Tarpon, known as ‘Silver Kings’, have long been a sought after game fish in south Florida. Who could resist the sight of a five or six-foot long fish, leaping acrobatically in the air, the sunlight’s reflection turning its flanks into spun silver? Such is the thrill that has lured hundreds of thousands of would be anglers to our waters for over a hundred years. Since 1962, The Fort Myers Beach Tarpon Hunters Club has been a gathering place for those seeking one of sport fishing’s greatest adventures.
Tarpon fishing used to be done with a harpoon from a canoe or rowboat. This would have been in the early 1700’s, with native fisherman and the first white settlers catching the shallow water giants in order to survive. Naturalist Johann Forster documented the first tarpon caught on a hook in 1773, using a hand line. One imagines those early fishermen fighting these massive fish without benefit of a rod and reel!
Dr. James A. Henschall authored “Camping and Cruising in Florida” in 1878. It became a must-read for high-society fishing clubs and was perhaps the earliest of American publications to describe tarpon fishing. Anglers at this point in history were divided into two distinct groups: the ‘social’ fisherman, usually from wealthy northern families and who could afford to come to Florida on extended vacations, and the resident ‘cracker’ fishermen, who were often poor and fished for sustenance.
In 1885, tarpon were officially recognized as a game fish and the mania began. By 1889 there were over 650 miles of railways and 250 miles of connecting steamship lines advancing toward remote Florida coastal destinations. Punta Gorda on Charlotte Harbor was the end of the rail line for Southwest Florida, and a short boat ride down Pine Island Sound to Punta Rassa took one to The Tarpon House, believed to be the oldest tarpon fishing resort in America, and for that matter, probably the world.
In 1888, New Yorker Frank S. Pinckney (under the pseudonym of Ben Bent) published what is thought to be the first work ever dedicated exclusively to Atlantic tarpon – The “Silver King”. The tarpon craze had officially begun. From 1885 to 1988, Pinckney caught 45 tarpon on rod and reel. The debate rages on as to who caught the first tarpon on rod and reel, however.
Throughout the 1900’s, celebrities such as Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone fished for the prized fish in local waters. Boca Grande Pass, Punta Rassa and St. James City became known as tarpon fishing Meccas. Newbie Yankee anglers, usually more familiar with salmon fishing, were often left in pain – their knuckles bloodied and raw, when the handles on their reels spun backwards with amazing velocity. The techniques for tarpon fishing are unlike any other in the sport, and it is primarily for this reason that the Fort Myers Beach Tarpon Hunters Club was formed.
Ray Lister has been the president of the Club for the past 3 years.
“We have about 85 members, of which about 30 – 40% are Islanders and the rest from Bonita to Cape Coral,” he told me. “We meet on the first Wednesday of every month during tarpon season – March to October.” Ray said that the club has ‘hunts’ – usually 3 or 4 a month on the weekends – and club members earn credits that go towards the awarding of trophies and plaques at their annual banquet.
Last year’s banquet, held at Rodes Seafood Restaurant in Bonita Springs, where Brad Richardson took home the trophy for Most Releases of the Year (21). His girlfriend, Jill McClearn, took home the Ladies Trophy and Rookie of the Year. Trophies were also given for, among other things, Light Tackle and Junior Angler.
According to Ray, the club also holds raffles, writes newsletters to keep members informed of what’s going on and “talks about anything related to tarpon fishing.” The awards banquet is held in the fall at the conclusion of tarpon season, and they do a night hunt, orientation hunt and inter-club hunt with the Cape Coral Tarpon Hunters Club. The hunts last anywhere from one to three days, and plaques are given to rookies for catching their first fish.
Gary Danis, who has lived in this area for 50 years, has been Weigh Master of the club for four years. “The purpose of the club is for people new to the sport to learn how to fish for tarpon and for veterans to hone their skills,” he explained. “We all have so much fun – tarpon are so exciting to fish for.” Gary quickly told us that while in the old days, tarpon were brought to the docks for weighing, now they weigh the fish on the boat and get it back in the water right away so as not to harm the fish.
“We have a Junior’s Hunt, Women’s Hunt, all kinds of hunts,” Gary told me. “I am the ‘keeper of records’ for the club – I keep track of all the credits earned. Anyone is welcome to come and fish with us – we’re all very friendly!”
Both Gary and Ray told me that, despite its fame, Boca Grande Pass is usually not the hot spot of choice for them these days. “It’s absolute madness up there,” said Ray. “You can catch just as many fish right off of Ft. Myers Beach.” Gary echoed him by saying, “It is amazing what you can run into in just 15 to 20 feet of water off Estero or Sanibel Islands. Heck, we’ve caught 150 – 160 pound fish off Bunche Beach!”
Gary confessed that he “didn’t know squat” about tarpon fishing when he joined the club, and that the speakers and demonstrations he’s seen since coming on board have taught him a lot. “The old-timers in the club love to take new people out and show them what they know,” he said.
Ray told me about an interesting thing that the club does now involving the tracking of tarpon through their DNA. “Florida Fish and Wildlife gave us these kits that contain a vial of solution and a sponge,” he said. “We wipe the sponge on the inside of the fish’s mouth and put it in the vial. Then one of our members sends it back to them and they are able to track the fish that way – how many times its been caught and where the fish has traveled to.”
Native Floridian Mickey Jones was a member of the Fort Myers Beach Tarpon Hunters Club in the 1980’s. He participated in the Club for 15 years, and remembers the experience fondly.
“That club was a very important part of my life for a long time,” he said. “My kids were young then, and they would join me for the weigh-ins, picnics and cook-outs we used to have. For us, it was a family thing that we all loved. Tarpon fishing is so intense and so fun to watch.” Mickey became the record holder for the biggest fish caught on 12-pound test line – 81 pounds – a record he believes he holds to this day.
Gary told me that tarpon season is upon us again this year.
“As soon as the water warms up to 78 degrees, the tarpon really start running.” He said that the tarpon leave in the fall and there are few very tarpon in residence in the winter. Where they go is somewhat of a mystery, but reports of catches along the Yucatan Peninsula suggests the fish may find a winter home along the southern Gulf coast.
A really cool sight, according to Ray, is in the spring when “the tarpon ‘greyhound’ – swim together on the surface in vast numbers.”
The Club is open to anyone, so check out. You might just catch Tarpon Fever!
originally published in the Island Sand Paper in Issue 370, March 14th, 2008