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Bridge angling requires patience

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Bob LaPierre drew some stares last month as he rode his 10-speed along the old Sunshine Skyway. It's not that anglers on bicycles are an uncommon sight _ for many it is the preferred method of transportation.

But it isn't every day that you'll see somebody ride by with a 6{-foot tarpon in tow.

"When people see a guy on a bike with a fish like that, their eyes pop out of their head," LaPierre said.

It wasn't LaPierre's first tarpon. He's been fishing local waters since 1973, the year the Seminole electrician landed a 155-pound silver king on the Skyway to win the "landlubber" division of the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup.

Over the years, he's perfected the technique of landing tarpon from a fixed structure. But that's only half the problem.

Once you've caught a big fish, you still have to get it to the weigh station. Cars are prohibited on the approach to the old bridge. And carrying a 176-pound tarpon on your shoulder gets old quick.

So LaPierre built a 6-foot long, 1-foot wide wagon that he could tow behind his bicycle in the event he one day hooked into a record fish.

On May 24, less than a week into what is now called the Bud Light Tarpon Roundup, LaPierre put his custom cart to the test.

"The fishing had been pretty slow that afternoon," he said. "I hooked into one fish about 1 p.m. but it shook the hook."

So LaPierre caught some more threadfin herring and put one on his hook. About 3:30 p.m., at the peak of an outgoing riptide, a tarpon attacked his bait.

"I didn't see the fish hit," he said. "Then it swam underneath the bridge, like a lot of them do, and I thought for sure that I was going to get cut off."

Then he heard a loud splash. The tarpon jumped beneath the bridge.

"Luckily, it turned and ran out from under the bridge," LaPierre said. "It swam about 50 yards and jumped again. That's when I saw that it was a fish worth keeping _ it had to be over 110 pounds."

The fish turned again and ran for the Gulf of Mexico.

"It kept going and going," he said. "Before I knew it, I only had 20 or 30 yards of line left on my reel."

So LaPierre tightened down the drag and applied some pressure with his hand to the reel to slow the fish. The 50-pound test line held and the tarpon stopped.

"I couldn't gain any line back because of the riptide," he said. "And it couldn't take any line out."

Deadlocked _ man vs. fish.

"I thought for sure that I was going to lose it," he said. "My arms were getting tired. All I could do was hold on."

But LaPierre will be the first to admit luck is an important factor when playing a big fish. Fortunately, it was on his side.

Yard by yard, he gathered his line back. After a half-hour fight, LaPierre had the fish alongside the bridge.

Instead of a gaff, bridge anglers lower a large treble hook, called a "snatch hook," attached to a piece of rope. A lucky swing will snag the fish's mouth or gill.

"I thought I was going to lose it right there it fell off the snatch hook twice," he said. "I was pulling my hair out."

It took three men to hoist the fish 15 feet up and over the railing. "When it flopped down on the bridge, I knew it was a nice fish," he said.

So LaPierre loaded the tarpon onto his custom cart. Then with his bicycle in the lowest gear, he pedaled his catch back to his truck.

At the weigh station, he measured the fish _ 79 inches long, with a 40-inch girth. The fish tipped the scales at 176 pounds, setting a new landlubber record. After three weeks of fishing, it still leads the tournament.

LaPierre's fish shows that bridge and pier anglers can compete with their boating brethren. All it takes is patience.

"Don't get discouraged," he said. "Plan on losing most of your fish. Keep at it. Someday everything will work out just right."

The Bud Light Tarpon Roundup runs now through July 27.