TARPON OF TEXAS

by Kevin Townsend

   How did I get here?  Better yet. How was I lucky enough to end up here?  Sitting on the poling platform in my skiff, my friend Jim Shulin, fly rod in hand, up front on the casting platform, staked out in 4 feet of clear water over sand, as a daisy chain of 15 to 20 tarpon, still 200 feet away, slowly make their way toward the boat and into casting range. 150 feet away the daisy chain transforms into a ‘string’ of tarpon. 20 tarpon head to tail, single file, head straight toward the boat, coming in from the three o’ clock position. Jim turns and fires a 60-foot cast just ahead of the lead fish. With one kick of her tail the tarpon accelerates and eats the fly. Jim misses the set; we both see the fly come out of her mouth. Before we can comment she lunges and, surprisingly she eats the fly again. In shock, Jim misses again. As the expletives are about to flow, incredibly, she eats the fly for the third time. Third time’s a charm. To our amazement, the hundred pounder is hooked solidly. She is instantly airborne and headed for Mexico. Our third hook-up of the day with many more chances to come. No, this is not Florida, not Mexico, not the Bahamas or Belize. This is Texas. Contrary to popular belief, from Galveston to South Padre, tarpon still roam the Texas Coast. I now make a living guiding for tarpon and redfish out of Port O’Connor. Tarpon changed my life.

 My passion for fishing and anything else outdoors has led me down a path to some unforgettable people and places. I followed my love for trout leaving Texas for The Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. While guiding at 7 Lakes Lodge on Colorado’s White River a client from Mexico invited me to visit a couple of fishing lodges that he owns; Casa Blanca and Playa Blanca located on the Yucatan peninsula. After catching more little bonefish the first day than I could count I was given a choice on the second morning – more bonies, the elusive permit, or baby tarpon. The only tarpon I had ever seen were on the covers of magazines or jumping across my television screen. I chose to chase the King, The Silver King.  

  My guide, Renee’, motors through a maze of tiny mangrove creeks, passing a small Mayan ruin on the way to a very hidden lagoon of tea colored tannic water. As Renee’ grabs the push-pole he says one word; Sabalo, Spanish for tarpon. I grab my tarpon rod and step onto the bow. Renee’ has been on the poling platform for less than a minute when he spots a pair of nice bonefish. They look twice as big as the ones we caught the day before. I quickly change to my bonefish rod and make a 30 foot cast just ahead and to the side of the bonies. They rush the fly and the first one to get to it swallows it. Wow. I am amazed at the power of a 4-pound fish. 200 feet of line is gone in the blink of an eye. As I am regaining line, I hear Renee’, “Sabalo, Sabalo.” I look up and 150 feet away are 6 little tarpon cruising in formation toward the boat. I purposely and readily break off the largest bonefish of my trip and grab the tarpon rod.  When they are about 60 feet out, I make the cast which, landing a little too close, spooks the lead fish. The second fish in line accelerates and gobbles the fly. I imbed the hook firmly and the fireworks fly. He jumps and jumps as if the water is on fire. I had never witnessed a fish so determined to spit the hook. The hook held and, in five unforgettable minutes, I have my first tarpon, albeit a baby, in hand. I am hooked.  

  The tarpon then led me to Florida. On vacations with fellow trout guides, I fished the Florida panhandle and down the coast in Homosassa, renowned for the tarpon fly rod world record of 202 pounds taken there in 1991. I jumped one fish in Homosassa, clearly over 100 pounds that I lost on the second jump only 2 minutes into the fight.  I had an unforgettable afternoon in Apalachicola with my friend Rick McNulty jumping 16 tarpon in three hours; we landed only 3 of the 16, all under 100 lbs. During those 3 hours something happened inside me. What was a controllable addiction had now become an obsession. I must land a 100-pound plus tarpon before I die. Over the next year, it seemed like as soon as I closed my eyes at night I would see tarpon. Even in my dreams, they all got away. All I could think about was my next trip. It didn’t happen. Real-life events conspired and I missed the trip. Five friends were able to make the trip and participate in the best season ever in Homosassa. They all put fish over 100 lbs. into the air. They landed 4 tarpon that year up to 150 lbs and, of course, I wasn’t there.

   In late July of that same summer, I was in Jones Creek Fly Shop in Tyler, Texas singing the blues and licking my wounds (sounds like a country/western hit) to my friend Bill Costanza, over my missed trip.  He says, “While you’re in Texas why don’t you go down to Port O’Connor and book a trip with Scott Graham.”  I replied that I wasn’t interested in dragging bait or trolling through muddy water.  “No” he says, “He is sight-casting with a fly rod.” Not fully convinced I called Scott and booked two days the following week.

 Still doubting my chances of hooking a tarpon in Texas, I show up thirty minutes late on the first morning to meet my guide. The first thing that struck me was his confidence. He seemed positive that we would see tarpon. Our first stop in the bay surprises me. I was thinking beachfront or rolling Gulf tarpon. This was a shallow 5-7 feet deep flat bordered by a long oyster reef. Scott cuts the engine and lowers the trolling motor as I ready my fly line.  He says, “You see that crab trap buoy up ahead? Keep an eye out around there, that’s where they have been laid up in the mornings, but since you were late, who knows.” Ouch. I look toward the buoy and I can’t believe my eyes. A huge tarpon only fifty feet from the boat slowly rolls exposing her eyes, silver sides, dorsal, and then tail. My first Texas tarpon. She is huge and I am paralyzed. Scott shakes me out of my stupor. “Are you going to cast or what?’ With my knees quivering I cast. I think that I’m a little short. I strip the fly toward the boat for another cast and, as I begin to lift my rod to cast again, the tarpon appears from nowhere, big bucket mouth open and inhales the fly at my feet and I blow it.  I lift the tip like I am setting on a rainbow trout instead of strip setting. Typical trout guy mistake. Before I have time to react, I here Scott screaming, “Put it back, put it back in.” I slap the fly back on the water only ten feet from the boat and the fish makes an “S” turn and takes the fly going away and I get a solid set. The next minute is a blur of grey hounding jumps and a run that took out 200 yards of line in no time. I feel my heart beating through my fingertips. The largest tarpon I have ever seen and I am hooked up to her in a Texas bay. I didn’t even know that it was possible. An hour and fifty minutes later we have her next to the boat with leader in hand when she lunges and breaks off. Scott estimated the fish at 140 pounds. Who cares? Mission accomplished beyond all expectations. After whooping, hollering and high fives, we head to the nearest watering hole for some much needed adult hydration just so we are ready for tomorrow.

 Tomorrow came early. On the water at sun-up, perfect conditions. No wind, glass smooth, a clear but hazy sky, and sultry. Two hours into the day with sweat stinging my eyes, in the distance, I see fins. Easily a quarter mile away, Scott trolls in their direction as more fins appear. There is a school of big tarpon rolling slowly, covering a half-acre. As we approach the edge of the school, a few fish begin to spook from the boat. I see a wake quartering away at seventy feet and make a lucky cast. It lands about five feet ahead of the wake, I make one strip, and it feels as though a freight train has grabbed my fly.  On her first jump, it is easy to see that she is monstrous. It’s unbelievable. She’s even larger than yesterday’s fish. She clears the water four times before she makes it into my backing. Thank god for reels that hold a lot of backing because I needed all 300 yards of it. What followed was a grueling 2 1/2 hour battle that took every ounce of energy and adrenaline that I possessed. With her boat-side as I make a final lift of the rod to guide her into Scott’s hands, the rod shatters into three pieces. Be damned if this one is getting away. I use the only 3 feet I have left of the rod to make a final lift and Scott gets both hands around her mouth and she is ours. She measured 79 X 39 inches which puts her around 170 pounds. My fish of a lifetime.

  On August 4, 2004 this fish changed my life. I am obsessed with Tarpon. Eight months later I left the Rockies and those beautiful trout behind and headed back home to Texas. Once a Texan, always a Texan and I am sure glad to be back!!!

 Captain Kevin Townsend resides in Port O’Connor, Texas with his wife Ann and a kennel full of bird dogs. KT charters trips for shallow water sight fishing for reds and trout and when conditions allow you will find him chasing his obsession, The Silver King of Texas, Giant Tarpon.

  KT also finds time to host his own outdoor adventure series The KT Diaries, which airs

nationally on the PURSUIT Channel (240 on Dish Network, 608 on Direct TV). Go to

www.ktdiaries.com for show times.