Anglers celebrate 125th anniversary of historic ‘big game’ catch
The course of fishing history in Southwest Florida was forever changed more then a century ago, when a visitor from New York managed to land what some used to refer to as “the elusive silver king,” using only a standard rod and reel.
Last Thursday morning, a group of a few dozen local anglers, historians and J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge staffers gathered together on what was officially recognized as the 125th anniversary of big game sport fishing on the deck at Tarpon Bay Explorers.
Paul Tritaik, manager of the J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR, served as Master of Ceremonies for the occasion, introducing Marty Harrity, a member of the Sanibel City Council; Wendy Erler-Schnapp, owner of Tarpon Bay Explorers; Carlene Brennen, local author and historian; and Ralph Woodring, owner of The Bait Box and a member of a family steeped in fishing lore for generations.
“What a wonderful sport. Isn’t it great to have something of this scope available to us right here?” said Harrity. “I only had one opportunity to hook a tarpon, and it gave me quite a battle. And I can tell you that the score at the end of that day was Tarpon 1, Marty 0.”
According to historical reports, a 30-year-old New York architect named William H. Woods had long been trying to land a tarpon, one of the most athletic and aggressive fish found in local waters, for many years. In fact, Wood’s himself redesigned and modified his fishing gear with the hopes of landing the large sportfish using only a rod and reel, a feat that had never been accomplished.
Then, on March 25, 1885, Woods and his fishing guide – Capt. John Smith – successfully hooked and captured a tarpon measuring nearly six feet long and weighing just under 100 pounds. This happened in the waters of Tarpon Bay, just off the coast of Sanibel.
“Because the sport of big game fishing was founded here, we feel those of us who enjoy the legacy also have an inherent duty to not only help protect and preserve the species, but also protect and preserve its history,” said best-selling author Randy Wayne White, who used to work as a fishing guide at Tarpon Bay.
White and Brennen are collaborating on a collection of fishing stories, which they are compiling into a book to be released later this year.
“We started gathering this information, and all of these wonderful stories just kept falling into our laps,” said Brennen, who noted that much of the collection will focus on catch-and-release tales and conservation efforts. “The more research that we did, the more excited about (the book) we were getting.”
Despite some controversy over exactly when the first tarpon was caught on road and reel, and by whom, Brennen stated that Woods was the first one to do so that was witnessed and recorded in print (by Forest & Stream Magazine on April 9, 1885).
“(Woods) developed the technique of how to catch tarpon on rod and reel… before that, people caught them by shooting them or harpooning them,” she explained. “He really was considered the father of big game fishing… and he did it right out here on Tarpon Bay.”
After the account of Woods catching tarpon on road and reel, fisherman from around the world began to descend upon the waters of Southwest Florida, which quickly became known as the hub of big game sport fishing. Today, anglers still consider the area one of the prime fishing spots in the United States.
“They say that the (Calusa) indians used to eat tarpons, but I don’t know why they would. They rate right behind bald eagles and osprey when it comes to flavor… they’re not very good,” joked Woodring.
He also explained why finding tarpon, whose numbers have declined over the years in local waters, has never been a problem for him.
“We could go after them whenever we wanted, but that’s one of the worst things that can happen if you’re a commercial fisherman because they’d tear your gear up pretty good,” he added. “Certainly there were a lot more tarpon in the bay at that time. After a hurricane of a good rainfall, the water levels would rise and bring everything in… but then eventually everything would get washed out again.”
To mark the milestone anniversary, members of the Sanibel Fishing Club pledged to erect a plaque at the site honoring Woods and his historical contribution to big game sport fishing.