Hammerhead Attack

As a nocturnal animal, the tarpon will feed heavily at night, last light and first light.  First light has always been my favorite time to fish.  New clients would sometimes protest at the 5:00 am departure from the dock until they saw the treasure that awaited them as the sun cracked over the horizon.  Hundreds and sometimes thousands of fish would be lazily rolling and feeding completely unbothered by anything.  This situation is a one cast opportunity.  Make the right cast and the tarpon will bite.  In fact, there is not a more predictable or easier time to catch a tarpon in all of tarpon fishing.  What made this situation such a excellent opportunity was that the fish were actively feeding in the low light and were the most comfortable of the entire day having spent a quiet night feeding. Fitz Coker, my oldest, funniest customer used to describe this phenomenon in human terms.  He envisioned that these fish had been up all night playing poker and they were just rallying to go home.  I always got a chuckle out of this because of the way he said it and the thought that the big winner would be feeling full of himself after taking all his friend’s money.  A shrimp would land near him and he would say, “I’ll take that too” and would be hooked by Fitz ruining his streak like losing it all on the last hand.

It is the morning fishing that helped me build a career out of tarpon fishing.  Being able to navigate the tricky waters of the Florida Keys in total darkness gave me an edge over many guides that would wait until the pale light of dawn to leave the dock.  I worked and worked on navigating in total darkness without the aid of a GPS, also without the aid of navigation lights or a spotlight.  The lights drew attention and could be seen from far away.  Many guides would not hesitate to follow me to a location that was only big enough for 1 boat.   Most customers returned year after year because we could often get to a location in the dark and catch a tarpon before other guides even left the dock.  By the time they reached the fishing grounds, we were on our second or even third spot of the day, often with 2-3 fish under our belts.  

In order to protect my fragile spots, I was incredibly secretive.  The operation was run like a well oiled machine.  I would meet the customers in a different location each day, leave their car, and then put in at a nondescript or out of the way boat ramp and try to hide the truck and trailer.  Because we would leave so early, we were often back earlier than other guides and away from the ramp without ever raising an eyebrow.  

The run was always in the dark.  No nav lights and, at first, no gps.  I would turn the gps on after I was sure that we were not being followed.  I would know this because I would stop and evacuate the morning coffee and water while listening in silence for other engine noise.  There were other factors that could also be a tell tale sign of who was first to the grounds.  Often the entire ocean surrounding the keys was slick and undisturbed in the morning.  High pressure would settle in the area, sometimes for months and there would literally be zero wind.  The ocean would not have 1 ripple on it for as far as anyone could see in any direction.  Feelings of vertigo sometimes overcame me and my customers as we gazed into the where we thought the horizon should be and were surprised to see a Key “floating” 1 mile in the air.  On days like these, the horizon blended into the sky and the low morning light exaggerated this effect.  If anyone had come out here before us, their wake would remain for quite sometime and the bubble trail that it left would sometimes stay for an hour or more in a basin with low tide flow.

This morning was exactly as described; flat, hot and still.  No wakes, no disturbance, no engine noise.  We were here by ourselves.

Pulling up to the spot where I had seen 100’s of fish the morning before, we readied our equipment and silently began poling into the area where the fish should be.  It was still dark so we tuned our ears to try and pick up the sounds of a distant tarpon rolling to get a breath of air or popping a shrimp or crab from the surface.  These sounds could be heard from a very long way on a motionless morning.  The time between stopping and seeing the first fish was always full of anticipation for me.  If a fish was not seen or heard in the first 15 minutes, I began to wonder if I had navigated correctly.  The fish should be here.

I would search the horizon for islands, or any sort of landmark to insure that I was in the right place.  Later, GPS technology allowed for assurance of being within 20 feet of the target so I would cross check with the GPS but if I wasn’t seeing or hearing fish, I would begin to doubt my position.  

Decisions had to be made quickly.  Although we were first out, other guides would be coming soon and would head to another spot that I wanted to go.  With our headstart we could spend about 20 minutes in the first spot by ourselves before having to move.  

This time our 20 minutes ran out and we did not hear or see anything.  This was repeated again at spot number 2, 3 and 4 leaving us fishless at 9:30 am.  The morning was tough; usual spots that hold relaxed groups of fish that are easy to catch at first light held nothing.  The early morning opportunities were now over and the sun was a radiating a heat that was familiar.  It was pleasant now, as the sun warmed our bodies, clothing and the deck of the boat, but hours later that pleasant feeling would be replaced with an angry, relentless and oppressive heat that would remain for 5 months in the Keys.

At about 9:30 am the fishing strategy would change from targeting rolling fish.  As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the fish would roll less and less.   This did not mean that the fishing opportunities were over, just that they changed a bit.  I would now have to see the fish in the water and stalk them long before making a cast and by about 9:30 I could just begin to see a tarpon in the water 40 feet from the boat.  By high noon I could easily see one several hundred feet away.

The migration of the species made it possible to stake out on a trail and wait for the fish to come by or we could move into a basin where the fish would lay motionless just under the surface.  These laid up fish required excellent team work and incredible stealth and precision.  The difficulty of success was the reason that this situation was my favorite opportunity in all of tarpon fishing.  

We could pull into an area and find a small school of 10-15 or a larger school of hundreds packed closely together and rolling slowly and consistently. They would choose to accumulate in schools for safety sake and hopefully avoid predation from their nemesis, the Hammerhead Shark.  The tarpon would usually range from 50-over 200 pounds.   

In the afternoon these same fish we targeted in the morning would slip into a basin of clear water and lay motionless for hours as they let the gentle tide wash over their gills providing enough oxygen to make them only roll for additional oxygen ever 30 minutes or so.  Knowing the location of the school could allow me to pole the boat silently toward the school searching for a slight color change that would alarm me to the presence of the school.  Sometimes it was easy and I would simply arrive at a location and watch for a few minutes only to see a couple of different and separate schools rolling.  We would then pole up to them and take our shot.  

Many factors could either help or hurt your chances of finding or catching these fish.  Calm days such as this one, were excellent for watching for rolls and pinpointing the location of the schools.  However, the ultra calm conditions made it tougher to actually catch a fish.  Months of slick conditions would help all the suspended sediment in the water to fall out leaving it as clear as any western spring creek or even the finest Russian Vodka.  Wind, even 5 mph would disguise the small skiff by breaking up the pressure wave that extends out in front of the boat alerting these big fish of our presence.  On a day like this, they could feel us coming and hear every move we made.

The approach had to be stealthy and slow.  Every push of the pole was calculated to make the smallest amount of noise, foot movement on the boat was eliminated and equipment was checked, double checked and ready to launch.

With a fish or two in the morning, a guides day is pretty easy.  The pressure is off and everyone is happy.  Attitudes like this often result in more fish being caught because I could take a few risks and explore new water of return to a place that I had avoided for some time.  These spots were often feast or famine so I would usually go to this tier of locations only if I had some morning success.  Other spots would be more consistent but would offer challenging conditions either because of natural factors such as strong tides or deeper water that made poling difficult or because of fishing pressure.  The spot I had brought my customer to was the later.  

The fish would be here, but they would be spooky.  Some of my favorite fish of my career were caught here and I relived some of those memories as I made the long pole towards the area that the fish seemed to like best.

Once under way, I explained the situation that we were in to my customer saying that the fish would probably show up in a certain area, we would approach slowly, getting close enough to determine the direction that the fish were pointed.  Once that was established, I would quietly position the boat for the best cast.  He was instructed to wait until we were in position before we began the cast.  

The fish would not move and we could take our time.  A premature cast would alarm the fish and once they were aware of us, they would not bite.  We would be lucky to get a single cast in the water without spooking the fish on a day like today.

I saw a faint purple/brown color in the distance and guided my customer to point his rod at the area.  I knew he wouldn’t be able to see it yet because it was barely visible to me from a higher vantage point.  If I could get him to concentrate on the area, however, he might see one of the signs that these fish give us that would only be noticed by a very perceptive angler that happened to be looking in the right area.

After a tarpon rolls, they will often hold some air in their mouth and release it after they return underwater. Often these bubbles can predict a tarpon’s speed or direction if you can not fully make out the fish in the water.  Other times, they will roll and hold some air in their mouth for quite some time and release it long after the fish broke the surface, compromising their location.
Tarpon’s rolls can also leave a dimple in the water like that of a rising trout under conditions like this.  First time anglers are impressed with the ability of a 150 pound fish to limit the disturbance of the water to that of a freshwater trout.

We would watch for these small clues to tell us where the school lay.  Today was no exception as I saw a dimple from far away that looked a lot like a tarpon but as a Cormorant returned to the surface I realized I had been fooled.  Fifteen more minutes passed until I clearly saw and heard a tarpon roll.  I directed the customer’s attention to a spot where the ring from the dimple was still visible.  He could see it and remained focused on the spot.  

The sun was high and the visibility into the water excellent.  Sweat both pored and evaporated leaving the smell of clothes being ironed in the intense heat of the Florida Keys.  That is a smell that always tells me it is the heart of tarpon season.  This is not a gentle environment.  The heat requires anglers and especially guides to hydrate often and repeatedly to avoid heat exhaustion or heat stroke,  Every exposed area of skin is being seared by an angry heat that will blister all but the most leather-skinned guides.  The younger guides, like me, took a cue from Marshall Cutchin and have begun wearing long pants, long sleeves, face covering and even gloves to avoid sun exposure.  It is the only way to make it 300 days on the water in a single year.  

Continuing to pole deeper into the basin we closed on the school and could clearly see their color in the water.  A few more feet and I could probably determine the direction that they were facing and possibly see individual fish.  Whisper quiet we prepared for our best shot of the day.
Once my angler could clearly see the individual fish, we chose a fish that was laying off to the side of the school as our target.  I often avoided throwing to the leader as he was usually the dominant fish.  If he liked our offering, other fish would seldom compete for it but if he didn’t like it, he would turn and take the whole school with him.  A more successful formula was created from experience and targeted a fish in the rear of the school or off to one side.  The one I selected was easily 100 pounds and sat with a very slight cant away from the school of 20 other fish which would make it possible to get our fly in front of this fish without alerting the other fish or throwing our fly line near them.  It wasn’t the best opportunity I had ever seen, but it was definitely the best we had today.

Patiently creeping inches closer, I finally had my angler begin his cast and try to place the fly in the water 10 feet ahead of the fish and 2 feet beyond it.  The cast would need to be approximately 70 feet and dead on target for this school to allow it in the water and for it to possibly catch the eye of the one we were trying to catch.  

One of the best moments in tarpon fishing comes when the fly makes it into the water without alarming the fish and the angler begins to draw the line back to him with long slow strips.  The line slithers through the water and brings the collection of feathers to life as the water washes over them.  A laid up fish is not feeding, but will feed if the dumbest shrimp in the world swims right in front of him and makes for an effortless meal.  That is our job, to create an effortless meal that offers no sign of danger or risk and makes the fish feel as though it has made a great discovery.  Crashing a fly in front of a school of fish will turn these motionless black logs into an explosion of frothy water as the 15-20 fish of over 100 pounds bolt from any sign of possible predation.  I always found it amusing and interesting that a 100-200 pound fish would be scared to death of a small song bird overhead or a 2 inch fly swimming towards him; but in fact, anything out of the ordinary scared the hell out of these fish.

As the fly was delivered through the still, hot air, I could hear every sound amplified due to the lack of wind.  The cast was finally shot towards the target zone, completely on track which was good because we would only have one shot.  The fly landed gracefully and quietly and not one fish flinched as it entered the water.  I instructed my angler to allow it to sink while slowly collecting the slack and bring the fly to life gradually and carefully.  Watching the tarpon in the crystal clear water from 50 feet away, I could see the eye of the tarpon rotate to find the fly that was gently moving in front of him.  It had worked, we had created a situation that made this fish feel like he had found our fly.  

Almost imperceptibly, the fish roused itself from a semi hypnotic state and twitched its tail and body in a way that was invisible to me but propelled the fish forward without seeming to alter his body position at all.  The tarpon is hydrodynamical perfect and ideally suited for its environment as all fish who have survived evolution to exist today.  

As a tarpon gains interest in the fly, getting the fish to actually open his mouth and eat the fly becomes a dance between the angler, guide and fish.  In situations as this, tarpon are fickle creatures who may show initial interest only to be offended by one wrong move of the fly.  From the higher vantage point of the poling tower, the guide can see things that the angler cant and the years of experience tune the guides eyes to certain clues about the fish’s mood that are invisible to the less experienced angler.  The angler does his best to follow the guide’s instructions which are given quietly while also trying to maintain boat control and stealth.  The fish is the 3rd member of this unique dance and communicates how it feels through body language.  

Laid up fish in ultra clear water can be tricky because the entire school congregates for safety reasons to avoid predation by other, larger creatures.  Each fish teeters between unconsciousness and awareness of signs of danger from the school but will gladly move a few feet for an easy meal.  The opportunity for food is contrary to the reasons the fish are here in the first place.  These fish have slipped into a quiet, seemingly safe area to rest and feeding draws attention.  As a fish moves through the water, tiny signals are send out like waves through the water each with a signature that is as easy to read to other fish as the English language to us.  If a shrimp is to dance in front of one of these fish in the daytime, the pursuit and capture will not be an attack like at night, rather a subtle move that will not draw attention from the school.  Imagine a highly skilled pickpocket compared to a mugging by a bunch of thugs.  The fish will skirt the line between actually getting the shrimp and alerting the school and our job as anglers is to create a situation that makes the target fish feel as though he has an opportunity at our fly that only he has realized.

It is at this moment of truth that we can either close the deal and entice the fish to actually eat the fly or, the worst scenario of drawing the fish away from the school only to misread the signals and suffer rejection.  The last minute avoidance of the fly not only is damaging to the anglers confidence, but the feeding movement of the fish has not put the entire school on high alert and often they begin to glide to a new area, calm but aware of some presence of danger.  At this point the chances of catching any one of these fish has decreased by about 60%.

But today, the fly was crossing perfectly in front of the target fish and as the eye rotates and interest increases, the body of the fish begins to move forward so slowly that I am unsure whether it is actually happening.  

“Long slow strip” I whisper as I watch the fish carefully.  

I always instruct my anglers that the fish dictates the retrieve.  If he is coming and increasing speed; continue to do EXACTLY what you are doing until he eats the fly.  IF there is any sign of slowing, direction change or we notice that the fish is sinking lower in the water it is time to alter the retrieve.

“Tap, Tap, long strip” I would say, communicating that I wanted the fly to hop twice and then glide.  

This fish was interesting to me because it was coming to eat the fly in a way that made me think he was determined not to let any of the other fish know what he was up to.

His body slipped forward and I could see the mouth begin to crack open.  This was it!  A take was almost sure now.  The mouth began to open wider and I coached my angler to simply continue the same motion.  

Just before a tarpon eats, he will give one tail kick that will propel him much faster than his prey.  The mouth opens and gallons of water are sucked through the gill rakers and the prey is caught.  Tarpon can easily suck in a shrimp from 2 feet away without ever making contact with the shrimp and that was the plan of this fish.  He had been successful thus far, the rest of the fish had not stirred and it appeared that he was going to be able to grab this morsel before any other fish noticed.

As his mouth neared the fly and began the sucking motion, I readied myself for the event to come.  The slick, oily surface of the water and the still, sticky air would be ripped apart by a 100 pound tarpon leaping out of the water as he realized his mistake.

We were in, nothing could stop us now.

From the left edge of my vision I saw something I had never seen before in this location and it was so out of place and moving so fast through this scene that I struggled to make sense of what was happening.  A fin stood 2 1/2feet out of the water and moved at about 35 mph directly towards the fish that was millimeters from eating our fly.  At the moment that the four letter word exited my mouth, the school exploded and 100 pound tarpon ripped away from their sanctuary in every direction.  Our fish waited one millisecond longer as his attention was focused on the fly.
The fly was suspended between his jaws as the 1000 pound hammerhead shark prepared for a 30 mph impact as if guided by laser navigation.  His target was clear, there was absolutely no mistaking the fact that this shark had waited outside of the school until one fish made a mistake.  A shrimp, or in this case our fly had distracted the fish and moved him away from the school enough for this Alpha predator to feel as if he had a shot.  The difference between life and death in the ocean is a game of millimeters.

Quiet stillness was shattered and replaced with sounds similar to bowling balls being dropped by the dozens into a swimming pool from 100 feet overhead.  The feeling of control and dominance was transferred into fear and uncertainty an experience of a lifetime unfolded in front of us.  We were in the middle of a Hammerhead attack on a free swimming tarpon.  It happened everyday, but only few individuals had ever witnessed something so extraordinary at such close range.  
Water cascaded off the dorsal fin of the giant shark as the fin ripped through the glassy smooth water.  The sound of the fin slicing through the surface brought chills down my spine as I realized that my 16 foot skiff was directly between the shark and the tarpon.  Never slowing, the shark missed the boat by inches as it negotiated a high speed turn that would make a Formula 1 driver jealous.  The school of tarpon exploded and began an escape strategy that was nothing short of astounding.  This fish darted forward and within 10 feet was swimming at top speed and making tight turns and even circles and figure 8’s with the Hammerhead only 2 inches behind his tail as if the were coupled together like a truck and trailer.

The pursuit went in every direction as the hammerhead mirrored every move the tarpon made.  At times, we would think that the tarpon had lost the shark only to see them turn and zip back to the boat.  At one time the tarpon decided to swim beneath the boat trailing a 3 ½ foot fin coming directly at my angler.  The tarpon saw escape and the hammerhead was determined not to loose this meal he had waited for so patiently.  Feeling sure that my angler was about to be catapulted into the water by the crash of the hammerhead into the bow of my skiff, I called out a warning in time for him to brace himself.  The hammerhead negotiated another turn at the last possible second that soaked my angler from the waist down with warm, salty water.  Within seconds the tarpon was again swimming with a 1000 pound predator within an inch of his tail.

The silence of the day had been replaced by utter chaos.  The school had bolted leaving frothy water in a 100 foot radius and the tarpon and shark had zipped wakes and bubble lines throughout the basin.

The pursuit continued and the school vanished.  The hammerhead closed the distance.  No matter what twists and turns the tarpon attempted he could not loose this shark.  As I watched in amazement, the hammerhead moved 6 inches closer to the tarpon and continued the chase with his head inches below the furiously beating tail of the tarpon.  As they came by the boat one final time, I watched as the hammerhead positioned his hammer exactly perfectly under the tarpons tail and lifted the tail of the tarpon from the water revealing an angry and aggressive explosion as the tail of the tarpon again threw 30 gallons of water into the boat.  As the tarpon missed just one beat of its tail, it was just enough for the hammerhead to simultaneously kick his tail harder and bite down on the tail of the tarpon.  Like a pair of serrated scissors, the shark cut through the meat and bones of the fish and the motor was now gone.  A brutal collision ensued and the hammerhead gave one shake of its head to rip the remaining sinew clear from the body of the fish that was still swimming as hard as before despite the absence of the last 25 inches of his body.  Deep red blood streamed out of the fish that was feverishly pumping his tail and created a 3 foot wide path of blood through the air-clear basin.  The hammerhead made a tight circle and went in for the rest of the body.  The attack was so close to the boat that I could see the jaws of the shark moving and his eye locked on the body of the fish that was now within 30 feet of the bow of my boat.  

The tarpon had now slowed almost to a stop and the blood was really pouring out.  I couldn’t believe how much blood was in a tarpon.  The head of the fish was pointed to the surface as his jaws gasp for air and his eye rotated as far backwards as possible in an attempt to see the shark.  The tarpon never gave up.  Even as the shark took the big bite that it came for and clipped the tarpon just ahead of the dorsal fin, the tarpon still twitched the remaining part of its body in a futile attempt to flee.

The hammerhead took 60 pounds of flesh this time in the same scissor like motion he used to cut off the tail. I could see the flesh of the shark shake as it violently used all its jaw power and a brutal side to side motion of the head to rip the tarpon in half and swim slowly away with the trophy crossways in its mouth, just like a dog with a bone.  

The shark got what he was after and the attack was over.  The fin quietly moved away in the direction from which the attack started and gradually slipped beneath the surface.  The tarpon head still pumped blood into the water as it sank to the bottom, gills still pumping and what remained of the bodystill attempted to swim.  The blood slowly covered the fish and until we could not see it anymore.  The crystal clear water was now bright red and the cloud continued to spread through the basin.

Speechless, I stood on the tower trying to make any sense of what I had witnessed.  Without a word I began slowly poling away from the blood.  Lemon sharks began to gather and as I poled away from the attack site, the smaller sharks zipped in from all angles until they hit the blood trail and created a single file line that would lead them to the remaining 40 pounds of tarpon.  All this happened so fast that it is still unbelievable.  Just minutes before we were straining to find any sign of life, but now, with the brutal death of this tarpon, life was everywhere.  

The sharks continued to come, a steady stream of them like a parade.  They followed he scent of blood that the tide had begun to carry out of the basin.

I was shaken and scared.  Soaked with sweat, I pushed harder and harder to get away from the area.  My client was reeling in his fly line and we both knew we were going home.  Neither of us was comfortable here anymore.

Tom Rowland

Saltwater Experience

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