It can jump 10
feet straight up or whip a man to death with two slaps of its armored tail. The
tarpon—a.k.a. cuffum, silver king, sabalo real and Megalops atlantica—is a game
fish to reckon with. But you wouldn't want to eat one.
flesh is soft and tasteless by all accounts, and most anglers release their
fish after the fight, honoring the quarry by returning it alive to the sea. So
I was surprised during a recent evening of tarpon fishing out of Marathon in
the Florida Keys to hear a voice on the VHF radio offering 40 cents a pound for
tarpon. "I'll buy all you can catch," the voice added in a distinctly
American accent. If I was only mildly amused by the offer, my guide was
livelihood he's messing with," said captain Randy Rode of the Rode Runner.
"What the hell's going on here?" Rode, 38, is a third-generation Keys
captain. His father, Dick, was one of the pioneer charter-boat skippers on
Marathon Key, and his grandfather, a transplanted New Englander, fished
commercially in the days before the Keys sportfishing industry developed. (A
brother, Gary, was killed by lightning while putting out crawfish traps.) In
addition to having a stake in the Keys fishery, Rode is a graduate marine
biologist ( University of South Florida, 1971) with a deep concern for the
future of the Florida ecosystem. His reaction to the message we had just heard
on the radio was understandably fierce.
another example of how these waters are being ripped off and ruined," he
said. "In the first place, it's against Florida law to buy or sell game
fish—not just tarpon, but snook, sailfish, striped bass, permit or bonefish,
too. If this guy is getting away with it, what comes next?"
out," I said.
We did, and in
the course of our investigation we saw an appalling number of practices now
becoming established in the rich waters of the mid-Keys that could, in the long
run, do irreparable harm to that splendid marine habitat.
Early each morning during the tarpon run, charter skippers like Rode and his
friend Brad Picariello go out to net mullet and save themselves the $30 a dozen
they would otherwise have to pay for this most toothsome of tarpon baits. But
it's getting harder and harder to come by the baitfish. On this particular
morning, Rode, Picariello and I scoured canal after canal along the Atlantic
side of Marathon Key. Picariello, poised in the bow with the cast net, guided
us slowly, quietly into one canal lined with $250,000 condos. "They were
here by the hundreds day before yesterday," he whispered. "Now I don't
see a ripple."
damned sport netters," Rode snarled. "They were in here
The concept was as incongruous to me as, say, competitive leaf raking.
don't need the money," Rode explained. "They do it for the fun. Come in
here with their fancy boats, run a long gill net around a whole school of
mullet, then pull 'em. They wholesale their catch for barely enough to buy a
couple of cases of beer. But they've done the macho thing, you see, and wrecked
the day for us."