Tarpon on the line

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No fishfinder, no GPS, no outboard, no cellphone. Just two men, a boat, a pair of oars and a tarpon. And that long, thin “silver king”?— Megalops atlanticus to scientists — helped put Florida on the fishing map.

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Though not a fish for the dinner table, the tarpon was a challenge to catch and land. Fish weighing 100 pounds were not uncommon; they can grow to 8 feet and weigh more than 200 pounds. They were caught in fresh, salt and brackish water, around jetties, piers and bridges, in passes, rivers and offshore. They took a variety of bait, including mullet, herring and “dollar crabs.” Fly fishermen found that tarpon responded to their tactics, too.

It’s their incredible energy that made them different. Few fish leap like the tarpon. When hooked, “the tarpon starts a series of spectacular acrobatic leaps in the air that will have your heart pounding, your rod bending and your drag screaming,” says fishing writer Greg Smith. “You better hold on!”

Stories about the silver king spread, drawing anglers to such places as Key Colony Beach. On its own island next to Marathon, the small town was developed in the late 1950s by entrepreneur Phil Sadowski, who bought Shelter Key and enlarged it. Here was a place devoted to fishing, where an angler could rent a boat, hire a guide (or not) and fish for tarpon.

“If you have ever had the privilege of hooking up a big tarpon, then you know the exhilaration and thrill of testing yourself against one of the most sought-after gamefish in the world,” says Smith.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue.