By Phil Thompson
Be it geography, demographics or a narrow gene pool, Key West, Fla. is known for unusual occurrences. Spring 2014 is no exception.
Around the island, the migrations of many aquatic species are in full swing, and none more eagerly awaited than the million member march of tarpon moving north, up from the Caribbean.
Two distinct species–Atlantic and Gulf–stimulated by rising water temperatures and the call to procreate, cross the straits of Florida in football-field-size schools. These silver-sided beasts, some in excess of two hundred pounds, are historically greeted by large, hungry sharks.
The traveling tarpon’s first port of call are the channels, harbors and grass flats of the Florida Keys. From Key Largo to the Marquesas, world-class anglers also await the fish’s arrival armed with thousand-dollar fly rods alongside shrimp-tinted tourists on the fishing trip of their dreams.
Tarpon have no food value—an entrepreneur tried making pet food from them in the 1940s, but the dogs and cats refused it—are highly prized for their leaping jumps and strong battles.
As one Key West captain said, “There is more money spent catching tarpon than any other non-edible fish in the world.”
This year an inordinate number of large sharks—mainly bulls and tigers—have shown up in advance of the tarpon and have feasted with an aggression that has the fishermen on edge.
Ralph Delph, an elder statesman of Keys captains, who has more than 100 world records, weighed in on the issue.
“I’ve never seen bulls this big in the harbor,” he said. “Some of these beasts are six and seven hundred pounds.”
Meanwhile, a collective concern among the guides appears to be growing.
“We’re having tarpon eaten in spots where we’ve never had a problem with sharks before,” Peter Heydon said over a beer at Dante’s bar.
Heydon is a flats guide and poles in pursuit of the monster tarpon across skinny-water grass flats and shallow-snaking channels.
“We were anchored in Calda channel the other day and the baits we had out behind the boat were only being eaten by sharks,” Heydon said. “We were jumping tarpon on plugs casts along the channel edges. The fish were creeping right next to the banks, trying to sneak past the sharks waiting in the deeper water.”
Both bulls and tigers are flat-bellied sharks able to suck in their gullets and pursue prey into inches of water, pinning them against a bank or bar. These highly visible chases across the shallows often end in exploding cascades of water and sand, whipped by thrashing tails as the shark devours the tarpon, leaving only blood, scales and a lifeless head staring up from the eel-grass bottom.
The big bull sharks in many instances are jumping clear of the water—not an unheard of event but unusual and scary due to their size.
“I grabbed my son Santiago and held him close,” Capt. Pepe Gonzalez said. “The shark cleared the water and all I could think of was what if it lands in the boat?”
“It was a really big one.” added Capt. Paul D”Antoni, who happened to be anchored close by. ”I’m guessing six-hundred pounds.”
Not only are these giant, leaping bull sharks being more aggressive, but they’re also fearless, showing up before the fishing boat has anchored or put out the first chum. Attracted by the idling motors, the sharks have learned to stake out the most popular spots and wait for the action. According to some estimates, one out of every three tarpon hooked in the harbor is being eaten.
No one is more familiar with the underwater topography of the Key West harbor than Lee Starling or “Lobster Lee.” For more than 30 years, Starling has made a living harvesting lobster from the honey holes, ledges, wrecks and discarded debris from Fleming Key to Fort Zachary Taylor at the harbor’s entrance.
Starling is used to fighting strong tidal currents, poor visibility and yachts speeding overhead while gleaning the Caribbean crawfish from hidden holes along the channel’s dredged banks.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Starling said. “On one wreck I dive where the tarpon hang out, the bottom is carpeted with scales. I’ve seen scattered scales before, but never anything like this.”
Tarpon are lined with silver dollar size heavy armored detachable scales that give way to shark bites, allowing them to escape, leaving a few scales as a reminder of the encounter. But, when they coat the bottom in numbers Starling describes, it translates to fish being eaten.
“I’m not diving Fort Zack right now,” Starling said. “I dove for a lost anchor the other day and the bull sharks were on me as soon as I hit the water. No chum, no spearfishing—two things that attract sharks—-they were just on me.”
Starling blames the gathering on “power chumming,” and doesn’t single out the harbor fishermen who use shrimp trash – the by-catch from shrimping—to attract the tarpon.
“Even the guys on the reef yellow-tailing are responsible,” Starling said. “Their scent trail can bring fish in from the Gulf Stream.”
Illustrating his point, a 600-pound bluefin tuna was hooked and fought for six hours last week before escaping, an unheard of feat in Key West. The giants are known to migrate far offshore this time of year, but this fish was hooked close in, in only 150 feet of water just outside the reef.
Tim Ott, veteran tuna harvester and star of the popular Television series “Wicked Tuna,” owns a home on the island and spends much of the winter fishing from Dry Tortuga to Cay Sal Bank.
“The tuna are following the bluefish up into the Gulf of Mexico to their spawning grounds.” Ott said. “Something caused the bluefish to travel more inshore of their normal migration route and the tuna followed.”
Around the same, time a Great White shark was spotted repeatedly over a four-day period at the Toppino buoy, a popular dive site only 17 feet deep, lying within sight of shore. Are these two unusual encounters a product of power chumming? Or as some suggest a reflection of climate change.
Capt. Mike Weinhofer believes the rising overall local shark population explains the increases in the harbor and on the reef.
“With the elimination of long-liners, finning, and finally the closure of a loophole that allowed commercial fisherman to sell sharks as incidental catch, we have seen an increase in all sharks, but especially the inshore species,” he said.
Capt. Tony Murphy owner of The Salt Water Angler fly shop, has won the ESPN shark challenge three times: “I’ve seen large hammerheads, twelve to fourteen feet, just outside the swim buoys at Fort Zack. Evidently the sharks aren’t after people. In many cases they are just yards apart.”
Reports from along the Keys trail indicate this problem is not Key West’s alone. Rumor has it a frustrated charter captain killed a big bull shark—most everyone releases sharks—and hung it from the Bahia Honda Bridge in hopes the scent of their dead brethren would keep the other bull sharks at bay. It reportedly worked until after three days, the fragrance faded and the sharks returned.
Outdoors writer and author Phil Thompson is a retired Key West flats guide. He has authored several books set in Key West and Cuba. www.captphilthompson.com