For all their glitz and glamour, tarpon are very close to just being giant pogies (menhaden) that eat fish. They are really primitive beasts. On the evolutionary scale, they and their close cousins ladyfish and bonefish are just one step ahead of garfish and bowfin (choupique), but more primitive than eels, shad, sardines and pogies.
Like shad, sardines and pogies, their dorsal (back) and anal (belly) fins are completely spineless. All their bodies have bright silver sides covered with round, primitive (there’s that word again) cycloid scales.
Tarpon scales are one of the distinguishing characteristics of the fish. Larger than a silver dollar, they are the genesis of the Cajun French name for the fish, grande ecaille, meaning “big scale.”
You gotta hunt ‘em
Another primitive characteristic of tarpon that affects how you fish for them is that like freshwater gar and bowfin, their swim bladders are laced with spongy blood vessels that allow them to “breathe” atmospheric air.
These bladders are connected directly to their mouths, which allow them to gulp air from the surface. In fact, gulping air isn’t just an option. Studies have shown that tarpon, especially young tarpon, must have access to surface air to survive.
The gulping action is referred to as “rolling” by tarpon fishermen. The mindset that they must “hunt” tarpon by looking for rolling fish is the single most important skill that tarpon anglers must develop to be successful.
Jaws of steel
Although they are voracious fish eaters, tarpon are considered to be completely toothless by most anglers. Scientists, who have lots of patience and access to good magnifying lens, disagree — and point out that many parts of their jaws and mouths are lined with extremely fine and densely packed teeth.
Whatever the case, they certainly aren’t the sharp teeth found in many other fish that must eat fish to survive. What they lack in teeth, they make up for in their huge upwardly-turned jaws that are among the toughest, boniest jaws of any fish that swims.
Besides their outsized chompers, tarpon are equipped with an elongated and movable bony gular plate that lies in the floor of the mouth between their lower jaws. The plate is used to crush and kill food items, making up for their lack of teeth.
But those bony jaws mean that tarpon are very difficult to hook — and to keep hooked. Fishermen most often set the hook viciously several times on a fish after giving the circle hook a chance to get positioned. Still, landing one in 12 of the tarpon they hook is considered average.
Confounding the hookset is that tarpon do not strike like most other predator fish. Rather, they take the lure in a gentle half-roll and then head downward to swallow it. A fisherman simply feels his lure stop moving.
Adult tarpon eat a variety of smaller fish species, including mullet, pinfish, marine catfish, needlefish, sardines, shrimp and crabs. Sport fishermen have long known that mullets are one of their favorite foods.
So much so that in the early days of the modern tarpon fishery, the late 1920s through the 1930s, as many tarpon entered in the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo were caught on live mullet as on big spoons, the only artificial lure used back then.
Neither live mullet nor spoons are in regular use now. Instead, the universal lure of choice in Louisiana is a Coon Pop, invented by famous charter guide, Lance “Coon” Schouest in the 1980s.
It is simply jig made of a lead head glued to a piece of PVC pipe with BBs in it, followed by a soft plastic trailer. This contraption is wired to a large circle hook. Coon Pops lend themselves to both casting and trolling.
Tarpon visit Louisiana, but don’t spawn here — Or do they?
For a century, conventional wisdom has been that Louisiana tarpon are summertime visitors to our coast enjoying the fine dining here, much like cobia and tripletail, then retreating to the Caribbean with the onset of cold weather.
But they are cold-sensitive and begin to die at temperatures of 50º F or lower. So they must leave our coast in the winter. But otherwise, tarpon are tough creatures.
They can tolerate almost any salinity found in nature, including pure freshwater. Because of their ability to breathe from the air, they survive well in waters with little or no oxygen.
Juvenile tarpon in Florida thrive inshore in stagnant pools and ditches, backwaters, coastal ponds, hurricane overwashes, mangrove swamps, marshes and even man-made mosquito impoundments.
It has long been assumed that since they are a more tropical fish, they only spawn in South Florida, the Caribbean and Central America — but not Louisiana.
New research seemed to find otherwise. In 2010, juvenile tarpon were reported inshore from Cocodrie, Hopedale and Grand Isle. In the same year, University of New Orleans (UNO) biologists collected a total of 57 4- to 10-inch tarpon with cast nets from a ditch less than 3 feet deep near Port Sulphur.
Supporting evidence of tarpon spawning in Louisiana came from another UNO biologist working with University of Southern Mississippi scientists. Together, they microscopically examined the ovaries and testis of large northern Gulf tarpon and found that they had ripe eggs and sperm, and that one female had likely spawned within 24 hours before capture.
We can only assume that tarpon spawned here must chug down to more tropical waters with their parents when winter temperatures settle over Louisiana.
Is there trouble in paradise?
A number of fisheries biologists are concerned that tarpon are “overfished,” which sounds odd in a fishery that is dominated by catch-and-release. Strange as it seems for such a glamorous fish, biologists have never conducted a formal stock assessment on the species.
But they point to “multiple lines of evidence that suggest that Atlantic tarpon appear to have declined from historic levels throughout their range.” They point out that commercial landings in Central and South America (particularly Brazil) have shown large declines.
Both the eggs and the flesh are eaten in Mexico, and the flesh is relished by the people of Brazil, Columbia, Panama, the West Indies and even Africa. The scales are also used for medicinal purposes in Brazil.
But catch-and-release sportfishing comes at a biological cost as well. Under the best of conditions, 5 percent of the fish released die from the stress of capture. Worse is shark predation of hooked tarpon.
In Boca Grande Pass in Charlotte Harbor, Florida, the self-proclaimed Tarpon Capitol of the World, a large percentage of tarpon handicapped by being on a hook or exhausted from a fight are gobbled up by big hammerhead and bull sharks.
Slow-growing, long-lived fish, a description of tarpon, are the most susceptible to overfishing. Tarpon must be 7 to 10 years old before spawning their first time, and they live 60 to 80 years.