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Sunday Favorites: Conquering the Silver King

Fisherman weigh-in at a tarpon tournament in Sarasota circa 1946.

TAMPA BAY-- Fishing is widely recognized as Florida’s first industry, but were it not for the tarpon, the so-called "silver king", the state might have never developed beyond the commercial aspect to the concept of sport fishing, which attracted thousands of tourists to the area in the late 1880s. Sportsmen from all over tried their hand at hooking one of the Gulf's most famous sport fish.

Commercial fishing in Florida dates back to the late 1700s when fisherman from Cuba sailed their fishing smacks into the waters of Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay, camped out in fishing ranchos, and salted and dryed their catch to sale in the Havana market. But Florida’s modern age of fishing for sport is a relatively new concept dating back to 1885, when a man by the name of William H. Wood proved to others that the mysterious and monstrous tarpon species could be caught with a rod and reel.

Prior to that, tarpon had only been landed by accident. Charlotte Harbor historian Vernon Peeples reported in his book, "Punta Gorda in the Beginning," that the mighty fish defied most devices of capture due to its strength, agility and speed. While the fish were known to take bait, they had to be harpooned or netted. That was a lot of work for someone who had no intention of keeping the fish, for it was widely known at that time that tarpon were "no good for eatin'." 

But Wood was determined to land the "Silver King". He made a reel of rubber and white metal that would hold 1,200 feet of line. The reel had a square handle, and was about five inches in diameter. He used two bamboo rods, each five feet long and a gaff that was mounted on the end of an ash hoe as part of his equipment, according to Peeples. Mullet was used for bait and was tied on with a copper liter. 


K. Crump, Jack Bowers and Elmore Reed

tarpon fish in Shark River circa 1950.

In a documented accout of his first catch, Wood describes how he and a friend came upon a tarpon lying underneath the mangroves on a shallow shoal. Wood said he cast the bait within five or six feet of the tarpon and he could see the fish’s tail come up out of the water as he was taking the bait. Wood described how he immediately let out 15-20 feet of line.

The fish immediately started swimming away after taking the bait. When the slack ran out and the fish realized it was hooked, a mighty battle ensued with the fish leaping out of the water six times and running nearly a half a mile down the shoreline before starting to tire. 

Wood knew the fish was getting tired when he could no longer jump completely out of the water. He considered gaffing the monster, but his friend was afraid the 117-pound fish would thrash the boat apart. The two men had to enlist the help of a nearby sailboat to get the fish onboard. Wood documented that he never had more than 250 feet of line out at any time and the total time of the battle of the fish was 26 minutes long. He also recorded tarpon as being 5 feet and 9 inches long.

Three men proudly display thier catch of the day.

Wood’s feat was heralded across the country. According to Peeples, the story reached renowned publications like The London Observer and Scientific American, soon prompting sportsmen from all over the world to come to the area to put their skills to the ultimate test. 

The international fame of tarpon fishing in Florida marked the beginning of the development of specialized saltwater tackle capable of handling all the larger seafishes. By 1910 in Florida, Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway had lured some anglers away from the West Coast and the tarpon shared the Atlantic limelight with the sailfish, king mackerel, barracuda and other fishes. However, it was Wood's first catch that inspired anglers to go after those elusive monsters not at all for practical purposes, but just for the fun of it. 


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