The day started out pretty much as I expected. I took him to a quiet spot lousy with small rolling tarpon and he about soiled himself with excitement. He had never caught a tarpon on fly, an accomplishment, it seems, some folks think of as some sort of milestone. He assured me he was a quite accomplished angler up wherever he came from, and his casting suggested as much. It was fun to see that he was quite jazzed to put this notch in his belt.
It didn’t take too long, although he needed some tips to get through the usual adjustments, to hook and keep one hooked. Both he and the fish were willing enough but there are just some things that have to be done correctly. When he finally kept one stuck all the way back to the canoe it was my turn to learn something new for the day. He wanted to land the fish himself, which we call lipping, as they are controlled by inserting your fingers into their mouth, grabbing on, and out-muscling them until they give up. Only then can you remove the fly – even when small these are not fish that slide demurely into a net and then behave. Once accomplished, this is when the virginity-ending tarpon are usually hoisted for the grip and grin photo. To my amazement (I already had the camera ready), he roughly yanked out the fly and unceremoniously chucked the beautiful little fish back into the water. And, then, with great enthusiasm, he turned and begged to get on to another one before this opportunity went away.
OK, he is new to this, I thought, so maybe that was just excitement clouding his judgment, but I thought his treatment of his coveted fish was unnecessarily harsh. I checked and the fish was unseen, which suggested it swam off and would probably survive. When the next fish was treated similarly and laid immobile and belly up next to the canoe, blood obvious from its gills, I felt it necessary to add another suggestion to his technique… “Respect the fucking fish!” My outburst caught him quite by surprise, and I don’t really think he believed me, at first. He then unveiled his contrary belief, and I am paraphrasing, as I was so shocked that I do not remember his exact words, but they were something like: “You are kidding right? These are just fish!”
At that point I suggested that if he were lucky enough to hook another “just fish” I would appreciate it if I were allowed to unhook it for him. Adding that it is better in a canoe if the person on the other end does the lipping. It is easy to break a flyrod if done otherwise. And, not incidentally, these young fish, if they survive, will be around for the next couple years getting bigger and continuing to add to my fishing enjoyment. The concept of them being the spawning stock of the future, if they survived, I felt was also true but probably beyond his caveman comprehension.
As luck would have it, he hooked no more fish on that shorter than usual trip. No matter how many places I took us, we just could not find more tarpon! To make matters worse he got literally ate up by the bugs. It must have been karma. Almost everyone else that I have taken on similar trips has caught little tarpon until they plead “No mas!”
I bring up this topic because I have heard, or more accurately: read, some similarly fish-sympathetic folks decry the common tactic of releasing large tarpon without removing the fly first. I get where they are coming from, but find their indignation off target, an uneducated opinion at best, hypocritical at the least. I would like to think that, unlike scrub boy above, most fly anglers have the best intentions for the fish. Maybe there is another side of this perceived abominable practice of “breaking ‘em off” worth looking into?
In all fly fishing there is a probability factor involved in the equation. Not all fish hooked make it to the net. Tippets break. It is a fact, and the lighter the tippet the greater the probability that fish will swim away with a hook embedded. Should we never test our ability? Should 7X leaders be banned? We all accept that probability, and the responsibility.
Yes, the above is a hypothetical rationalization. But a fact of the matter, when it comes to large tarpon, and probably all large fish, is that subduing the fish to the point of catatonic exhaustion necessary for hook removal is probably more detrimental to the fish than breaking them off. Barbs can be removed from the hook. Hooks that rust can be chosen. The length of time a fish will keep that hook can be minimized by such options. The length of time it takes a completely exhausted fish to revive cannot be minimized. Scientific data from release studies (recently done here in Florida for snook) show that the fish does not recover in minutes, nor even hours, its takes upwards of a day.
Unless you get to do this kind of fishing often, there are just some things that are not graspable. One thing that happens, and sadly much more often than we actually witness, is that even a spent 100#+ tarpon can become an easy meal for the bigger things that eat them. The ocean is full of these bigger things and they make their living by following the tarpon schools. These immense predators can and do feed on free-swimming tarpon. Tarpon encumbered by an angler’s line are easier and commonly chased. I’m sure all would agree that breaking off a tarpon with such a target painted upon it is the only option. An exhausted tarpon, even if unhooked, simply has no chance. There is no sadder moment for the tarpon angler than when, at an unpredictable duration of time after releasing a tarpon, the ocean explodes in a swirl of large gleaming silver scales and an unbelievably large stain of blood.
There are other concerns too, like the safety of the humans involved. These fish are strong and unpredictable. I know of noses that have been broken (seriously… I saw the video) and I’ve seen broken thumbs, the latter from a smallish fish. I’ve never lipped a tarpon and not had an ache or scar to prove it for days. And those situations all happened when the injured were in a boat. Fishing from a canoe adds another dimension.
I once had a smallish tarpon in the 30# range jump into the front half of my canoe. It wedged itself forward until getting stuck under the bow seat where it struggled and tore the seat from the gunwales. I am convinced a large tarpon could dismantle a canoe. That would be a real problem for me due to the places I fish. I simply do not know how I would get back. So, I no longer fish for large tarpon, from my canoe, where the water is deep enough for the fish to high jump. Tarpon jump a lot, and I doubt they have any idea where they are heading. I once had a large tarpon rocket straight up when the bow of my canoe was above it. The fish hit the side of the bow and spun the canoe like a compass needle. The tarpon and I were eye to eye for a moment that seems frozen in time. It was bigger than me. It landed inches from me. Nope, never again.
When I do fish for larger tarpon from the canoe, I deliberately fish 12# tippet, just so I can easier get free from the fish. Otherwise I usually fish 16#, which I found through experience is actually quite difficult to break from a floating canoe. In that case you cannot tell if the tarpon is being pulled toward you, or the canoe is being pulled toward the tarpon… which eventually puts them, where? Right next to or under the canoe, tired or not.
I believe there is an opposite idea that is even worse. I know folks who use no line class tippet at all. They fish straight leaders, or slightly tapered ones that are essentially all butt section. For those of you who might be unfamiliar, there is commonly a tippet section of material with a low and known breaking strength, but on the end of that a short length of heavy monofilament is inserted before the fly. This terminal section, called the bite tippet, is usually in excess of 50# test, and protects the thinner “class tippet” against abrasion from the tarpon’s lips. So, their thinking goes something like this: if there is a butt section of 50# and a bite tippet of 50#, why not just go with a straight piece?
The result of this tactic is, of course, less broken leaders but also a tarpon that cannot be released unless lipped. The worse fact is that the leader is then commonly stronger than the backing. Therefor if something does break during the fight, it will probably be the backing, the weakest link. In this case the tarpon is sentenced to pulling a full flyline around until it succumbs from exhaustion or tangle, and probably that bigger fish in the sea.
So, personally, I am good with the choice to leave a hook temporarily in a tarpon. I think it is the more fish-friendly option, and safer too. I accept the fact that fishing is inherently a blood sport no matter how far we distance ourselves from the spear fisherman. Of course, you deserve to have your own opinion. It would be nice however, if you know something about the subject before you condemn the possibly well-educated decisions of other fly anglers.
Another point, that was just brought to my attention by my editor lady friend, is that it is quite possible to live happily with small metal implements impaled in locations including, but not limited to the mouth. Amen… all I can say to that is, Amen.
Note: the two accompanying photos are of large tarpon that were fought for a while but allowed to keep the fly if they promised not to hurt me. The first one was close to the 150# range that I fought from my canoe, solo. The second is my tarpon addicted buddy fighting an immense tarpon that approached 200# and had an attitude. If you think I was going to lip either of those fish…