Big Attraction - It may be quiet now, but tarpon season should make splash
By DOUG PIKE
It took barely 48 hours for the Gulf of Mexico to flatten itself behind tropical storm Bill's uninvited arrival earlier this week. Surfers were disappointed (they call it "bummed") that one of the year's better swells deflated so quickly, but tarpon fishermen see the settled water as a starting point.
"I've been twice so far and found them once, off Galveston Island," said Jim Leavelle, one of the region's top charter captains for summer tarpon. "Tarpon fishing ought to be good if we can get a break from these morning storms."
Tom Ayers of Teakwood Marina, a major starting point for Galveston-based tarpon fishing, had a confirmed sighting this past week, off Freeport, and has logged enough years in the area to know there are more tarpon here now.
The fleet remains intact and as enthusiastic as ever, but none of the regulars in the group has put a fish in the air. Yet.
Tarpon fishing off Texas has a long and once glorious history. Presidents and dignitaries around the world traveled here half a century ago, mostly to middle-coast ports, and enjoyed what was then some of the best tarpon fishing anywhere. There were fish in the surf, in the river mouths and even well into the bays, and anyone who wanted to catch one -- or a dozen -- usually could be accommodated.
The scene is quite different today, predominantly locals and no more heads of state. Tarpon season runs about the same, roughly all summer into fall, but late starts and early finishes occur with increasing regularity. Fishermen old enough to remember better tarpon fishing point to various influences as being responsible for the general decline, the short list of which includes increased pollutants and reduced freshwater inflow. Whatever the actual cause, though, the effect has been anything but disinterest in the species.
Tarpon draw crowds because they can leap a full body length or higher vertically and aren't shy about doing it. They taste horrible, and you can't bring one to port unless you pay $100 in advance for a special tag (more after Sept. 1). Still, sport fishermen can't get enough of these chrome-plated sea rockets.
Fishermen today have grown more particular about when and where they fish, however, relying on sophisticated forecasts, high-tech electronics and even e-mail to pinpoint opportunities. When things get "right," they put the eraser to the business calendar and go. Most of them haven't gone yet this summer.
The nearshore Gulf was unusually calm through June and loaded with other warm-water cast members. Beachfront piers produced hundreds of sharks and jack crevalle, and king mackerel swarmed the jetties at Galveston and Freeport on several occasions. Leavelle's trips produced all of those plus several big cobia. Tarpon move in the same circles.
Most of the pros who fish for tarpon here don't get started in the Gulf until the week after the Fourth of July, however, which helps explain why none of those big fish has been caught yet.
Pros who split their summers between inshore and nearshore trips have been slow to abandon one of the better speckled trout seasons in recent memory, and understandably so. They can ill afford to turn away from a sure bite, happy customers and generous tips.
Tarpon trips can be as lucrative, although they seldom produce as much for the ice box. This species' appeal is pure sport and adrenalin generated by high-flying acrobatics and back-wrenching battles. An occasional shark or king mackerel might find its way to the cleaning table, but nearshore fishing is mostly about memories.
Multiple tarpon hookups are somewhat rare along the upper Texas coast. One fish in a day is respectable, and more than three would be worth a medal if medals were awarded. Average weight is 75-100 pounds, equal to 30or more good speckled trout, and 150-pound tarpon are not unusual. The biggest tarpon that cruise Texas water crowd 200 pounds and can hardly lift their deep, thick bodies out of the water.
No matter a tarpon's size, one bite in a hot day isn't much if you're not first to the bent rod. Fortunately for tarpon fishermen and even more so for charter captains, most summer trips also include plenty of action from jacks and kings and other cards in the nearshore deck.
Sharks are most common and can be an outright nuisance. In the right spot -- or wrong one, depending on how many you've already cranked -- sharks from 40-120 pounds will eat anything and everything that touches the water, including artificial lures.
Traditional tarpon fishing here begins with medium-action trolling gear and reels spooled with 40-pound test line. Lighter equals longer. Fishermen elsewhere often use heavyweight spinning tackle, but the big "coffee grinders" have yet to gain popularity among Texans.
Most professional skippers here carry generous supplies of fresh menhaden, which are available from coastal camps, and hand-size "shad" have proven better than larger ones for tarpon. Sharks and kings will eat anything. Ribbonfish and sand trout also make good tarpon baits, especially around shrimp boats. Whichever bait you choose, use large circle hooks to improve your catch ratio.
Fishermen here could catch their own live baits in cast nets or on specialty rigs with small hooks but rarely do. Maintaining live menhaden is a hassle, and the delicate baitfish haven't proved any more effective at drawing tarpon or dissuading sharks than other offerings.
Heavy swimming and darting plugs draw strikes that can jerk an arm from its shoulder, but like a Las Vegas slot machine, the payoff seldom comes before you've pulled the handle a lot of times. Let your lures sink before working them back to the boat; tarpon may come to the surface to gulp air, but they do most of their eating nearer the bottom.
The players may not be on the field yet, but the game is about to start. Early indicators are good, and tarpon fishermen are looking forward to a long, successful season.
Doug Pike covers the outdoors for the Chronicle. His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and he hosts Inside the Outdoors from 6-8 a.m. Saturdays on KTRH (740 AM).
Phone (361) 537-5540