I was fishing Flamingo with angler Hernan Cortes and his cousin Tony Carnot in one of Flamingo’s many productive shallow water bights on an absolutely gorgeous day recently. We were poling in 8 inches of water when I saw a large shiny tail fin flick and twitter on the surface heading in our general direction. I started poling as quickly as I quietly could towards the tailing fish.
The tail belonged to a massive tarpon that was cruising slowly up into the bight foraging for food along the way. We were poling to cast for redfish so my anglers had light rods and reels with 15# test braid, 30# fluorocarbon leaders and shallow running lures. As we eased closer, we saw that the top tail fin was almost a foot long! It was a monster of a fish! It was translucent silver and it flashed in the bright sun as it flicked back and forth as it hunted nose down along on the bottom.
Our hearts were pounding in our chests as it got closer and closer and we eased into casting range. Tony and Hernan began taking casts and running their baits in front of this gorgeous creature trying to entice it to bite. They made several beautiful casts at the fish, but it either didn’t notice the lures in the dirty water or wasn’t interested. The fish was moving into the wind and it was slowly out pacing us as I pushed us along in the shallow mud bottom. It was just about out of casting range and now and directly up wind of us.
“This is your last shot!” I whispered, as Hernan took one final cast at the departing fish. The cast was perfectly placed. Landing just in front of the fish and trailing right in front of its face. The water ERUPTED with an explosion of water as the massive fish slammed the lure and took off with a crash towards the mouth of the bight. It began greyhounding in the shallow water at a tremendous speed. I didn’t think we had a prayer of catching this fish as it smoked the drag and dumped line from the small reel!
We had to give it a shot though! I lowered the engine so the prop was barely in the water and fired it up. “Hold on!” I yelled and I eased it in to gear. We started moving forward in pursuit of the fish while Hernan held on for dear life. At this point there were only a few precious feet of backing left on the spool!
We couldn’t go very fast at all because the water was so shallow and the engine was trimmed up so high, but we were beginning to move at a slow but steady clip in pursuit of the fish. We chased it as it began making its way across the shallow bight. We’d gain line for a while and then the frantic tarpon would take off again till the silver at the end of the spool showed several times.
After about a half hour (which seemed like a lifetime) we started getting a bit more line back and we got into a bit of a rhythm with the fish. Suddenly it changed tactics and shot directly towards the boat. I knew we were in trouble because in that shallow and muddy bottom we had almost no maneuverability. The fish bulleted behind the boat and took the line under the engine. With a loud “Pop” sound that every fisherman dreads, the line broke. We were heart-broken!
At this point we needed a break from the intensity of hunting the shallows, so I decided to take us over to a nice productive bay to do some drift fishing for trout. I put out my sea anchor, turned the wheel and we began drifting. We started casting leaded jig heads hooked with Gulp shrimp tails and popping them off the bottom. We casted the jigs and relaxed in the boat as we talked and lamented the one that got away.
The trout, ladyfish and jack bite was steady and fun. I was hoping to catch a couple of ladyfish that were small enough to use for live bait at our next spot. Hernan hooked into a nice little ladyfish about ten inches long and it jumped and somersaulted on the starboard side of the boat as he reeled it in. “That’s a perfect bait size!” I said. “Try to get in into the boat before it gets off.” The three of us were watching as the ladyfish leaped frantically out of the water near the transom of the boat.
From behind and under it came a monster hundred pound tarpon! It launched itself into the air in pursuit of the ladyfish. It smashed it with the force of a freight train! The ladyfish flew twenty feet up and over the boat! The tarpon however, was hooked! I screamed “Take it to the front of the boat!” as I started the boat and ran forward to yank the sea anchor out of the water. I could hear the line screaming from the reel and I could see that Hernan was already down well into the backing on the spool.
I hooked a sharp right and followed the fish at a steady clip. It was leaping and crashing and ripping line furiously from the reel. The shallow water that had cost us the last big fish did not hamper us this time as the depth was about four feet. We wanted that fish! Left and right and forward I motored after that tarpon. I could hear Tony’s expensive looking Leica camera clicking as he photographed the fight. He was concentrating on trying to get pictures of the fish while it was airborne.
Hernan was focused on reeling and trying to gain as much line as he could. We would gain on the fish for a while and then watch in frustration as it ripped all the line he had gained out of the reel again. Finally, after about an hour (and about four miles) of chasing the fish, we had it by the leader and boat-side. We released the tarpon to fight another day. Hernan was exhausted, but elated. Tony claimed to have gotten some beautiful pictures. I was happy for my anglers and thrilled at the chance to have gotten a little bit of redemption. We had been totally out-classed by that beautiful tarpon, but we refused to be beaten.
Check out this video of the shallow water tarpon fight: