The water must be still; the motor of the boat at just a hum. The angler must cast directly into the school of fish to catch one of the silver kings of the sea. But setting the hook in the bony mouth of a tarpon is only the start of the angler’s battle to reel the strong fish to the boat.
Tarpon can weigh up to 200 pounds and jump up to 10 feet out of the water. The prehistoric fish is sure to put up a fight that will leave both parties exhausted.
“Some (fish) are better athletes than others,” said Jeffri Durrance, who has been fishing in the Sarasota Sportsfishing Anglers Club Tarpon Tournament since 1981 and organizing the tournament since 1992. Anglers from all over the country will visit Sarasota for this year’s Sarasota Sportsfishing and Anglers Club 83rd Tarpon Tournament, which takes place May 18 to June 23, with a fish-off Saturday, June 29. Tournament organizers hope to surpass last year’s number of 130 anglers.
The first president of the Sarasota Anglers Club, radio magnate Powel Crosley, started the first tournament in 1930. That year, 13 men floated onboard Crosley’s boat. The boat became a floating radio station known as Little WLW. It broadcast the fishing tournament all over the U.S. through the stations WLW, in Cincinnati, and WIL, in St. Louis. It was the first radio broadcast of a fishing tournament in history.
For more than an hour, Sarasotans were tuned to their radios despite the heavy static and interference of code stations at sea. They wanted to hear premier radio announcer Robert Brown tell the story of the first tarpon catch via radio. Brown shared the details on how a “big silver king was hooked and brought to gaff.” That year, William Bakewell, of Daytona Beach, caught a 165.5-pound tarpon and won the tournament.
In the years that followed, the tournament grew in size and popularity. It hosted the first Tarpon Queen pageant in 1940, which gave young ladies a chance to show off their talents and become the face of the tarpon tournament for the year.
During World War II, the tournament was put on hold. But, it started again the year after the war was over.
“This tournament has been a part of Sarasota County for a long time,” said chairman of the tournament, Mason Tush. “People would travel by train to compete in this. They would give away money, plots of land and cars.”
Today, the tournament donates money to Suncoast Charities for Children and hopes to surpass last year’s donation of $7,500.
This year’s grand prize consists of $1,000 cash; two tarpon spinning rods and reels from Economy Tackle; signed limited edition print of Brendan Coudal’s tarpon artwork; and an engraved plaque. Previous years brought in extravagant prizes of the time. For example, in 1930, the grand prize was $5,000, and, in 1951, the winner received a new car.
Each year, the tournament winner’s name is engraved on a historical silver trophy housed in the Sarasota County Archives.
In the first decades of the tournament, the tarpon were caught and weighed. The fish would ultimately die. Then, in 1984, Sarasota County Anglers Club President Bill Mindline changed the tournament from a kill format to an all-release format, which is still in place today. The format ensures the safety of the anglers and the conservation of the tarpon and the sport.
To be eligible, one person most hook the tarpon on a manually operated rod and reel; catches are reported daily and anglers are required to take a polygraph test each week to encourage fair sportsmanship. The winner of each of the five weeks, the winner of the most releases division and the winner of the fly fishing division will be entered into the Fish Off June 29, and will fish for the grand prize.
“The people who fish the tarpon tournament really love it,” Tush said. ”The amount of power they have and the way they jump; it’s pretty spectacular.”
IF YOU GO
SARASOTA TARPON TOURNAMENT
When: May 18 to June 23
Cost: $125 for adults, $50 for juniors 15 and under; benefits Suncoast Charities for Children
1930 — Sarasota Anglers Club President Powel Crosley, radio magnate, starts the Sarasota Anglers Tarpon Tournament.
1934 — Charlotte Donnell, of Geneva, Ohio, becomes the first woman to win the tournament; she caught a 132-pound tarpon.
1940 — The first year of the Tarpon Queen Beauty Pageant. Ladies compete for a chance to be the official representatives of the tournament and pose with tarpon.
1961 — Sarasota Chamber of Commerce approves the creation of a Tarpon Queen costume made of tarpon scales.
1984 — This is the first year the tournament becomes no-kill for the safety of the fishermen and conservation of the tarpon and sport.
1997 — The Sarasota Anglers Club merges with the Sarasota Sportsfishing Club.
Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study
Since 2005, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and volunteer participation of recreational anglers have helped scientists track individual tarpon providing valuable information to learn about seasonal movement patterns, population structure and recapture rates.
In this year’s tournament, all anglers will receive a DNA sampling kit that contains a scrub pad to scrape off the skin cells of the hard, bony surfaces of the jaw or cheek of the tarpon they catch.
Anglers are asked to take a sample of tarpon skin cells when they remove the hook, prior to the release of a caught tarpon. Through DNA sampling of the tarpon, scientists can study how many tarpon survive catch and release so the species can be sustained. It also relays their seasonal and regional movement patterns; possible “homing” tendencies; gives an estimate of long-term survival; provides genetic diversity of the tarpon stock; and shows the distribution of tarpon in Florida.