Fishing for tarpon in Fort Myers, Florida: the bait escape
What's eight feet long, 280 lbs and puts up one hell of a fight? The tarpon, that's what. We headed to Florida's western coast in search of the not-so-gentle giant...
By Neil Davey
Published: Monday 21st August 2017
It's silly o'clock in the morning. The famous Florida sun is barely surfacing as we pull away from the jetty. Our captain, Ryan, is proud of his new boat's sound system and the Rolling Stones disturb some slumbering pelicans as they loudly describe how they're going to redecorate should they see a red door.
For the next eight hours or so, it's going to be me versus fish or, more importantly, us versus 49 other teams. Welcome then to the 'Ding' Darling & Doc Ford's Tarpon Tournament – my first ever attempt at competitive fishing.
For an experienced fisherman, the tarpon is a legendary opponent. They can grow to around 8ft in length, 280 lbs in weight and, when hooked, they fight. As in fight. As in leap-out-of-the-water-and-thrash-like-a-bastard fight. For an inexperienced fisherman, it's a very silly place to start. So why am I here? It's all because of a photo…
It's not that I haven't fished. I have. About six times. As a kid, my dad and I gave it a few tries, but we only ever caught one fish and, defying all angling advice, that was after we'd run out of bait and squished the remains of a Mars Bar around the hook.
And then, a couple of years ago, I was invited salmon fishing in Alaska. It remains one of the best things I've ever done. The place is beautiful, I made some great friends, I caught a few fish, hell, I even got to eat one of them as sashimi prepared by a Michelin-starred chef from Tokyo, a bucket list item I didn't know existed. Someone took a photo of me with a salmon I caught and I used it as a profile pic for a while… which is apparently why the good people of Ding Darling & Doc Ford's thought I'd enjoy going head to head with an easily-peeved, thrashing, eight foot, silver bastard.
So, I think, as we head out to sea, it's vanity that's brought me here, bobbing around the Gulf of Mexico, both literally and metaphorically out of my depth. Even so, my team and I come in joint third in the competition…
Our 'base' for the tournament is the Pink Shell Beach Resort and Marina in Fort Myers, a charming little town that's straight out of a Jimmy Buffett song. It's a fine location, a very chilled, very Florida resort, with apartment-style rooms with great views of the ocean, three heated pools, and easy access to the beach: my stroll to the pier becomes an early morning ritual, paddling in the warm waters, while pelicans, herons and the occasional osprey busy themselves on the sand and/or swoop overhead – the hotel website actually has an 'ospreycam' – before returning to a hearty buffet breakfast.
It's from Pink Shell that we'll explore the region, its history, its shopping, food, and very enjoyable bars. Although we're here just before the election, these days you sort of have to mention this and yes, Florida can be a little bit 'Trumpy' – from the alarmingly orange sunbathers on the beach to the unrequested views of Uber drivers and bumper stickers – but, hey, it's mostly avoidable and, let's face it, right now you don't have to go far to find similarly polarised views back home…
First port of call is Doc Ford's, a local bar that, together with the nearby 'Ding' Darling Wildlife Refuge, gives its name to the annual fishing tournament. I leave the sports talk to my team mates – lifelong eager anglers and professional fishing journalists – and focus on the local beers.
With the classic rock still blaring, Ryan takes our team – called Fishing And Chips – to the waters under one of the region's many bridges, to net some live bait. We've been warned to use sunblock – "it's going to be hot out there" – but not the aerosol stuff as it will ruin the boat's metal work. I've also learned, as we've packed the boat with sandwiches, snacks, soft drinks and beers that you don't bring a banana on a boat because "it's crazy bad luck". And with the bait on board, and now to a soundtrack of Guns N Roses, we head out to sea for the official start time of 7am…
The most popular tourist attraction in the area is the Edison and Ford Winter Estates (edisonfordwinterestates.org) - which is exactly what it sounds like. Thomas Edison bought a property in the area to build a vacation home. His very good friend Henry Ford decided he'd do the same and purchased the adjoining land. The sites now occupy 20 acres and are dotted with historical buildings, beautiful gardens, Edison's research laboratory and a fascinating museum that features Edison's collection of patents – over a thousand of them – and a number of antique Ford vehicles. Even so, you can't fully escape the region's favourite pastime, as the properties are located on the riverfront, an expanse that Edison used to claim was the best tarpon fishing in the area.
The nearby marina is also home to Pinchers Crab Shack, where the titular shellfish are available in myriad forms. The best option – and the most sustainable - turns out to be the stone crabs. They're caught, a single claw is removed and then they're returned to the water where the missing claw will grow back. It's not much of an existence, to be fair, but while they're invested in your lunch, they're not as fully committed as many other creatures…
There's a commotion from a rival boat. We turn and yes! There's a flash of silver and a tarpon leaps from the water. Ryan rolls his eyes. "They got that on our bait," he sighs, as we watch them fight to bring it to the boat to be photographed and released, as per competition rules.
While hoping for a little beginner's luck, there's barely a tickle on my line until suddenly, I watch it bend almost in half. I look around. Paul, editor of a national angling title, and Ryan, talk me through what to do but, almost as I remove the rod from its holder, it snaps back up. Ryan steps in, and reels the line in. It's not just that there's no bait. There's no hook and no 'leader – the 'strand' that connects the hook to the end of the line. "Shark," says Ryan, inspecting the remains of my line. "A pretty big one." Suddenly I'm not so disappointed it got away.
Need to know
For more information on the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel, go to fortmyers-sanibel.com
A week's stay at Pink Shell Beach Resort Marina & Marina in Fort Myers Beach starts from £160 per night based on two sharing a deluxe gulf front studio king room. pinkshell.com
Fly to Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers from the UK via Philadelphia, Newark, Atlanta, and other main hubs. Prices start from £490pp. americanairlines.co.uk; virgin-atlantic.com; delta.com
While fishing clearly drives much of Fort Myers' tourism, there are plenty of other things to occupy from other outdoor activities, like kayaking at Lovers Key, or retail therapy at the impressive Miromar Outlets. Miromar is also home to one of the branches of Ford's Garage, a local restaurant chain with some 150 beers on the list and some rather epic burgers. Legend has it that the motoring company weren't keen on them using the Ford name… and then they visited.
"Win some, lose some," shrugs Ryan as we decide that, after seven hours or so at sea, and just that one tarpon spotted, we should head back to shore. Like several of team Fishing And Chips, I've long swapped fishing rod for beer, and am just enjoying the views, the classic rock, the warmth of the sun and the gentle lapping of the waves. If only we'd had a Mars Bar, it could have been so different…
We cruise back to the marina, and head to Doc Ford's for the final positions. That tarpon we saw first thing has put that team in first place. Another boat caught a tarpon shortly afterwards, and they take second spot. The rest of us haven't caught a thing, which leaves Fishing and Chips, rather brilliantly, in third place. Admittedly it's joint third with 47 other teams but if there's one thing I've learned about fishing, it's that you never let the facts get in the way of a good story.