TREASURE ISLAND - Which came first, love or tarpon?
Karen Nash swears it was love, but husband Clark suspects it might have been tarpon.
"She wanted to go fishing," Clark said with a laugh. "She kept bugging me, so I had to marry her."
Everything about the Nashes says tarpon. From the mat at the front door of their canal-side home to the designs on their dinner plates, their lives are a living testament to the silver king of game fishes, Megalops atlanticus.
"We live, eat and breath tarpon fishing," said Clark, who caught his first chrome-bodied behemoth when he was 8 years old. "I guess you could say we are fanatics."
Every spring and summer for the past 30 years, Clark has revolved his daily schedule around finding bait so that he could catch fish in order to qualify for Finale Day of the 10-week Suncoast Tarpon Roundup.
The fishing tournament, now in its 69th year, has nothing short of a religious following. Roundup anglers take their tarpon fishing seriously, and Clark is no exception.
"There is a legacy here," Clark said. "Fathers pass it on to their sons, who pass it on to their sons. There are generations of anglers who have fished this tournament."
That is why Clark was pleasantly surprised to find a mate who enjoyed tarpon fishing, as much or perhaps even more (blasphemy!) than he did.
"Karen once fought a fish for 3 hours and 45 minutes," he said. "We hooked it near the Redington Long Pier, and it took us all the way offshore, past the grouper diggers."
Karen remembers that first "summer sleigh ride" as if it happened yesterday.
"I fought that fish so long that I watched the Friendly Fisherman come and go twice with charters," Karen said. "Each time the people on board lined up along the rail and waved."
It takes an almost fanatical devotion to win the roundup. Anglers rise every morning and check the paper for the daily standings, then head out in search of fish worthy of weighing or releasing that will qualify them for Finale Day and a chance at a $40,000 boat, motor and trailer package.
The late Dave Morgan dedicated the latter part of his life to restoring the tournament to its former glory. But Morgan had his work cut out for him. The attitude of many anglers toward killing tarpon has changed. Also, a $50 tarpon tag law that requires anglers to pay to kill the fish hurt enrollment. Internal bickering, allegations of cheating and lawsuits also did their share to tarnish the tournament's image.
But Clark and Karen Nash hope to take a tournament that started during the Great Depression and - like The New Deal - offer anglers a new beginning.
"We want to put the past behind us," said Clark, the tournament's new president. "We want to make a fresh start."
The Nashes made a major change in what is required to qualify for Finale Day. An angler can catch and release five fish during the 10-week regular tournament to qualify, as opposed to having to weigh in a fish in the past. Another change will be to ensure that anglers who do kill and weigh in a fish record the tag number on the tournament's weigh-in slip.
"That way, if somebody uses a tag twice (to save a second $50 charge), we will know it," Clark said. "This is a family tournament. There is no reason to cheat. If you do, you are gone. No questions asked."
The tarpon roundup will try to do something for marine conservation this year. A portion of the tournament proceeds will benefit Tampa BayWatch, which I believe has done more than any other local environmental organization to improve local water quality.
Roundup anglers will help scientists from the Florida Marine Research Institute in a study that might give state officials the data they need to better manage the fishery.
"The otoliths (a portion of the internal ear) from every tarpon that is weighed in will be removed and then undergo a chemical analysis," Clark said. "Hopefully, we will be able to determine where the tarpon spend the first year of their lives."
The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of tarpon killed during the 10-week tournament.
"At one point, during the mid 1980s, we killed about 1,000 fish a year," Clark said. "Last year, anglers weighed only 52 fish."
Clark hopes that an emphasis on release and research will prompt more conservation-minded anglers into the tournament.
"In five years, we will have gathered some pretty impressive data," Clark said. "Then when we look back, and people wonder what the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup did for the fishery, we will be able to show them."