July Tarpon And Big Blacktip Sharks
A summertime big-fish adventrure off the coast of Georgia.
It is 10:25 a.m., and a brass-bright sun has already pushed temperatures into the 90s. The reflection off the water 3 miles out into the Atlantic off Richmond Hill makes it hard on the eyes and, if not for the polarized glasses, unbearable. This is to be the first 100-degree day of 2009, but who cares? After all, I have just seen my first-ever 100-lb. tarpon.
In fact, there were 10 or more all roughly the same size, cruising the channel between St. Catherines and Ossabaw islands. Anchored in 35 feet of water, Capt. David Newlin had a pair of novice saltwater fishermen — my son Myles and me — pitching and snatching popping corks with wriggling pogys 6 feet under them. Well, occasionally under them; most of the time they were frantically skipping toward the surface in escape mode.
David is a full-time saltwater captain and guide and has been in the business of making fishermen happy for 30 years. He is a walking, talking encyclopedia of coastal knowledge, foremost among it, the gamefish available. And especially big gamefish.
There’s a world of difference in tossing your basic largemouth gear for speckled trout or bass and picking up one of David’s outfits. When you heft a rod 8 1/2 feet long with a butt as big as your wrist, you realize playtime is over. By the way, bass are spotted bass, bass or spots on the Georgia coast, redfish on the Gulf side. When David says bass, I know what he means. But we’re not after bass, and I’ve left the Shimanos at home. The one saltwater trophy I’ve always wanted above all the other glamor species is a 100-lb. or better tarpon.
But David has already warned, “Any tarpon you catch before the Fourth of July down here is a bonus fish. This is the first day of 100-degree weather we’ve had, and I’ve really been looking forward to it. Things will heat up now in more ways than one.”
We’re aboard David’s 22-foot Sundance, pushed by plenty of power from a 150-horse Evinrude. The extremely comfortable boat is the perfect tool for this type of fishing and has a shade-providing canopy worth its weight in platinum. It is roomy, with plenty of area to maneuver, very handy when there’s a monster with a mouth full of teeth on the end of your line.
I don’t want to tell you more than you need to know about this type of fishing, but if you’ve never heard of popping corks for big fish — and I never had — here’s how it goes…
With any fish pushing the scales into triple digits, it is imperative your tackle be nothing less than perfect. That is exactly what David provided. I’ve used Shakespeare’s Ugly Stik for decades — but never one like this. Mounted upon it was a Bass Pro OceanMaster OM80 spinning reel spooled with 65-lb. test Power Pro line. The OM80 is a brute.
After motoring out of Kilkenny Marina, off Highway 144 in Richmond Hill, just after 7 a.m., David spotted a school of baitfish working on top, dropped the trolling motor and eased to within cast-net distance. Two tosses provided three times more bait than we would need for this trip; then it was on to the channel. We set out a pair of rods with pogys 6 to 8 feet below big popping corks. The tide was running strong, whirling marsh grass by in bunches, and took the baits as far back toward the beach as we wanted to fish. Or, as the case may be, as far as we wanted to try to reel something back.
As soon as the rigs were in place, we were instructed to snatch the rods every few seconds, making the corks jump and splash to attract predators. Within 30 seconds, my cork disappeared and I felt the jerk of a 20-lb. Atlantic sharpnose shark. For the next hour, it was like being on a bream bed. We never set out more than four rods, but one of them stayed bent almost every instant. David also had two outfits rigged with no corks for bottom fishing, and a pogy that hit the sand never stood a chance. Over the course of the day, we caught and released a bare minimum of 40 sharks, staying too busy to count.
But I wanted a tarpon, and at midmorning, we finally spotted a big school working about 100 yards away. They were constantly on the move, sometimes toward the beach, and then behind us on the open ocean. They would roll half their bodies out of the water, providing teasing glimpses — but simply refused to cooperate. Undaunted, David picked up, and we headed to McQueen’s Inlet, where he has had success in the past.
As a brief aside and a little free advice, if you don’t know this area, don’t try running around it without a good guide. There are breakers and shoals everywhere, with narrow cuts and rising and falling tides that make for dangerous maneuvering. As we entered McQueen’s, we passed by all that is left of a shrimp boat that ran aground here just a few years back. Mother Nature has finished off all but the big diesel engine, and it’s a rusted hulk.
There is one deep hole in McQueen’s, as well as the entrance drop-off, that has harbored tarpon in years past. But on this day, they didn’t show. Myles boated a 25-lb. bonnethead shark, and we decided to keep it for the table. Fishermen are allowed to keep one shark apiece, so we still had two to go. But we wanted something much larger than this. As the tide began to turn, Newlin decided to head for deeper water to try to hunt up a blacktip shark. If you’re looking for heft and good eating, this is the one you want. There are tiger and lemon sharks here also, but the blacktip is the real star of the show. We had already tossed back a couple small ones when David looked out to sea and spotted shrimp boats.
“Get ready!” was all he said.
If you want to catch a big shark, find a working shrimp boat. These boats and their huge nets churn up, kill and spit out all kinds of stuff, providing a traveling buffet for sharks and porpoises, among other eaters of fish. There were five of them on their aquatic merry-go-round just far enough out not to bounce up on a beach, and Newlin ran right up behind the long steel cables reaching out to the side of the first one we came to. We cast and popped frantically, but the boat was moving fairly quickly, and it was hard to stay within reach. There was no action there, so within 10 minutes we moved on to another boat.
This proved to be a 50-plus-year-old wooden craft that was much slower. As we closed in, David cast the big Ugly Stick, handed it to Myles, then turned toward the back of the boat. Immediately, I heard Myles grunt, and looked to see him bent double with the butt of the rod under his armpit.
“LOOK! Look at ’em,” David called, but I was too busy making sure Myles stayed in the boat. This was no 25-lb. shark. In fact, it would prove to be more than four times that size, and there had been six or eight more madly flashing right there with it when it grabbed the pogy.
The fight, and it would be a long one, was on.
A big shark is not fancy. It roars toward the bottom in a power pirouette, standing on its head and whipping the broad tail with every ounce of energy it possesses. A fisherman’s only recourse is to hold on and trust his tackle, reeling down and pumping up. Over and over. If the reel drag is singing, don’t reel; hold on and use the rod to do the work. And if that tail hits the line, it’s over. If the line hits the edge of the boat or one of a hundred other un-thought-of items, it’s over. In a flash.
Now, try all that on for size for 40 minutes!
Myles, all 5-feet, 10-inches and 140 pounds of him, did just that with a fish longer than he is. He grunted and sweated and quivered and held on until he could hold on no more. Meanwhile, David was backing and following like the master he is, always keeping the front of the boat toward the shark, giving advice, instruction and encouragement. When he couldn’t pump the rod again, Myles passed it to me.
The first thing I thought of was the 500-lb. alligator I took with Jack Douglas years ago. The sheer power of both these creatures was incredible. And Myles had already worked this one over pretty good…
Twenty minutes later, we saw the cork again for the first time since it went under. Ten more, and I rolled the shark up on its side for the first time. If you care for a little extra added dash in your routine, do as David did and attempt to get a harpoon into anything as large and highly displeased as this shark was. Kneeling in the bottom of the rolling boat and reaching over the side, his initial attempt was just off the gill plate, bouncing off the tough hide and sending the blacktip into another furious dash.
But this second struggle was not nearly as long, as I pumped up and reeled down, forearms and Ugly Stick straining together. When David’s lunge struck home, we were a step closer, but the shark was still in the water with very definite plans for staying there and maybe taking one of us along. He was next gaffed and finally roped at the tail and dragged aboard, quite a bit worse for wear. But then, at 2:30 in the afternoon, so were we.
But over the course of the day, Myles and I had forged memories for a lifetime. This was an adventure we’ll always treasure, and providing those adventures is the business David is in. He can put you on one of these big sharks, and now that July has arrived, tarpon, too. In fact, the day after we fished, he called and informed me that he and a client, Shawn Gray, had landed a 150-lb. tarpon in the same spot we first fished in the St. Catherine’s cut.
“That thing blew up 6 feet off the back of my Evinrude and sent a school of glass minnows 30 feet into the air,” he said. “We tossed out a popping cork, and it hit it right off.”
When the battle for that tarpon was over, David and Shawn touched it, took the photos you see and sent it on its way. I’m glad, because Myles and I are going back looking for it.
And Myles’ shark? Makes for great eating, and a lot of it. If you want to try some, call David Newlin at (912) 756-4573 or visit his website. In addition to sharks and tarpon, he can put you on bass, flounder, trout, black drum, stripers and a lot more.
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