As we idled out into Tampa Bay on a sticky August morning, I didn't quite know what to expect. My tarpon experience had been limited to live-bait fishing because, like any other species, these fish jump at a live meal. But this was to be a plugging trip. I thought we'd be lucky to fool even one fish.
I would be fishing with the guidance of two guys who had tarpon-plug fishing in their blood: Eric Bachnik and Frank Smith. Bachnik, sales manager for MirrOlure, is the grandson of Harold LeMaster, founder of L&S Bait Co. Smith's father, Kirk, was LeMaster's partner and has tossed plugs for tarpon in Tampa Bay for over 35 years.
Sight-casting plugs shares much of the skills and excitement that are part of fly fishing. Besides demanding skill and accuracy in casting, plugging requires a realistic retrieve and lots of practice to reach a successful cast-to-hookup ratio. A great bass fisherman is usually a refined plug-caster, so are many hardcore tarpon anglers.
Before fly-gear manufacturers developed the heavy tackle necessary to subdue large saltwater fish, plugs were the mainstays in artificials. Harold LeMaster brought his love of freshwater plugging, plus his passion for making lures, to Tampa Bay, Florida, in the early 1950s. Tarpon soon became LeMaster's favorite quarry, so he had to develop a way to catch them on plug.
"He'd go out every day and fish for tarpon," says Bachnik. "Fifty years ago there were two ways to fish for tarpon: soaking pinfish on the bottom or plugging as they moved down the coast. Harold liked to throw larger lures, which sometimes led to strikes from larger fish."
On June 6, 1952, LeMaster hooked one of those "larger" fish on one of his plugs. After 17-1/2 hours, unable to turn the monster with 220 yards of 18-pound, hollow-braided nylon, he could only hang on as the fish dragged him for more than 25 miles. The fight lingered into the night, and a crowd of more than 1,000 people lined a nearby causeway to watch, guided by huge spotlights from the fire department, as he battled both the tarpon (estimated at 170 pounds) and fatigue. Finally, the MirrOlure sprang out of the tarpon's mouth, landing on LeMaster's shirt, its hooks badly corroded from the saltwater and acid in the fish's mouth.
LeMaster relished what the rest of us anticipate when reeling in a plug: the strike. Bachnik agrees that's the most exciting moment. "We're using methods and plugs that you'd normally use to catch bass or trout, but instead of fishing for 5- to 10-pounders, we're targeting a species that gets well over 100 pounds," he says.