Friday, February 19, 2010

Tarpon fishing from a kayak isn't for the inexperienced

I remember dreaming about fishing for tarpon when I was a boy, growing up in Ohio. I dreamed some day I'd get the chance to do that.
I've now spent a majority of my life in Florida and I've landed several hundred tarpon and most on fly rod.
As many of you know, I am a professional kayak fishing guide. I get inquiries all the time from people who want to go fishing for tarpon. It's a popular pursuit here in Sarasota in May, June and July when the giant fish show up in the inshore Gulf of Mexico and roam in schools just off the beaches.
When I tell those who want to fish for tarpon that I don't do it, they are shocked and want to know why?
While I love to fly fish for tarpon, I'm not taking a client out there.
Those of you who are old enough to remember former Ohio State football coach Woody Hays, I'm sure you also remember what he said about passing the football? Hays said when you pass the football, three things can happen and two of them are bad.
That's about the same as tarpon fishing from a kayak.
Now, I have some friends who pursue tarpon from their kayaks. Realize, however, that they have been doing it for years, are very experienced and do it as a team effort. They don't go after tarpon solo.
But most of my clients aren't experienced and might not be able to even handle a 100-pound fish.
There are several factors you have to take into consideration. Our tarpon range from 50 pounds to more than 200 pounds. If one of them would happen to jump in the kayak, it certainly could result in broken arms, legs or even death. And a tarpon jumping into a kayak is not unprecendented.
If you hooked a hefty tarpon, the battle could last two hours or more. You might hook the fish of your lifetime a quarter mile off Turtle Beach and land your fish two hours later six miles off the coast. You subdue the tarpon, have your picture taken, release the fish, then begin paddling back only to find a huge thunderstorm between you and the beach.
The weather can and often does change in an instant. One minute it's calm and the next the wind is gusting to 30 miles per hour and the seas running 4 or 5 feet. That's not safe for any kayak.
Another consideration is sharks. When the tarpon are here, so are the sharks. These finny denizens of the deep just love to snack on tarpon. I was fly fishing in 1994 and hooked a big tarpon just south of the Venice Pier. After about 15 minutes, the tarpon started going crazy and was chomped in half by a 10-foot hammerhead. It all took place in just a few seconds.
A fellow kayak guide used to scoff at those of us who questioned the sanity of fishing for tarpon out of a kayak. Well, he no longer does it. While on a charter a couple of years ago, he hooked a tarpon and handed the rod to his client.
That's when a big hammerhead showed up and beging figure-eighting the kayaks. The shark then got bolder and began swimming under the kayaks. On one pass, the shark actually lifted the one of the kayaks slightly out of the water.
"That's when I realized it wasn't a safe thing to do," he said. "Never again."
Good kayak guides will carry liability insurance. I do. And I had to fill out a form, detailing the waters I fish. I don't think I would have been approved had I told them I took inexperienced clients into the Gulf of Mexico to fish for giant tarpon in shark-infested waters.
That brings us to another point: Is your guide insured? That should be one of the first things you ask when inquiring about a charter. If he's not insured, it might be best to find another guide. If he says he is, ask to see proof.
I've caught several tarpon out of my kayak over the years. However, they've all been juveniles that I"ve taken in the bays or in The Everglades.
My kayaks are Gulf of Mexico virgins and they forever shall remain pure.
Call me a whimp if you want. But you can also call me safe and prudent.


  1. Steve,

    This is very well done and echoes my thoughts on the subject exactly. I've been guiding for 8 years. All of it insured, all of it incident free. Kayak guides who take on such trips are a trip to the hospital, a lawsuit and possibly a funeral waiting to happen.