Formula 1 Florida Tarpon

by Paul Stevens

Metallic-looking monsters with gobs large enough to swallow footballs are England international shore angler, Paul Stevens’ deepest fishing obsession. We are talking tarpon. A recent family holiday to Florida provided a well engineered opportunity to get afloat with a top fishing guide and finally lock horns with a spectacular silver force of nature.

Despite many failed attempts and only ever landing one of the damn things, I have long lusted after tarpon. Huge, powerful, majestic and ever challenging, they are almost pornographically alluring and my dream fish. With a family visit planned to Disneyland, I couldn’t resist dedicating some time to chasing those silver-scaled goliaths. A bit of Internet research lead to the website of Captain Chris McCubbin based in Naples on Florida’s south west coast. A couple of emails established that split sessions were available, enabling anglers to fish at both dawn and dusk periods avoiding the less productive middle of the day. Sounded good to me, and I duly booked up.

The easy drive from Orlando to Naples only took three hours, and quick phone call to Chris established that all was set for my first outing. Early next morning, with the introductions done, I boarded the 22-foot Pathfinder boat and got underway. First stop was to catch some thread herrings for live bait. Spots in the marina proved unproductive, but a few throws with the cast-net on mark a half-mile offshore quickly had the live well bursting with baits.

throwing a cast net for baitfish off Florida

We hugged the shoreline and zipped across a millpond sea heading to one of Chris’s favoured ‘open’ marks – we would be fishing the open ocean rather then the backwaters. The majority of tarpon fishing around Florida is carried out in the backwaters, but it can be difficult to tease a take in the brackish waters. From experience, Chris has learned that although there are fewer fish along the beaches, when you see them and can get close enough to cast live baits to them, they will sure as not hit it – “guaranteed” he said.

Scouting for tarps

Without warning Chris cut the outboard approaching the shallows. As we settled to a stop I scanned the sea to try and spot what had caught his eye, but saw and said nothing. I would soon come to realise that Chris has an inbuilt ability to ‘smell’ nearby tarpon. As we edged towards the shore using the quiet electric motor, a pod of tarpon rose unannounced about 100 yards form the boat, moving parallel to the beach. This was heaven and stalking a fish like this is nothing short of exhilarating.

Huge black clouds overhead looked ominous, but Chris announced with certainty: “It never rains in the morning at this time of year!” No sooner had the words left his mouth than the tarpon moved off and the heavens ripped opened. An hour into the torrential rain, thunder and lightening, Chris asked if I wanted to call a halt and re-schedule. Given that the boat was wide open and I was shivering to death, it was a no-brainer and arrangements to pick things up again in the evening were made.

young Connor stands ready for a fish

The skies had cleared by late afternoon when my wife Jenny, four-year old son Conor and I met Chris on the dock. After strapping Conor into a buoyancy vest, we cut our way among the mangrove inlets and islands that surround Naples. We planned to spend some time targeting snook to perk all the family’s interest.

Chris had already been out and filled the live well, and we were soon anchored up just 25 feet from the rocks that line the riverbanks. The live-baits were cast and allowed to settle as close to the shore as possible without snagging. My rod was the first to be wrenched over by a small 2lb snook that was quickly beaten. Conor was desperate to get a fish. Chris baited, cast and handed him the rod. In the space of a couple of minutes Conor’s rod pulled over hard, smashing into the side on the boat as he struggled to hold on to the savage take. A swift lunge from Chris ensured the rod stayed inboard and together they battled a beautiful 5lb Snook aboard. Conor was over the moon at catching his biggest ever fish and wanted more.

proud Dad Paul and Connor with a Florida snook

Jenny was taking the pictures, and two dolphins that appeared next to the boat had her snapping away madly. Unfortunately the creatures made returning fish alive a nightmare, as they took advantage of the free feed. We had to resort to lobbing the snook close to the rocks to ensure their survival.

After a couple of hour’s fun catching snook and with the sun starting to go down, we hauled anchor and moved further into the canals in search of tarpon.

Shimano 8-foot Terramar rods were paired with Shimano 4500 bait-runner reels. The fixed spools carried 65lb braid to 80lb Momoi leaders, while the simple business end was a 7/0 Owner Tournament inline circle hook. We eventually settled in a spot where lumping great tarpon were topping all over the place, but they just wouldn’t play ball. We chucked live-baits, dead-baits and lures at them all to no avail. It was a typically frustrating tarpon session but still incredibly exciting when you have fish in excess of 150lb leaping out of the water just 50 feet away.

Next day delivery

a large cirle hook for tarponChris was on a mission to get me attached to a tarpon. We agreed to meet slightly earlier next morning at 06:00 to ensure we made fullest use of the dawn session. We motored through the Marina to early clear skies and warm weather more typically Floridain. Chris hit a large shoal of perfectly sized thread herring immediately, and 10 minutes later we were positioned back where we had been on the first morning.

Not a breath of wind stirred as the sun crept up over the horizon. Chris and I scanned the mirror sea for any tarpon breaking the surface. He spotted some topping 200 yards in front of the boat. We snuck up on them using the silent electric motor. Frustratingly, despite numerous quiet attempts to get close enough, they seemed to be able to sense the boat and kept just out of casting range before we lost them.

Fifteen minutes later we spotted another pod coming straight towards us. This time we did not need to re-position the boat; we just readied fresh live-baits and held our breath. When they were 40 feet away we cast to them. The marker floats bobbed momentarily as the herrings panicked – then BANG! My rod arched over as a tarpon seized the bait and ran with incredible speed and power before launching itself clean out of the water shedding spray from head and gleaming flanks as it rose.

Paul Stevens with a Florida tarpon

At around 50lb, it wasn’t huge, but boy, can these things fight. 20 hard minutes later I had it on the boat for some quick trophy shots before slipping it back. Just to shatter the romantic man against fish-beast illusion, Chris had mentioned that tarpon can crap like an elephant when you get them on the boat, and he was not kidding. The boat and I were splattered all over with thick, sticky green goo that didn’t smell too good!

A tip for similarly inexperienced tarpon anglers lucky enough to hold one for the camera is to wear a glove on the hand that holds the jaw. Donkey-brains here, who knew better of course, didn’t think a glove would be needed, but when it kicked and I tried to hold on it made a good old mess of my bare hand. I’ll call that a lesson learned the hard way.

a thumb chomped by a tarpon a Florida tarpon on the deck with rod, reel and bait


Frantic fun in the shallows

Chris moved the boat right on top of the shallows where the water was no more than 5 feet deep. This seemed incredibly shallow for such large fish but I had complete faith in the skipper and bit my tongue. Chris explained that tarpon in this area do not betray their presence by ‘topping’ here as there’s no depth. The trick is to watch the seabed and as soon as you see a darker shape nearing the boat, cast to it.

We drifted around and saw a few stingrays but my eyes failed to spot the shadow off the front of the boat that Chris cast at. Almost instantly a huge tarpon burst the surface with Chris’s bait in its mouth. He struck immediately but the hook failed to penetrate the rock-hard mouth and the herring flew one way as the tarpon went the other. I could only stand transfixed. Chris was muttering numerous swearwords – some that I’d never heard before – at a fish he estimated between 150 – 170lb. We might have been gutted but witnessing such an incredible thing unfold is priceless.

a Florida tarpon skims the surface

With adrenaline still pumping, fresh live-baits were prepared and the stalking continued. Chris did it again 10 minutes later when another tarpon of around 150lb leapt clear without finding the hook. As the action died Chris explained that tarpon almost always stop feeding and disappear in the sun of mid morning.

Just when you thought it was safe to go…

My tarpon time was almost at an end, but I was content with my pristine 50 pounder. The deck was tided and the engine fired up for the journey back to the marina. We had only travelled about 300 yards when Chris spied another group of tarpon about 200 yards away. We motored up expecting them to scatter, but they stayed together, milling just 30 feet from the bow. There was no resisting the opportunity, and we decided to sling herrings one last time.

The shoal held around a dozen substantial fish, and the infuriating things actually had to swim round the baits to avoid banging into them. They appeared disinterested in feeding but just when my shoulders were starting to slump the two rear fish U-turned and raced back to the baits. I snapped to attention willing one to have my madly quivering herring. In a heartbeat my bait was taken. What seemed a colossal tarpon exploded through the surface film and tore off like a like a Formula1 racing car.

Paul bends into a Florida tarpon

Braid streaked off the reel in utter contempt for the sternly set drag. Chris had dropped everything to man the boat as soon as I connected. We chased the fish down in an effort to win back some line, but some things are easier said than done. I lost count of how many times the tarpon threw itself clear of the water, but after an hour of pain and hope I believed I had the better of it.

I carefully drew it close to the boat, sure of its tiredness. As Chris grabbed hold of the leader the lulled creature came angrily alive with an unexpected blast of reserve energy to thrust and shake clear up and out of the sea once more. It was so close that it is a wonder the thing didn’t land on the boat. As it came down the line wrapped around the body and my heart sank … but the line survived and quickly unwrapped itself clear of impeding disaster.

With catastrophe averted the last throes of the fight were short-lived, and Chris had a gloved hand on the powerful jaw just a few minutes later. These muscle-bound machines do not surrender easily however, and it shot off under the boat just as we thought it was beaten. Fortunately this proved to be the final defiance and the scale-perfect tarpon was mine after another bruising round. It was a stunning slab of a fish with a mouth that you could easily lose your head in. Chris estimated it at around 110lb, and reckoned it was landed a mile from where it was hooked.

the skipper hauls in a Florida tarpon

Tarpon fight almost to the death and are completely exhausted at the end. Careful handling is therefore required to ensure the fish swims away strongly. It was held in the sea and gently towed for a few minutes to get oxygen flowing through the gills, before sufficient strength returned and the metallic-looking giant cruised slowly free. The whole experience was both empowering and humbling, and I would not swap for the world.

Contact and fishing information

If you are ever in the Naples area and you fancy a crack at tarpon and snook, then Captain Chris is your man. He is a tremendously helpful guy and will do everything to accommodate your requirements. You can e-mail Chris direct.

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