HOKOLOSKEE -- C Tarpon are showing up early this season in South Florida waters, apparently so eager to engage with anglers that at least one jumped right into a boat.
Amazingly, none of the skiff’s three occupants was injured and neither was the fish, estimated at 100 pounds.
The tale of the incredible jumping tarpon of Chokoloskee occurred March 2 as 16-year-old Dylan Ward of Naples was poling the 18-foot skiff of his father, captain Mark Ward, who was sitting in a passenger seat eating potato chips while I stood on the bow wielding a fly rod.
The tide had just started to rise in the shallow, muddy bay where we were seeking redfish and snook along a mangrove shoreline. None of us saw the laid-up tarpon in the murky water. Dylan believes he might have spooked the fish with his push pole. My fly was in the boat, so the fish wasn’t chasing it.
All I know is I looked down to see a huge wake heading right up to the skiff and then the tarpon leaping clean over Mark Ward, who sat amidships about three feet away from me. The fish never touched either of us.
“He almost landed in my lap,” Mark said later.
The tarpon’s tail glanced off the gunwales, leaving a trail of slime, scales, and a little bit of blood before it hit the water and swam away. It happened so fast that none of us managed to snap off a photo.
Everyone who has ever hooked a tarpon has admired its powerful leaps as it tries to escape. Not everyone has experienced such close contact.
In 2000, Miami angler Ron Baker and captain Chris Dean were motoring through Whitewater Bay near Flamingo when a free-jumping 100-pounder snapped off the poling platform on Baker’s skiff before disappearing. Baker said they were lucky to be alive.
A few years before that, I hooked a 15-pounder during a Redbone series tournament in the Middle Keys with captain Harry Spear that leaped into the boat and lay there thrashing. Happily, the fish was small enough for Spear to unhook and release quickly — and it also counted in the tournament.
An early warmup this season likely means more tarpon passing through South Florida waters and therefore a greater likelihood of fish/human strikes. Maybe we should invest in some body armor like those Midwestern fishermen you see in YouTube videos chasing legions of jumping Asian carp. But we should definitely forgo the spiked bats.
After all, we want these fish to keep duking it out with us for generations to come.