White and Brennen collaborate on collection of big game fishing tales
When William Halsey Wood landed the first big tarpon ever caught on rod and reel, in March 1885, news of the feat spread rapidly. The event forever changed the face and fabric of sports fishing and, at the same time, helped make Southwest Florida a mecca for anglers from around the globe.
Today, the silver king remains one of the most sought-after of all game fish. And the same spot where Wood landed the now-legendary fish — Sanibel’s very own Tarpon Bay — is still one of the best locations to challenge the aggressive, silver-scaled whoppers that measure more than five feet long and tip the scales at nearly 100 pounds.
Wood considered the fish the coming kid of all game for sporting fishermen. “His taking the still bait, his response to being hooked by immediately leaping out of the water, his swift running between leaps, beautiful shape and superb metallic luster, added to his magnificent proportions,” he declared, “make the tarpon a delight to the sporting fishermen who captures.”
And remember: this happened 125 years ago!
“Randy Wayne White’s Ultimate Tarpon Book,” edited by White, along with fellow islander Carlene Brennen, offers everything you could ever want to know about the origins of big game fishing, told in the words of those who were there.
“Randy and I had been doing research on the history of big game fishing in the area while he was still working as a fishing guide,” said Brennen. “Then about three years ago, I saw a story in a magazine about big game fishing that claimed it was born somewhere off the coast of Catalina Island. But that happened the year after Wood caught his tarpon. So I called Randy and asked him if it was time to do the book we had been working on. And he said, ‘It’s time.'”
According to Brennen, former President Theodore Roosevelt and adventure novelist Zane Grey both had an affinity for tarpon fishing. So did Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison, Ted Williams and many others. The stories and narratives they wrote based on their experiences — along with those of more than 100 other contributors, including some of the best contemporary outdoor writers — are presented in this newly-released collection.
The book includes information on the pioneer tarpon guides, the historic tarpon lodges, the innkeepers, the outfitters, the boat builders, and the scientists that made the region the greatest big game fishing area in the country.
One of Breenen’s favorite accounts comes from an article pulled from the archives of the Fort Myers Press, published on April 11, 1916. In the chapter entitled “Thomas Edison Gives Warning Against Nets,” the famed inventor and seasonal Southwest Florida resident told Capt. Edward Lewis Evans about his concerns for the tarpon caused by netting.
“The tarpon has put Fort Myers on the map as a fishing resort with the biggest sportsmen in the country,” the article reads, in part. “Lee County has become famous, but it’s being ruined by these nets and the extermination of the fish by a little bunch of men for commercial purposes.”
“If the fishing disappears it does not require a prophet to say that fishing sportsmen will go elsewhere,” the chapter concludes. “I tell you with all the earnestness that is in me the tourists are going where the fish are and if you want to stay on the map, protect the fish.”
For 20 years, White and Brennen collected stories about big game fishing in the area. After assembling the outline of what they considered to be the makings of a fine book, they asked for the assistance of Florida Gulf Coast University professor Dr. John Fitch and Florida Sportsman managing editor David Conway.
Both Fitch and Conway enjoyed the stories they had collected, however, they advised the pair to do some additional research on the personal backgrounds of some of the anglers featured in the book.
“They wanted details like where did those fishermen stay when they were here, what boats did they fish from, who were their guides, what kind of tackle did they use and where did they buy it,” said Brennen, who noted the additional research yielded another 150 pages to the final product.
White is the New York Times best-selling author of the Doc Ford suspense/thriller novels and, writing as Randy Striker, the Dusty MacMorgan action/adventure series. He has also written non-fiction books and monthly columns for Outside and Men’s Health magazines.
Brennen, a former publisher of the Sanibel-Captiva Islander, is author of “Hemingway’s Cats: An Illustrated Biography” and co-author of “Hemingway in Cuba” and “Randy Wayne White’s Gulf Coast Cookbook with Memories and Photos of Sanibel Island.”
Also featured in the book is Ralph Woodring, whose family is considered one of the enduring legends among fishing lore on Sanibel. His grandfather — Samuel Woodring Sr. — was a noted fishing guide in the late 1800s. His father, Sam Jr., followed in his footsteps and also became a very successful commercial fisherman. His mother, Esperanza, learned the family business and passed her knowledge and skills along to her son.
“I was lucky enough to know Esperanza Woodring,” said White. “She was a remarkable woman, a true pioneer of the sport of fishing and the first female fishing guide in Southwest Florida.”
In the chapter dedicated to Ralph’s mother, it reads, “Even though Esperanza was not particularly fond of fishing for tarpon, she liked to watch the silver kings shining, rolling and jumping in her bay. She loved all the creatures in her world and was a lifelong conservationist and environmentalist.”
“Randy Wayne White’s Ultimate Tarpon Book: The Birth Of Big Game Fishing” is 436 pages long, filled with rare and important illustrations and images of some of the region’s profound fishing pioneers, first-hand accounts from the anglers and guides who discovered the greatness of Tarpon Bay and surrounding waters where sports fishing became a popular activity, the most comprehensive collection of big game stories ever assembled.
“This is a book that needed to be written,” added Brennen. “It’s a great reference book, but everyone who reads it will enjoy all of the personal stories more than anything.”
Published by University Press of Florida, the book is available at retailers on Sanibel and Captiva as well as online and at bookstores throughout Southwest Florida.