Yoga Chant Attracts Large Tarpon

Many years ago, a workout partner suggested that I should take up the practice of yoga. The suggestion was accompanied by the comment that I was one of the most inflexible people he knew. I thought to myself, “In so many ways!”

The encouragement led me to take a few classes, buy a DVD, and hide in the basement with my mat to become familiar with the art of yoga. The most fun part was chanting. Little did I know that years later, a yoga chant would help me catch my first 100 pound tarpon.

Beautiful Tarpon - The Quarry

Beautiful Tarpon – The Quarry

From 1988 through 2011, a group of my fishing buddies and I fished annually in the Florida Keys. We were fortunate to have the best guides in the Keys trying to put some very average but enthusiastic anglers on the fish of the flats, namely, bonefish, permit, and tarpon.

As we drove to the Keys for the second year of the trip, stories from the previous trip were shared in a tone of excited anticipation. I observed a significant discrepancy in the way each of us remembered the details of the previous trip. As a result, I bought a blue journal at the K-Mart in Marathon, which has been referred to as the fishing bible ever since.

For the next 22 years, I recorded the fish caught, lost, and the adventures shared. The result – my buddies often contended that the stories of the fishing bible, which were written daily as the events unfolded, were wrong. So instead of arguing with each other, they argue with me over the “truth.”

The Fishing Bible

The Fishing Bible

I have the journal in my hand reviewing the events of November 4, 2010.

I was fishing alone with Guide Dale Perez who is an extremely talented flats guide. On difficult fishing days, Dale referred to himself as “Captain Snake Bit”. I often reminded him that poor fishing results are typically caused by the angler or the conditions encountered, not the guide.

Guide Dale Perez On The Poling Platform

Guide Dale Perez On The Poling Platform

Dale launched the skiff out of Little Torch. As we cleared the narrow channel lined with beautiful homes, the skiff was punched up on plane and we started the long run into the backcountry of the Content Keys which are a slice of heaven nestled in the flats bordering the Gulf of Mexico. The early morning run was made as Dale and I silently shared the optimism of endless possibilities. The skiff skimmed over the surface pushing a gentle wake as a soft hissing sound caressed our ears. Dale raced to the first fishing destination as I daydreamed of fish to be caught and stared into the water looking for signs of life.

That morning, the skies were a flat slate gray as a single sheet of low hanging cloud stretched to the horizon. A mild breeze was blowing. No sun meant visibility into the water was zero, but fortunately, we arrived at our first flat as the water began to rise with the tide. Good fortune followed.

Once In  A While The Sun Does Not Shine In The Florida Keys

Once In A While The Sun Does Not Shine In The Florida Keys

Dale had been poling along the edge of the flat for no more than 10 minutes when a large school of bonefish pushed water ahead of them as the fish left the deeper water of the channel and swam up on the edge of the flat staging to feed as the turtle grass began to flood with saltwater. The “wake” resembled a v-shaped flock of geese migrating through a Midwest fall sky.

Although I could not see the fish, I understood from years of mistakes under similar circumstances that the actual fish were swimming well ahead of the wake. I threw my shrimp about 10 feet in front of the wake and as the bait landed Dale shouted, “Rowe, you should get one!” I did.

The First Of Two Content Keys Bones

The First Of Two Content Keys Bones

We had several more shots at schooling fish coming up on the flat and I caught an eight pounder before the fishing shut down which coincided with worsening weather. The wind came up and rain drops began to fall. Dale hopped off the poling platform, stored the push pole, and fired up the engine as I stowed my spinning rod and reel. We were off to what we affectionately call the 26 foot hole.

Captain Perez and Larry LaFleur Hooked Up To Big Tarpon In The 26 Foot Hole

Captain Perez and Larry LaFleur Hooked Up To Big Tarpon In The 26 Foot Hole

Over the years, I have fished the 26 foot hole a number of times. When we are out of good fishing options in the Contents because of a lack of sun, poor visibility, too much wind or from some other combination of the endless variables which affect the fishing, we will run to the 26 foot hole. When the tide is right, tarpon resident to the hole often will roll in the channel which is at least a mile long, a couple hundred yards wide, and yes, 26 feet deep. Typically, the rods and reels remain stowed as we all scan the surface for signs of rolling tarpon. As soon as a roller is spotted the tension and excitement in the skiff explodes.

Tarpon Rolling Off Seven Mile Bridge

Tarpon Rolling Off Seven Mile Bridge

The first step is to rig a small spinning reel with a sabiki rig. Each tiny hook of the sabiki is tipped with a small piece of shrimp as we fish for live bait, the feisty pinfish. For me, a pinfish is the saltwater equivalent of the freshwater bluegill. The next step is to get out a tarpon rod and reel, sharpen the hooks, and cut a hunk of Styrofoam as a bobber. Two slits are cut in each side of the hunk of Styrofoam into which the guide wraps a couple of turns of line. If a fish strikes, the line cuts through the Styrofoam as the angler sets the hook. Instantly, the bobber is gone and the angler is tight to the fish.

Crab Pot Styrofoam Makes Great Bobber

Crab Pot Styrofoam Makes Great Bobber

Once rigged, the technique is simple. I lob the pinfish which is hooked in the back and the Styrofoam bobber out into the current. As the rig lands, the spinning reel bail is left open so the bait will drift with the tide and current. If the lob cast is too aggressive, the Styrofoam bobber will break and the guide will be cranky! Next, you watch the bobber as it ducks and weaves on the water while the feisty pinfish tries to escape. It takes little imagination to envision a huge tarpon causing panic in the pinfish as the Styrofoam chunk skitters across the surface.

Pinfish Are Great Tarpon Bait

Pinfish Are Great Tarpon Bait

With no other good options that afternoon, we drifted pinfish in the 26 foot hole for five hours. Almost immediately, the bobber disappeared and I caught a beautiful jack crevalle. Although not our quarry of choice, the jack put up a tremendous fight full of pumping runs and a singing drag. As the fish was released, I was sure there would be bigger and better fish to follow.

Jack Crevalle

Jack Crevalle

An hour passed. As tedium descended and my eyes began to get heavy, I decided to lob my bait to the opposite side of the boat. As the bobber settled in the water just a few feet from the port side of the boat, it just kept going. Before I could tighten on the fish and set the hook, a 4 foot barracuda exploded through the surface and jumped some 6 to 8 feet ascending to our eye level.

Jumping Barracuda

Jumping Barracuda

As it splashed back into the water, the fish reversed direction and streaked across the bow jumping a second time as if it was a thoroughbred clearing a hurdle. As soon as the cuda hit the water, it swirled around churning the surface as if it was trying to escape a dreadful fate. Suddenly, the fish was again airborne as a huge boil of water erupted underneath the flying fish. Out of the water came a 500 pound bull shark with jaws wide open not 10 feet from the boat. The hungry shark caught the barracuda and disappeared under the surface.

Bull Sharks Like To Eat

Bull Sharks Like To Eat

The line went slack as the refrain from “Jaws” drifted in my head. “Do, do-do, do.” It was one of those events where a month of intensity was jammed into a few seconds. Dale and I looked at each other in disbelief. “Can you believe that? “. Our knees were shaking.

Many more casts followed. I wondered why any fish would be swimming in the 26 foot hole after the bull shark exploded on the barracuda.

After another hour, a third bite. The bobber slowly disappeared some hundred yards from the boat. I reeled down to tighten against the fish and set the hook. Immediately, a large tarpon jumped some 6 feet out of the water.

Jumping Tarpon

Jumping Tarpon

That was the last time we saw the fish as it seemed to burrow to the bottom of the 26 foot hole. After 15 minutes of bull dogging, the line went dead. There was no hook and no fish as I reeled in the slack line with the hip thrusting slumped shoulder bad body language of disappointment. I cast my eyes skyward to ask the fishing gods when I might expect to catch a big tarpon? There was silence on the boat.

Dale rigged. Another 90 minutes passed. No bites. Boredom set in. There was no conversation. Finally, a strange thought popped into my head. I set the rod down next to me and climbed up on the bow of the boat. I sat in an upright cross-legged position with my knees spread apart. Putting my index fingers against my thumbs, I placed a hand on each knee. “What in the world are you doing, Rowe” Dale asked. “Dale, nothing is happening. We haven’t had a bite in over an hour and half. So I am going to call the fish to my bait by doing my yoga chants”. Dale shook his head.

“Ooooommmmm. Ooooommmmmm. Anshati, shanti,” I chanted surrounded by the stillness of the ocean and an extremely skeptical guide. As the last word left my mouth, the bobber disappeared. I had been chanting for all of five seconds. I laughed out loud, stood up, put both hands on the rod and reel and set the hook. The fish erupted from the water. After a long battle with many runs, jumps, and scary moments, Dale fired up the skiff and chased the fish from the depths the 26 foot hole onto a shallow flat.

Caught Tarpon

Caught Tarpon

We had our hundred pound tarpon. The fish swam slowly under the bow of the boat as Dale reached over and touched the leader making it a “caught fish”. He then yanked and broke the line. The tarpon eased off as its silver green color drifted out of sight.

I went crazy! My first tarpon exceeding 100 pounds had been attracted and caught under the spell of a yoga chant! “Only you, Rowe, only you…” Dale sighed.

Catching Tarpon By Hand at Robbies, Islamorada, Florida Keys

Midway through the Florida Keys you can find a charming gulf side bar where my fishing group stops en route to our final destination of The Ranch House Motel in Marathon, Florida. At that point of the journey we need something for our lips – a Matecumbe fried grouper fish sandwich and an ice cold beer. The restaurant is known as Robbies. To the rear of the of the bar is a small marina which is famous for selling buckets of dead fish with which tourists (such as myself) can use to feed a group of tarpon who have come to depend on the free fish from Robbies for an easy meal.

Tarpon Robbie's

The Dock At Robbie’s

It would be improper to refer to these tarpon as wild but seeing 100+ pound tarpon up close and personal is something I cannot resist. So, in spite of my fishing buddies shaking their heads in disbelief that I would pay two dollars for a bucket of fish so I can throw them at what really amounts to tarpon in a large aquarium, I always do so.

Scan0028 (2)

The tarpon compete for every fish chucked into the water. The water boils and occasionally a super quick jack can out run a tarpon for the bait. However, one must be careful. Strange people, no crazy people are often on the dock with you and will try the strangest fish catching techniques.

Scan0039

Beautiful Tarpon – The Quarry

There is always a good fish sandwich, cold beer and adventure waiting at Robbies.

Agitation Factor

Sunset Off Seven Mile Bridge

Sunset Off Seven Mile Bridge

This post is a sequel to “Dustin Huff Swims Seven Mile Bridge”. That adventure occurred on the morning of June 18, 1995. As all anglers know, a great catch early in the day does not quench an anglers’ thirst for another shot at a great fish. So the miracle permit caught after Dustin went swimming did not cause us to head for the dock. After Dustin dried off and released the permit unharmed, we ate lunch.

Lunch on a flats skiff is more like an eating contest than a meal. Experience has taught me that sought after fish just love swimming right up to the boat when it is tied off to the push pole, the rods are racked, and the anglers are eating. It is as if the fish know we are not prepared. Our solution is wolfing down the sandwiches and hopping back on the bow of the boat locked and loaded with rod in hand ready for the next shot at a bonefish or permit.

As we ate, Dustin pointed to the water just off the edge of Boot Key as the land curved into a point marking the beginning of the channel ocean side of Seven Mile Bridge. “See that strip of white sand off the point?” Dustin pointed out a football field shaped area of brilliant white sand with lush turtle grass forming the sidelines. “Baby tarpon lay up on that bank on an incoming tide which is just starting now. I’m going to tie on shock leaders and we’ll see if we can jump a baby tarpon.” Dustin whipped out some 80 lb test line, tied the shock leaders on both our lines, and baited the hooks with fresh shrimp. He jumped up on the poling platform after dislodging the tied off push pole from the mucky bottom of the flat. The rods he rigged for the baby tarpon were the seven foot spinning rods we had been using earlier in the day for permit. Our reels were spooled with 10 lb. test Ande clear monofilament.

Tarpon Daisy Chain Off Seven Mile Bridge

Tarpon Daisy Chain Off Seven Mile Bridge

Dustin spun the boat into the current and poled with the noontime sun directly overhead. Visibility was terrific. As we slowly moved towards the leading edge of the sandy bank, a couple of green missile shaped streaks were swimming slowly towards us. “Andy, cast as soon as you think you can reach the first fish. Drop the shrimp ten feet in front of the cruiser and let it sink.” Andy can really cast and did as instructed. The leading green shadow surged toward the sinking bait, opened its large maw and the shrimp simply disappeared. “Hit em, hit em, hit em!” Dustin screamed. Andy reeled down until he felt the weight of a hooked fish and did a terrific job setting the hook. We were in business. One problem. The tarpon was no baby and Andy was using 10 lb test line. The drag screamed as the fish made its first spirited run away from the skiff. Zzzzzzzzz. There is no better sound. Suddenly the water began to bulge in front of the huge tarpon as it launched into its first and only jump. Andy bowed to the fish and somehow the rig held. The fish was hooked!

Tarpon anglers can attest that each fight of a hooked tarpon is unique. Just as we humans have distinct personalities, so do tarpon. This fish acted as if it was a cranky middle child with a chip on its shoulder. After the first jump, this nasty tempered tarpon headed for the bottom and stayed there. The tarpon had an apparent first destination of the Gulf Stream which runs North off the Florida coast. The Gulf Stream was first reported by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513 when he discovered Florida. In the area where we were fishing, the stream is known as the Florida Current. The speed of the Gulf Stream varies. In areas where it happens be narrower it is faster than in wider areas. The speed is up to 2 meters per second. Interestingly, the Gulf Stream meanders. It is like a river which has no banks. It can be experienced as close to a quarter-mile from the Florida coast in spots. Our tarpon must have sensed this because the fish swim directly towards the fast current offshore.

Dustin fired up the boat as the tarpon began to tow the boat towards the ocean and into a depth of water where the push pole could not touch bottom. He also wanted to head off the fish before the bulldogging fish stripped Andy of the 300 yards of mono spooled on his Stradic 4000 reel. The fish cooperated and wheeled back towards shore.

For years I had heard my buddy, Mitchie tell stories of tarpon fights. “Never let the fish rest. Better to lose him early than late. Their rasp like mouth will eventually wear through even an 100 lb leader.” Unfortunately, Andy knew none of this as this was his first tarpon. After about twenty minutes, the fish began to tow the boat. The fish had settled down and was swimming, the tide was slack, the drag was not slipping and Andy could not gain on the fish. Still the skiff moved forward. Dustin coached, ” Reel down to the fish and then lift, reel down lift, reel down lift.” We edged close enough to see the fish in the water. “How big?”, I whispered as I stood on the stern next to Dustin who had jumped down from the poling platform when he fired up the engine. He had not begun to pole again as he hoped Andy could keep just enough pressure on the tarpon so the drag would not slip resulting in the tarpon’s effort in towing the boat wearing the fish out. “Well over 100 lbs., so much for baby tarpon.” Dustin responded.

Andy put very little pressure on the fish as he was inexperienced and I am sure could not imagine how much the 10 lb. mono would stretch if he tightened down the drag and pulled hard on the face of the giant. “We have no chance unless you put more pressure on the fish, Andy,” Dustin shouted. “Let me get the cooler up on the bow and you can sit down and use your hips to fight him.” After a few seconds, the cooler was on the bow and Andy settled down. He said nothing. We were two hours into the fight at that point. The fish swam and towed and Andy held on while we hoped for a miracle. With each passing minute, Andy’s shoulders slumped a little bit more as the fish fought on relentlessly. “The agitation factor is setting in,” whispered Dustin. For the tarpon, it was a life or death struggle. For Andy, it was a first time adventure with a very steep learning curve.

About a mile away from the hookup point, Andy’s fish was joined by another tarpon which began swimming beside the hooked fish. It was as if the confused or perhaps mildly amused tarpon had reached out for reinforcements. We had just concluded the fourth hour of the fight. During the first couple of hours I tried to offer the occasional light hearted remark to break the tension. “When am I going to get to fish, Andy?” No reply. “Great job, Andy!” No reply. “Hang in there, Andy!” No reply.

Slowly the fish pulled the skiff towards Marathon. Just as the shoreline begins to turn in towards Highway 1 and the High School flat, there is a small island about a quarter of a mile off the tip of Boot Key. The island contained a gorgeous home with sunrise views in the morning and sunset vistas in the evening. Just off shore were a couple of boats were moored. As we approached the island, we noticed several small children happily swimming. The tarpon swam straight towards the splashing children. We followed. When the fish was twenty feet from the kids and their cheerful spirited commotion, the tarpon spooked from the water vibrations and bolted in the opposite direction. The companion free swimming tarpon spooked a moment later and as it spun sideways in a mirror image move of the other fish, its tail hit the taut line and the hooked tarpon was free. Over! The struggle was over.

Andy was in a state of shock. As each hour passed, I had begun to think our chances of catching the giant improved. Dustin knew better. And now, Andy and I knew better.
Andy spun on the cooler and faced us. He was drenched in sweat and I sensed a hint of exhausted relief on his face. This struggle with a great strong fish was like life’s moments of uncertainty where we are trapped in the quick sand of the unknown unable to move forward. With resolution of the uncertainty, we can begin to live again. Once the giant tarpon was free, Andy could absorb the lessons of the fight preparing him to handle the next tarpon he encountered. An intense fish fight such as Andy’s also offers all of us a clear demonstration of how hard a wild creature will fight for life. With lessons learned, the next morning Dustin guided Andy to his first tarpon.

June 19, 1995 Andy Rowe's First Tarpon

June 19, 1995 Andy Rowe’s First Tarpon

Although Andy appears elated in the photo, I am confident that the memories of fighting a 100 plus lb tarpon on a bonefish rod and 10 lb test line are more vivid than the fish caught.

Andy's Tarpon Released

Andy’s Tarpon Released