Fishing For Tarpon

by Mrs. Hermione Murphy-Grimshaw

Whether there be any truth in the saying "that opportunity makes the thief," it is decidedly the case that it makes the sportswoman, for although I now find myself in such goodly company, low be it spoken that until I went to Florida I had never fished in my life. Such being the case, it will easily be understood that when I found myself one blazing day in a very small boat, with a sturdy rod in my hand, listening to a very black guide retailing many wonderful stories of what tarpon did when they were hooked, my feelings were chiefly those of trepidation. However I was destined to have a large and varied experience with sharks, jew fish, bass and many other monsters of the deep, before the eventful day arrived on which I killed my first tarpon, and here let me advise anyone who may be meditating an expedition to Florida for tarpon fishing, to beware of going to Punta Gorda.

This most charming and picturesque place was once a very favourite haunt of the tarpon, but owing to works which have been recently started, which entail a constant passing of steamers up and down the river, the fish have quite deserted it. We fished there for six whole weeks, starting often at 5 a.m. and generally staying out till 7.30 or so, and we never saw one fish the whole time. We proved a fruitful source of revenue to the guides and boatmen who had ever some fresh reason for our non-success, and we had on the whole a charming time, for the hotel is comfort itself and is a perfect paradise of flowers. We had lovely expeditions up the river, and any amount of bass, sea trout and other fishing, but neither we nor anyone else ever saw a tarpon. We got tired of this at last and decided to move further down, to a place called Fort Myers on the Caloosahatchie River. This we found to be an extremely pretty little town, with low white-painted houses, nestling in roses and magnolias, surrounded by gardens full of brilliant-coloured flowers and luxuriant orange plantations, with however most primitive arrangements in the shape of an hotel. We were fortunate in securing the two best guides on the river and a good sailing boat, and at last our luck changed.

We always followed the same routine. Breakfast about 6 a.m., sometimes earlier, then we sailed down the river towing our tarpon-boats (for each person has his own guide and boat), till we found some place where the fish was feeding, when we anchored the sailing-boat and went off each on our own account. I wish I could convey the charm of those early morning sails, the crisp, exhilarating feeling in the air, before the heat of the day began, the brilliant sunshine, the pale blue vault above, reflected in the shining depths beneath, where we and our snow-white boat seemed to be floating in some delicious ether in a crystalline bowl. Or again it might be a cloudy grey morning, when the heavens above and the wide expanse of river below, were all one lovely pearly opalescent haze of pinks and greys and soft indefinite blues, suffused with a warm light, telling of the golden glory of the sun which would presently melt the clouds away; and all the teeming population of the river seemed to be rejoicing with us in having awakened to another long, happy, busy day. The solemn pelicans decorating every post and sand-bank, too intent on their breakfasts to notice us, excitable flocks of little black duck which would rise scolding and chattering like a crowd of school-children to settle, still volubly objecting to us, a few hundred yards or so further on, gaunt fishing-eagles and turkey buzzards, leviathan-like porpoises gambolling round our boat, and everywhere the flash of the silver mullet as they leapt and played; both the bird and animal life being an incessant source of amusement and interest to watch.

When we arrived in Florida on the 6th of March, we found the weather just like that of a perfect English summer, cool mornings and evenings, in which a thick cloak was always acceptable, for the air on the water was invariably fresh, then blazing hot in the middle of the day. One's poor face suffers terribly from the glare off the water, and till you get hardened it is quite painful from the intense burning, though at last you settle down to a uniform tomato-red or brick-dust tint. So far as clothes are concerned, you require the very loosest form possible. Thin silk shirts, and light serge or holland skirts for fishing, and thin, very high boots, for when you land on sand banks or on one of the fascinating little islands which dot the river, your ankles will be devoured by what is euphoniously named "the red bug," and then you will be driven nearly mad with the irritation. Indeed one English woman I met in Florida had been quite lamed and laid up for weeks from these bites, after having walked in low shoes along the beach. Then you must have a large and shady hat, or do as most of the American women do, and wear sun-bonnets. I adopted the latter plan, as the sun-bonnet shelters the back and sides of the neck, which otherwise suffer from the heat. Then for days when you are not fishing, you will want the thinnest of white frocks, and for the evening or sitting on the piazza, where it is always deliciously cool and shady, being surrounded by orange trees and a tangle of roses, I found some muslin tea-gowns which I happened to have with me, the greatest comfort.

Last, but most important of all, you must be well provided with the thickest leather driving gloves, at least one size too large, indeed men's gloves will be found the best, as otherwise your hands may get cut to ribbons by the line swishing out. I have had all the fingers of one hand cut to the bone through this, and it is of course most painful. A leather tarpon belt such as is sold at the Army and Navy Stores, is also quite necessary. The rod I killed most of my fish on was a bamboo, about 7 feet long. In choosing a rod, remember it must not have too much spring, and you will require from 150 to 200 yards of linen line. But all requisites of this sort are to be found at the Army and Navy Stores. The great difficulty is to find a really satisfactory hook. We tried all kinds and varieties, but I think the chief thing is to be sure that they are made of the best steel, with good large eyes. The hooks are attached to the line by a raw hide snooding, which is far better than wire or any other kind, though it is true that sharks, which very frequently take the bait, can bite through that much easier than piano wire.

The bait used, is the soft part of the silver mullet, and the providing of this bait was one of the greatest troubles we had. Each person requires at least one dozen mullet a day, and the natives are very lazy about catching them. We used to be down on the pier sometimes, with the tide just right for starting, only to be told that the bait had not come, and then we had to wait, fuming and fussing, for nearly an hour perhaps, with all our chances of getting off on the flood tide disappearing. At last a coloured man would come sauntering along with the long-looked-for bait, and would meet all our remonstrances with the most hopeless and exasperating good humour, and probably the same thing would be repeated the next day. At Fort Myers however, we had less trouble about it, our guides being white men, who very often caught the mullet themselves. Such nice, cheery fellows these guides were, most amusing and interesting companions, and real sportsmen.

After we had been at Fort Myers a few days, I caught my first tarpon. He was a fine fellow, 6 ft. 7 in. long, and weighing 147 lbs. He gave me a very hard fight indeed, lasting for an hour and twenty-five minutes. I never felt so sorry for anything in my life as I did for that tarpon as I played him. He made such a plucky struggle for life, and was worthy of a better antagonist, for he could not know that it was no skill on my part that finally conquered him, but a sheer determination to get the better of him. I was thankful indeed when at last I succeeded in working him near enough for Santi to gaff, for my arms and thumbs were absolutely numb with the enormous weight and strain. One very quickly learns the knack of playing the fish and tiring them out, and I rarely took longer than twelve or fifteen minutes, and sometimes less, in killing my fish after a little practice.

The tarpon were late in coming up the river the year we were there, owing to the water being very cold after the dreadful "freeze" which devastated so many flourishing orange plantations, so that the fishing was not really good till about the middle of April. From then till we left, however, about the 15th of May, we had splendid sport, killing forty-eight tarpon between us, of which seventeen fell to my share. My husband's biggest kill in one day was five, mine was three, and I found that quite enough, for though it does not take long in point of time, to kill your tarpon when once he is hooked, the strain on all your muscles is enormous. It calls all your faculties into play, as may be imagined, to kill a 150 lbs. fish on a small rod, and a line no thicker, if as thick, as a salmon line. The one thing to avoid is letting your reel over-run. If that happens, and it easily does, for the reels are on ball bearings and run at a touch, your fish is practically lost, you can rarely clear the line again.

I was miraculously lucky in never losing a fish through breaking the line, but the danger of letting your reel over-run has been very strongly impressed on me, and you quickly find out how much strain you dare put on the rod. The great point to be remembered is always to keep the rod as upright as possible, and your thumb on the brake.

I think very few things can equal the keen excitement of playing a tarpon. You may have been sitting in the boat perhaps for hours, on the look-out for the bubbles on the water, and the sound of the "puff," which show a tarpon is feeding near. Your line, of which twenty yards or so have been coiled loosely in the bottom of the boat, suddenly begins to creep out, gently, almost invisibly. You think, as you see it, "it is those wretched cat-fish again," but no, it is too determined and continuous for that. You watch the line, breathless with excitement, till nearly all is gone, and the pace gets quicker and quicker, then you take the rod up carefully, so as not to interfere with the line, for at this stage the very slightest jerk or stoppage of the line will cause the tarpon instantly to spit the bait out. Now the line is whizzing out. You strike with all your might and main, and have a confused feeling of having hooked an avalanche, an earthquake and a thunderbolt all in one, for instantly a huge mass of shining silver leaps yards high into the air, falling with a mighty splash, to leap again, and again, and again. Your reel is screaming as the line whistles out, but long before the tarpon has finished his first leaps the guide has hauled up his anchor and is away, rowing with all his strength down on the fish, which soon settles down to a long, steady, dash downstream. You do your utmost to make him leap again and so exhaust himself, by reeling up a yard or so of slack at a time, then pausing with both thumbs hard on break and line as he throws himself wildly out of the water. But away he goes again, taking out perhaps every foot of line on the reel, and again you reel up, working him hard. Slowly and by degrees his leaps become shorter and fainter, you work him nearer and nearer the boat till he lies exhausted on his side, but with one wary eye on the gaff, ready to slew round and make another dash for life and liberty. But you hold him tight. One skilful blow with the gaff, and another gallant fish has met his fate.

MRS. MURPHY-GRIMSHAW
ON BOARD THE TARPON BOAT.

A rope is passed through his gills, and in triumph you return to the sailing-boat, there to tie him up. This all sounds very simple and straight forward, but there is no end to the tricks of which a tarpon is capable. He will dash backwards and forwards beneath the boat, till you think no power on earth can ever prevent your line becoming hopelessly entangled with yourself or the oars, he will double up and down, and round and round, he will even leap clean over the boat, often threatening to land himself inside it, and so swamp you. On one occasion a fish I had hooked started away up stream, then suddenly turned in his tracks, met the buoy of our anchor, took three clean turns round it, and continued his mad career towards the Gulf. I thought all was over, but Santi by some marvellous tour-de-force somehow unwound it, shouting as he did so "Let your line out as hard as you can," and away we went. All this with a tide running about seven knots an hour, and the boat swinging wildly in mid-stream. We killed that fish, which greatly surprised us both.

One hears wonderful stories of fishermen being towed many miles by tarpon, and one Englishman we met had been over four hours one day having a desperate fight with a very large fish, which I believe he lost in the end. After we had been at Fort Myers some time, we heard great accounts of the sport to be had at a place called Captiva, an island in the Gulf of Mexico. We were also told it was a very dangerous form of tarpon fishing there, as the place where you fish is a very narrow pass between two islands, where there is always a tremendous sea running, so that you are liable to be swamped. They also told us it would be quite impossible for a woman to attempt to land a tarpon there, as owing to the rapid tide you must land in order to play your fish, and this entails running up and down the beach after him, which is very hard work with a heavy fish. All this naturally made us much keener to go, so we made our preparations, which had to be considerable, as the only accommodation on the Island consisted of two or three fishermen's huts. We laid in a couple of small camp bedsteads, while sheets, pillows, blankets, and the ever necessary mosquito curtains were lent us by our host at the hotel. We also invested in a tin plate, mug, knife and fork each, a few cooking utensils, the largest tin bowls we could find to tub in, a large supply of tinned provisions, chickens, ice, in fact, all we could think of. Then we found a coloured cook, a vast and very cheery young man, who turned out an excellent chef. Finally we started, with our guides and tarpon boats—and towing our sailing-boat—on the steamer which plies every other day between Punta Gorda and Fort Myers, and which passes within a mile of Captiva Island.

Captiva is a dream of loveliness, lying like a pearl on the sapphire-blue, ever changing waters of the Gulf of Mexico—an enchanted garden where all the ordinary troubles and cares of life seem to have no place. As we landed for the first time on its snowy beach, where the brilliantly green trees and vegetation come down almost to the water's edge, and cast intense violet shadows on the low-growing cactus, with its yellow, starlike blossoms and redly purple fruits, and gazed out on the wondrous waters of the Gulf, where every exquisite shade of palest and brightest emerald green gradually deepened into softest yet most vivid blue, we felt we had indeed chanced on the Land of the Lotus Eaters, and that here we could spend our days in dreaming blissful dreams, far away from the multitudinous cares of civilisation. Life was so simple there, one's requirements narrowed down in a remarkable way. The climate is so exquisite, with the blazing sun tempered by breezes from the Gulf, and the hut we had was a simple structure of two or three poles thatched with palm leaves, into which you entered by a square hole in the wall. Guiltless of furniture was the hut, beyond two trestle-like tables, on one of which I erected my bed, to escape the numberless cockroaches which infested the thatch.

Our meals we had in the other hut, where cooking went on, and what delicious repasts they seemed to us. They generally consisted of fish, soup or chowder, a sort of "olla podrida" of bits of chicken, vegetables, green corn, anything our chef could lay his hands on, or fried fish fresh caught, and such delicious varieties of these there were too, and bananas fresh or cooked. We always marvelled at the inventive genius of our coloured Soyer. But in reality you never think of being hungry, or thirsty, or tired, or anything else at Captiva, you feel quite superior to all bodily wants.

We used to bathe at night in the mystical moonlight, when the air was heavy with scents, a belated mocking bird's song perhaps mingling with the soft rush of the tide on the shelly beach. Then we would sleep sounder than we had ever done before, till 4-30 or so, and awake keen and eager for another delightful, long, busily lazy day. It used to be my greatest delight to get out on the beach, before any of the old sailors even were about, and watch the daily miracle of the sunrise over the shining waters of the gulf, when the air seemed stilly waiting for the wonderful moment when the golden glory of the sun should flood land and sea, and chase away the dreamy evanescent hues of greys and rose and blues, which had clothed the world but a moment before.

The island is about three miles long and one mile wide, curved rather in the shape of a letter S, which made the most fascinating little bays and inlets. We used to spend all our spare time rambling about and exploring it. It is quite uninhabited except for four or five old Spanish fishermen, who have their little settlement of two or three huts and a drying shed for the fish, on the beach where we landed. The whole island is covered with trees and a thick undergrowth, with here and there open spaces covered with flowers of all varieties. The butterflies are another great feature, of every size and colour imaginable, and the mocking birds make the air ring again with their lovely plaintive note, so like our nightingale. On the beach the shells were a never ending interest to collect, so wonderful and varied they are. With all these different amusements we never found time too long, for when we were tired of investigating the hidden nooks and corners of our Garden of Eden, we could always sketch, and occupy ourselves in vainly endeavouring to reproduce the ceaselessly changing and indescribably beautiful tints of the Gulf, with its waters rippling gently on the golden shore at our feet, or the picturesque old fishermen in their faded blue garments, as seen against the dim background of the drying shed, where the fish were a mass of irridescent mother-of-pearl and jewel-like hues, and where huge, green glass demijohns for water made yet another note of brilliant light.

A GOOD BAG OF TARPON.

At Captiva you fish on the flood tide, which when we first arrived there, chanced to be about 6 p.m. so we had all the day at our disposal. About 4-30 p.m. would see us setting forth in the tarpon boats, bigger and deeper ones than those used on the river, so as to minimise the danger of capsizing. Gently pulling down to the fishing ground, half a mile or so away, we would take up our places as near a tide-rip as possible, for that is where the fish love to feed. The pass is very narrow, about a quarter of a mile across, so we and any other boats that might be there would be at very close quarters, indeed the swinging of the tide frequently brought about collisions between neighbouring boats. There we anchored, a somewhat difficult business, as the bottom is so rocky it is very hard to get an anchor to hold.

While waiting for the tarpon to begin to bite, we would pass the time catching smaller fish for the next morning's breakfast, red grouper, with their cavernous rosy-red mouth, very excellent eating; black ones of that ilk; king fish, an extremely difficult gentleman to catch, as he is very active and game for his size, and in colour and shape rather a cross between an eel and a mackerel; sea trout always welcome for the pot, or some unhappy fisherman perhaps would discover he had hooked a jew-fish, which would mean either hours of hauling and much expenditure of bad language and energy, or cutting the line and sacrificing hook and snood. The jew-fish is a horrible looking thing like a large pig, a dirty yellow in colour, covered with scales so minute that they look like a skin, and with a huge head. These fish generally weigh over 200 lbs., and fishermen naturally dread them, for they are absolutely unsporting and just bore down and down on the line, never jumping or showing any fight, but steadily resisting all efforts to raise them, till it is like trying to lift an elephant. But whenever or wherever you throw a line, a catch of some sort is a certainty, for the water simply teems with fish, and you probably get a different one every time, which adds greatly to the interest and excitement.

In bottom-fishing, as it is up the river, the more rods you have out the more chances of bites, but at Captiva the fish bite so voraciously and so incessantly that two rods are as much as you can do with, one for yourself and one for the guide. Even then if you hook one fish out of every ten strikes, you do well. In bottom-fishing you wait for the fish to gorge the bait before striking. At Captiva you must strike the very instant you feel a bite, or otherwise the tarpon spits the bait out on feeling the line, and you must strike with all your strength too, for the tarpon's vast mouth is lined with a perfect coat of mail, in which there is but one soft spot, an inch or two in length, where the bones divide. The hook is put into the bait about two inches from the end, and the shank, seized to the end of the bait, is connected with the line by three feet of piano wire, which replaces the raw hide snooding in this Pass fishing, where there is so much strain on everything owing to the difference in the way the fish take the bait, and the tremendous tide running. You need a rather more limber rod too, to help you keep a tight line on your fish, no easy matter in very rough water. The fish are in innumerable thousands in the Pass, which they must all enter on their way up the river, and it is a fine sight to see the water literally alive with these splendid fish, all leaping and playing like minnows in a pond.

I must say I felt very nervous at first as to my chances of landing a tarpon at Captiva, having been told it was so impossible a feat for a woman to achieve. Great therefore was my delight and pride, when, the second day after our arrival, I landed a fine one, weighing 126 lbs., and measuring 6 ft. 5 in. It was a thrilling moment, when, after many futile strikes, I at last got one on safe, and saw his huge silvery bulk leaping wildly into the air, while Santi threw out his buoy and we started down towards the Gulf. I strained every nerve to keep a tight line on the fish, working in the slack by a foot at a time, while keeping the tip of my rod high in the air. By very slow degrees we edged towards the shore, and at last felt the welcome grating of the keel on the beach. I scrambled out, knee deep in water, and then the real tug of war began; for it is a very difficult matter to run up and down a shelving, shingly beach with nearly 130 lbs. fighting for dear life at the other end of your line, threatening every instant to snap it, or to make a wild dash out to sea. After about twenty minutes of this, when I was very nearly exhausted, I felt to my great relief that the tarpon's struggles were becoming less effectual. We could see him occasionally, and at last I hauled him close up, Santi made his usual clever stroke with the gaff, not however till after many attempts, and much splashing and objecting on the part of the tarpon. I was decidedly thankful when I saw him lying high and dry on the shore.

My husband had two great battles in one night. He hooked an enormous tarpon which ran straight out to the gulf. He and his boat disappeared entirely from sight, and when after about two hours we went in search, we discovered him breathless and exhausted but triumphant, having just gaffed his fish, which measured 6 ft. 10 in., and weighed 180 lbs.! The second one measured 6 ft. 8 in., and weighed 175 lbs., a fine kill for one day at Captiva. These two, with mine, looked splendid specimens lying side by side in the moonlight.

It is if possible even more exciting to fish in the dark than during the day. When you have it all to do by "feel," it is a weird sensation, to struggle with an invisible foe, the only outward signs of which are the showers of phosphorescent spray, as the tarpon leaps and falls again. Of course on a moonlight night you can see all that is going on, and the tarpon looks like a dream fish as the silvery light glitters on his gleaming sides.

After ten days or so of fishing in the Pass we heard they were getting a good many fish at Port Myers, so we returned there, quitting our idyllic life at Captiva with much regret. It is a lovely trip by steamer between these two places. The river is thickly studded with islands of all shapes and sizes, some flat and low, covered with an impenetrable thicket of mangroves, others larger with a few houses and probably an hotel. We called at two or three of the more important ones, always finding the same scene, a dilapidated wooden pier, constructed on slender piles standing far out into the river, where most of the people gathered for the event of the day, the arrival of our boat. A queer-looking motley crowd they were, coloured people of all shades of blacks and browns and dirty yellows, languid, lazy-looking "crackers," as the native Floridians are called, with here and there a pretty girl in a sun bonnet, flirting with the lanky and very leggy young men in shirt sleeves and sombrero-like hats. All were lounging in the sun, most of them with a line, pulling up cat-fish, sea-trout, jack-fish, or sheepsheads, as fast as they put the bait in.

The sea is a wondrous emerald green, and we lean over the side of the boat watching the rolling porpoises, some of which follow us for miles, and catching an occasional glimpse of an evil-looking shark, or again passing through huge shoals of stingarees, like enormous submarine birds with their flapping wing-like sides. The day wears on in warm drowsiness till at last we approach Fort Myers, and are met at the dock with eager enquiries and congratulations on our successful expedition to the Pass. By the 15th of May the weather had become very hot, and the mosquitos very bad, and all the other fishermen having already taken their departure, we felt our time had also come. It was only a few days before we left, that I caught what was supposed to be a record fish in point of length, 7-ft. 1/2-in., weight, 156-lbs.

On a blazing morning we lingeringly and regretfully bade farewell to Fort Myers, where we made so many pleasant friends, and had such glorious sport, and we had a blazing ten hours passage on the Laurence up to Punta Gorda, so that we hailed the evening cool with thankfulness. At Punta Gorda the big hotel was closed, and the visitors and fishermen had all fled long since, but we found a room in which to pass the short time that elapsed till the train was ready to start for Jacksonville. There we arrived after twelve hot weary hours in the cars. We waited there two nights for the boat to New York. Jacksonville is the chief town in Florida, and a most bustling and amusing place to see.

We had an exquisite passage to New York, five days of absolutely calm and glorious weather, with scarcely a ripple on the sea, or a cloud in the intensely blue sky. We arrived to find New York shivering in cold winds and a prey to spring weather of the worst description, heavy showers and dreary intermittent gleams of sunshine, a strange contrast, indeed, to the perfect climate we had so recently left. Among our luggage was a gigantic coffin-like case, in which reposed the body of my first tarpon. I had insisted on having him stuffed and set up, as I was quite convinced at the time I could never catch another one so fine, though afterwards I rather regretted my haste, when I found I was destined to even greater success.