Once Upon a Tarpon Flat

In the August 2001 issue of FFSW, we reported on a 202-pound tarpon caught on fly at Homosassa. The following is a recount of the catch from the angler. - Ed.
My father and I began our trip to Homosassa trying to follow up our previous year there when we released 16 fish in five days. We arrived at Steve Kilpatrick's "poon camp" weary from over 2,000 miles of traveling, but we were too excited to sleep. Despite our enthusiasm, however, the next few days were disappointing as the wind gusted out of the northeast at more than 20 knots, allowing only a few quick shots. My father managed to save one day by releasing a 150-plus-pound tarpon.
On day six, I got up at dawn and forced my spirits to do the same. But again Lady Luck spit in our eyes - stacks of great white cumulous clouds appeared in the sky, making visibility nearly nonexistent. For the first three hours we didn't see a fish. And then the stars began to align.
Kilpatrick spotted a large school of "happy" rolling fish about half a mile from us. We poled on the fish and quickly realized there didn't appear to be a small fish in the entire group. After an unsuccessful attempt, we relocated the school, this time far ahead of us, and made a wide circle to get in front of it. Finally, we had the position again, and I began my cast. When the fish reached about 90 feet, I fired for the lead of the school. Luckily, my shot landed right on target. I began stripping, and on the third strip the lead fish charged from the pack, flashed on the fly and turned away. I continued stripping until my hand stopped abruptly and I set the hook.
The next 30 seconds or so were a blur, as the line hissed off the floor of the boat and the fish came tight to my reel. I struck her several more times and she launched herself halfway out of the water. The fish jumped a second time, again directly away from us, and although we knew it looked big, none of us could accurately gauge how big -- perhaps the greatest piece of luck of all.
Eventually, I regained the fly line and was able to pull a bit more, causing the fish to roll frequently. With each roll, our estimate of its weight went up, and after an hour we reckoned 160 to 165 pounds. Finally, I worked the fish to within about 30 feet of the boat, where she lay right on the bottom; despite a good 12 to 15 pounds of pressure she remained solid as a rock. Then, all of a sudden she went crazy, making a blistering run. A hungry 12-foot bull shark showed up and now threatened the fish. We had to scare off the shark by revving the engines.
When we turned off the engine, the fish resumed its position on the bottom and I began to lift again. I am convinced that had I not flirted with exceeding the breaking strength of the tippet I would not have landed that fish. Gradually, I brought the mammoth to the surface, where I finally got a good look at it. Again, we changed our estimate, now looking at the 165- to 170-pound range.
With the fish next to the boat Kilpatrick reached down, grabbed the shock tippet and lip-gaffed the monster. Unable to lift more than the head out of the water alone, Kilpatrick and I hauled the fish halfway out of the water. When its belly spread out on the gunwale, my jaw dropped. The tape showed 47 inches in girth, and with that we slid the fish the rest of the way into the boat to determine the length. My father grabbed the calculator and punched in the numbers -- 206 flashed on the screen.
Back at the dock, we searched frantically for a certified scale. With the giant finally suspended, we looked at the scale - 202 ½ pounds! Within the hour more than 10 cars crowded our driveway, as fishermen gaped at the potential world-record tarpon. That started an evening of celebration I hope to never forget. We had captured the holy grail, and I am forever grateful.