Quest for the King
‘Silver king’ tarpon are hard to find and prone to fight.
by Dan Oko
The “slabs” swim beneath us as the boat rocks, the inboard motor humming. Soon a group of large fish breaks in the distance. They’re “greyhounding” — a colossal display I have seen on a dozen fishing trips without considering that the leaping torrents were far-flung tarpon on the move while wheeling birds crashed down to catch scattered bait.
Scott Alford, a Houston lawyer and hard-core tarpon addict, patiently swings his 30-footer around for another pass to see if the tarpon beneath us will take the bait. No dice.
It’s early, and the sun hangs low in the sky. A few scattershot slicks stain the green Gulf waters, and I’m beginning to get itchy. I’ve never trolled for tarpon before and have little experience with deep-sea fishing, but I’ve been skunked enough times to wonder if we are on a wild goose chase.
Tarpon are a totemic, aspirational species that have survived on this planet for more than 100 million years. Dressed in gaudy silver chainmail, the fish haunt the depths of the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to West Africa. In the 1930s, the abundance of the so-called silver kings along our coast helped establish Texas as the tarpon capital of the world.
Capable of living up to 80 years, with the biggest tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, tarpon maintain an enduring presence that holds up a splintered mirror to our own existence. Their struggles reflect humanity’s foibles — the damming of our rivers, the soiling of the ocean, an economic system that makes tarpon part of subsistence diets in Latin America — yet their persistence, strength and cunning suggest that the situation isn’t beyond hope.
“The tarpon fisherman of the future is going to be forced to learn a lot more about the ways of his great game fish if he expects to hang one now and then,” wrote Texas outdoor writer Hart Stilwell way back in the 1970s (in his memoir, Glory of the Silver King, published posthumously in 2011). “I do know before we can do anything to save him, assuming that we want to, we must admit the sorry state of tarpon today. And that of other estuarine creatures.”
Targeted by anglers, famed for their aerial acrobatics, “jumping” tarpon are prized nearly as highly as landing a bona fide Leviathan. Curiously, however, tarpon begin life as deceptively modest ocean babies, dime-sized translucent larvae that rely on luck and tides to reach the brackish inland estuaries and sloughs where they hide out during their infancy.
An evolutionary adaptation allows the fish to breathe air through a lung-like swim bladder, and that capacity to draw atmospheric oxygen intimates yet another kinship between Homo sapiens and Megalops atlanticus. In adolescence, tarpon attain their notorious appetite. By age 12, with females measuring 4½ feet or more, they achieve reproductive maturity. The mature fish return to deep Gulf, Caribbean and Atlantic waters, with individuals traveling as far as 1,200 miles. Research suggests such epic migrations hold the key to their long-term survival.
“This stuff is not by chance, it’s by design,” says Jerry Ault, director of the Tarpon and Bonefish Research Center at the University of Miami in Florida. Ault has worked closely with Alford, providing him with satellite tags and advising Alford’s newly formed nonprofit International Tarpon Conservation Association. “They have an almost magical connection to the environment that helps them to survive.”
That means that even though catching the fish in Texas is more difficult these days, there are still opportunities to pursue them — especially in the near offshore between San Luis Pass in Galveston and the mouth of the Sabine River, where pioneers such as Mike Williams started guiding in the 1980s.
“The fishery has basically gone from an international-type fishery to more of an incidental fishery,” offers Larry McKinney, retired director of TPWD Coastal Fisheries, who now leads the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. “They’re not billfish, but they are something else. They go north to feed and south to breed. It’s easy to see why people who know about them want to catch them.”
Indeed, anglers who fish for tarpon speak in almost religious terms about how catching one can change your life.
Fifty or 60 years ago, it was not uncommon for new converts to make a pilgrimage to Texas. At the Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas (a town once known simply as Tarpon for its famous fishery), thousands of tarpon scales decorate the lobby, homage to a time when the fish were thick in the passes and along the beaches and they earned a hard-fighting reputation as a poor man’s marlin. One of the faded scales hanging in the Tarpon Inn even dates to 1937 and carries the signature of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose catch was promoted by the White House to lift national spirits during the Great Depression.
“I was interested in tarpon when I was a little kid,” Alford tells me. “I saw tarpon fishing in Florida on TV. I was into fishing and thought, ‘Well, that’s a cool fish!’ In college, I read a newspaper article about a guide in Galveston named Mike Williams, who was catching tarpon. I had no clue we even had tarpon in Galveston!
“So I booked a trip with him, and jumped — didn’t land! — but jumped probably one of the biggest fish I’ve ever hooked in my life, right around 200 pounds,” Alford says. “We fought it for over an hour and a half, and lost it. All I know is Mike kept saying over and over again, ‘Did you see how big that fish is? Did you see that?’
“I was hooked after that.”
In 2006, this obsession led Alford to found the scientific angling group Project Tarpon, a precursor to the newer ITCA, modeled in part after the Coastal Conservation Association. For the past decade, Alford has organized an annual invitation-only tournament to facilitate satellite tagging of tarpon that pass through Texas waters. Alford estimates he has placed 50 tags, a remarkable contribution that accounts for about one-eighth of the 400 satellite-tagged tarpon Ault’s team tracks from Miami. Two years ago, Project Tarpon also started distributing streamer tags, which, like bird bands and cattle brands, offer a low-tech way to monitor the size and movement of fish.
“The idea behind the organization,” Alford says, “was to create a mechanism geared toward funding people that want to do tarpon research.”
There are two main satellite tags that researchers use to monitor tarpon and their migratory behaviors. Pop-up Archival Transmitting, or PAT, tags, designed to release from a fish after a given interval, record information and then transmit it once they’ve been discharged and reach the ocean surface. Smart Position and Temperature, or SPOT, trackers beam constant information (technology also used by wilderness travelers to track routes and call for help). The trackers have helped scientists understand the annual migrations made by tarpon, including those that travel the Texas coast from Mexico to the waters beyond the mouth of the Mississippi, where they are a favorite of Louisiana anglers.
A lifelong fisherman, I lobbied Alford to let me join him last summer. I had never seen a tarpon outside an aquarium, so I was transfixed watching the silver kings — “slabs” to Alford — on the fish finder, the radio occasionally crackling. Fish stories notwithstanding, I had found tarpon anglers, including guides, a pretty tight-lipped bunch, so I felt lucky to be on board, although our prey remained elusive. Alford remained confident the fish would turn on, and I was not about to argue.
“If it looks right, we are going to stop and spend some time,” he explained. “Some of the time, you might have to spend a half-hour or an hour, then it’s like all of a sudden. You might not have seen any fish, but they were there, and now they’re showing up.”
Given my previous experience with tarpon specialists, I was champing at the bit when Alford called. Years earlier, when I expressed my interest in tarpon to a fly-fishing guide after a day chasing Matagorda redfish, he told me to forget it until I could drop a fly to a moving target 100 feet away; my capacity seems to have stalled out at less than two-thirds of that distance. When I went in search of an escort for this story, the first guide told me he didn’t want the publicity. Another pro insisted that tarpon were too much trouble — difficult to find inshore and too inconsistent to be chased offshore.
Alford was having none of it, however. When not in the courtroom, he lives for tarpon fishing, using all the science he can collect to improve his chances. And if I was a little disappointed that the actual opportunity to cast to surfacing tarpon would be slim to none, I was equally impressed with the custom vessel Alford designed to tackle the task. His gleaming 30-foot inboard has a full suite of electronics and an ultra-quiet gas engine with a specially designed transmission capable of trolling at walking speeds over the long distances. Six rods with wire leader and between 250 and 300 yards of monofilament hung off the back gunwales. Acting as Alford’s first mate was a longtime friend of Alford’s, Tommy Gary, who used to guide goose hunts alongside Alford in the lowlands west of Houston.
Suddenly, the water seemed to boil around the boat as the tarpon finally decided to announce their presence. I was shocked to see one of the stout offshore trolling rods bent like a radio antenna. As it straightened back up, Gary grabbed the rod, and a moment later a 100-pound tarpon burst from the water off the back of the boat. It sailed through the air, twisting like a chrome dervish in its effort to throw its hook, while Alford shouted instructions. It took Gary a sweaty 20 minutes to boat the fish. Alford pulled a scale, planted a streamer and released it.
The next strike, they let me pick up the rod.
Again, the fish was in the hundred-pound range, and again it leapt high in the air with all the power and grace of an Olympic gymnast. Gary handed me a rod plate so that I could hold the shaft against my pelvis, and the fish surged deep before the line went slack. Then, a millisecond later — boom! — the silver king was back in the air before making another diving run. Shaking with adrenaline and my biceps burning, I don’t know how long it took to reel in that tarpon, the biggest fish I ever caught. At the boat, it rolled to one side and appraised us with an enormous eye. After we had measured and tagged it, Alford revived the fish, and it disappeared in a swirl.
We caught four fish that afternoon, and I had the good fortune to reel in a second. Alford ranked the trip an “8 out of 10.” I was reminded of what Ault told me in a moment of unguarded sentimentality: “We all love tarpon, and with the increase in angling efforts, we need to ask what can we do to keep them around.”