I texted my fishing buddy “I would be an idiot to go tarpon fishing”. We were kicking around the fishing possibilities for a rare weekend with a forecast of calm wind and sunny skies.
Last summer, fishing was so good, we could target a dozen species with realistic expectations of great success. But I wanted to go for tarpon, a fish I had chased for years and never caught.
Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” He’s not talking about clinical insanity, he’s talking about life-choices insanity. Targeting tarpon in kayaks fits the profile. After hours and days and years fishing for the silver beasts, I wanted to go again, even though I knew the trip would end the same way. Nothing.
Tarpon fishing in Virginia is the ultimate challenge. Only a small band of diehards in shallow-draft skiffs even bother. These guys don’t report catches, share locations or post reports on social media. The only information is gleaned from rumors and innuendo mixed with exploration and blind luck.
Virginia is the northern end of the tarpon’s range; so few fish reach our coast. The pioneering silver warriors are huge, an average fish is 80 pounds with big ones weighing over 100. Our State Record is 130 pounds, set by my mentor Barry Truitt in 1975. Bigger fish have been caught, but no self-respecting tarpon junky would kill a unicorn for a trophy.
The biggest obstacle is reaching the fish. Tarpon haunt the vast marshes and mudflats of the Eastern Shore peninsula. At high tide, the fish spread out on the flats. But as the tide drops, and the flats dry, the huge fish move into deep holes and channels. Tarpon pools are separated by miles of open water, swift current and foot-sucking muck. I spend hours pouring over satellite images and winter days exploring the backroads for a place to launch.
But wait, there’s more. To target tarpon, the tides have to line up, the wind lay down and the thunder clouds clear. Those same conditions, in the middle of summer, result in scorching sun and temperatures over 100 degrees with humidity to match. Not to mention the flies, mosquitos and big, hairy spiders.
Why would anyone suffer these conditions to target a fish he has never caught? Crazy? Believe it or not, it gets worse.
Tarpon are big, silver fish that haven’t changed much in epochs. There are fossils of megalodon tarpon hanging in a Smithsonian museum.
They don’t eat very much. The primary tactic is anchoring in the tarpon hole and soaking a live croaker or spot. We also try sight casting big plugs and swimbaits. Nothing. No, it’s worse than nothing. Instead of tarpon, we catch sharks and stingrays, annoying fish with sharp and pointy parts.
This is nothing compared to the tarpon’s most frustrating trait. To survive in water with low oxygen, tarpon breach like a porpoise to gulp air. Some days we see dozens of rolls. I can see the fish, but I can’t catch them. Ever!
See where this is going?
Paddling miles, roasting under the sun, swatting flies, mucking through the swamp and sweating day after day, season after season, for nothing. Whacko, huh?
In any other sport, I would be a loser. If I spent days hitting a golf ball without getting it in the hole, shooting brick after brick or unable to sink a pool ball, I would quit. If I sat in the woods for years with a .22 LR rifle, hunting but never shooting a rabbit, my friends would certify me LooneyTunes.
But fishing is different. My eccentricity is admired. It’s called persistence. Patience is a virtue. Even in the light of easier and more productive ways to catch a fish, I shun the sure thing for the impossible. According to the American Psychiatric Association, I’m normal in all ways. But according to Albert Einstein, I’m a total fruitcake.
All this was going through my sunbaked mind as I let flies crawl on my face and watched the tip of my rod stand motionless against the hazy blue sky. “What am I doing here?” I thought as the buzzing stillness was broken by a tarpon roll a few feet from my kayak.
Before my brain could compute what was happening, my rod tip slammed to the breaking point, the line streaked across the water and my kayak swung heavily on anchor.
I jumped on the rod and wrestled it out of the rod holder just in time for a man-sized, silver bronco to explode out of the water, wriggling and bucking, shaking the hook free and flinging it at me like a hand grenade.
I sat there, limp rod in hand, a pile of line and a mauled croaker in my lap. My high-pitched laugh cracked the heat over miles of grass, brine and mud. I hope no one heard. I’m sure I sounded crazy.
I hear them laughing at me | Featured photo: Jason Arnold