Bow to the Silver King
Tarpon Fishing off Boca Grande

by Kris Thoemke

Tarpon fishing is addicting. Just ask Capt. Jim Lemke. He spends several months of each year 100 miles south of his Tampa home fishing the tarpon-saturated waters of Boca Grande Pass. "If I wasn’t married I’d be chasing them all over; it’s a privilege to catch tarpon." Please, don’t tell his wife.

From April through June thousands of these fish, most in the 100–200 lb. class, congregate in the deep waters of Boca Grande Pass and the nearby nearshore areas. The rich waters of the pass provide a smorgasbord of crabs and smaller fish that the perpetually hungry predators eagerly consume as they prepare for the annual spawn, a still mysterious event that takes place someplace offshore and under the darkness of night.

Seeing a 5-8 ft. long fish roll on the surface or swim by your boat it’s not difficult to imagine the power of this impressive fish. They are among the strongest and most aerobatic fish swimming in any water, fresh or salt. Capt. Van Hubbard (Let’s Go Fishin’ Charters, www.captvan.com) says he still gets excited when he sees an angler hook up with a silver king, the popular name for this silvery–sided giant. "Seeing a tarpon launch itself into the air and totally clear the water really gets the adrenaline pumping," he says. "Even after catching thousands of fish, I still feel this way."

Big fish attract a lot of attention and, in the case of tarpon, big money. Each year the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce hosts the ‘World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament.’ The three-day catch and release event attracts fishing guides and anglers from around the world. With $250,000 in prize money added to the chance to battle a monster tarpon, fishing becomes a serious business that’s irresistibly fun. The event, which ran June 30-July 1this year, included a host of land-based activities including a street party in normally quiet and refined downtown Boca Grande. On May 8 of this year lady anglers had their own one-day tournament also sponsored by the chamber, with jewelry and cash as prizes.

Tarpon fishing in the pass, using the tide and currents to push the boat, is the traditional method for catching big tarpon. "We fish with jigs," says Lemke (www.thefishingauthority.net). "All you have to do is drop the jig to the bottom and reel up or let it down as we drift and the water depth changes." Even with stout tackle and 40-lb. test line when a big fish takes the bait, the bend in the rod doesn’t take much away from the sizzling power anglers feel radiating up the line and into their body.

Frequently hookups only last a few minutes with the fish making one or two rocket-launching leaps of the water before dislodging the hook from the tarpon’s hard-plated mouth. "Even that is plenty exciting," acknowledges Lemke. "But, we know a more solid hookup will come and when we get that, the plan is to get the fish to the boat as soon as possible." Soon is at least 20 and maybe as much as 45 minutes—more than enough time to gain an energy-draining appreciation for the power of these graceful fish.

Hubbard and some other guides avoid the frequently crowded pass and fish the adjacent nearshore waters. "I sight fish for schools of 50–100 fish," he says. "They are usually slowly milling near the surface and you can see them from a distance. The key to getting to the fish is to get close enough to cast to them without scaring they away." Hubbard uses a lighter class of tackle than Lemke because he’s not as concerned with hooking a fish with a crowd of boats around. This technique is just as effective as jig fishing in the pass, but it requires the angler remember one important fact.

"You must bow to the fish when it jumps," Hubbard explains. Bowing, in this instance, does not mean paying respect to the fish, but is a technique for catching the fish. "You must lower the tip of the rod when the fish jumps out of the water. This puts enough slack in the line to keep the fish from breaking off." The technique is effective and Hubbard claims the two anglers on his boat average catching three fish plus many more brief hookups each day.

Whether you fish the tournament or just want to have a more leisurely heart-pounding experience without the pressure of winning big money, contact Hubbard or Lemke or visit the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce’s web site, www.bocagrandechamber.com. From the main menu you can get information about tournaments and a list of local guides, many of which have their own websites. •

from the July-August 2004 issue

"Seeing a tarpon launch itself
into the air and totally clear
the water really gets
the adrenaline pumping"