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Published Sep. 16, 2005

Each thrust of the big fish's tail brought a surge of clean salt water across her gills. Occasionally, she would surface and gulp an additional breath of air to give that extra burst of oxygen. She was going to need it. All this month, she and thousands of her kind were making their way up and down the Pinellas County beaches to get a belly full of baitfish for their taxing spawn offshore.

Early this morning, she had been with 50 other 100-plus-pound tarpon hammering a pod of threadfin 20 yards offshore. But after that frenzy, she found herself cruising the beach with only two other fish. Both were young females of about 80 pounds. She seemed a Goliath at 120.

The anglers had been staked up for two hours and had seen only a smallish tarpon, cruising well out of range. But as the tide really began to bust in, they started getting confident that the flowing water would bring poons. Then the guide called out: "Three fish at 1 o'clock, comin' your way!" You rear back on the 12 weight in your hand and let fly at the lead fish, who might go a buck-twenty. After only two strips, she breaks formation and clobbers the cockroach pattern you've presented. As the flyrod strains and 120 pounds of gill-rattling thunder reaches for the sun, you smile, because you never left Tampa Bay.

_ Eric Shapiro charters Light Tackle Fishing out of Tampa.