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May 26, 2009

Tarpon Getaway

Avoid the crowds; Hit Southwest Florida beaches and sounds for summer fun

Find the Action
Lieberman and I watched O'Bannon and Barker from at least 200 yards away on the grass flat as they quietly scanned for moving fish, poised to drop a nugget in their path. Not half an hour later, Barker's rod arced and the line zipped tight, flinging floating grass in the air. The 60-pound tarpon leaped and shook, flipped and yanked, running off yards of line as Barker held the pressure.

O'Bannon deployed the trolling motor and kept close to the fish, hoping to leader and release it quickly in the warm water. Barker successfully turned the fish multiple times, but it remained boat shy and stubborn. Still, within 15 minutes, the anglers high-fived and the fish swam away.

With the flat disturbed and the tide receding, O'Bannon headed back to Captiva Pass. He drifted both sides of the pass, sighting nothing. We motored north along the beach to Johnson Shoal. The tide was low enough that we could see water breaking over a large sandbar. Boats anchored around the edge of the bar, watching for tarpon to transit the deeper water. We respectfully took our proper place above them.

I was reminded of setting up on similar tarpon trails in the Keys. The anticipation of seeing one large or even a school of smaller fish swimming steadily toward the boat is enough to throw any angler into a case of serious jitters. I wasn't on the rod, but I could still feel the tension.

Lieberman spotted a string of three fish; then two more tarpon moved through. O'Bannon and Barker cast to the lead fish, leading them perfectly - by just a few feet. But like cabbies with their fare lights on, these 'poons sped past without so much as a glance. They just weren't eating.

"Man, that was a tank. That one was wide," Lieberman said. "When it goes off, it's real exciting out here. You can see 50 to 100 fish come through. That's usually a little earlier in the season, but you can see that now too."

Thirty years ago, anglers saw huge schools; in an average season they might catch 100 to 130 fish, O'Bannon says. Now, 60 fish over a few months is pretty good.

Setting Light-Tackle Sights
Leaving behind the lockjawed tarpon, O'Bannon moved inside Boca Grande Pass to a deserted beach at the northern tip of Cayo Costa State Park. The stretch of sand was littered with uprooted and fallen trees that held scores and scores of snook.

Indeed, most of this barrier-island beach, even on the Gulf side, harbors snags and structure perfect for ambush predators. The Gulf-side beach also features a shelf at its edge that allows bait and snook to swim almost within inches of the sand.

O'Bannon and Barker pinned some whitebaits to the circle hooks on the lighter tackle and cast to the dart-like shadows that they could plainly see were holding just feet from the sand. Most of the fish appeared small, but the game is strictly catch-and-release, so size was unimportant. On light tackle, these snooklets offer great sport, darting for cover upon hookup and jumping like small 'poons as they thrash against the rod.

O'Bannon and Barker released a half-dozen snook each during a frenzied bite that kept them juggling rods at the bow and taking turns on the trolling motor. Finally, an afternoon thunderstorm threatened to drench their action. These common storms often occur just as the heat of the day begins to broil anglers.

Like many other locals faced with similar circumstances, we ran the  channels to Pineland's Tarpon Lodge for shelter and a cool drink. At the table, we recounted our efforts. Even with questionable weather that left us only a day to fish, we had plenty of time to sample the "other" side of Boca Grande tarpon fishing - the quieter one - and score both target species.

Here's to finding peaceful moments in popular places.