Tarpon Records - Kings of the High Jumpers

by Louis Bignami

Tarpon fight fair! No other large fish offers the light tackle fisherman such a sporting chance. Tarpon jump, where most other species sulk deep. Tarpon cruise shallow, sandy flats, where most other big fish lurk near cover or, like offshore fish, patrol such deep water that the light tackle fisherman can't pump them up.

So, rather than look at M. Salazar's 283-pound fish taken on 30 pound-test in Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela back on March 19, 1956, let's examine line class tarpon records set in the accessible Florida flats.

We do this partially since the Salazar fish seems to have disappeared. IGFA has repeatedly attempted to locate the fish and angler with no success. There seems no question that the record is a proper one. While Lake Maracaibo no longer produces such huge fish after its exploitation for oil, the biggest contemporary tarpon from Port Michel, Gaboon run well over 200 pounds, and larger tarpon aren't that uncommon.

However, a better measure of fishing success may be the ratio of line test to fish weight. IGFA has 5 to 1, 10 to 1 and 20 to 1 categories for these. Bill Riesenfeld's 108-pound, 8-ounce tarpon taken on August 4, 1987 from Florida Bay, Florida exceeds these standards; it weighed 27 times his line test!


Guide Jose Wejebe holding Bill Riesenfeld's 108-pound, 8-ounce IGFA line class word record Tarpon.

Photo: Jose Wejebe


Partnership On The Flats

Since tarpon, like permit and bonefish, are flats fish that live in broad shallow bay sections off tropical coasts, fishermen usually chase these fish from a flat's skiff that's powered into the area, and then worked from a platform over the raised motor by a guide using a long pole. Run motors on the flats and skittish fish scoot for deeper water!

Guides like Jose Wejebe, who led Riesenfeld to his record tarpon, find areas where records can be set with fish large enough to qualify for given line classes. Such "bathtubs" offer minimum chances for fish to go deep or hang fishermen on mangroves or other hazards.

Guides pole all day in the hot sun and Turkish bath humidity during the long search for tails, shadows or riffles that tip off working fish. Guides try to place the boat so the angler can see and cast to the right spot. In many cases, guides call the strike because they can see the fish pick up the bait or tap the lure where the fisherman cannot.

Once the fish is hooked, the guide must often pole hard to move in on the fish to reduce the chance of lines caught, and broken, by bottom or floating snags or, as sometimes happens, other fish. As the fight moves on into the long slogging stage that brings the fish to net or gaff, guides encourage the angler, keep the boat properly placed and watch out for snags. They may, without touching the line, remove floating debris, like seaweed, that it collects during the fight. Then they gaff or as is more often the case, release the fish. Finally, they need to find the way home through the often confusing, barren flats.

The fisherman needs the correct gear and, after consultation, terminal tackle. He needs to cast accurately with a quiet presentation and set the hook to the limit of his tackle. Then he must "bow to the fish" when big tarpon jump as, when free in the water, tarpon easily snap lines. "Patience early when the fish is green and adrenalin flows fast, and concentration late as the fisherman, like his gear, tires" are the keys to success.

As the fight enters the middle rounds fishermen have to stay tough and keep pressure on while they try to work close and get the Bimini on the reel so they can use the leader's strength. Tension increases as the fish draws near. With less stretch due to the fight's stress and the shorter distance between fish and rod tip, the least error means a lost fish.

It's in the second and third hour that inattention loses fish. Close to the boat, tarpon can do all sorts of discouraging things. Tarpon have jumped into boats -- that ends it, the fish wins. The guide and fishermen spend and hour or so collecting gear from the shallow bottom if they are "lucky" enough to be over sand. Tarpon dive under boats and break lines and snag lines on motors. Only exact concentration, and a decent measure of luck, bring success with light tackle.

So flats records are really partnerships. The expectation, effort and skill each partner adds can vary wildly. With experts like Riesenfeld and Wejebe it's close to a 50-50 proposition. Both go out specifically to set new light tackle records. Riesenfeld, with Wejebe and other guides, has set single and multiple records with 4-pound test on flats species like tarpon, permit, barracuda, mutton snapper and others. His current 4-pound test permit (see photo), a massive 44-pound 12-ounce fish, may be the outstanding flats record of the modern era. It is bigger than the 8-pound test record.

Preliminaries

In the heat of record stories it's important to realize that almost all potential record fish are lost. As Jose Wejebe tells it, "Bill Riesenfeld really worked for his record. We had some 80-pound tarpon played right to the boat and let them go because we couldn't be certain that they would be over the then record 76-pound fish. He came down for four years to try and get this fish."

Wejebe continued, "The year before he was on a fish for 4 1/2 hours. I must have poled nine miles. The big tarpon was close a couple of times. I got a scale off of it with a gaff. Then it moved back into the channel, joined another school, jumped, bottomed and popped the line when it ran back through the school. I know that fish went 150 pounds."

Record Recollections

Fortunately, some days things come together. Riesenfeld's record day, the second on a four day trip, didn't start well, and it nearly came to a heartbreaking end. Jose Wejebe had his custom Dolphin Super Skiff, a hull designed on a Steve Huff pattern ready early. His favorite Mariner 90 h.p. with the new 3-cylinder setup was, he noted, "really reliable. We run motors hard for 65 or 75 miles a day over shallows and through rough water. When you add the humidity and salt spray it takes a tough motor, and sturdy hull."

Webeje won't disclose the exact spot he had found to fish save to mention that, at the proper tide stage, it was a lovely dished flat with three to four feet of water. He had seen record tarpon there a couple of weeks before. So, with conditions perfect they were out for the record "somewhere on Florida Bay."

Their troubles started with the bait. Webeje remembers, "Spending a long time picking out just the right big shrimp at the tackle shop in Marathon." Shrimp are the choice flats bait, because you get a bit longer to set the hook, and a better hook set, than is the case with lures.

As Wejebe remembers it, "When we got to the spot we wanted to fish the bait was dead because of 'water conditions." Riesenfeld says, "the aerator in the bait tank broke." These things do happen to the best of guides, and almost always at the worst of times. They could see record fish tailing everywhere. So Riesenfeld started casting with plastic worms, but rigged an alternate rod with the small size red and white finish Bagley Finger Mullet plug.

Wejebe spotted a pod of big tarpon, but none would take a plastic worm. Riesenfeld grabbed the rod with the Finger Mullet and led the fish with a short cast from his position on the bow. The huge silver fish rolled and as Webeje remembers, "Garbaged the plug."

Then, as Riesenfeld bowed to avoid a broken line, he remembers, "It jumped seven feet in the air." The silver tarpon landed, jumped, and sped off. Webeje poled desperately. The fish jumped at least a dozen times. Both fishermen expected to see the plug come loose at any time, but it held fast throughout the fight.

As Webeje recalls, "When I finally poled up on the fish I missed with the gaff. I had the wrong gaff, a heavy model, in the boat. I couldn't manage to hold the leader in one hand and set the gaff with the other."

After another run, the big tarpon moved back into range. Webeje couldn't get the gaff in. According to Riesenfeld, he tried more than 30 times, but there was no way to control the leader with one hand and gaff the fish with the other. Especially after poling for miles during the two and a half hour fight. Webeje would get a shot, and the gaff would either slip off or come up with a scale as the tiring tarpon shot off in a cloud of sand.

Webeje ruefully remembers, "Then the fish dove under the boat and around the motor. Bill jammed his rod underwater and cleared the line. We were lucky!" Desperate to gaff the fish and with a sure record fish just out of reach, Webeje yelled, "Bill, try to pressure him."

Riesenfeld, unsure now that his abraded line and abused knots would hold, gently led the fish in with a long slow lift as he took care not to snag his line on the boat. Webeje took a deep breath, stretched as far as he could with the gaff now in both hands and jabbed the huge fish.

After a run to the nearest certified scales, the fish weighed 108 pounds 8 ounces. It stretched 88 inches -- 72 inches from mouth to the tail's fork -- and was 33 inches in girth. It beat the old record by over 30 pounds. It will be tough to beat.

Perspectives

At line tests above 16 pounds, record tarpon run well above 200 pounds. Only one, Gus Bell's 243-pound fish, the long-standing 20-pound line test record set in 1975 off Key West, Florida is from United States waters. So anglers anxious to try tarpon on Florida flats might consider lighter tests, but here only exact attention to every detail, and the services of a skilled guide, offer even a small chance at a record fish.