considered among the Gulf Of Mexico's most elusive species.
The hope of landing a prized tarpon lures some of the most dedicated saltwater anglers in the world. And to those in the know, the area from Bayport north to Homosassa Springs is prime ground where migrating tarpon gather before heading into deeper waters to spawn. Baseball great Ted Williams fished the area often. So have singer Harry Connick Jr. and golf legend Jack Nicklaus.
But the health of the area's tarpon is subject to constant debate. Some old-timers swear that the numbers have dwindled in Hernando waters in recent years. Others who make their living taking anglers out to catch the silver leviathan say that's not true.
In fact, most fishing guides in and around Hernando and Citrus counties said that this year's tarpon season, which winds to a close this month, offered plenty of action once the springtime cold fronts moved out of the region.
"It started about three weeks later than normal," said Jonathan Hamilton, who books charters out of Hernando Beach. "But everyone I talked to seemed very positive about the amount of fish they got."
Homosassa fishing guide Jim Long, a third-generation fisherman who has been plying his trade as a guide for 22 years, said that perhaps the toughest thing about tarpon season is predicting exactly when it will arrive.
"The biggest factor in fishing is always the weather," said Long, "You have to wait for the water to get warm enough to attract tarpon. The past couple of years that's happened later than usual, and that kind of throws things off a bit for people who plan vacations around tarpon season. But by June it was fantastic."
A couple of factors combine to make Hernando County's surrounding waters fertile with tarpon and the home of more tarpon fly-fishing records than any other place in the state. First is the depth, which drops a little more than a foot per mile for the first few miles offshore, leaving prime fishing waters between 3 and 10 feet deep. Next is the remarkable clarity of the water, which gives anglers like Hernando Beach resident and avid tarpon fly fisherman Bob Erra the opportunity to stand on the bows of their boats to view which fish they want to cast toward.
"If there was a better place to fish for tarpon, I'd be there," said Erra. "It's that fantastic."
Because tarpon are not fit for eating, the fishing is almost entirely of the catch-and-release variety. Anglers only keep their catch when there is a possibility of a world record, and then they are required to purchase a $50 tag.
Such was the case a few weeks ago when Brian Tang landed a 146-pound king using an ultra-lightweight fly rod outfitted with an 8-pound test tippet. Erra said the feat will likely earn the angler world-record status once the catch has been verified by the International Game Fish Association.
Tang, a doctor from Long Beach, Calif., is considered among the top tier of tarpon fishermen. The hunt for a world-record fish was the culmination of nearly 22 years of persistence and patience, plus the right setting for him and his longtime fishing guide, Al Doparik.
"It took hours to finally bring that fish aboard," Erra said. "You can't help but be happy for him that he finally got what was going after."
While Erra admits that Hernando waters are revered as the state's most active tarpon grounds, he fears that could change if measures aren't taken to stop the exploitation of the fish by sportsmen. He dislikes the practice of night tarpon fishing because it involves chasing fish that are often seeking food and rest in areas outside the common sport fishing zone. Tarpon purists claim that the practice makes the fish "spooky" and forces them to seek refuge elsewhere.
"It really shouldn't be tolerated," Erra said. "If the tarpon decide to leave, they might never come back. And that would be a bad thing for everyone."
Contact Logan Neill at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]