Know What You’re Getting Into

By: Capt. Tim Ramsey

My wife and I went fishing one day in the backcountry east of the Marco Island Bridge. Over the years, the place became a reliable destination for all sorts of fish from snook, redfish, trout, snapper, black drum, and even tarpon, pompano, and tripletail. This probably came from the fact we put in the hours. Rain or shine, all year round, we fished it all, the outer points, flats, the mangrove stands, the creek mouths, the creeks, the deep spots, the root-beer-colored shallows as far back as you could get, and so on.

Well, there we were, slowly drifting deeper into the back, using the trolling motor to control the boat and be quiet as we cast some jigs looking for snook. Then we went around the final corner before the short canal that would lead us to a backcountry bay, and there was our “WTF” moment.

Anchored in the middle of the creek was a man and woman in a rental boat. The man was kneeling, his chest pressed against the starboard gunwale holding his hands in front of his neck. Clutched in his grip was a tarpon I estimated was about five feet long with half, or more out of the water against the boat. They were so caught up in what they were doing they didn’t notice my boat sliding past on the trolling motor. As we came abeam of their boat, I said “nice catch,” which took them by surprise. The man turned his head around so fast I think I heard the cervical vertebrae adjust from thirty feet away.

“Do you know what this is?” he blurted with big googly eyes.

Slightly gobsmacked by the question, I was about to sarcastically say “yeah, a fish,” but when I opened my mouth, only the word “tarpon” came out.

“Can you eat it?” he fired back.

Truth be told, I had only caught one tarpon in that area in twenty years or so fishing there. Here I was, with people in a rental boat, holding a trophy fish I would have given my left arm to catch. Well, you know what I mean.

“Tarpon are catch and release only,” I said casually.

The man looked dejected.

At that point, I heard my wife muttering her disapproval in Spanish. I looked over and saw her with hands on hips, body language that speaks volumes where she’s concerned.

“Make sure you revive it first,” I said as our boat passed the other.

“How do you do that?” he asked.

“Hold its mouth open in the current until it looks like it wants to be let go.”

“How do you know that?” the woman on the boat asked.

“It will start to swim and thrash around a bit or clamp down on your hand.”

As we rounded the point of the canal that led to the bay beyond where the couple tussled with their tarpon, I could almost read my wife’s mind. “If tarpon are moving through here, why not stay close to the mouth of the canal.”

“Good idea,” I said to her.

Minutes later, I heard a splash and the woman on the nearby boat shout excitedly. The tarpon had come alive and shook off the man’s grip before swimming away. He was not so happy, loudly cursing a deity and complaining his thumb had just popped out of the joint. Live and learn.

My point in all this is before you go fishing in the area by yourself, without a guide or group, familiarize yourself with the types of fish you may encounter. Check them out on the internet and FWC. Check out the information at the marina or tackle shop. Wander over to the bait cleaning table and see what people are catching. Talk to them. Understand that some of these fish are not only powerful and can cause injury if handled incorrectly, but in some cases protected species that are not to be lifted out of the water. That knowledge can keep you safe, and make sure you have a good fishing day in accordance with the law. Also remember, fishing licenses are a thing. See you out there.