Winter time in south Florida is something special and when we get a week like this one, it is hard to imagine a better place to be. Cool air, calm seas, crystal clear water and fish everywhere. Whether you are offshore, on the reef or in the flats these first few cold fronts bring about an amazing change in the marine community after a long stagnant summer. Of course one of our favorite fish, the Tarpon, is also down here to enjoy the climate.
A buddy of mine Kirk Kilfoyle at NSU Oceanographic Center gave me a call the other day to report a large school of tarpon he had been seeing lately. I went out on the water with him to check them out and to talk about some future research ideas. You can see a dozen or so in this video out of at least 50 that were cruising around in the area. Several of these fish are the 100lb plus adults that we have tracked with satellite tags moving up and down the eastern coast but you will also notice some smaller ones mixed in. Where will they go next? From some of our previous work we know that a lot of them will be sticking around for the shrimp runs in the coming months before they make their way down to the Keys, but there is still much to learn about these beautiful fish.
Last week Jiangang, Jayce and I participated in Ha Ha’s Key Biscayne Yacht Club’s Working Man’s Tarpon Tournament Wednesday to Friday night. Its a catch and release tournament with lines in at 6:15 pm and out by 8:30. Timing was perfect with an outgoing tide at sunset and protection from the heavy 15 knot ESE winds we’ve had all week. Each night there was lots of action but unfortunately we were not able to get any larger fish close enough to a boat to tag. On Friday night, Jayce put in an epic battle with a hundred lb fish for over a hour and a half before the hook snapped. Better luck next year…
Tagging boat waiting for a tarpon
Jiangang with tagging gear getting ready to board a boat with a fish on.
I just returned from a 7 day trip down to Belize to participate in the 3rd annual Belize River Lodge Tagging Challenge (http://www.belizeriverlodge.com/3rd-annual-tagging-challenge.html). The goal of the week-long event was to conventionally tag bonefish and permit in support of the Bonefish Tarpon Trusts’ efforts to collect information that is directly applicable to the conservation and protection of flats fisheries and habitats (http://www.bonefishtarpontrust.org/project-belize/project-belize.html). In addition to conventional tags, I brought 6 satellite tags to place on large migratory tarpon as part of our ongoing mission to better understand their seasonal movements.
The first couple of days were very windy and few boats were able to make it out to the outer islands where bonefish and permit could be found. Instead anglers fished for snook and juvenile tarpon in the Belize and Sibun rivers. Along with two guides, I went out to deeper water channels looking for 100 lb tarpon but the conditions were far from ideal and none were seen.
By the fourth day the winds had laid down and all of the guides and their anglers were back offshore looking for bonefish, permit and tarpon. Over the course of the week, 19 bonefish were caught and tagged along with 2 permit. However, the large tarpon remained elusive. 5 juvenile tarpon were caught and a DNA swap was taken but no fish larger than 70 lbs (minimum size for tagging) was landed. To date we have satellite tagged 10 tarpon in the area but so far we have been unable to place a long term tag on a large migratory fish. We are especially interested where these fish go after they show up in Belize and wonder if they join other tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico.
Given the unseasonably warm winter and several rumors that some decent tarpon had started to show up inside the Everglades National Park, Chris and I went in for a quick overnight trip to see if we couldn’t tag any fish in early February.
The weather was great with a bit of a south breezy to keep the bugs down and we were some of the first campers to stay at the newly constructed Oyster Bay Chickee after it had been destroyed by a fire this last summer.
The day time tarpon action was not great. We found a new area north of the Shark River with a dozen or so smaller fish rolling but they were not interested in our lures. We had a one hit on the outgoing tide at the Ponce de Leon inlet and saw a few more smaller fish but were not able to make it happen. At night we we jumped a monster on a live ladyfish at our go-to-spot but were not able to land any.
Little Shark River
Chris looking for bait
On Tuesday Captain Russ Kleppinger (https://www.facebook.com/fishpicks) called Jiangang to see we would like to try to tag a tarpon. He was taking out RJ Boyle (http://www.rjboylestudio.com) and Seth Horne who were working on a short film for “In the Spread” (https://www.facebook.com/InTheSpread) on night time tarpon fishing. They had some room on the boat and were hoping one of us could join them to tag a tarpon. I was extremely excited to get out with Capt Russ again and agreed to meet him at 7:30 at his place in North Miami.
The night before he had jumped 10 large tarpon but this night things were a bit slower. After several hours of marking tarpon but no bites we finally hooked up a big one at 10:30. It took us an hour and a half to get it to the side of the boat. It was a beautiful 132lb tarpon and within a few minutes we attached a SPOT tag. It swam away energetically after a few minutes of revival and two days later we have heard from the fish near Delray Beach. What a great night and many thanks to Capt. Russ, RJ and Seth for helping to make this tagging possible. We look forward to seeing where this tarpon does this winter.
Chris and I returned to the Everglades last week to redeploy our acoustic receivers that had been outfitted with new batteries. We decided to spend the night at the Shark River chickee to give ourselves some extra time to deploy the receivers and to look for and hopefully tag some tarpon. Over the course of two days, the receiver deployment went smoothly and we are now set up to listen for some tagged tarpon this season.
On Thursday, after we had deployed the southern portion of the acoustic array, we headed into ‘Tarpon Pond’ to look for tarpon. As we entered the system, I was casting a terror eye trying to catch some ladyfish when right beside the boat a huge tarpon flashed near my lure. We exchanged our bait rods for heavier gear and starting looking for and casting at tarpon. About a half an hour into our search, Chris hooked up a beautiful tarpon with a hogy lure and the fight was on. This area is characterized by a series of larger and small ponds connected with narrow mangrove channels. Immediately after taking the lure the fish went up a channel and around two bends taking our line underneath dozens of mangrove prop roots. It was still reeling out line as we frantically tried to untangle the line from the prop roots so we could chase the tarpon further up the channel. Luckily it slowed down and in 5 or ten hard minutes we had the line free and were able to catch up to the tarpon. The fight was intense for at least 20 more minutes before we were able to slow the fish down and start to bring in and keep line. This tarpon was at least 100lbs; a tag-able fish. More time passed and I could tell we were getting close to our chance to tag it (I got to the leader once) then all of a sudden the hook came out and the fish was gone…. We were extremely disappointed as this was a perfect fish to tag and track as the serious cold fronts start moving through the Everglades later in the winter. We tried several more spots that night and the next day and were only able to jump a small tarpon.
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Last week Chris and I made an overnight trip into the Everglades to retrieve all of our hydroacoustic receivers to replace the batteries for the up-coming year and download any data they have collected over the last few months. While … Continue reading
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This week I continued my search for a permit to deploy a satellite tag with the help of Captain Joe Gonzalez of Miami (http://captainjoegonzalez.com/). On Tuesday morning the conditions in Biscayne Bay looked great and Joe gave me a call … Continue reading
Last week Jed Lipinski (a journalist from New York, www.jedlipinski.com ) was in town interviewing Jerry on a story about using data from satellite tarpon tags to help refine hurricane models. After a full day of learning everything tarpon and some of the technical aspects of satellite tags we took him into the field to see and catch a south Florida tarpon.
Captain Russell Kleppinger (https://www.facebook.com/fishpicks) out of North Miami had agreed to take us out for a night of fishing on his killer Egret. We met up and 9 o’clock and went to some of his standard tarpon hotspots. During this time of the year, large 100lb + fish are rare and we were just hoping for some smaller fish so Jed could see how special tarpon are in the wild. We each had a chance to hooked up and fight a 15-20 lber on light tackle which was a total blast. In total we brought 5 tarpon boat-side so Russell could get a DNA swab. On top of the tarpon action the snook were biting pretty hard and we caught and release 4. Despite all the fishing action, the highlight of the night was watching a small school of tarpon track and strike ballyhoo as they tried to swim by.
Jerry fighting tarpon