Ride a seaturtle
By Tom Rowland
I could hear the glassy water sliding off the hull of the boat as I navigated through the Lower Keys in my skiff. When it is blowing even 2-3 mph, there is a choppy sound as the boat crushes the little waves and even 1 inch waves are felt as a slight vibration transmitted through the hull to your feet and legs. But when it is slick calm in the summer of the Florida Keys there is often not even a ½ mph wind leaving the surface of the water absolutely flat like a mirror. Today was as still as ever and the boat slid through the water with a unique feel and sound that made me want to go check out a few baby tarpon spots.
Tarpon not only bring oxygen into their bloodstream by washing water over their gills like other fish, but also have maintained a “prehistoric lung” or air sack that supplements the oxygen obtained through their gills even through the millions of years of evolution. It comes in pretty handy for the tarpon and other fish like the gar and goldfish who also can breathe in this fashion.
When they are young, tarpon can inhabit stagnant water that does not support other fish. There is simply not enough oxygen in this water for a predator fish to live for long so the tarpon remain safe due to the ability to breathe air when they roll. Mosquito larvae and other insect life thrive in this water and the young tarpon is able to gorge himself while staying protected from underwater predation. Predation from overhead is always present as Blue Herons, Osprey, and Eagles patrol these areas and the fact that they could be plucked from the water and devoured on top of a telephone pole keeps the tarpon wary of anything flying overhead, even when they reach 200 pounds.
Calm water, like we have today, means that the tarpon will roll a lot making it easy to find them. That is the plan for today; hit a couple of spots and catch a few fish and then go on the prowl for all new spots. My father in law is with me and he is so excited that it seems as though he has been plugged into an electric socket. He is perched next to me taking it all in. He has read all about this and heard me talk about it but this is his first time on a real skiff in real tarpon water. I mean he has gone out on the token Boston Whaler in the Panhandle or his friends boat somewhere else, but this is his first time that he knows he really has a chance.
Despite working the last 67 days in a row, I am also excited about today. It is beautiful, almost too beautiful. The horizon melts into the ocean and almost gives a feeling of vertigo. No clouds means that we will be able to see the fish in the water well and no wind, not even a whisper, means that the tarpon will roll a lot. I don’t really want to take Bob to my best spots. There is a tournament coming up and these spots are fragile. Too much pressure and the fish will disappear. I do want Bob to catch one though. Despite his repeatedly saying that it doesn’t matter, I know it does. Today seems to be the perfect time to find new spots and get Bob to catch his first tarpon while staying away from the spots I intend to hit in the next tournament.
Eventhough I will avoid the very best spots, I want to take him to a really good spot and have him catch his first tarpon and then go exploring for new spots for the rest of the day. It might not sound like it would be that much fun to explore an area that you fished the last 67 days in a row, but it is. Every nook and cranny is a possible goldmine waiting to be discovered and the first day that you find the fish is always the best. I am hoping to uncover a little jewel and let Bob mess them up a little bit.
Pulling the throttle back and letting the skiff glide to a stop, I have already begun to survey this new area. Bob is too excited. He will not do well if he can not calm down and I know it so I offer him some water and we sit for a few minutes just looking. It is ultra quiet.
I don’t want anything to happen too fast for Bob because I know that he will frantically try to get shots that are not possible and end up scaring the fish. He simply does not have much experience at this point.
I see several fish roll about 100 yards away but I don’t say anything to Bob. Quietly I ask him to get out the 8 weight rod and strip out the line. As he gets ready I slip the push pole from the holders and get on the tower with one step. I push the boat easily but purposefully toward the area that the fish rolled.
“They are here…There, they rolled again at 11:00, 250 feet” I called out
“Where?” Bob questioned while trying frantically to locate the fish or whatever I saw.
“Point your rod” I said and began to coach Bob to make smaller moves and point the rod to the area where the fish were.
“Good, watch that area and don’t blink” I instructed as I poled the boat closer and closer to where I knew the fish would be.
The fish rolled again and Bob got a clear picture of where the school was. This was a lay up and I knew that if Bob would not cast too early, he would probably get one. These tarpon were lazily rolling; barely breaking the surface and leaving only a small dimple in the water.
As the boat glided quietly closer to the school, I began to instruct him on how and where the cast should be made, making special note to wait until I told him to go. A cast too early would alarm the fish as the line landed and was ripped out of the water to make a recast. Casting too early was common among guys who had not fished much.
The fish were rolling every few seconds and I could tell that this was a big school. I told Bob exactly where to cast and let him know that the time was right. He let a beautiful cast fly and it landed perfectly. The fish attacked the fly, even fought over it. After a few jumps, Bob had his first tarpon. He was so excited I thought he might pee in his pants. He managed to catch another one out of that school and I knew that it would take him weeks to come down off this high.
It was time to explore. Time to go to work and make this day off pay dividends for my next 67 days.
With grand ambitions, I searched my mind for areas I had passed and made mental notes about going back. Ten spots came to mind immediately and I poled the boat away from our angry school of fish. Once far enough away, I cranked the engine and sped off at full throttle in search of what I expected would be the best day of exploring ever.
Three hours later we had not seen a fish but we burned 11 gallons of gas. Bob was still riding the wave of excitement and did not seem to care. How could I strike out over and over on such a nice day? I continued to search spots I had never fished and eventually even decided to go to a few I had.
It was a biological desert out here. No wind, no clouds, no fish and too much sun. Wiping the sweat off my forehead with my sleeve I questioned everything I knew about finding tarpon.
Poling miles of shoreline with no sign of fish is tough. I began to point out birds and stuff to Bob who was now almost as bored as me. Finally I saw a sign of life. A loggerhead turtle stuck his big head out of the water and weezed in a breath of hot still air. He was about 100 feet away and I could tell by the way he went back down that he was not moving much.
“Want to check him out?” I asked.
Bob agreed and I poled quietly over to him. I could see his orange-ish glow in the water and I had Bob look in his direction. He sat motionless on the bottom with his head kind of buried in the turtle grass. I got within 10 feet of him and he was still oblivious to our presence.
“I have always wanted to ride one of those” I told Bob. “This is the perfect time.”
Bob thought I was kidding but I wasn’t. I started to take off my shoes and then my shirt. Placing my wallet on the poling tower I was just about ready to do it. I was almost directly over the turtle and I could easily jump on to it and grab its shell. I was going to scare the shit out of the thing so I was prepared to hold on tight.
My toes gripped the edge of the poling tower and I leaned forward and moved my arms back in preparation for the big jump.
As I brought my arms forward, a black shape zipped into the picture. The stillness was shattered as a 300 pound Bull Shark crashed into the turtle at full speed. Deflected by the shell, the shark came partly out of the water and the turtle exploded into full speed swimming which is faster than you might think. A boil the size of 2 of my boats remained and I caught my balance and tried to slow my pounding heart.
“Still ready to jump in, big boy?” Bob asked with a smile.
I just shook my head and put my shoes back on.
I had never seen a Bull Shark attack a turtle before or since that moment. I was millimeters away from jumping exactly between the shark and turtle and I knew how bad it could have been. At times like this, I feel like there was someone watching me who either put the shark in the picture or kept me from jumping 1 second sooner.
A chill ran up my spine on this sweltering day.
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