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May 29, 2009

Key in on Tarpon

For the hottest summer tarpon action, head to the passes of the middle Florida Keys.

One late afternoon in June a couple of years ago, I was sitting in the office of American Caribbean Real Estate in Islamorada, talking with my friends Geoff and Cheri Tindall about our rapidly declining real estate market. Cheri manages the company, plus she and Geoff are rabid tarpon fly-anglers, so I can usually get a double report from them - real estate trends and the location of the most recent hot tarpon bite.

As we spoke, a battered red pickup truck, a vehicle we all knew to belong to Capt. Skip Nielsen, a top inshore guide, pulled into the parking lot. He burst through the door, looked at Geoff and me and said, "I have a dozen mullet left. Meet me at Bud N' Mary's in 15 minutes." Without saying a word, Geoff and I bolted for our own trucks to head home and change. A tarpon trip with Nielsen is an event not to be missed.

After our rendezvous at the marina, we climbed into Nielsen's skiff and headed south, parallel to U.S. 1 on the bay side. A short run brought us to Channel 2, one of the most famous tarpon passes in all of the Keys. The sun was about to set, and a hard incoming tide rushed under the bridge as we crossed beneath it to the ocean side, anchoring about 50 yards up-current from the bridge.

Put 'em Out
Nielsen took two live silver mullet from his livewell, hooked them through the upper lip and let them back behind the skiff, suspended beneath oversize floats. Actually, "suspended" isn't the right word because the strong current stretches the baits out behind the floats and keeps them very close to the surface. Still, the mullet are strong enough to submerge themselves and swim from side to side - the floats just keep them from getting too far away.

A bite came quickly, but it turned out to be an unlucky lemon shark. Most sharks bite quickly through the mono leader, but this one had been hooked perfectly in the corner of the mouth. After a brief fight, we released him and put out a fresh mullet. As the sun crept below the horizon, the tarpon turned on, and we could see and hear them rolling and crashing baits all around us. Suddenly Tindall's rod bent over hard, and a tarpon of about 75 pounds leapt skyward an instant later. No sooner had the fish hit the water again than Nielsen's rod bent double as well - double header!

Nielsen and Tindall crossed over one another repeatedly as they tried to bring the big fish to the boat against the strong current. Their antics resembled some sort of crazed, sweaty fish ballet, and I had a hard time helping release the fish because I was laughing too hard. But their determination paid off, and in short order we had released our first two fish. We went on to release a couple more before calling it an early evening, and we were all home by 11 p.m., not bad for an impromptu tarpon trip. But that's the beauty of tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys: It doesn't have to take all day because the best methods involve fishing tide changes at certain times of day. You can go out and soak baits for eight hours if you want to, but it's normally neither necessary nor particularly productive.