(by Sheri Fowler, appeared in Texas Monthly August 1993)
Waves were slapping hypnotically against the pier when Sam Hunt and his teenage daughter, Mary Ann, walked down the long T-head at Port Aransas at about ten-thirty on a muggy June night in 1957. Finding a place among the dozens of fishermen who were already there, Mary Ann cast her line in the water, and before Sam could even bait his hook, she had landed a tarpon. After she reeled the thrashing silvery fish close to the pier, Sam gaffed it and pulled it the twenty feet from the water to the wood planks. At five feet two and a half inches long, it was by far the smallest tarpon caught the entire evening. The tarpon were biting, and they continued to take the bait with such regularity that Sam never had time to get a rig in the water, instead spending every spare minute gaffing for the others. By the time the last of the exhausted fishermen called it quits seven hours later, they had caught 23 tarpon.
That night was the best tarpon fishing that Hunt, who is now 79, had ever seen on the island. He didn't know it at the time, but it was the best he would see in years, for not long after that, tarpon began vanishing from the Texas coast. In the first half of the century, sportsmen, including Franklin Roosevelt, had flocked to the coast to stay at the Tarpon Inn and compete in the massive tarpon rodeos, but for more than three decades after Hunt's incredible night, the species' numbers declined so drastically that many thought the fish had disappeared completely. Various theories sought to account for the loss: overfishing, increased pollution, damming of rivers, or the dynamiting of the fish by the thousands in Mexican waters to supply raw material for a fertilizer plant. Fishing guides in Port Aransas and Galveston who once did a booming business catching tarpon turned to redfish, trout, and kingfish.
But now the tarpon have been found again, schools and schools of them. In the late eighties, the fish began to reappear in significant numbers-not all at once and not in their old haunts, but instead in an area one to five miles off the coast. Once again, there are now tarpon by the thousands in Texas waters, a phenomenon that not only has brought in hundreds of sportsmen but has also given the local economy a much needed jump start. In fact, local fishermen are creating one of the fastest growing sportfishing industries in Texas. The largest tarpon found here-six- and seven-footers-are exceeded in size only by those caught off the West African coast. And, even though the rediscovery of the Texas tarpon is not widely publicized, guides are finding their $450-a-day excursions booked solid with anglers in search of the big ones.
At the same time that the tarpon have resurfaced, tarpon politics have appeared as never before. Under dispute are two intertwined issues: How many tarpon are there? And how many can be killed without endangering the population? Fishing guides, sport fishermen, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department represent a triad of opinions, on some issues far apart in thought, on others so close that it is hard to distinguish just who is on which side.
Everyone agrees that the fish should be protected from what happened in the old days, when hundreds of tarpon were killed and strung along the piers to promote the industry. But each side has a different take on the situation. Some guides think the only good tarpon is a live tarpon; they want a state-enforced catch-and-release policy. The sport fishermen, on the other hand, don't exactly want dead tarpon, but they do want to get credit for record catches, and the present way of measuring record-breaking fish necessitates killing them. Caught somewhere in the middle is Parks and Wildlife-the state agency responsible for regulating fishing-whose policy vacillates and flops around, some say, like a tarpon on a gaff.
No one would have even realized that tarpon were on the rise if it hadn't been for the half-dozen or so Galveston fishing guides who sighted some tarpon in the summer of 1988. As luck would have it, a long, hard freeze in the winter of 1989 then depleted the rout population, so the guides had to turn their attention to other types of fish that their clients might enjoy. At the time, most of the Gulf activity was occurring within three hundred feet of shore (for edible fish) or fifteen miles out (for large game fish). There were no attractive catches to be had between one and five miles off-shore, or, at least, so everyone thought.
That assumption was wrong. Jim Leavelle, the owner of Tarpon Adventures of Galveston, and the four owners of Silver King Adventures-James Plaag, Darrell Skillern, James Trimble, and Dana Bailey-were some of the first to discover the abundant tarpon population in this unexplored territory. On some days they could see acres of tarpon lingering at the top of the water, rolling their huge silver bodies along the surface.
"Ten years ago nobody was fishing for tarpon out off the coast," says Plaag. "It went from nobody, to us, to two or three boats, to fifty or sixty boats fishing for them. We put it on the map."
But the ones who put tarpon back on the map-the guides-and the ones who determine the regulations-Parks and Wildlife-can't seem to agree on how to avoid losing the fish for a second time. In the fall of 1975, Parks and Wildlife began a yearly monitoring program on the Gulf's remaining tarpon population, using gill nets set up in the bay systems. Larry McEachron, the science director for Parks and Wildlife, contends that the department's findings over the past eighteen years show a steady decrease in juvenile tarpon. Leavelle and his friends disagree that tarpon are continuing to decline, and they point to flaws in the study's methodology. The first flaw they see is the location of the census sites. Ninety percent of the current tarpon population is running one to five miles offshore, but the nets are set up in the bays. The second flaw is the timing of the census. The studies are being conducted in the spring and fall, but because tarpon are migratory, they are in Texas waters in the largest quantities from mid June to early October. Their peak is mid to late summer.
Based on these studies, however, Parks and Wildlife implemented catch-and-release status in September 1991 to ensure against needless killing. The guides, despite their obvious problems with the tarpon study, were pleased with any regulation that would encourage tarpon survival. But the avid anglers who chased world-record fish were not so happy. They had lobbied for a trophy-tag stipulation, a program allowing Parks and Wildlife to charge a fee for a tag that lets each fisherman kill one tarpon during a season. The sportsmen didn't want to eat or mount the tarpon they caught. Tarpon aren't edible, and they are too oily to produce a long-lasting mount (most taxidermists make fiberglass replicas anyway), but the record chasers did want to enter their catches in international competitions. They pointed to the International Game Fish Association rule that any record-breaking catch must be weighed on land, and therefore killed. Without a trophy-tag option, Texas' huge silver kings-as tarpon are commonly called-would not be eligible for world-class status.
Parks and Wildlife was unmoved, issuing a statement refuting the need for a tagging system: "Tarpon conservation and restoration are at issue in Texas, not departmental funding ... every tarpon is very important to the recovery of the fishery." In what seemed to the guides a confusing about-face, Parks and Wildlife decided to support legislation passed in the 1993 session allowing the issuance of trophy tags, even though their studies still showed an overall decrease in the bay populations. Leavelle contends that Parks and Wildlife supported the legislation for two reasons: It realized that the studies were inconsistent with the number of actual mature tarpon catches, and it recognized that there was a potential for additional funds from out-of-state fishermen searching for world-class sized fish.
While the guides don't wholeheartedly disagree about trophy tags, which will be issued starting in 1994, they do wish that Parks and Wildlife would give them the authority to issue the tags. This would make them responsible for judging potential record holders and hopefully avoid the senseless killing of smaller tarpon for a quick photo on the beach.
"What's going to qualify as a trophy?" questions Leavelle. "To the general public, a trophy is going to be eighty-five or ninety pounds. To somebody who does it all the time, a trophy is going to be a state record-a fish that weighs at least two hundred and ten pounds. Guides go every day. We can tell the first time the fish jumps, the first time he makes a pass at the boat, approximately what he weighs and if he's even close to trophy size. The problem is going to be when people bring in smaller fish.
"The Parks and Wildlife guys are in their offices," says Leavelle. "They're not out there on a daily basis like we are. They know statistics, but they don't really know about the fish."
Leavelle and his friends definitely know about tarpon. But it wasn't easy learning. Tarpon fishing takes extremely specialized techniques, and the guides have spent countless hours fishing alone, trying to perfect each detail. For them, everything about tarpon is serious business-so serious that they constantly seek the advice of experts such as Tom Gibson, one of the best tarpon fishermen in the country.
Currently living in Houston, Gibson holds two world-class tarpon records, including the state record for a 210pounder caught in 1974 on 130-pound line off South Padre Island. An engineer at NASA, he travels the world in search of tarpon and has taught the Galveston guides a lot. When the guides get together to talk tarpon, Gibson does most of the talking. Self-professed experts only moments before, Leavelle, Plaag, Skillern, and Trimble change into students when they meet in a small bayside restaurant north of Galveston where they customarily hang out. Gibson is clad, appropriately, in a hot-pink shirt printed with teal, orange, and red fishing lures. The hat that hides his salt-and-pepper hair is embroidered with his tarpon records, and his mouth turns down slightly at the edges, a little like a fish's.
Gibson is the tarpon guru, and the guides listen intently, hanging on his every word, asking him the unanswerables: Why do the fish take bait one day and not the next? Why are they visible on the surface by the hundreds, and you can't catch one, then there won't be one in sight, and you can't get the hooks in the water fast enough? But he has also taught them about the techniques of tarpon fishing-why not to sharpen the hooks (so they won't catch in some internal skin or in the stomach) and why to leave the rod in the holder when the tarpon first takes the bait ("A fisherman will make sudden jerky movements that will ultimately lose the fish, but the rod holder never makes a mistake," cautions Gibson). Gibson thinks his influence is minimal, but Leavelle and his group of friends credit Gibson and his techniques with making them the most successful guides in Galveston.
Gibson first met James Plaag at a bait camp on Bolivar Peninsula. Gibson had read in the paper that guides were catching tarpon close off the Galveston coast, but he hadn't tried those particular waters himself. He and Plaag hit it off immediately. On a subsequent fishing trip, Plaag commented that Gibson's choice of a circular hook and perfection-loop knot was absurd because the hook tip pointed inward. Gibson proved him wrong, and after Plaag tried out the knot on his own, he admitted that it was the best hooking technique for tarpon he had ever seen. When they went fishing again, Gibson had Plaag sitting in the boat for hours, tying the looped knots over and over. This new technique greatly improved the guide's catch ratio, and he did not question Gibson's expertise again.
There is one thing above all else that the men have in common, and that's an obsession with the tarpon-its beauty, its strength, its uncanny intelligence. They are all addicted to the fight, mesmerized by the glimmering scales ("Like a thousand silver dollars," says Leavelle) as the fish jumps ten feet into the air, then dives hard and fast back into the Gulf. The guides seem to get the same joy at reeling in the 150-pound creatures as winning the affection of a beautiful woman, and some find the idea of killing one for any reason a little hard to take.
"If you've ever seen the fish in action, if you ever see him Jump, if you ever see him alive and then see him dead, you'd never kill him," Leavelle says. "When you've seen how beautiful he is, you'd never kill him." The guides credit the silver kings with a great deal of intelligence. No two will ever act alike, they say, some jumping in rapid succession, some coming high above the water only once. The guides try to land a fish in less than an hour after it is hooked, in fairness to the tarpon. If it is too worn out when released, sharks are often nearby, waiting for a quick dinner.
"We've seen fish 'ump three times, run a hundred and fifty to two hundred yards," Leavelle explains. "You crank him to the boat, he'll come up and take a gulp of air, look at you with those big eyes, and boom! . . . he's gone again. And he may go a hundred yards doing nothing but jumping just straight away from your boat."
Regardless of their divergent opinions about the tarpon population and regulations, everyone wants what's best for the survival of the fish in Texas waters. And, once the news of the tarpon's recovery spreads, the guides are hoping that their skills will attract experienced fishermen such as the ones who are presently taking their fishing dollars to Florida, Louisiana, Costa Rica, and Africa.
The days are gone when there were so many tarpon swimming along the coast that you could practically walk across them. But even though the numbers have diminished, old-timers like Sam Hunt are glad to see the tarpon make a comeback in Texas waters. Hunt knows the harshness of the fight and the exhausted euphoria of finally landing one of the huge creatures. He has seen big, husky men spend an hour or more fighting the silver king, until they are down on their knees and the tarpon 'is still fighting with all its might. He knows it is the chase, the spectacular fight, and the satisfaction of landing such a magnificent creature that lures anglers to the Texas coast today. And he is glad to see the conservation efforts in the fish's favor.
"In the early days, no one was concerned with conservation anyway, because it just seemed like there were acres of them at times and you would never run out," Hunt remembers. "And in all the sporting magazines, you would read about the harvest of the fish and how the world supply of all the fish life in the oceans would never be depleted. And we've learned about that since......... His voice trails off.
The Texas tarpon are back. They are at home again in the deep waters of the Texas Gulf, out there in the heat of the summer, rolling along the surface, thousands at a time. Regardless of why they were invisible for so long, we now have an opportunity to give the silver kings a second chance to restore themselves. Let's not let the big ones get away.
(by Sheri Fowler, appeared in Texas Monthly August 1993)
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