Most charter captains would be happy with a 6-inch chop on a warm summer morning. But Tyson Wallerstein is hard to please.
"I like it flat as a pancake," the Clearwater-based fishing guide declared. "It's much easier to see the fish."
Wallerstein starts fishing for tarpon in April and keeps at it well into August, when most of his colleagues have moved offshore in search of other species.
He likes the August bite because while the fish may be scattered, they tend to be longer and fatter than the ones he catches in the spring.
"There are a few solitary fish out here," he said as he scanned the water at sunrise from his perch atop his tower boat. "But we want to find a school with a dozen tarpon or more before we set up to start fishing."
Though tarpon can be found throughout the temperate and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, here in Tampa Bay, most anglers consider them a May through July species.
These scavengers will eat just about anything, and despite their large size, they feed on surprisingly small organisms, including ladyfish, pinfish, grunts, crabs, threadfin herring, scaled sardine, even catfish.
"You can throw live bait at them, but on a day like this, nothing beats a good smelly mullet head," Wallerstein said.
During the spring, when the tarpon travel in pods of sometimes 100 fish or more a stone's throw off the beaches, anglers can position their boats, cast in front of the schools and wait for a hookup. But come August the big schools are gone, and tarpon hunters often must cast to solitary fish and hope for the best.
But Wallerstein knows how to hedge his bets. He positioned two anglers, armed with spinning rods rigged with soft-bodied plastic baits, ready to cast at any passing fish, while soaking four natural baits — mullet heads — off the stern to lure any casual feeders.
The artificial lures worked fine at first, but after a couple of hits, including one about 5 feet from the boat, the fish got wise and kept their distance. Tarpon are notoriously skittish, especially late in the season after months of angling pressure.
Tarpon are a migratory species, but estuaries such as Tampa Bay do have their share of year-round residents, especially in the sheltered creeks and rivers.
This species is unique among sport fish because they can "roll" on the surface to "gulp air," which not only helps them in a protracted battle with an angler, but it also allows them to travel far into stagnant, brackish waters with little oxygen.
Nobody knows for sure where the bulk of the tarpon go each year, but these fish are prolific swimmers, and tarpon tagged in Florida have been found as far away as Louisiana and South Carolina.
Charter captains such as Wallerstein love tarpon season because all it takes is one fish to wear a client out and make them feel like they got their money's worth.
These thick-bodied brutes can fight for hours and just when you think you've got one licked it takes off on another run and makes you secretly wish the hook would just straighten out.
And believe or not, tarpon can be stronger than steel. Wallerstein's client almost lost a 130-pounder after a near two-hour fight because the 10/0 circle hook ended up looking like a 10D finishing nail.
"You hooked it in the fin," Wallerstein told the exhausted angler. "You're lucky you landed this fish."
The captain still had more mullet in the ice box.
"Want to try for another one?" he asked.
The angler did not reply. His silence said it all.