Tarpon in the Triangle

There’s a magical place west of the Mississippi River that draws silver kings every year like bees to honey.

As the morning sun was just starting to glow over the horizon, the Mr. Todd made its way down Tiger Pass. The needle on the vessel’s temperature gauge climbed almost as quickly as the thermometer, reflecting the record 95-degree heat radiating from the nearby marsh.

Capt. Coon Schouest slowed the vessel to check out the situation.

“Could be the impeller in the water pump,” he said as he opened the hatch to the engine room. Suddenly, the radio crackled with the excited shouts of “R&R hooked up….we just released our first tarpon, and we’re hooked up again. They’re all around us…get out here!”

Working like a neurosurgeon, Schouest quickly removed and replaced the part, and was on his way toward the slick-calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico just south of Venice.

As the Mr. Todd slowed about a mile out of the pass, Schouest announced “PI” — positive identification of tarpon, as two anglers scrambled onto the front deck armed with casting rods sporting “Coon Pops.”

Several minutes later, Peter Crowe was hooked up to his first tarpon.

“Man what a strong fish,” he exclaimed as the silver king sounded, ripping line from reel.

As he applied maximum pressure, the fish skyrocketed, flashing its silvery sides and shaking its massive head trying in vain to dislodge the large circle hook impaled securely in its bottom jaw.

Crowe was sweating and his arms were shaking, but he expertly handled the rod, “bowing to the king” when the fish jumped. Once the fish was alongside the boat, mate Hunter Tieken leadered it and removed a scale before reviving and releasing the 70-pound tarpon.

This scene is replayed many times a day when the mighty Mississippi River slows to a trickle each July and the fertile waters that make up its birdfoot delta turn green.

Migrating tarpon stage off the many passes south of Venice to feed on the abundant baitfish that are flushed from the safety of the estuaries.

“We start fishing when the water temperature reaches the high 70s,” said Schouest, who is regarded as the master of tarpon fishing in South Louisiana.

“We’ll fish them from mid- July through September and sometimes through October.

“Last year on the fourth of October, we had 26 bites and caught 11 tarpon. That’s the day I landed this 217.8-pounder,” he beamed as he showed off the photograph of the mammoth fish.

That same day, Schouest had a tarpon in the air that he estimates would have gone over 300 pounds.

“It was 10 feet long. I just stood there, then I looked at my daddy and said, ‘Was that son of a gun as big as he looked?’”

The elder Schouest replied, “That one would be a world record — biggest one I’ve ever seen.”

As it is for the Schouests, tarpon fishing is a family affair for the Barkhursts. This Luling family has been targeting silver kings for 23 years on their boat the Argonaut.

Capt. Ross Barkhurst has fond memories of tarpon trips starting at the age of 12.

“When we first started fishing for them, we would hook them, but never could land them,” said Barkhurst. “It took us three years to catch our first fish.”

Ever since, Barkhurst has been hooked. He juggles a busy professional redfish circuit schedule along with inshore charters, but always finds time in the months of July through September to target his favorite species.

“In those days, we used Pet-21 spoons. Later on, we switched to a lure called a Sea Hawk, but that company sort of went out of business, so we started experimenting with homemade baits,” he said.

Some of the homemade lures sported the names of locals who made them, such as the Fast Eddie, Milton Pops and Argo Pops

Making Baits

The Coon Pop was created in 1987 when Schouest’s 7-year-old son, Lance, asked his dad to make him a tarpon bait.

“I sat down at the kitchen table and used an egg head, some wire, a piece of PVC pipe and some BBs,” said Schouest.

With his newly fashioned bait, Schouest assembled a crew of young anglers that waited around the dock for an invitation to chase tarpon. Among them were the Ballay brothers, Brandon and Brent, and a host of others.

“One of the kids grabbed a rod to throw little Lance’s bait out. The first one I made weighed 6 ounces, and caused a major backlash when it was cast. I had to revise the Coon Pop to make it lighter,” he chuckled.

Later on that day, little Lance landed the first tarpon using the newly designed bait — a 149-pound brute. The group had many other hookups that day on the Coon Pop, which convinced Schouest he was onto something.

Other tarpon diehards heard of the lure’s success, and persuaded the captain to sell them his homemade baits.

“They offered me $20 each, and I was happy to sell them,” he said. “I started using wire to attach the body to a 16/0 circle hook, and the bait became very effective.”

At first glance, Schouest felt the circle hook would “never work.” Once his customers learned not to set the hook, it became very effective, and became the only style he uses when targeting the silver kings.

Barkhurst prefers rigging his homemade bait, the Argo Pop, with smaller plastics. Among his favorites are YUM Samurai Shads, 4-inch Bayou Chubs and YUM croaker curltails in chartreuse hologram.

“Some days they like a small bait with very little action, and other days they want something that has a lot of action. You just have to experiment and figure it out,” he said.

Early in the season Barkhurst finds that tarpon prefer mackerel-colored baits. Later in the season, he will switch to orange, pink or red when rain minnows, which have sort of a reddish hue, are showering on the surface.

The color of the water can also dictate what lure he chooses. For example, when fishing near Southwest Pass on a falling tide, there will be a lot of dirty water on the top, although the water a few feet down will be cleaner.

“I like to use orange baits in that condition as it seems to offer a better profile,” said Barkhurst.

For taming big Louisiana tarpon, Schouest uses 8-foot custom Swampland rods or Ugly Stiks. He outfits them with Shimano Calcutta 700s for casting to rolling fish. Trolling or drift lines are deployed on Penn TW 30s and 50s, and are spooled with 50-pound-test monofilament.

Schouest uses five drift lines and eight casting rods.

“If I’m not casting, I’m not fishing,” he says.

He slow-trolls a spread of five Coon Pops, but once the fish are spotted, Schouest turns off the engine and drifts the edge of the school. It is his belief that the fish will be less spooked if the baits are allowed to fall naturally and without the noise of the engine. At the same time, anglers will be on the bow casting into the school of tarpon in hopes of putting one in the air.

Barkhurst prefers 7-foot fast-taper rods for trolling. He uses Tiagra 30s spooled with 50-pound-test and Tiagra 50s spooled with 80-pound-test. Drags are set light — usually with only 6 to 7 pounds of drag. On the business end is a 16/0 Mustad black circle hook snelled to a 7 ½-foot, 200-pound-test High Seas leader.

When approaching rolling tarpon, Barkhurst will kill one engine on the Argonaut. Baits are then slow-trolled at approximately 2 ½ m.p.h.

When Barkhurst is 50-60 yards from the fish, the engines are put in neutral to allow the baits to drift and sink down slowly to the strike zone.

Word Spreads Fast

Tarpon fishing in this fertile area has drawn the attention of out-of-state anglers and captains as well.

Capts. Robby Mielsch and James Plaag of Galveston first visited the tarpon triangle five years ago. After experimenting and learning new areas with the assistance of some of the locals, they won the weight division of the 2004 International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo with a 162.10-pound tarpon.

“It was the first time we had killed a fish, and to tell you the truth, we thought about releasing it,” said Mielsch.

“James called Capt. Coon over, and he looked at the fish alongside our boat and said, ‘Li’l buddy, you might wanna put him in the boat,’ so we did, and we took it in and weighed it, also capturing the prize for the first tarpon entered.

“We come down here to tarpon fish from the end of July through August because the fishing is so good.”

He says he is able to get more days in as the weather is much better in the delta between Grand Isle and Venice.

“If we get a hurricane at home, the fish leave. You can stick a fork in it — it’s done,” he said. “In Louisiana, if there’s a storm, the fish can quickly move to deeper water around the platforms. In Texas, they would have to swim 60 miles to get to 200 feet of water.”

Mielsch also recognizes the importance of the food chain that exists at the mouth of the river. Baitfish such as pogies, rain minnows and bunker provide a constant smorgasbord of feed for the migrating tarpon.

Tarpon in the Triangle

The area referred to by locals as the “tarpon triangle” is bounded by Southwest Pass, the Empire Canal and Grand Bayou. The imaginary triangle is made up of three platforms including West Delta 27, West Delta 58 and West Delta 61.

Boats will often spend the entire day moving back and forth within the boundaries of the triangle. This 48- to 52-foot depth range seems to be a comfortable one as tarpon are reported here year-round by divers and commercial fishermen.

When running, it is a good idea to keep an eye on the depth finder and start looking for tarpon as shallow as 20 feet of water or as deep as 100 feet. Under certain conditions, the fish may not be visible on the surface, although they are still in the area.

Tarpon gulp air from the surface, and then release it, causing tell-tale bubbles, which can be spotted with a keen eye. Slicks, which are created when tarpon feed on menhaden or other baitfish, can also be useful in zeroing in on a pod of tarpon.

“Use that fish finder to spot the marks and watch for air bubbles on the surface as they expel air from their swim bladder,” suggests Jerry Ault, fisheries professor at University of Miami-RSMAS.

Getting Started

Unlike bluewater fishing, tarpon fishing is not that expensive of a sport. It does not require a huge investment in tackle or boats, as most fishing is done within sight of land.

A few 8-foot casting rods outfitted with the angler’s choice of reels is sufficient to catch one of these leaping fish. Take along a selection of baits, such as Coon Pops or Argo Pops, and you’ll be set.

It is also a good idea to purchase a long, plastic-coated measuring tape. This may be used to obtain the length of a tarpon prior to release while it is still in the water.

Girth measurements can be a little trickier, and require assistance from another person on board. With these measurements, you can get a pretty accurate weight estimate on the fish.

As is customary, anglers remove one scale from the area near the head of the tarpon prior to release to serve as a memento of their catch.

The tarpon fleet monitors channel 14 on the VHF radio, and most captains are usually willing to help out with information on PIs (positive identification) of tarpon.

The Future

Tarpon research continues to shed light on the travels of this magnificent fish. One of the premier research facilities is the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research, located on the west coast in Oceanside, Calif. Research scientist Michael Domeier has enlisted the help of Louisiana captains to deploy his satellite pop-up tags.

“My interest in the Louisiana delta region’s tarpon grew from a few tarpon I tagged in the St. Petersburg, Fla., region. These tarpon migrated to the mouth of the Mississippi River,” he said.

Coon Schouest was more than willing to tag tarpon with the satellite tags provided by Domeier. Several of the tarpon tagged by Schouest have since popped off, and the data recovered reflects that these fish migrated to Florida, Texas and Mexico.

“It seems that the Mississippi River delta off of Venice may be a very important location for the population of tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Domeier.

Another active tarpon researcher is Dr. Jerry Ault of the University of Miami- RSMAS. He visited Venice in September 2003, and deployed pop-up archival tags (PAT) in three tarpon ranging from 60 to 80 pounds. One of the fish was tracked to Key West, Fla., while the other two remained relatively close to the area in which they were tagged.

It is his belief that migratory tarpon are attracted to the Louisiana delta because of a plentiful supply of oil-rich menhaden, which they use to build body fat and restore gonads.

Oddly, there are no ongoing tagging or tarpon research projects based in Louisiana, even though the state has a large facility, LUMCON, located in the heart of tarpon country.

Jerald Horst, fisheries professor for the LSU AgCenter, feels the reason tarpon are not researched locally is strictly a financial one.

“We tend to devote our monies to overfished species such as red snapper,” he said.

With the number of silver kings dwindling around the world, the few faithful who continue to target them are hopeful that more can be done on a local level to study and preserve them.

Perhaps some of the tarpon clubs that were so active in the ’70s and ’80s will reorganize and help push for conservation and preservation of the sport of tarpon fishing in the Louisiana delta.

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