For nearly 100 years, the narrow pass that guards the mouth of Charlotte Harbor has been a popular destination for anglers seeking the "silver king" of game fish, megalops atlanticus. Tarpon, thick-bodied monsters with mouths like 5-gallon buckets, are known for their fighting prowess and jumping ability. But for their large size (up to 8 feet and 280 pounds) and voracious appetite, tarpon are relatively light feeders and prey upon small fish and tiny crabs flushed from the big bay on an outgoing tide.
GRAPHIC by Amanda Raymond, TEXT by Terry Tomalin
The map below is a Flash graphic. To enlarge, follow these instructions: On a PC: Control-right click to zoom in and scroll around.
On a Mac: Control-click to zoom in and scroll.
Lifeblood of the local economy
Officials estimate that tarpon fishing pumps an estimated $4-million annually into the Boca Grande economy. Each year, from May through July, the area sports several high dollar fishing tournaments, including a $250,000 event sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce.
Tarpon paradise Boca Grande Pass is blessed with strong currents that keep the water clean and carry ample bait to hungry tarpon that gather there before and after they spawn. The pass has several large "holes." The deepest is about 250 yards long and 80 feet deep. The deep holes offer protection from predators, with rock ledges that are about 20 to 25 feet tall.
Most guides who work the pass use the same methods their fathers and grandfathers used. They fish with live bait on heavy rods, braided line and wire leaders from the stern of inboard-powered cabin cruisers.
However, in recent years, "non-traditional" guides using lighter, 30- to 50-pound test, monofilament line (harder for the fish to see) and leaders with artificial baits, known as jigs, have done as well as or better than their counterparts using live bait.
Fossil research shows that tarpon have been swimming in our oceans since prehistoric times. Due to its majestic appearance of size and color, the tarpon is nicknamed "silver king".
They can reach sizes up to 8 feet and can weigh up to 280 pounds.
Tarpon have a special ability to gulp air at the surface when they are in a habitat that doesn't provide enough oxygen.
Tarpon are primarily found in shallow coastal waters and estuaries, but they are also found in open marine waters, around coral reefs, and in some freshwater lakes and rivers.
The life span of tarpon can be in excess of 50 years.
Tarpon range from Virginia to central Brazil in the western Atlantic, along the coast of Africa in the eastern Atlantic, and all through the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.
Because of its strength, stamina, and fighting ability, the tarpon is one of Florida's premier gamefish.
In their larval stage, tarpon are transparent, have a ribbonlike body and prominent fanglike teeth, and are less than an inch long.
Tarpon can only be fished recreationally in Florida. The majority of recreational anglers practice catch and release since the fish is not considered to be of any food value. However, anglers can possess them for trophy purposes at the cost of a special permit. Limit-two per day.
Boca bandits Anglers in Boca Grande Pass regularly lose hooked tarpon to voracious sharks. The problem is so great, biologists have considered conducting a formal study to determine whether fishing could be affecting the predators' normal behavior patterns.
The Great Hammerhead, Sphyrna mokarran, is deep black in color and can grow to 20 feet. They have been known to snap a full-grown tarpon in half with one bite.
The Bull Shark, Carcharhinus leucas, is one of the world's most feared man and tarpon eaters. These heavy-bodied beasts can grow to 11 feet and are known for their aggressive behavior.
Shrimp, squirrel fish and pass crabs are the preferred bait of choice for tarpon fishermen. Threadfin herring, which travel in schools and can be seen as they ripple and splash, are also used.
Sources: Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association and Nat Italiano. Swimming tarpon and shark art by Diane Rome Peebles.