“Bow to the king,” advises fishing guide Rick Stancyk. His advice is a simple reminder that when tarpon jump, you should drop your rod tip and give slack so the hook doesn’t pull out, in effect bowing when the powerful fish pushes through a series of leaps.
Stancyk is a second-generation fishing guide operating out of a fishing staple in the Florida Keys, Bud ‘n’ Mary’s Fishing Marina. The large boathouse and marina catches your eye as you pass through the southern tip of Islamorada to Indian Key.
It’s a warm spring afternoon in the Keys with a stiff breeze as Stancyk and I climb aboard his 20-foot SeaCraft fiberglass boat. The marina, and countless others up and down the Keys, fool nonanglers into thinking tarpon are an easy catch. Most marinas have tarpon that hang around the docks, waiting for leftover bait or the scraps from cleaning fish. Some places will even sell you some bait with which to feed the fish. To be sure, those handfed year-round resident giants are to their migratory cousins what wild game are to pen raised versions. So as Stancyk and I push off the docks, the sight of numerous huge tarpon swimming lazily underneath is a mirage of false expectations.
We’re under power long enough to pass under a bridge and cruise out near a flat adjacent to a shipping channel. The tide is going out in the same direction as the wind. We chum with cut mullet, then send out a pair of baited lines with more mullet. A bait shortage has made the plump baitfish hard to come by, but we have enough bait to get through the evening. I’m pleased to see that the gear used will be the same setups as I commonly employ for catfish on the Minnesota River: Ugly Stik medium heavy action rods with sensitive tips, Penn spinning reels and monofilament leader tied to a strong braid.
We converse for awhile, long enough to know a little about each other and just long enough for the baits to exhaust their aromatic juices. We reel in, put on fresh cut bait, chunk up and chum a couple new mullets, and return to the waiting game. Some time passes in conversation before we are interrupted by a few taps on one of the rods and the breaching of a tarpon not far behind the boat. He doesn’t have the bait, but he or something must have been playing with it. Before we can say much more, the other line goes screaming out. This, I was forewarned, is the style of a tarpon. Grab the bait fiercely and take off, ripping out line. I’m handed the rod. The drag is set loose so we don’t lose fish on the pickup. These screaming runs typically mean tarpon hook themselves, and while we aren’t using circle hooks, the effect is the same. The fish has hooked itself and all I need to do is bear down and tire it out.
The first jump comes unexpectedly. The fish surges ahead and leaps forward. Late in my realization of what had happened, I was luckily not penalized for forgetting my bow as the hook held while the silver king summersaulted in mid-air. I move to the bow of the boat and we begin running down the giant barreling for the horizon.
Line is gained, and line is lost. The monofilament to braid knot comes up the rod guides, then leaves a few minutes later when the fish is spooked into a hard run. The fish breaches a few more times, but rather than jumping as is customary of the species, this individual stays down and fights like a mule. He will not be powered up, no matter how much I palm the spool to add resistance nor my attempts to turn the rod against his movements. Several times we reach stalemate and I cannot break him. Twenty minutes becomes 30, and then 40.
Finally, he comes up boatside and doesn’t rush down. Captain Stancyk sidesteps the center console, grabs the leader with gloves, and brings the fish to hand. He estimates the fish at 75 pounds, but tells me this fish possesses the stubborn will of a larger fish. To ensure this fish will survive the battle, we trade places holding the fish and keep it in the water for a few pictures before unhooking it and setting it free. The lower jaw feels like a hard-edged plastic wedge. The jaw is designed for powerful suction feeding but lacks sharp teeth in similar fashion to black bass. I remove one scale on my third attempt to be keep a souvenir and to satisfy my curiosity for its age estimation. The huge silver dollar scales are like armor.
We return to our original fishing spot, marked with a mooring buoy, to try for another. We sit for an hour steady, freshening bait and visiting. An hour slips by, and we elect to move to a shipping channel adjacent to day markers in time for the tide to switch direction.
We soak a pair of crabs and as the brilliant Florida Keys sunset is muted in clouds gathering on the horizon, a line goes ripping out, then slack just before I can get to the rod. Another silver king has slipped us, and the remaining 20 minutes yields no more takes. A boat behind us hooks a fish likely from the same school and will be rewarded with a fish story complete with setting sun. We head back to the marina, the angler successful and the guide content to live out another day in fishing paradise.