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New rite of passage: Begin tarpon-tough

St. Petersburg’s Al Willis reeled in this 233-pound tarpon in 2007 during the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup. Today, anglers release the fish.

Special to the Times

St. Petersburg’s Al Willis reeled in this 233-pound tarpon in 2007 during the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup. Today, anglers release the fish.

As a student, journalist and amateur historian, I'm seldom at a loss for words. Pose a simple question, and prepare yourself for an in-depth (some might call it long-winded) answer.

Such was the case one recent afternoon when my 8-year-old son inquired if he was now old enough to stalk the elusive tarpon, the silver king of game fish.

Ahhhh … Megalops atlanticus. Next to super volcanoes and Viking history, this legendary sport fish is one of my favorite topics.

My boy has been itching to catch one of these tackle-busters ever since he first laid eyes on a fiberglass replica mounted on the wall of a local tackle shop.

"This year, Dad?" he asked. "Can I go?"

Tarpon fishing is no baby's game, I explained. You have to be able to stand on the deck and go toe-to-toe, or perhaps toe-to-fin, with these chrome-bodied brutes for perhaps an hour or more.

"It's not like going down to the pond and chasing bluegills and tommycods," I tell him, trying to sound like Capt. Quint from the movie Jaws.

My son, however, is a persistent little rascal. But before I agreed that he could indeed fish the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup and catch and release his first tarpon, he must first learn and assimilate as much (not necessarily insignificant) tarpon trivia as his growing brain could handle.

His prey, I explained, had a long and storied history. The species, which can grow to be 8 feet long and weigh 280 pounds, is abundant in estuaries and coastal waters throughout the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico; in the eastern Atlantic and along the western coast of Africa.

Although currently prized for their acrobatic leaps and fighting ability, this species was once hunted for food by the indigenous people of Florida, and South and Central America.

The first reference of a tarpon being caught on hook and line comes from the second voyage of Capt. James Cook to the New Hebrides in 1773 when the ship's naturalist, Johann Forster, landed an Indo-Pacific variety, Megalops cyprinoides, which is also known as an oxeye herring.

But it wasn't until a century later that tourists from northern sporting clubs came to Florida and discovered the most prized of all sport fish. W.H. Wood, a New York sportsman, is generally credited with catching the first tarpon on rod and reel. The date: March 12, 1885, at Punta Rassa in Charlotte Harbor.

By the 1890s, word had spread. Florida's sportfishing scene caught the eye of the national press, including the New York Times, which called Florida's Gulf Coast "the paradise of sportsman."

While eyes focused on Boca Grande, home of the world's "richest" tarpon tournament, a small group of dedicated anglers to the north knew the waters of Tampa Bay had just as many fish as Charlotte Harbor — and none of the crowds.

In 1934, St. Petersburg started its own event, the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup, which soon became known as the world's oldest and largest tarpon tournament.

Over the years, the tournament had its ups and downs as a kill tournament. Then it went to all-release in 2008. Last year, during the 75th roundup, anglers caught and released 328 tarpon. Information gathered from each of those fish is being used in an ongoing genetic study being conducted by Kathy Guindon of the St. Petersburg-based Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

The 76th roundup begins with a captain's meeting May 14. Fishing runs from May 22 through July 31, and features two "Hill Tide" tournaments within the bigger event (May 26 at the Skyway Bridge and June 26 at Egmont Key) and a special youth division.

The 10-week roundup, which promotes sportsmanship, research and education, recognizes that children are our future and energetically promotes the philosophy of "Take a Child Fishing" (www.take mefishing.org).

Over the years, hundreds of children have learned to appreciate and respect our natural resources by participating in this event. Go to www.suncoasttarponroundup.org for registration information.

Signing up is quick, easy and painless, because, unlike my son, you won't have to sit through a history lesson.

Terry Tomalin batted .700 during April when it came to his New Year's resolution of spending every day possible this year on or in the water. He can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com.

New rite of passage: Begin tarpon-tough 05/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 12:48am]

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