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How to Properly Handle, Fight and Release a Tarpon


As part of Cheeky's ongoing "How To" Series, Cheeky caught up with Endorsed Guide Jamie Connell to learn his techniques for handling tarpon in the Florida Keys.
How to Properly Handle, Fight and Release a Tarpon
Jamie Connell

Let me start by saying I have no problem killing fish as long as it’s done in a sustainable manner and for a good reason. I kill and eat fish regularly and I have no problem doing it. Tarpon, however, are a unique species and are unlike almost any other sport fish out there. As a result, anglers’ expectations for handling, fighting and releasing these fish should be different as well. 

Handling a tarpon

When it comes to tarpon fishing, anglers and guides are constantly discussing how best to manage these fish during a fight and how to handle them when they get close to the boat. Fishing for tarpon is no easy task and for people lucky enough to catch one of these fish, taking a picture with one is very important. As a guide I completely understand this; however, these fish should be handled more delicately than many people realize. Most guides now prefer to leave the fish in the water and lean over the side to take a picture with it. This is a pretty good way to go about it, but if you have caught them before, it is best to try and break them off at the leader. The days of lifting up 100 plus pound fish by the gills and into the boat for a picture are coming to an end, and rightfully so. In fact, under Florida law, it is now illegal to lift any tarpon longer than 40 inches out of the water. Unfortunately though, this often goes unenforced and many guides and recreational fisherman still use outdated techniques when handling tarpon.

Tarpon over 40" should never be removed from the water.

There are many reasons as to why you should not lift tarpon out of the water. It all starts with the fact their skeletal structure and organs are not meant to support that kind of weight out of water, especially vertically. While I am not a biologist, I can tell you that lifting a tarpon vertically out of the water is a terrible ordeal for the fish and its internal organs. Secondly, there is just not a great place to grab these fish. Inevitably, anglers are left to try and hoist them by the lower jaw or underneath the gills. Never grab a tarpon underneath the gills, if you knick one of the gills then the fish will bleed everywhere. If you grab them by the lower jaw, you simply do not have a good grip on them. If you do try to lift these fish into the boat, there is great chance the fish is going to be dropped due in part because they are heavy and hard to grab, but also because they are slimy and they are going to move. Your best bet is to leave them in the water where they belong. Remember, it doesn’t make you a better fisherman because you can lift a fish out of the water to take a picture with it.      

Fighting a tarpon

Tarpon are a unique fish, they are dinosaurs, they can breathe air (really), and they can live longer then fifty years. Anglers from around the world travel to places like the Florida Keys to hook these fish and watch them go flying through the air. There is no other fish that has the will of a tarpon. I’m not talking about how well they fight, although they are some of the best fighting fish on the planet. I’m talking about how sometimes you just cannot get them to submit. You can spend hours fighting these fish and they just won’t turn over for you. Unfortunately, they can fight themselves to the point where they are so exhausted they almost die. The reality is whether you gaff a fish and kill it on the spot, or fight a fish to the point where it can’t swim away, the end result is the same; a dead tarpon.       

 

Sharks are also a big reason for keeping the fight time down on these fish. Depending on where you are fishing for tarpon, you may or may not have to deal with sharks. Being a guide in Key West, sharks are a constant threat. There are some places I choose not to fish because the sharks are thick. Obviously, the longer you fight a tarpon and the more you wear it down, the more susceptible it becomes to predators because it does not have the energy to swim away. As a guide, it can be a difficult to ask your clients to break a fish off because a shark is on it. After all, these people are paying me a lot of money to catch these fish, so asking them to break it off and give up seems pretty crazy. Many people understand it, but others are not going to take it well. However, once the shark is on the fish, your chances of getting it to the boat are slim to none, so breaking the fish off while it still has the energy to swim away is often the best option. If, for some reason, the angler can get the fish next to the boat, there is no way I am going to reach my hand down there to grab the Tarpon and risk losing my arm to a shark.      

Conclusion     

Again, I’m not a "tree-hugger", but as someone who makes a living on the water, I view these fish a valuable resource. Their bodies are simply not designed to be lifted out of the water, and fighting them to the point where they get tired enough to grab will likely decrease their chance of survival. The more tarpon we have swimming around, the better everyone’s chances are at hooking one. Once people understand that tarpon fishing is all about hooking fish and not landing them, they will not only have more fun fishing for them, but also the opportunity to continue fishing for them for generations to come.

To learn more about Capt. Jamie Connell and to book a charter, click here