Best Lures for Tarpon Fishing in Charlotte Harbor

You really can't talk about Charlotte Harbor and/or Boca Grande without talking about tarpon.

Sometimes when I am out on that water, there's some kind of feeling that comes over me. It's not the water. It's not the mud. It's not the air. It's not the gasoline or the quiet sound of paddles moving a canoe or kayak. It's not the birds or water, although in some ways it is that, too. It's something else. Something ancient.

There's no words for it, so it's not something I can "define" like I can a slip knot. I believe that our lives are simply a string of energy, like a song that plays once and is never heard again by anybody we know, except maybe in their dreams, but I believe that song keeps playing. Not here where I sit or exist now, but somewhere. People sitting close to the water. People hearing that song. It's been here for 30,000 years. Maybe more. Writing things down wasn't part of their lives. But the sound was.

Gorge hooks

These hooks are from around the Charlotte Harbor area and were likely made by locals. These are "Gorge" hooks; they were put inside of a large chunk of meat or fish. Line was tied from braided fiber, and obviously worked perfectly well. As far as we know, people have lived around the area for at least 3,000 years, and maybe way, way more. Lures came to the Charlotte Harbor area in the late 1800's. Not too long after that we started seeing fish camps for anglers seeking nothing but the hunt and the pull of those incredible Silver Kings that showed up in local waters.

I only hear it on very rare occasions, but man, do I recognize it when I do. Those people that were on the waters of Charlotte Harbor 3,000 years ago felt that feeling, and heard that inner song. Just like you and me do.

Tarpon Fishing Charlotte Harbor - Three Millenniums Ago

You really can't talk about Charlotte Harbor and/or Boca Grande without talking about tarpon. Tarpon are a species that means a lot to most of our sport fishing lives, so you'll be finding a lot of articles about them in coming months as the season begins.

tarpon t

Although tarpon meat is certainly not as good on the table as the equally-plentiful redfish, snook, mullet, trout and other edibles available to early natives and later settlers, tarpon were eaten judging by archaeological studies. The Keys and Charlotte Harbor were settled by the Brits in 1763, but were populated for many prior years by woodcutters, fisherman, turtlers, hunters and other assorted outdoorsmen, and the woman that for some reason followed them around.

Forest and Stream Magazine talks about Tarpon Fishing in Charlotte Harbor

Charlotte Harbor was mentioned in a hunting and fishing magazine called Forest and Stream in 1873. The publication's southern journalist was a guy by the name of Sam Clarke (no relation to the famous one) who talked about the bay and the "Jew-Fish" and "Tarpum" (more popularly known as Tarpon), which were identified at the time as the "Game Fishes of Florida". You gotta figure it had been nine years before that article that Lincoln met his untimely end that night in Ford's Theatre, so it's not likely anybody was using well-built drag systems and graphite rods, but they were catching them in the Harbor and talking about them.

"An active fish growing to a weight of 100 pounds (if he only knew, right?) is rarely taken with hook an line, as it often carries it off, regardless of its strength" the author wrote. "It goes by the school, and leaps from the water if struck by hook or harpoon. The only successful way to kill a tarpum is to strike it with a harpoon, to which a strong line is attached. The line is hence tied to a small and empty cask; the fish by struggling so exhausts itself so it may be approached with a boat and killed with a lance."

No kidding? Drag systems aside, the fish were hard to catch. By the turn of the century it was hot action, and according to Doctor Steve Bortone in a paper he did on the subject, the sport spread from Charlotte Harbor to Louisiana to Texas, and eventually all over the world.

The Tarpon Inn and Useppa Island

In the spring of 1885, a guy named W.H. Wood (we don't know what the letters stood for or what his friends called him) hooked, landed and weighed a tarpon at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. It's still recognized as the first such species caught and successfully battled on sport tackle. He had a small place near the harbor and often invited a friend of his named Roach. Roach was a railroad baron who had a real flare for the sport and he purchased what we know as Useppa Island.

Jumping tarpon.

The Fishery in Charlotte Harbor really took off when the "1%" crowd of the early 20th century began partying with their friend the railroad baron with the last name of Roach. He built the first fish camp on Useppa Island with his money, and the game of sport fishing for tarpon began.

Roach built the first angler's camp on the island and ran it for four years, between 1894 and 1898, and would invite his rich friends (the 1% of the day, right?) to fish for what they started to call "Silver Kings". Today Japanese anglers spend tens of thousands of dollars (the same way!) to travel from the Orient to catch what they call "Silver Dragons". We can see why they're called that, and so would you if you ever hooked one and had it jump at night during a full or bright rich moon.

"The Tarpon Inn" as it would come to be called, was where anglers started pulling scales off fish, and writing down the name of the angler, the size, length, weight and girth of the fish, and took pictures of their many dead carcasses rotting in the Florida sun. It's sad to think of them all killed for nothing, but it goes to show that rich white guys killing them by the thousands in days gone by did nothing at all to the stock today. Nothing. We're talking about a lot of dead tarpon hanging after a lot of fishing trips. It wasn't until the 80's when we stopped hanging them to dry before putting them in the dump, or sometimes in the gardens of the rich.

The area really took off to heights when another rich guy by the name of Barren Collier fished The Inn and bought it from Roach. He built another one on Gasparilla Island and the entire Boca Grande Tarpon fishery took off.

In the olden days, the tarpon were caught in a way we never see done today, although writing this article only a month-or-so before tarpon begin to show up in southern bay waters makes me think that won't be for long. How? Spoons. They slow-drifted trolled spoons behind old wooden boats. They hooked those hundred-pounders by drifting silver spoons. They didn't have fluorocarbon, graphite rods or modern drag systems, but land them they did. It was the evolution of boat hulls – modern large-keel boats in particular – that eventually lead to live-bait fishing in Boca Grande pass. The fishermen of the 1800's and early 1900's drifted and caught most of their fish on the beaches.

Fishing for Tarpon with Release Jigs

The sport of tarpon fishing changed again – some say for the worst – when a new form of artificial lure developed. It was called a release jig. Back in the days of spoon fishing, nobody used jigs, but as more anglers tried more things it was apparent that the Silver Kings would quickly – and with great strength – grab a jig. Jig fishing came with its share of problems though, mostly related to losing fish when they jumped.

Jig fishing

To get a jig down towards the bottom of the 90' of water the Boca Grande pass offers tarpon as their personal highway, you need a big jig. An ounce isn't anything when that tide's ripping six-or-seven knots in that tight inlet. When you stick a release jig in the hard jaw of a tarpon and he or she jumps and begins that shaking they're so good at, the chances they're going to throw that thing back at you are very good. They're dangerous, and fish can easily lose them.

American smarts being what they were, a guy by the name of Captain Lance "Coon" Schouest from the State of Louisiana figured out a way to use those effective release jigs to hook them without having them hanging out of the side of the fishes mouth during their incredible battle. He had an idea that led to what we called "The Coon Pop". It hung the lead head of the jig on a small piece of copper wire. When the fish started shaking those 150lb bodies, looking like mercury in the moonlight, the jig would swing, the copper wire would let go (held only by a simple half-loop) and the hook – placed above the lead and held at the curve by the wire – would stay firmly entrenched in Alanticus' mouth. They caught-on like wildfire, until the environmentalists screamed bloody murder and they were let go. You don't need release jigs to catch a fish, but they did make it easier. A lot of us used and loved them.

The rapid growth of the tarpon fishery in Boca Grande lead to a string of big-money tournaments that go on to this day. As the spring approaches and the games begin, we'll see if it's possible to get direct coverage of the action.

tarpon 2

We will be talking more about tarpon as the season unfolds. Maybe if we're lucky we can get some stories from some of our local pros. I would argue that the best tarpon anglers in the world fish not in Boca Grande, but near my current residence at the Mouth of Tampa Bay, close to Downtown Saint Petersburg.

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