Heyday of tarpon fishing long gone

Published May 5, 2007

For many years May has been the premier month to catch tarpon on the famed flats of Homosassa, Chassahowitzka and Bayport. In the early 1970s a handful of pioneering anglers including Harold LeMaster, inventor of the MirrOlure, and Kirk Smith began investigating local reports of huge tarpon in shallow water in this remote area. During the next few years these experts discovered one of the most amazing fisheries in the state. For reasons not fully understood, the tarpon that came here were bigger than those in other places. Better yet, they often swam in crystal-clear water less than 6 feet deep. At that time plug casting was the light-tackle fishing method of choice. The fish were coaxed into eating small plastic lures and battled on conventional baitcasting reels and short rods. Tarpon in the 150-pound class were common and many over 180 pounds were caught. Eventually news of the amazing "new" fishery began to trickle out and caught the attention of fly fishermen.

World-class guides from the Keys and Tampa Bay began joining the locals every year to capitalize on the run of silverkings and to chase world records. Soon the fly-fishing recordbooks were rewritten. Today most of the larger fly-rod world-record tarpon were taken in this area, including the only one ever to weigh over 200 pounds.

In the late '70s Curt Gowdy and his ABC fishing show The American Sportsman filmed a tarpon-on-fly segment that even today is regarded as one of the greatest fishing shows ever filmed. There were plenty of fish, they were big, and they would readily take a fly.

And so it went for the next decade. The close-knit fraternity of fishermen out of Bayport at that time was made up of a few starry-eyed wanna-bes. On many occasions I was invited to dinner with such well-known anglers as Billy Pate, Stu Apte, Tom Evans and Rick Murphy. In the mornings before fishing it was common to sit at Becky's Restaurant in Weeki Wachee and have Grammy Award winning guitarist Chris Parkening sitting on one side of the table, pro hockey player Bobby Orr on the other and Olympic skier Andy Mill nearby talking about the big one that got away yesterday. Each season was like a reunion.

Over the years, however, more and more boats would show up. For a while this was not a problem; the flats are so vast between Bayport and Homosassa that the southern portion of mostly sandy bottom was known among guides as Oklahoma. It seemed there was plenty of room.

Then in the mid 1980s something began to change. On some weekends the number of skiffs poling around reached more than 70. At that time the guides began to see a decrease in the number of fish. Over the next few years fewer and fewer fish showed up. When the numbers got so low anglers were only catching a few fish a week, and gauging their success by the number of "shots" they had, it was clear there was a problem.

As the fishing continued to decline many of the boats stopped coming. The Keys guides stayed in the Keys and many from the Tampa Bay area shifted to Boca Grande. A few still stick it out today and catch some quality fish but even with a reduced fleet, the tarpon do not return like they did 20 years ago.