It started out a beautiful day. There was a light wind, just enough to ruffle the surface, a slight chill heading out the canal, and few mosquitoes at the dark ramp. We made a bee-line for a large open bay where the new moon had the multiple rivers dumping toward a morning slack low tide. It was almost perfect. If there was a checklist for conditions that should be good for big river tarpon all the boxes would have had check marks, except one: the one that counts… the box that asks “Tarpon present?”
While searching with binoculars, far in the distance and close to a point, I thought I detected an active flock of birds hovering over something indeterminate. So, off we went, and what we found was one of those amazing natural world sights that boggle the mind and makes even the most determined anglers pause to just watch. We found acres of pelicans and gulls sitting on the calm surface, paddling about like ducks, while feasting upon an unimaginable concentration of tiny baitfish. The pelicans seldom went airborne as there was no need to crash dive – all they had to do was dip under and lift their heads to sort out the goodies. The gulls didn’t bother to chase bait either, they just scarfed up what the pelicans lost in their over-fed sloppiness.
And amidst all that bait, not one predatory fish was seen or even suspected.
Morning hours are not to be wasted so after a few exploratory casts, which confirmed the lack of predators, we moved on. We sampled at a few historically productive tarpon spots but drew blanks at all. Along the way we came across other clusters of near-shore feeding birds, all of them similar to the first. There was so much bait in the water it was almost inconceivable but there wasn’t even a hint of predators feeding upon it from below.
At one of TA’s favorite locations we sat and scratched our heads while floating slowly in the lee of a small river mouth. We were looking for some sign, any sign. We even watched other boats that were now becoming more numerous as the less insane who did not forgo a decent night’s sleep were arriving from the far away dock. There were a few boats well offshore, drifting and apparently fishing. What were they doing out there? With nothing to lose, we went out and looked.
What we found was another of those natural world things that make fishing so much more than catching fish. Offshore we found more bait and more birds, but the difference was there were fish, active fish, crazy bait busting foamy holes in the surface feasting fish. They seemed to be eating everything that moved but our large tarpon flies were ignored. Soon, we could not stand it anymore, so out came the light rods, thankfully not banished to the closet just yet, and we relieved our frustration with an hour or so of bent rods. The fish were primarily Spanish Mackerel, but there were also Bluefish and Ladyfish, and even a few Tripletail. All are about as fun as a barrel of monkeys on a light fly rod.
And with that clue we returned to the location we found tarpon last week but we focused our attention offshore, ignoring the birds, bait and boats closer in, and sure enough, we started to notice signs of tarpon. Actually, signs of large tarpon are often not subtle if you actually pay attention, since a six foot slithery mass of mirrored silver throwing itself high into the air and crashing back in a spray of white water is hard to miss. Funny though, many do not see them.
With only a short time left we managed to put two in the air with a fly, not a free swimming crab, in their mouth. Though none came to hand, it almost felt like a triumph.
So… can I claim we figured out the crystalizing piece to the puzzle? Nope, just dumb luck and determination. I have learned over the years that foolishly thinking I figured it out is true folly, but if I were to guess, in retrospect, I would say the critical factor was oxygen, or rather, the lack of it.
My thinking goes along the lines of this: All that damage that Hurricane Irma imposed upon the environment means there is now literally thousands, maybe millions of tons of decaying biomass soaking amongst the roots of the mangroves. Decay is from micro-organisms and those critters use oxygen just like you and me – and fish. All that anoxic water flowing out from the backcountry has created a nearshore oxygen-depleted zone, and the fish don’t like it. The birds, breathing air, don’t care, and the bait has no choice but to go where the currents take them.
In an environmental laboratory there is a common test called BOD (biochemical oxygen demand). Industrial waste streams, even sewage, can cause the same type of oxygen depletion that can eventually lead to fish kills. That is why it is such a common test. In this case, it might be a case where nature is the polluter, not us.
Well, that is my best guess. If I’m right I doubt there will be much inshore fishing for quite a while. Time will tell. In the meantime… keep looking out!