Outdoors | Path less traveled leads to tarpon hook-ups

Are you ready for tarpon season? The secret is out that a large bunch of fish arrived, and anglers are taking advantage.

To see it first-hand, I joined Capt. Todd Romine on Saturday as he ventured in search of tarpon after successfully landing two in an hour earlier in the week.

When we approached the north end of Anna Maria Island slightly after 8 a.m., it was apparent where the "secret" tarpon school has been. I would estimate 50-plus boats were within an area the size of a football field, making the pass look like Boca Grande during a Professional Tarpon Tournament Series event. We only saw one boat hooked up to a tarpon, and that fish was attacked and eaten by a 14-foot hammerhead shark.

After more than 30 years of guiding for tarpon, Romine prefers to avoid the concentration of boats. His plan was to stay on the outskirts of the pack and search shallower waters outside of the pass. He took to the tower of his 24-foot Robin and deployed twin Minn Kota 80-pound thrust trolling motors off his stern, allowing him to stealth fully approach schools of fish.

It didn't take long before we saw small pods of tarpon cruising the sand flats. He quietly positioned the boat to cast the small crabs rigged to a large bobber in the path of the tarpon. The casts peaked the interest of other boats more than the tarpon we were targeting, and that's not a good thing.

"If the tarpon don't get comfortable, they aren't going to eat," Romine said. "All it takes is one guy on his engine running through the fish to turn them all off."

Sadly, too many boats pressuring the schools made it nearly impossible to get good approaches on schools of tarpon. I could see the frustration on Romine's face as he worked hard to get the boat into good positions time after time only for a less courteous boat to spook the fish.

To get away from the boats, we looked further down the beach, stopping on a few small pods of fish which attracted more boats, and thus more spooky tarpon.

Eventually we were able to find a school of fish without any pressure. Romine remained patient as he followed them, studying their movements.

"When they're moving they don't want to eat. When they 'get right' you'll see them start to slow down and swim around each other, that's when it's time to get baits in the school," he explained.

There were many chances to lead the pack of fast-swimming fish, but he knew a running-and-gunning style would prove ineffective. As the fish slowed, he positioned the boat, and baits, in the right spot. The 6500 Fin-nor Offshore spinning reel started screaming as a large 130- to 150-pound tarpon was on the other end.

Angler Steven Robuck handed the rod off to his wife, Mary Francis, who got the rundown of fighting a tarpon. After about 15 minutes, the 60-pound flourocarbon leader parted, and the fish was free.

Everything was coming together and Romine circled around to began the hunt once again. This time he spent 20 minutes studying the schools movements, putting the boat in position to cast the crabs back into the fish.

One fish missed was soon followed by another hook-up. Mary Francis took the rod once again and this time worked about a 100-pound fish like a pro. After 27 minutes with a few hectic jump sequences and screaming runs, the tarpon was boatside, released to fight another day.

Next weekend is the 32nd annual Crosthwait Fishing Tournament presented by Yellowfin. For more information, visit crosthwaitfishing.com.

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