UNDER THE SUNSHINE SKYWAY BRIDGE
The rod tip dipped quickly and violently. In the same second, the reel drag began whining as it paid out line — lots of it. It was exactly the sound we wanted to hear this May morning. Of course, that sound, which had always screamed "Fish on" in my head, instead induced much saltier words by the end of the next hour and a half. I had gone looking for my first-ever fight with a tarpon, and now it was on.
Charter boat Capt. Rick Frazier had welcomed me aboard his 22-foot center console at the Maximo Park dock in St. Petersburg at 6 a.m. It was still dark, but Frazier shook the fog from my head when he said, "Remember this: A good day tarpon fishing is getting back to the dock."
Interesting, I thought. What, exactly, am I in for?
Within minutes, we were on plane alongside the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Frazier ran down the plan — net some greenbacks for bait, anchor under the bridge, see how the tarpon are acting.
We were the first boat to set up between the "dolphins," the large concrete islands near the supports to buffer the bridge from runaway freighters. The water was moving toward the sunlight just now illuminating the horizon.
As Frazier ticked off our to-do list should we hook a fish, I saw my first "rolling" tarpon. With a gentle splash, a tarpon's large silver scales flashed. Frazier said air bladders allow tarpons to gulp air if the water lacks enough oxygen. He said seeing more rolls would be a positive sign for us.
"It's not a good thing if we see them slapping their tails on the surface," he said. "That's what they do when they're having sex."
We cast toward the shadow line in front of the dolphins, drifting the baits 20 or so yards and letting them sweep toward the eddies where the tarpon often sit in ambush. We dropped one bait straight back and stuck the rod in a holder.
I've read enough to know that in Boca Grande Pass, anglers need to boat their tarpon quickly as hammerhead and bull sharks feed on tired fish when given the chance. I asked Frazier about that.
"Naw, we don't need to worry too much about that," he said. "I've never lost one to a shark here."
According to plan
Barely 15 minutes after first putting lines in the water, that unmanned reel sang out. It took some effort to free the rod, and my arms instantly felt an incredible weight on the other end. Frazier guided the boat in pursuit and sent me to the bow.
He began an information download. Always face your fish. Stay on the bow. Keep tension on the line and pressure on the fish. Regain line whenever you can. It could be over in 20 minutes; it could take hours.
A few moments after this, I saw what I was up against. The tarpon's head broke the surface, and it shook those gill plates. It never got completely out of the water. A big fella, likely more than 100 pounds, Frazier estimated. Then it resumed running, our boat pursuing and me cranking to get line on the spool.
Oops. I'm a lefty. This reel was set up for right-handers. So at first, it was awkward winding with my left hand while my right arm struggled with the rod against the weight of the tarpon.
After 20 minutes turned to 30, Frazier arrived on the bow holding a cold beverage. "Bet you could use this right about now."
No doubt, the sun was up, the muscles were straining and sweat streamed from under my hat. During a run, I gulped water. The tarpon tired, and I found my rhythm with the reel and regained line.
We saw the water ripple as the fish came to the surface.
"They get that gulp of air, and it's like a new day," Frazier said. "They get energized."
On cue, off it went.
From then on, I dreaded every run, groaning about all of the regained line being lost. On long runs, I switched the rod to my left hand and put my aching right arm at my side or on my aching back.
Another run. Yo, Rick, why doesn't this beast jump more?
Frazier: "They each got their own personality, and their will to survive is incredible."
Another run, more line lost. No one told me you feel a tarpon all the way into your hamstrings.
An hour in, both fish and angler were tiring, though Frazier seemed to be enjoying the whole thing. Twice, we got the tarpon within 15 yards, but each time it bolted — the dreaded "boat run" after seeing our craft.
My shoulders sagged.
"Put on another barrel!" Frazier howled.
Very funny, Capt. Quint.
Not according to plan
After another 20 minutes, the tarpon was about 20 yards away on the surface. Its last few gulps of air weren't as energizing now.
Then it happened with stunning quickness. A fin rose, water sprayed, tails flashed and the line went slack. Shark attack.
Speechless, I lowered my rod tip. Didn't see that coming.
But then the line zipped left. The rod bent again. The tarpon was still on. But was it in the shark's mouth?
The reel released line again as the boat turned and passed through a sprinkling of tarpon scales suspended in the water.
Within a minute, the tarpon was on the surface again, by himself. Over the next five minutes, we worked it toward the boat.
It was about the same distance out when it happened again. When the fin rose, the tarpon thrashed and revealed a bloody gash on its right side. This time, the shark found its grip. He took it all and disappeared.
I stood there slack-jawed with a slack line and watched the water settle back as if nothing violent had just happened there.
After a few seconds, I turned to Frazier: "That was incredible."
It wasn't the ending I envisioned — posing for a photo on the deck holding the lip of a tarpon alongside the boat — but at least I was going to make it back to the dock.
Rich Kenda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.