Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Who Says White Fish Can't Jump?

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
Here little fishy, here!

What weighs more than an average adult human and jumps oh so very high? If you guessed LeBron James, guess again.

Behold Megalops atlanticus, a.k.a. tarpon or the Silver King of the flats, so named because of its large, silver scales. In Islamorada -- well known as the sports fishing capital of the world -- you don't need a rod and reel to witness the strength of these finny creatures. Instead, feed them by hand!

Postcard Inn at Holiday Isle, Islamorada
Tarpon are ubiquitous in Islamorada. At the Postcard Inn at Holiday Isle, you'll even sleep next to one.

In my angling adventures, I've felt this strong fish swim like a speeding Mac truck at the end of a screeching line. They run like mad and jump high at which point every fishing guide will tell you to "bow to the tarpon" -- drop the rod tip so the line goes slack and doesn't snap.

Fishing technique aside, you should bow to this royal highness of Florida's backcountry. Not only has this majestic fish been roaming our coastal waters since prehistoric times, in theory, a leaping tarpon could also do some serious damage.

A couple of years ago, during the World's Richest Tarpon Tournament in Boca Grande, I almost got clobbered by a bounding 200-pounder. The only thing between us was the hull.

Extreme angler Jeremy Wade even researched a documented case about a fisherman who died after a run in with a "killer torpedo" in Central America. The poor guy was fishing in a canoe. Thank goodness for monohulls, although Wade dared to catch his tarpon on fly rod in an inflatable craft.

But tarpon are no river monsters and have no appetite for humans. Hand-feeding them is no more dangerous than giving a bone to your pet Fido. Tarpon aren't toothy, so they can't really bite you. Their big mouths are packed with tiny, densely packed teeth, giving the inside of the mouth a sandpaper-like texture.

Tarpon are simply eating machines who will jump for food.

And jump they will at Robbie's Marina in the Florida Keys, where you can see hungry tarpon leap into the air with only one aim in mind: to snatch baitfish from your hands. You'll offer the tarpon some delicacy du jour from a bucket, perhaps mullet or threadfin herring, which was on the menu the day I visited Robbie's mid-November.

The clever tarpon know that there's a free lunch at Robbie's. Staff at the marina recognize return "restaurant" guests by their unique markings.

Like a gang of freeloaders, Jack Crevalles also wait for a complimentary meal, but they circle swiftly under the dock as if anticipating a feeding frenzy. The tarpon are far more relaxed, so you can never quite know when one is going to jump, which adds to the thrill.

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
For a tarpon, this is first-rate sushi.

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
Tarpon aren't the only critters in line for free food.

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
Kneel down to feed the fish.

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
Still scratching my head on how anyone could be strong and fast enough to remove a tarpon from the water.

There's more to do than hand-feeding tarpon at Robbie's Marina -- a rustic, laid-back stop along Route 1. Satisfy your own appetite at the Hungry Tarpon, although you'll never see tarpon on the menu. This popular game fish is too bony to eat and a strictly a catch-and-release species, unless you purchase a permit.

Stroll the open-air shops, rent a kayak, take an ecotour, go fishing and more. For more information visit Robbie's Marina.

To learn more about this amazing fish, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.

More photos on Flickr.

See yours truly hand-feed the tarpon in the video below.

For this post, I visited Robbie's as part of a press trip. Opinions my own, as always.

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