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Living Sanibel: ‘Silver King’ can be found April through October

By Staff | Apr 20, 2016

The tarpon – along with the snook, redfish, and seatrout – is the most commonly sought-after fish in Southwest Florida. These four fish form the backbone of many of the area’s fishing tournaments, and catching all four in one day is considered an inshore grand slam. Of the four, the most difficult to hang onto is the magnificent silver king – the tarpon.

Every spring, beginning in late March with the warming of the gulf waters, the first schools of tarpon arrive from the south, some from as far away as the west coast of Africa. Anglers, who have just recovered from last year’s brawls, spool on fresh line, sharpen their circle hooks, and oil their reels in anticipation of fresh battles. Strictly a catch-and-release sport, tarpon fishing is a major draw for anglers the world over. From Boca Grande Pass to Bonita Springs, fishing guides and amateurs alike try their hands at catching one of these powerful adversaries.

The tarpon does not fight like any other fish. Once firmly hooked, it literally explodes with energy. Tales have been told of green fish (a term used by anglers to describe a fish that’s freshly hooked) jumping into boats, breaking ankles and legs, then jumping back out. Lines part, leaders break, knots fail, rods snap, and guides wince as the gears in their reels start to make that crunching sound familiar to anyone who has tangled with a tireless silver king.

The tarpon loves to go airborne, and it is unusual not to have a big fish jump a half dozen times or more before it decides to sound. Some fish are never caught as the angler on the other end of the line gives up before the tarpon does. Fights can last for hours, testing the mettle of angler and fish. Hooking, then landing, then safely releasing a tarpon is an adventure you will never forget.

Anglers use heavy tackle, with a minimum of 80-pound monofilament leader, 5/0 to 7/0 circle hooks and a variety of baits to hook the tarpon. Pinfish or greenback tossed in front of a school with a stout spinning outfit is a favorite, while bottom fishing with boat rods and cut mullet, or catfish tails is another. There are dozens of different techniques to get a silver king to bite, but it’s when you finally touch the leader and release the fish that teaches you just how difficult catching one of these creatures can be.

By June the tarpon run starts to dissipate. By this time the fish can be found spawning in water 300 feet deep, due west of the passes it abandons. The larvae return to the estuaries on the incoming tides and hide in the safety of the gnarled roots of the red mangrove, waiting a year or more before venturing into deeper water. Two- to three-foot tarpon can sometimes be found along the spillways of the “Ding” Darling refuge.

The tarpon feeds on a wide variety of animals. In Boca Grande Pass it feasts on tiny pass crabs, each weighing less than an ounce, often consuming hundreds of crabs a day. Along the beaches the tarpon will crash into balled schools of glass minnows, charging through them with its mouth wide open, taking in 20 or 30 minnows at a time, and repeating this process for hours on end. Other favorite prey is striped mullet, catfish, stone and blue crabs, menhaden, greenbacks, threadfin herring, and shrimp. The tarpon is capable of surviving in the hot, oxygen-poor gulf waters because of a primitive lung that allows it to gulp air. This is the reason the tarpon can often be spotted rolling on the surface.

A host of predators take young tarpon: pelicans, herons, osprey, larger tarpon, and alligators. Only bigger sharks are capable of tackling a mature tarpon, weighing 50 pounds or more. Two sharks in particular are famous for following schools of tarpon; the great hammerhead and the bull shark. Many stories have been told about Old Hitler, the 12-foot-plus hammerhead that is rumored to haunt Boca Grande Pass. An equal measure of tall tales have been told about 10-foot-plus bull sharks biting hooked fish a few miles off of Tarpon Beach on Sanibel.

This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.