Captain Tyler Kapela was looking to net some “pass crabs” for use as tarpon bait in a backwater feeder creek off Tampa Bay, Florida, with father-son team of local chartering anglers, Dylan and Nils Diaz on the afternoon of May 15. They were interrupted by a large splash produced by an even bigger fish.
“I heard a big splash behind us, and I thought it might have been a big ray leaping,” says Kapela, age 35, and an area guide for 14 years. “Someone in another boat yelled over to us that it was a tarpon that boiled the surface. I had a pass crab bait ready to cast so I flipped it toward the place where the water blew up and the fish took it.”
The tarpon hit only 40 feet from Kapela’s 24-foot Skeeter bay skiff, but the water was deep and none of the anglers could see the fish, so had no idea how big it was.
“When the tarpon realized it was hooked it took off and the drag screamed, and it ran straight to our boat and around my electric motor,” said Kapela. “I got the line out from around the motor, then the fish ran to a bridge and went around a bridge fender.
“Dylan was on the rod and had to open the reel bail to get slack in the line to free it off the fender. Then the fish ran toward a bunch of residential docks and a marina. That was touch-and-go for a bit, and we had to kind of coax the fish out of there. We were just trying to keep it away from the docks, marina and boats without making it too mad in those tight confines or we’d lose the fish for sure.”
Their boat eventually drifted into open water away from pilings and moored boats, and Dylan settled into fighting the tarpon in open water of the Intracoastal Waterway. But it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and folks were out and about on their boats.
“Suddenly a big pilot boat came chugging along, and went right over the line,” said Kapela. “The fish was down, but on the other side of the pilot boat–and the water wasn’t very deep. We got really lucky, and the boat passed, and we were still fighting the fish.”
They never got to judge the fish’s size because it didn’t jump, just rolled gulping air occasionally. Kapela figured the tarpon at about 150-pounds, but he was wrong.
Dylan battled the stubborn tarpon for an hour using heavy spinning tackle with 65-pound test braided line and a 60-pound fluorocarbon leader with 8/0 circle hook. They finally eased the fish close to the boat, and that enraged the tarpon.
“Suddenly about an hour into the fight there was a huge boil and I thought maybe a shark had showed up and spooked the tarpon, but he was just mad and screamed out of there,” Kapela recalls. “That fish ripped away and nearly dumped the entire 300-yards of line on that Penn Slammer reel–and that was an hour into the fight. We had to chase him down with the boat, gaining line to keep from losing the fish.”
Giant Among Giants
That’s when Kapela realized this was no ordinary tarpon, but a giant among giants.
By now the anglers had drawn a crowd of spectators in boats of all sizes, and Dylan continued his grueling battle with the tarpon that never jumped–which usually aids in tiring big fish.
Forty-five minutes later, with the sun starting to sink in the west, the fish was tiring and swam to an open beach area with no docks around and clear water. That’s when they got a good look at the fish, and were amazed at its length and girth. They also noticed the fish was blind in one eye.
Eventually they eased to a beach area, and Kapela anchored his boat, and he and Dylan got into the water–careful not to remove the fish from the water so it could be released unharmed.
Tale of the Tape
They took careful length and girth measurements, at 86-inches from the tail fork to nose, 44-inches around its girth at the dorsal. According to the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust weight calculator, the estimated weight of Dylan’s tarpon is 238 pounds.
While length-girth measurements for weight estimate doesn’t qualify as an official weight acceptable by IGFA, the anglers were more concerned with accurately measuring the fish and releasing it, instead of killing and weighing it.
“I’ve fished tarpon almost every day in season for the last 15 years and it was the biggest tarpon I’ve ever seen or put my hands on,” says Kapela, who has seen plenty of 200-pound plus fish. “I’m 6-feet-4, and I felt like a minnow standing beside it with Dylan.”
The anglers worked with the fish for a few minutes standing in Tampa Bay. Then the one-eyed tarpon quickly gained all its strength and its powerful tail jetted it away back into its home waters.
The Florida state record for tarpon is 243 pounds, caught by Gus Bell in Key West in 1975 on 20-pound test line.
Interested in trying to catch your own record tarpon in Florida? Here are four places to score in the Sunshine State.
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