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  • March 2nd, 2012

Me and the Silver King

ME AND THE SILVER KING

By Joel M. Vance

            A trophy fish to a Missouri angler is a 15-20 pound channel catfish or, if he’s south of the Missouri River, a three-pound smallmouth bass.  I incline toward the half-pound bluegill, but only because that’s what I’m most likely to catch.

            Tarpon?  Something you read about when the roads are iced up.  Throw a Show-Me angler into the Gulf of Mexico, out of time and place, and he’s a Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, clutching a Zebco 33 and looking for a bucket of chicken livers for bait. 

            Tarpon…a fish so mean that Mike Tyson would refrain from biting one.  It looks like a minnow with a glandular condition and fights like, well, Mike Tyson (watch your ears!).

            The very name conjures up visions of leaping fish, mouths as big as a dragline bucket, rattling gill covers, raw, naked power…geez, it fair makes the skin crawl.

            Gary Kramer knows first hand.  Actually, almost “lost” hand.  Kramer hooked a tarpon on a fly and the fish took off so fast that a sizzling loop of fly line threw a loop around his index finger and cut it to the bone.  Only the fact that a 20-pound-test leader snapped saved Gary from having to go barefoot in order to count to 10.

            Gary is a refuge manager in California and he was looking for refuge when the tarpon lassoed him on the Florida flats outside Ft. Myers.  I happened to be in the other end of the boat, trying to find a place to hide so the tarpon wouldn’t find me.

            Those things are mean!

            I still desperately wanted to hook one, but my dream of taking a tarpon with a fly was tempered somewhat by the possibility of having a finger severed in the process.  *Maybe*, I thought, *I’ll just stick with 25-pound-test mono and a spinning rod and a valiant little blue crab on a No. 4/0 hook*.

            You read about tarpon fishing in books about salt water fishing.  The only salt water we know anything about in Missouri is what you soak possum overnight in to cut the strong taste.

     Gary’s tarpon was the first tarpon hooked in six hours of increasingly hot temperatures.  It was near the end of the Lee Island coast tarpon season which runs  April through June, and the days of eight or more hookups had come and gone.

            “Geez,” you should have been here last week,” said guide Rinny Cairo.  Have I heard that before?  Not since the last time I went fishing.  Cairo is a Miami fireman by profession, but a tarpon guide by passion.  He alternates between the Lee Islands and the

Gulf coast.  Cairo would rather put you up close and personal to a tarpon than just about anything.  And he knows tarpon like Bo used to know almost everything.  Rinny started fishing tarpon for fun, like the rest of us (if you consider having your fingers severed “fun”), then learned enough that his friends suggested he should be doing it for money.

            The air was sultry off Boca Grande Pass, the water oily smooth, heat pressing down like a down comforter.  We knew there were tarpon on the large flat; we saw them surface occasionally, a dorsal fin, then a tail flip.  And there would be a trail of bubbles to indicate direction. 

            But there was no “nervous water,” what the guides call the riffled water that indicates a school of tarpon just below the surface.  Sometimes the fish swim in a circle, a mating phenomenon called “daisy chaining.” 

            I was the nervous one, especially with the heavy fly rod.  This is not delicate casting to brook trout with a fairy wand and a two- pound tippet.  It’s more like throwing a concrete block with a closet pole.   It helps to have the forearm of Karl Malone and the timing of a major league hitter.  “No rule says you have to make long casts,” Cairo said, as he watched my cast collapse like a poleaxed sow.

     No one eats a tarpon by choice and a guide would sooner feed you to a hammerhead shark than let you keep one.  “I’ve heard that natives in Central America eat tarpon by grinding it up.  I guess if you put enough stuff with any fish you can eat it,” Cairo said.

     Did I catch a tarpon?  Depends on your definition of “catch.”  On the last cast of the day I hooked one that made three spectacular jumps and then settled in for a tug of war.  After 10 minutes, with the fish near the boat and apparently tiring (I know I was), the hook came loose.

            I’m counting it as a catch and Cairo, who always agrees with clients unless they’re doing something stupid, says it’s a catch.

            But I want to go back and bring one to the side of the boat and look him in the eye, then ease the hook out–my option, not his.

            And I’d still like to nail one on a fly rod.  But when I get back to the dock, I plan to count my fingers.

-30-

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