This story comes from a trip that we took quite a few years ago. That trip was not only memorable, but provided yet another interesting story to be shared with family and friends. My wife and I drove down to North Port, Florida and got the chance to visit and go on a boat ride with Cecelia’s younger brother John and his wife Connie. The main intent was to catch some fish (and not just any fish). The tarpon were making their annual migratory run in the Boca Grande Pass, and that meant that hundreds (if not thousands) of these large fish would be “boiling” the waters around the mouth of the pass. Note of explanation- the term boiling in this instance refers to groups of fish ranging in sizes from 50 to around 200 lbs., breaking the surface of the waters, a beautiful thing to behold!
We got down to John and Connie’s place quite early. Now, meeting with family that lives a fair distance away is usually fun, and filled with memorable moments and some of these “moments” are a bit different than what is being planned. This would be one of those times. The boat was loaded, and as was John’s routine, a cast net was utilized to get some fresh bait. Now, Cecelia and I had never tried to take on a recreational project such as this (as our boat was too small for the task). John had a nice Grady – White boat, and it was just the right tool for the job or so we thought.
As we neared the Boca Grande Pass, it was quickly becoming evident that we may have gotten more than we bargained for. John explained to us that when these Tarpon gather “en masse” in the pass, so do the professional anglers. They come to take part in the PTTS – the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series.
There were literally dozens of watercraft in this vicinity, and most of them were grouped in a somewhat clustered and chaotic fashion. We eased into the fray, thinking that this would be our day to catch at least one of these large fish. WRONG!
As the scenario played out, the “pay to play” anglers were showing us that they were there to try to win the big money and saying that they used some aggressive tactics would be putting it mildly!
It seemed like we were in the right place, but at the wrong time, and some of the boys started voicing their discontent at our leisurely recreational presence. Now when someone starts yelling at you (especially when you are with family or friends) it usually doesn’t have a good outcome. Both John and I were quick with “proportional replies” and my “Christian witness” was in danger of crossing the “hypocrite language barrier.” It was a good thing we had our wives with us to lead our “emotional states” into calmer waters. Connie stated that it wasn’t worth it to stay in an area that was so stressful and suggested that we move out of the pass and into the open waters (and Cee quickly seconded the motion).
John worked the craft through and away from the maddening masses, and in a few minutes, we were clear of the chaos. It soon became evident that once we were on the outside of the pass, the waters were choppy and the waves were higher. We tried one spot after another and as the morning progressed, my body was starting to show signs of my lack of physical fitness. (I was starting to tire). Now, here is where some of the educational moments play out. As we were moving through the waters, I was standing on the starboard (or right) side of the boat, holding the rail with one hand and the rod and reel in the other. I was doing okay until we hit a four-foot wave and I lost my balance. As I tried to right myself, my right hand came down hard, hitting my knuckles on the fiberglass rail. The next thing I knew, my vintage Garcia-Mitchel rod and reel was heading for the water. Now, this was a present given to me from my father, so I had to act fast. I started over the side of the boat, only to come to a painful stop! (My wife thought that I was accidentally going overboard and had grabbed the first thing that she could get hold of, that being MY UNDERWEAR! Talk about a wicked wedgie! I then explained to her in a rather loud voice that I dropped the rig and was going in after it. Again, the Christian witness was waning!
I said that I had recently heard John mention that the waters under the boat were only about 40 ft. deep (well within the depth for me to do a free dive. John then chimed in and said that it would be a bad decision to attempt the rod retrieval with a dive and that there was a reason for this warning.
Now, as he was familiar with this area, and I was not, I took him at his word. He replaced his single hook setup with a “treble hook” (a setup made of 3 hooks welded together in a triangular fashion). In 10 minutes time, he had hooked the braided line from my rig. When the pole went out of my hand, I had the bale open on the spinnaker reel, so when his hook brought the line up, we had to pull in 200 feet of it before we saw the pole. That was educational moment #2!
Before heading back to the boat ramp, we had managed to hook a few grouper but no tarpon. (And the grouper were undersized, so they got tossed back in the water.) Once on land and back at their house, John pulled out a VCR tale of some PTTS tournaments from years past. There were plenty of great fish fights on the tape, but the thing he wanted to impress on me that made me thankful that I didn’t “take the swim” was the scenes of Bull and Hammerhead sharks cutting these hundred-plus pound fish in half.
The way that area worked was that there was a certain type of small crab that would move around that pass in large numbers. The migrating tarpon somehow knew this and would come there and take advantage of it. Of course, that was not the end of the food chain feeding frenzy. When the tarpon were “untethered” (or not on a hook), they could easily out-swim the sharks. But when the tarpon are near the end of their fight, they tire out and are confined to a small area (usually next to a boat). That is where the sharks have learned to make their moves!
Now, the tarpon is a protected species, as they have been overfished in the past, to the point that if one is hooked (especially in the tournaments), an angler can be fined for pulling one out and above the side of the boat. A caught tarpon is kept in the water until a tournament official boat comes over with a scale and cradle. A law was enacted in 2019 where it is unlawful to lift any tarpon over 40 inches out of the water with your hands. (Another educational moment!)
Fishing can be fun but it is IMPERATIVE that we who enjoy fishing learn the rules or suffer the consequences. Folks, it is what it is! I am planning another “fishy” event in the future and as I plan to have fun (and draw out yet another story), I know that along with the fun, there will be some educational moments, if not for me, but for a friend and his young grandson. Be blessed, and have a happy and safe new year!
Steve Goodwin is a recently retired Christian conservative veteran (of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division), who still feels that “duty to country” did not end when the military uniform got hung up. He and his wife Cecelia live on the edge of a beautifully wooded tract of land just south of the bypass, and are involved in not only church activities, but also attend school board meetings and local community action events as well.