When you are beach fishing for tarpon, you have to pick your shots. "We don't need a lot of bait," guide Tyson Wallerstein said as we hooked pumpkinseeds in the early morning light. "A dozen or so will do." In June and July, schools of tarpon move along the local beaches. Some pods of fish move south. Some move north. The trouble is you can never tell which ones will eat. "For the past week, the northbound fish haven't been hungry," Wallerstein said as he stopped his flats skiff about 100 yards off the beach. "But you never can tell." The trick is to be the first boat on the water, when the water is slick calm, so you can see the fish as they approach. Then, when the pod is still 50 yards away, you drop your bait right in their path. "When it hits … just reel, reel, reel," Wallerstein said. "You won't get many chances."
Running with the pod
As a pod of northbound tarpon approached the baitfish dangling a few feet below the surface under a float, Wallerstein prayed the school did not hear the faint hum of his trolling motor and veer off course.
"The southbounders have been the only ones eating …" he said, but before he could finish his sentence, the line went taut. "Fish on! Fish on!"
As Wallerstein had advised, I reeled down hard to remove slack from the line and then lifted the rod tip to feel the full weight of the fish. Then the fish jumped.
"Good fish," he said matter of factly. "Hope you are ready for a long fight."
Some tarpon make a couple of jumps, maybe one or two long runs and then roll over and give up. But others, and it doesn't matter how big they are, refuse to give any quarter.
This particular tarpon acted like it wasn't even hooked and just kept swimming along the beach with its fishy friends.
"You are going to lose it if it stays with the school," he said. "You have to pull it out of there."
Battle to open water
After 20 minutes of reeling and lifting, reeling and lifting, the tarpon still wouldn't budge.
"Don't burn yourself out," Wallerstein said. "Save your energy."
I've fought plenty of tarpon over the past 20 years, but most of those battles never lasted more than an hour, even the 150-pounders. This fish, however, seemed oblivious to the human pulling on the other end of the 50-pound-test line.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I turned its head. The school swam on and the tarpon, perhaps out of annoyance, jumped for a second time. Then it headed straight out to sea.
"You better start your engine," I told Wallerstein, as the fish stripped 100 yards of line off the reel in one long, fast run.
Wallerstein chased the fish a mile offshore, then it stopped, swam straight at the boat, trying to find a weak spot in the line.
"Reel, reel, reel," Wallerstein yelled.
Bruises on the belly
This fish was tough and smart.
Now, more than an hour into the fight, wear and tear started to show on my 50-year-old body.
My legs felt wobbly and my forearms ached. I knew the fish had to be getting tired. It had made three long runs and each time, I'd fought to regain every inch of line.
"This tarpon can't possibly go much longer," I said to Wallerstein, marking 1 hour, 15 minutes on my watch. I should have kept my mouth shut because the tarpon ran again and then jumped for a third time.
At the 1-hour, 30-minute mark, I became conscious of the rod butt digging into my thigh and stomach. I knew I'd have some bruises.
"Wish I brought a fighting belt," I said aloud.
"Sorry," Wallerstein said. "I forgot about it in the heat of the moment."
Now, with a stable platform for the rod butt, I could really put some pressure on the fish.
Blood on the deck
After 1 hour, 45 minutes, I began to wonder who would give up first. I thought about handing the rod to Wallerstein, but I figured enduring a few more minutes of pain would be better than a lifetime of heckling.
"This fish has to be done," Wallerstein said.
I managed to get it close enough for Wallerstein to reach out and grab the leader. But the fish took one look at the boat, then ran again and jumped for a fourth time.
That was its last hoorah.
Wallerstein finally grabbed the fish alongside the boat, unhooked it and posed for a picture, then we switched spots. But before he could snap the shot of me and my catch, the tarpon reared up, sliced my right wrist with its gill plates and swam off.
"Guess he had the last laugh," I said.
Tyson Wallerstein runs Inshore Fishing Charters and can be reached at (727) 692-5868 or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.