Thursday, July 28, 2005
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Catching tarpon at the end of their trail
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
- Virginia’s hunting totals produce mixed results
- A good trade: Virginia trout for Kentucky elk
- Forget the odds-makers; Salem’s John Crews believes he can win the Bassmaster Classic.
- The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season
- Column archive
Bill's Field Reports
- Virginia General Assembly goes soft on outdoor issues
- Quail Unlimited calls it quits
- Field reports archive
We could hear Doug Wehner’s yell rip forcefully across the water, in sharp contrast to the sound of the breeze and the gently lapping of waves against our boat anchored 75 yards from him.
Wehner had hooked an elusive tarpon. His heavy-duty fishing rod was bowed and throbbing as the fish darted in blistering speed from one side of his boat to the other.
Then we observed what we’d come to see, the classic leap of a tarpon.
The fish that Wehner had hooked came out of the water exposing its long, silver sides and tossing frothing spray skyward. Its mouth was agape, its body in a muscular twist, its gills flared and rattling, its eyes permeating pure wildness. It crashed back to the water with the sound of a whip.
We all then yelled.
My wife, Katherine, and I were fishing with long-time friend, Bob Hutchinson, who is the retired outdoor editor of the Virginian-Pilot.
No. We weren’t vacationing in Florida or Mexico. We were fishing out of the tiny village of Oyster on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Tarpon in Virginia?
Not many anglers know that this species is an annual visitor to Virginia come July and August. Even the McClane’s New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia states that “it does not regularly occur north of Cape Hatteras, N.C.”
A small, tightly knit group of anglers in Virginia is happy with the specie’s obscurity. Hutchinson is one.
“There is a bunch of us who have spent a lot of time and money and gas and fatigue and heat and sunburn and horsefly bites to learn about this fish,” he said.
When I was outdoor editor of the Roanoke Times, Hutch, as his friends call him, avoided taking me tarpon fishing -- for a story, anyway. You just don’t put undue pressure on a resource like this. Besides, tarpon were a personal favorite of his.
I didn’t fully understand why I was in his boat this time. Maybe as he nears 70, Hutch is mellowing. Maybe he figures a guy like me is no threat. Maybe he knows that most anglers aren’t going to devote enough time and effort to become a tarpon fisherman here where the trail of this great fish ends.
You get an idea of how tough the fishing is when you tally the number of citations issued annually for tarpon releases in the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament. Last year, the count was six. In 2003 it was 20; 2002, nine; 2001, five; 2000, two. The state record is a 130-pounder landed in 1975 by Barry Truitt. Most range from 40 to 80 pounds.
“I took one guy 14 times before he caught one,” said Hutch.
While tarpon have been caught as far north as Nova Scotia, the Eastern Shore of Virginia is seen as the northern end of their migration. They come here to feed and frolic in the protected water between the barrier islands and the maze of channels, creeks and bars that stretch lazily toward the Eastern Shore mainland.
The late Claude Rogers is credited with the first catch, back in 1955. Rogers was a pioneer sport fisherman, the first director of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament. He and Hutch were fishing buddies.
Hutch grew up on the Bay side of the Shore, then moved to Virginia Beach when he joined the staff of the Pilot in the early 60s. He retired a few years ago and spends much of his time on the Shore, where he compiles an excellent fishing report for Cherrystone Campground, cherrystoneva.com.
When we eased onto our fishing spot, there were two tarpon boats already there, including Wehners and another angler who is a disciple of Hutch.
Hutch doesn’t just fish Virginia water, but for 30 years has traveled to Florida in search of tarpon. He figures he has been around 150 hookups, an amazing number for an angler living in Virginia. One of his most memorable catches was a 150-pounder he landed on a fly rod after a 2-hour, 30-minute fight in the Florida Keys.
You can go after tarpon with weighted streamers or plugs, but the prevailing technique in Virginia is to anchor and use bait. Hutch likes to fish a live spot or small croaker under a float on one rod and a filet of croaker on or near the bottom on a second rod.
As we put out our baits, suddenly a tarpon rolled to the surface. Then another. Hutch began counting aloud.
“There’s another one,” I pointed.
“Don’t point at them,” Hutch told me. “This is where they live.”
Rolling fish may or may not be feeding. Seeing a few of them is a good omen, but seeing too many while your baits go untouched may indicate they aren’t in a feeding mood. Hutch’s count went to better than 10.
That’s when Wehner yelled.
He had been reading a book, the third on of the Ring Trilogy, when the 65-inch tarpon hit his croaker bait.
“Usually, I concentrate on the baits and the water, but a couple times this year I’ve taken a book along to read,” he would later explain. “Maybe I should do that more often.”
Back at the dock, Wehner, who is from Virginia Beach, and Hutch compared notes.
“That makes two for me in -- what? -- 10 years,” Wehner said.