SEBASTIAN -- The fall mullet run along the southeast coast of Florida has sputtered along in fits and starts amid unseasonably warm-water temperatures so far. But as I found out last weekend in Sebastian, plenty of tarpon were lurking in nearshore waters, happy to eat appetizers while awaiting the arrival of the main course — gigantic, black clouds of mullet moving like a shadow south along the beach.
On Sept. 29, marauding silver kings ignored slow-trolled finger mullet that passed right by their snouts as they herded, pounced and showered the big bait schools. But a day later, with no huge bait pods yet darkening the surface, the silver mullet that captain Tom Pierce and I drifted from his skiff just south of Sebastian Inlet was the only treat in town.
“The tarpon are hanging out on that strip,” Pierce said of a half-mile length of coastline in waters out to 25 feet deep. “See, there’s one that just rolled.”
I looked south to where he was pointing about 50 yards away in time to see a circular boil and its ensuing bubble trail. Seconds later, I saw the unmistakable dorsal fin of a tarpon cut the surface closer to our boat. We just needed to be patient.
The mullet we presented was hooked through the lips on a relatively-small 4/0 j-hook. I was fishing with 15-pound-test spinning gear and 50-pound leader. Pierce said he found he got more bites using leader lighter than 60-pound.
On our first drift, a tarpon in the 50- to 70-pound class rolled up on my mullet and attempted to eat it. But the bait jumped out of the way, escaping certain death. For some reason, the aggressor did not try to grab it a second time.
On the second drift, nothing happened for a very long time. Then suddenly I heard a “brrrrrooosh” sound, and watched a large tarpon literally pounce on my bait. Then both disappeared below the surface.
“He’s got it!” Pierce yelled.
But I felt no tension at all on the line. I sat there dumbly for about two seconds until Pierce shouted, “He’s coming at you! Reel!”
So I did, and the line came tight, and then what looked to be a 100-pounder or better leapt about five feet in the air behind the boat, then disappeared with a high-pitched zee of my reel’s drag.
Pierce immediately cranked the outboard and followed the fish in its high-speed dash south.
We caught up to it fairly quickly, as my fishing line was at a taut right angle to the gunwales.
“Short pumps. Not too high. Just a tad more drag,” Pierce coached.
I tightened the drag about an eighth of a turn and braced the rod as the fish continued peeling off line. We chased it for about 15 minutes before we got a glimpse of it, and that’s when it rolled to the surface and took a gulp of air.
My heart sank when I saw that, remembering the advice of tarpon researcher Kathy Guindon, who found that each time the fish takes a surface gulp, it can lengthen the fight by five to 10 minutes.
“You’ll get him,” Pierce said. “Little more drag.”
So I tightened down once more, wondering how much pressure a 100-pound fish could put on 50-pound-leader and 15-pound line before it won the battle.
After about 25 minutes, when the fish rolled once again to the surface, I yanked it backward, which seemed to disorient it momentarily. But it quickly sounded and powered away.
Maybe 10 minutes later, the fish was upside down on the surface, and I managed to bring it close enough for Pierce to grab the leader. So, technically, it was a “caught” fish. But Pierce wanted to get control of it long enough to take a DNA swab from its cheek — a Guindon project at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. As he gently pulled the leader closer to the boat, the fish seemed to wake up and get really angry, and with a strength I can’t even imagine, it once again dashed away, taking another 100 feet of line with it.
At this point, I had absolutely no faith that line and leader were going to hold up long enough for us to subdue this fish. But I kept pumping and reeling, and the fish rolled upside down again as I slowly brought it closer to the boat.
Just as Pierce touched the leader, the fish dived and the battle renewed.
“Don’t you ever quit?” I muttered unhappily as I sweated and reeled.
Finally, the third time was the charm; with the fish upside down and floating toward the boat, Pierce grabbed it by the jaw and rubbed a rough sponge several times across the cheek. Then he removed the hook from its jaw, and held the fish overboard so that water would flow through its gills. Amazingly, less than a minute after a 45-minute brawl in 84-degree water, the tarpon flicked its powerful tail against his grip and charged away.
Exhausted, we both shook our heads as the skiff drifted north.
Pierce put the sponge with the DNA cells into a vial and capped it, and said he’d send it off — along with other DNA samples he has collected — in the next few days. He has been sampling tarpon for about a year in Sebastian and Key West. Guindon and her staff use the DNA data like noninvasive tags; if someone catches a previously sampled fish and takes another genetic swab, scientists learn the fish’s movements between its capture and recapture.
Pierce said he wanted to help gather information about an important Florida gamefish.
“The lion’s share of my charters are tarpon,” he said. “I’ve basically made my living for 40 years on them.”
I was just very, very glad our giant silver test subject didn’t get away prematurely.