Practically Guaranteed!

Richard M. Webster February 13, 2009

In anticipation of my 40th birthday, I decided to do something special – book myself a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Florida to catch a trophy tarpon. My wife chose the same day to inform me that we would instead be celebrating the birth of our fourth son on or around my birthday. I told her that “gift” was not particularly original and with three sons already, hardly a once-in-a-lifetime event. She told me to “stuff it,” so I set my sights on the following year and dutifully booked us for some birthing classes instead.

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Illustration: CHRIS ARMSTRONG

Now, I live in New York and the closest tarpon swims a mere 1,300-miles away. Catching one would take some planning, as I knew I needed the odds in my favor. What I learned was that if there was ever a place to beat the odds, it was the famed Boca Grande Pass. I found an experienced captain who, according to his website, was simply “the best.” With 25-years experience fishing around Boca Grande, tarpon success with him was “practically guaranteed!”

A long year later, with my fishing buddy Darren along for the adventure, and less than two hours after landing in Ft. Myers, I suggested we check out the area by driving to Stump Pass Park to see if anything was biting. The beach adjacent to the parking lot was filled with sunbathers. Now Darren is a great freshwater fisherman but having spent little time near the ocean, he has to be forgiven for what happened next. Within minutes of getting out of our rental car, and with no warning, he began screaming at the top of his lungs like a 13-year old girl at a rock concert. “SHAAAAARK! GET OUT OF THE WATER!” I hushed him up quickly as it was just a friendly porpoise. Rookie mistake. No harm, no foul.

As the cries of hysterical children scrambling to the arms of their frantic parents faded in the distance, we trekked down the beach. Almost immediately, we began to see tarpon rolling offshore. My anticipation for the next day’s charter quickly grew. I called our captain from my cell phone to report my sighting and to confirm a meeting time for the following morning. “No good,” he explained. “The wind is out of the east at 20-knots. Way too rough to fish Boca Grande Pass.”

I was confused because the water in front of me had barely a ripple and the pass was just a short distance away. “We don’t have to fish the pass,” I pleaded. “Looks like there’s plenty of tarpon right here!”

“Nah” he said, “Them fish yer’ seeing don’t bite…Too spooky. Gimme’ a call tomorrow and we’ll see about the following day.” Apparently, no one had informed the tarpon of this fact as I watched pod after pod attack schools of baitfish.

The next day was a carbon copy of the first, sunny and picture perfect. With only one day left to catch my trophy, I remembered our guide’s claim. Catching a trophy tarpon with him was “practically guaranteed!” But when I called the captain, I got the same story. “Tomorrow’s no good. Still too rough to fish the pass.”

Needless to say, I was crushed. All the planning and it wasn’t going to happen. Then he mentioned that the weather was supposed to change for the better in two days and as luck would have it, he was free later in the week. I delayed my return flight for one last shot at angling glory.

Two days later, we launched at 6:00 a.m. sharp under identical conditions to the previous days with sunny skies and calm seas. Nevertheless, all was forgotten as we made our way to the pass. For those unfamiliar with fishing for tarpon in Boca Grande, imagine a crowded parking lot. Now imagine that each car you see is a boat and each boat has three anglers and a captain. To say it was crowded is a gross understatement.

We made our way to the top of the fleet and our fearless leader barked out orders. “Just drop them jigs to the bottom, crank ‘em up a couple of turns and don’t move till I tell ya’.” We did as instructed for the next several hours, and nothing happened. I sulked in silence wondering how my dream had turned into such a nightmare.

“Drop ‘em down.” I watched an overweight woman with no business wearing a bikini come tight to a huge fish. “Reel ‘em up.” Now an elderly man was hooked up. “Drop ‘em down.” Two drunken frat boys in the boat next to us had a double. “Reel ‘em up…Drop ‘em down…Reel ‘em up…Drop ‘em down.” My god!

Time was ticking away. Then with less than an hour left to fish, my rod suddenly doubled over. I was hooked up! Now hooking a tarpon is one thing, but landing one is a different story altogether. Throw in the fact that we were completely surrounded by dozens of boats and I had to remain fast to 100-plus pounds of angry silver with no intentions of coming in quietly. I don’t know how we did it, but we finally made it to open water. Nothing was going to stop me now! Then Darren blurted, “Hey, check out the dolphin.”

I glanced quickly over my shoulder and shrieked, “SHAAAARK!” I wailed as a giant hammerhead closed in for an easy meal. With some skilled maneuvering, our captain managed to keep his boat between my hooked tarpon and the hungry shark, which fortunately lost interest. The captain estimated her at 120-pounds and as we neared the old phosphate docks in the area, the great fish came to leader where we revived and released her. I stared in awe as she slowly slipped from sight. I will playback the memory of that day over and over, but already I’m planning my next birthday. I’ve always wanted to catch a permit on fly. I know it’s extremely difficult and my chances are slim, but I’ve found a guide on the web who claims with him, success is “practically guaranteed!”

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