Larry Stephens
Silver at the end of the rainbow.

 tarpon fight 2

Any time you’re talking about battling a fishing that weighs more than the boat you’re fishing from, there’s no telling just what might happen. Throw in some severe thunder storms and making it back to the hill alive, becomes a dicey adventure. Saturday, August 13 turned out to be a day my fishing partner and I will never forget! We had bargained for Monster Tarpon but not for the Monster Storm that blew in behind us and stood between us and the safety of the beach.

I had recently recruited a new fishing partner, long time friend, Rick Edwards for some near shore kayak fishing adventures. Rick is a very experienced off shore fishermen including scuba, spear fishing, surfing, you name it,  but fishing from a kayak, in the ocean….not so much! In truth, Rick had never set butt in a kayak until just a week before. Of course, with all his other outdoor experience, the transition to fishing from a yak in the ocean was not a big stretch.

I had actually fished the morning before by myself. Admittedly, that was a no no and I had broken the rules but It had been one awesome day battling monster tarpon and sharks. With the bait schools and predator action so hot, working the next day was not an option. I made a plan with Rick to meet at the beach Saturday morning for what promised to be another great day on the big water.

We were braced to set a new county record! I had worked until 10:45 the night before building leaders, rigging rods, sharpening hooks, etc. I could hardly sleep that night thinking of the impending battle that awaited us in the surf.

Ricky and I rendezvoused at the beach just after daylight. We immediately started glassing the surf for bait pods of Menhaden, also called Pogies, looking for signs of feeding Tarpon. To our surprise the bait had vanished like smoke in the wind. One minute they were here, the next they were gone. In actuality, they were just not schooled up on the surface where we could see them. We drove up and down the beach from High bridge at the southerly end of Flagler county, all the way to the northerly city limits of Flagler Beach, glassing until about 10:30 but to no avail. I told Rick “the baits been moving north, lets go way up towards Marineland and see if we can find them” but Ricky was discouraged, hot and hungry. He wanted to call off the dogs, come back after lunch and see what we could find.

While Rick headed home, I decided to stop in town for ice and provisions and continued the hunt. I made my way up north, stopping at any available beach access to glass for bait. As I pulled up to the beach at 16th Road., There they were…..pogies! Three big schools of them.

There were probably 150 people ganged up on the beach, wading in the water, seemingly unaware of the large bait school just beyond the breakers and what lurked beneath. The bait was nervous and after a few minutes I spotted a tarpon roll on the edge of the school. That was all I needed to see.

I pulled out and headed on north to quickly recon the remaining accesses before making a decision where we’d put in. I found some more good bait at the Malacompra access and phoned Ricky to assemble the team. I could hardly wait for him to get there. With Tarpon rolling and busting into the bait I was chomping at the bit to get on them. Rick finally arrived, we quickly geared up and got in the water about 1:30 PM,  paddling hard for the nearest school.

There is not much that’s more exciting than paddling up on a school of nervous bait with big 100 to 150# tarpon busting them. Sometimes the tarpon will strike so violently into the school that bait showers into the air for a 20-30’ diameter. It’s common to have terrorized, 6-8” pogies jump right in the kayak with you, flopping in your lap. It’s the ultimate top water strike!

Though Rick is an experienced scuba diver and off shore fisherman, this was only his 3rd time in a Kayak. On our previous Tarpon trips together I had hooked up so quickly Ricky did not even get a chance to fish. Today would be Ricky’s day! My roll for this trip was to keep Ricky supplied with fresh pogies and act as chase boat and photographer.

The school we paddled up to was not tightly bunched which made it a little hard to snag a bait. I had to loop in a treble hook on my tarpon leader but after a couple casts I had the first volunteer. Rick hooked him up and heaved him back into the pod. About the time I caught another pogy, a fish striped Rick’s hook so he paddled over and grabbed bait #2. I was still trying to snag another bait when Rick hooked up! He hollered out “it’s a big Jack!” The Jack Crevalle is known for pulling power and this one was no exception. At 30-35 lbs. This fish had no problem towing Rick’s 14′ Redfish kayak around before finally tearing off.

I had just caught bait #3 but Rick had a back up rod so I hollered over to him to try and snag a pogy. He pulled one out of the school on the first cast, hooked him on and served him up.

Within minutes Ricky was hollering again “I got him, I got him!” as a big silver king, tail walked across the surface. I probably didn’t get to fish more than 10 minutes.

Once again it was time to take a ride east for deep water. This fish wasn’t messing around.

There was no circling or changing directions, She had her mind made up that she was going to pull us into the deepest water she could find!

Since the tarpon was keeping a steady course, I grabbed on to Rick’s boat to save some paddling and add a little extra resistance to the fight, not that this seemed to bother the tarpon. Most of the time this fish was actually pulling both yaks sideways. The tarpon strained against Rick’s heavy rod but all the pulling and acrobatics could not shake the hand sharpened Mustad hook. Within about 45 minutes Ricky had the beast floating yak side andready for a well deserved photo of his first “tarpon by kayak“!

It was about this point that we heard the first rumble of thunder back towards the beach! Rick spun around and motioned towards the beach, “look at that, we need to get out of here right now!”

The tarpon had pulled us nearly two miles out to sea. Little did we know, within a few short minutes we’d be paddling for our very lives!

We finished our pictures as fast as we could, stowed our gear and started stroking for the beach as hard as possible.  A huge lightening ground strike over the beach to the NW. really got our attention and added a greater urgency to get off the water. We were about to come to the realization of just how serious a mistake we had made in not being aware of the building storm behind us.

In the excitement of catching the 120#+ tarpon and the haste to get moving, I did not catch what depth the tarpon had pulled us out to but I can tell you this….. I paddled for 15 minutes with all I had and glanced down to the sonar only to see we were still in 45’ of water!

This is were things really got serious. In 45’ of water the wind hit us! I mean some real wind 40-45 mph kind of wind and coming straight off the beach. Almost instantly, the water turned angry and went from a slight swell to 3-4’ waves breaking over the bow, one right after another. We were literally paddling for our lives.

One thing I remember most was the pressure of the wind against the face of the paddle every time it came up out of the water. It was incredible.  It was one of the most intense things I had ever done. You literally could not stop paddling for even an instant. With no landmarks visible you could not tell if you were even making any headway. I actually felt like I was on the loosing side of the battle.

In short order a stinging horizontal rain enveloped us that caused us to loose sight of the beach. I also remember how concerned I was with how long I could keep up that kind of a paddling pace. The conditions were so bad that if you could not keep your boat pointed straight into the waves you were going to be rolled and have to ride out the duration of the storm treading water!

I would describe the paddle like a surf entry in 3-4’waves except that the surf zone was a relentless, half mile wide instead of just a set of two or three breakers.

The only thing we could do was paddle with all we had, stay square to the waves and hope the storm subsided before we ran out of steam. The other concerning issue was that we both knew if one of us got in trouble there was not really anything the other could do to help.

Finally, after about 25 minutes the wind let up and the water started to lay. What a relief that was! It took us over an hour to make it back to the hill! By the time we were back on the beach the big surf had disappeared! It was so calm at that point that you would never believe what we had just endured.

We drug our boats up on the beach and just sat there exhausted. I looked at Rick and said “I know your butt was puckered on that paddle, It sure got my attention!”

When I first got into fishing off the beach with my kayak, my close friend, Capt. Rick Ruebel gave me some good advice….”you need to be done fishing and be back on the beach by 1:00 PM to avoid the afternoon thunder storms.” Better advice I have never received! I can promise you I won’t let myself get caught like that again!

If your planning a trip in the surf with your kayak, fish with a partner and be prepared. It can be one of your best days ever on the water but things can go sideways real fast and develop into a situation you never bargained for!

Larry Stephens

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Ric Burnley
“Thank God my dad wasn’t a podiatrist,” jokes Ric about following in the footsteps of a famous outdoor writer. After graduating from Radford University and serving two years in Russia with the Peace Corps, Ric returned to Virginia Beach and started writing for The Fisherman magazine, where his dad was editor. When the kayak fishing scene exploded, Ric was among the first to get onboard. His 2007 book, The Complete Kayak Fisherman is one of the first tomes to introduce anglers to paddle fishing and hundreds of articles and seminars have brought countless anglers into the fold. When he’s not chasing every fish that swims, Ric teaches English at a school for at-risk teens.

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