Despite the Atlantic tarpon’s 120-million-year existence, it has a relatively short angling history. Not a revered food fish and sometimes freakish in size, it took time to develop strong tackle to tame such beasts. New York architect William Halsey Wood couldn’t have imagined that his trip to southwest Florida in spring 1885 would birth an entire industry. But it did, and the rest is quite literally history.
The first tarpon caught on rod and reel was documented by angler William Halsey Wood in 1885 on a bamboo rod, a conventional reel and a live mullet. It weighed 93 pounds. Fittingly, the site was Tarpon Bay near Sanibel Island, Florida.
Southwest Florida tarpon fishing catches fire, and the fish fueled the region’s economy. For many, tarpon were essentially the first fish of a big-game fishing addiction. Local newspapers reported weekly lists of tarpon catches, with 438 caught in 1894.
The techniques and tackle evolved at a fast clip. The silver king started a revolution. The star drag reel, invented by reel-maker Edward vom Hofe in 1902, replaced the “knuckle-busters” that made fighting big tarpon a painful endeavor.
Outdoor writer A.W. Dimmock’s The Book of the Tarpon is published, bringing tarpon fishing to the general public. Dimmock came up with a weight formula for the fish (girth squared times length divided by 800), allowing anglers to release their catch alive.
Billy Pate set a fly-fishing record on 16-pound tippet with a 188-pound tarpon caught off Homosassa in 1982. That catch started the frantic world-record chase on fly by the best fly-fishers in the business. Pate’s 16-pound tippet record was broken on May 13, 2003, with a 190-pound, 9-ounce tarpon caught by Tom Evans Jr.
The biggest tarpon specimen landed by a woman stands at 249 pounds, caught by Frederique Jarland, fishing out of Sherbro Island, Sierra Leone. The fish was fought on 30-pound line. Sierra Leone holds nine tarpon world records.
Capt. Steve Kirkpatrick guided angler Jim Holland Jr. to the first tarpon over 200 pounds ever taken on fly tackle. On May 11, Holland landed a 202-pound, 8-ounce tarpon on 20-pound tippet fishing off Florida’s central west coast near Homosassa.
The all-tackle world-record fish was certified as the 80-pound line-class record at 286 pounds, 9 ounces. It was caught by Max Domecq in Rubane, Guinea-Bissau, Africa, on March 20, 2003. Lure designer Patrick Sebile was the guide.
On May 8, 2021, a giant tarpon was caught off Bahia Solano, Colombia, in South America. The angler was American Josh Jorgensen, who runs the BlacktipH YouTube channel. He and his companions took turns fighting the fish to competition. It measured 87 inches long with a 54-inch girth. Modern tarpon calculators estimate that the fish weighed 312 pounds.