Every year, my wife and I make the drive from Clearwater Beach two hours south to Matlacha. The entire year I have tarpon on my mind, while my wife deals with my obsession graciously. Some of our best friends live on Matlacha, and to say that their addiction to fishing is on par with mine would be an understatement. I don’t know how their wives deal with them.
This trip focuses on one fish and one fish only — the silver king. Tarpon fishing is more a lifestyle than a sport. You live it and breathe it. It is simply not for the recreational angler. These fish are prehistoric, big and incredibly smart. The toughest part is getting them to eat — only to find that you’ve been mistaken, and the toughest part is actually getting them to the boat. They’re as tough as a fish comes from start to finish, and as beautiful a creature as there is on Earth. Much like a Hook+Gaff watch, these things are just as rugged as they are beautiful.
Check out the highlights from the trip and read the full story below!
The preparation that goes into tarpon fishing would seem to most just as agonizing as the description I just placed on catching one. Crabs are the bait of choice, and it’s a gold rush to find them. We woke up at 5 a.m. every day to get to the bait stores for crabs. The stores open at 6, and by 6:30 every store in town is sold out. The anticipation once you have the bait is real. You can feel the adrenaline rushing through you just thinking of that first bite. The ride out to Boca Grande Pass from Matlacha is beautiful and serene. Mangroves, a keystone of Florida habitat, line the shores as they did in historic Florida and as nature intended. Our captain, Ryan Atwood, took us on this journey through the backcountry of Charlotte Harbor and out into the pass, where the real adventure awaited us.
Driving through the quiet backcountry gives you a feeling of being one with nature. This is interrupted quickly as you arrive at the pass, where it seems like more of a New York traffic jam than a day on the water. Boats on boats on boats is an understatement. Tarpon roll within arm’s length of you, boats are hooking up, and tarpon are flying through the air. It is something that must be experienced rather than read. We spent time in the hot sun, covered with rain gear through storms, and watching boats fight and fail one after another. We watched tens of thousands of tarpon roll and thrash in the pass. We worked hard, made hundreds of drifts, and thousands of casts — and it finally all paid off!
Our co-captain, Brooks Riley, hooked up on the first tarpon of the trip. My wife and I pulled out the cameras, as we had been waiting for this moment. Capturing “B-roll” is simply not enough, we wanted to film the silver king. And after 40 minutes of jumps, runs, sweat and bruises, Capt. Atwood came down from his tower to land Brooks’ 120-pound tarpon. There were a lot of laughs and smiles as Ryan passed the fish on to Brooks, who revived and released his tarpon back into the ocean to fight another day.
After no more than 30 minutes back on the same drift, something I had never experienced happened to me. I actually got a tarpon to eat on my own. I have landed some large tarpon in the past, but never on my own. I have been passed the rod after the initial hook-up and a few jumps, and have shared the rod with family or friends, but had never caught one on my own tackle start to finish. The bite wasn’t as intense as I had suspected — as a matter of fact, it felt more like a bump from a largemouth bass. I had tied on a size 7/0 circle hook, so I reeled down on the fish until the line was tight. As soon as the rod bent, the fish took off. I pumped the hook into the tarpon a few times, and the silver king did what it does best — it jumped. And as any tarpon fishermen would do next, I bowed. 45 minutes later, I was holding my first tarpon and reviving her to live on. The emotion was real, but not because of the fight and the fish, but because of the experience. Some of my best buddies helped me get into position to catch my first tarpon, they helped me land it, and most special of all, my wife was there to film the entire experience and enjoy the trip with me. I am a lucky guy, and this is a trip I will never forget.