Vol 6 No. 46 - August 9, 2006

Tarpon of the Forgotten Coast

Captain Mike “Hammer” Locklear gets down and dirty with a Forgotten Coast tarpon.

By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer

Contrary to popular belief, tarpon have a large range that covers the tropics, the entire coast of Florida and the east coast of the United States to Virginia. While locations like Boca Grande, the Keys and Homosassa are touted for their large populations of silver kings, there are other less publicized locations that hold concentrations of the prized game fish.

Recently I had the pleasure of joining Homosassa guide and tarpon savant Captain Mike Locklear on a trip to the north Florida Big Bend area where I was introduced to an excellent fishery surrounded by miles of unspoiled coast. We stayed on Alligator Point a finger of land that juts into the Gulf and sweeps to the west encompassing a pristine body of water know as Alligator Harbor.

More diverse that the west coast, the white sand beaches are interspersed with vast wetlands of spartina grass, towering pines, and numerous wild and scenic rivers. The Forgotten Coast is bounded on the west by Mexico Beach, St. Joe Beach and Port St. Joe. To the east lies Cape San Blas, Indian Pass, Apalachicola, St. George Island, Eastpoint, Carrabelle, Alligator Point, Ochlockonee Bay and Panacea.

I flew into Tallahassee from Tampa (a 55-minute flight) and rented a car for the 30-mile drive to the coast. I arrived before Locklear, and took the time to explore the wild and scenic Bald Point State Park, which was just minutes away from our rental home on Alligator Point.

The park includes white sand beaches, coastal marshes, pine flatwoods and oak thickets with a multitude of biological communities. The variety of ecological habitats makes the park a spectacular destination for birding and wildlife viewing. In the fall, black bear, bald eagles, raptors and monarch butterflies are a common sight.

We launched Locklear’s18-foot flats boat on Alligator Harbor the next morning and made a 45-minute run to a shoal about a mile offshore. When we reached the northern end of the flat and anchored the boat, I was beginning to wonder why I had made the trip north. There was a fifteen knot wind from the west that made standing on the front platform a chore, and the water was off-color to an extent that made seeing fish a long shot at best.

After enduring the conditions for close to an hour, Locklear pulled the anchor and moved east to an area where the conditions were much improved. Not only was the wave action subdued, but the water metamorphosed into a clear green that lifted my spirits.

We were poling the edge of a large grass flat near deep water when Locklear spotted a tarpon working towards the boat. I wasn’t able to see the fish initially, but made a cast in the direction he pointed. As I began to strip the fly back to the boat, Locklear told me to make another cast. I started to respond, but waited a split second. Suddenly I saw a shape turn off the grass and head towards the fly. I instantly dropped the rod tip, took in the slack and began to strip the fly.

Experience had taught me to keep the fly just in front of the predator, twitching the rod tip to enhance the illusion. I watched as the tarpon closed in for the kill, large silver-green eyes firmly fixed on the fly. No more than 10 feet from the boat, the tarpon opened a cavernous mouth and (literally) inhaled the fly. Then, seemingly frozen in place, it turned and revealed its wide silver armored flanks. The line came tight and I set the hook with two sharp jabs and concentrated on clearing the 60 feet of line that lay on the boat deck.

The fight was classic as the tarpon ran well into the backing before performing an aerial display of grey-hounding and tail-walking leaps. I applied maximum pressure and was able to get the leader in the guides (a technical catch) twice before it broke off ten minutes into the fight...perfect.

We spotted several other fish that day, but it was the following day that Locklear would get his chance. Conditions were different that day, a dead calm sea rimmed in white clouds. We saw fish rolling all morning but it was early afternoon when the sun and wind were right for Locklear’s favorite flat. I had a turn and managed to blow a great cast at a fish in less than three feet of water. I gave the bow to Locklear and watched as he expertly put a fly in front of two marauding tarpon. The second fish rose to the offering and was airborne instantly. Locklear put the "hammer" (Mike’s nickname) to the tarpon as it make a beautiful tail-walking jump, rooster-tailing the line across the water’s surface. We managed to break that fish off too, and after several more shots, it was time to call it a day.

These tarpon see fewer anglers than their southern brethren, and will readily take a well presented fly. The season is approximately three weeks behind ours, depending on water temperature and weather conditions. Tarpon fishing is always a special treat, but combined with the wonderful natural setting of the "Forgotten Coast," it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

Accommodations: Paul Parker 850-566-6200 paul@harborpointrealty.com

Guide Services: Captain Mike Locklear (352) 422-1927 captmike@homosassafishing.com

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