July 10th, 2015 – I should have known it was going to be a special day. In the morning I was fly fishing and a manatee swam up to within 5 feet of me, stopped and stared at me for a few seconds. My Bucket list is getting so full I may have to get a new bucket! Because I caught a Tarpon that was just short of 8 feet long and over 160 pounds!
The day went like this: I got up early after a late flight that didn’t get me to my hotel in Tampa until 12:30AM. Early the following morning I drove an hour South near Bradenton Beach, FL to a lagoon that a local fly fisherman turned me on to a few years back. It’s behind a beautiful beach and it takes quite the nasty and super creepy bushwhack through the mangrove trees to get to a shallow part of the lagoon suitable for fly fishing. Once in the lagoon there is life everywhere. It’s quite beautiful and although I have never done very well fly fishing in there it is the perfect place to practice my cast on my Orvis Helios II 10 foot 8 Wt.
I had about 3 hours to fish before I drove half the way back to meet all my Microsoft Partner advisory council buddies at a marina near St. Petersburg for a half day of guided conventional inshore fishing in Tampa Bay.
I noticed a lot of movement in the water in places I just couldn’t reach. and I probably fished an hour before getting struck. The fish shot like lightning to my right and as quickly as it happened it was gone; bummer. But, that was a good sign! And it was just a few casts after that when I saw the big V wake about 100 feet away and closing. When it got to around 60 feet I casted, perfectly, but nothing. in my haste I tried to cast again when the thing took a hard left turn and closed in on me. It wasn’t until it was about 20 feet away that I could see down into the water with my polarized lenses that it was a Manatee! A huge one. he/she stopped just 5 of so feet in front of me and we stared at each other for a few seconds. Then the rest of the Manatee tribe closed in; at least five of them. And they all swam away. I immediately called Kelly and said, “You are not going to believe what just happened to me.” The video I took doesn’t do it justice because my camera doesn’t have a polarized lense, but it’s still pretty awesome.
Here is the video i took: Manatees
I just knew that was going to turn my luck and sure enough a few minutes later I caught and released a ray, But, since I don’t know their ocean I couldn’t tell if it was a sting ray or not. So, I was very careful when I released it. I fished some more and did okay and was all smiles as I hiked the beach back to my rental car. That 3 hours was good enough to be a great day. But, it just got better.
7 of us took off on two guided boats out of Oenida Marina just south of St. Petersburg. on my boat was my buddy Tom O’Connell who has fished with me a few times before. Tom is a CEO mentor for me and a great friend. Also joining us was Scott Gosling from Brisbane, Australia who I met for the first time….and now we are lifelong friends. We were being guided by Chris Wiggins of Salty Dog Charters. I will fish with Chris again. I highly recommend him if you are going to be in the Tampa Area. (727) 479-5455. I knew it was going to be fun because I talked to Chris on the phone when arranging the fishing. Chris is no stranger to fly fishing. His dad has a place on a river in Montana. He told me to bring my rod, but we probably would not run into a scenario where it made sense to fly fish. I understood. Not a problem. I’m not weird about conventional fishing like so many of my fly fishing brethren are. But Chris did tell me the fishing was slow, but picking up.
We pulled up to some boats that push the oil tankers in and it was slow. Even though we had live bait we had only managed to catch a few fish in a couple hours. We were catching snapper like the one above and catfish. I think I only caught a couple fish, but was still pretty happy about it. I could tell Chris was bothered by it. So, he decided we were going to go hunt. Mainly for redfish. I have caught redfish before and they are really fun. but, it was still pretty slow the next couple hours.
That is when Chris saw a tarpon roll off in the distance. He said something like, “if it’s going to be slow we may as well try to catch a tarpon.” So he drove the boat to the spot and anchored. In my mind I said to myself “We are done. I’m going to start drinking a lot of beer.” Fisherman go their whole lives trying to catch a Tarpon and fail. On my fly fishing TV shows they dedicate entire episodes to fishing for tarpon and many times fail. I knew just how hard it is and how lucky you have to be and how much skill and physical strength it takes. Tom and Scott did not…but, they would soon learn.
First it was Chris that hooked up. He’s a big guy and was getting man-handled by the prehistoric fish. I was laughing the entire time. I just couldn’t believe the luck of hooking up with a tarpon. And when I saw that fish bringing his face to a strained, sweaty and concerned look I really doubted we’d land it. But he did! I was laughing and in shock and totally excited. We were done as far as I was concerned. It was the perfect day.
We started fishing again and sure enough Tom Hooked up and was battling a tarpon! Now, I was really laughing. I just couldn’t believe it. 2 tarpons hooked and it wasn’t even tarpon season! You could tell the adrenaline was running hard in Chris too. He was stoked and because he is a such a good guide he turned a slow day into a great one. That’s what good fishing guides do. Tom got his tarpon to the boat and I was “Woo!”ing and high fiving and laughing.
“Tim, we gotta’ get you one.”, Chris said. I was skeptical. But, sure enough I hooked up, the tarpon jumped high. I bowed to him and the fight was on. He jumped again and then ran on me. the drag was signing and I was close to spooled when the line snapped. I snapped him off on 60 lb flouro. Chris said the fish must have scraped me against one of the deep pilings. The boys tried to console me, but I was totally stoked happy. And I felt blessed. Those who fly fish with me know that I enjoy my buddies catching fish much more than catching them myself.
It was getting late in the day and we were only supposed to fish 2 to 6, but the fishing was good so Chris asked us if we wanted to fish more. The answer was obvious. And I hooked up again! This time I battled, but the fish never jumped. I could tell it was huge because of the pull. But, it never jumped and we never saw it because I snapped off 60 lb test again! “Darn, the lord is just not going to make this the perfect day.” I said to myself. Now the boys were really bummed. I promise you I was not. Chris said he had not had a fisherman snap off all season and I had snapped off twice. I felt blessed to have hooked to of them. Well, since we never saw the second one and because it snapped off I really think it was one of those huge bull sharks they have. I just think the shark teeth cut the line.
It was now 7PM and time to leave. We casted a couple times and Chris said to reel them up; the day was done. I made two turns on the reel and whack! I got struck like a freight train. On the last cast! This could not be more perfect! The tarpon immediately jumped about 50 yards out. I was shocked at the size and went into total concentration mode, but I believe Chris said something like, “That is a huge tarpon. I have to call my wife because we are going to be late.” The fight was on and I have to admit I was worried I’d have the strength or the stamina to fight that fish. And a fight it was. Once I started to really get my ass kicked, Chris untethered the anchored and chased the fish. Thank god. Because it would have spooled me. I had barely anything left in the tank when I finally wrestled this huge prehistoric monster to the side of the boat so Chris could unhook it and release it to fight another day. It was too huge to haul up on the boat so I was really pleased that Chris lifted out of the water far enough for a picture. A picture that I will cherish forever.
To me the battle seemed like over an hour. Chris said it was more like 35 minutes. My arms, legs and back were all cramping. I was breathing heavy like I had just sprinted up a staircase. I was dripping in sweat head to toe. I have not done anything that physical for that long in years. Chris said that tarpon was between 50 and 75 years old.
What a day! We ended up hooking 7 tarpon and landed 3 of them. I was ecstatic about it because people go their entire lives trying to catch a tarpon and never catch one; I was clearly lucky on this day. We didn’t get back to the marina until after 8pm. I drove away with both arms twitching and a huge smile on my face. I thought I would sleep great that night and I didn’t because I was in so much pain; more pain than alleve can handle. And that was just fine.