Tarpon Fishing from the Jump

A moonlight encounter with a tarpon 33 years ago sent Ernest Ladd down the angler’s path of frustration, elation and conservation.

Ernest Ladd with his first tarpon of 2019. Photos courtesy Ernest Ladd

There’s nothing easy about tarpon fishing. I can convince a friend to come along with me once, maybe twice, but that’s typically enough for them. It’s not unusual to go hours without a bite. Tarpon are extremely finicky eaters, and that’s frustrating enough without the heat. On an ideal day tarpon fishing in the Bay, the water would be slick as glass — meaning very little breeze. So sometimes you just sit there for hours, the sun bearing down, and you can feel the sweat forming at the top of your back and begin trickling down.

Most people just can’t deal with that. They want more action, and it’s hard to blame them. Only the crazy people, like myself, put up with it. But that’s because I know what it’s like when you get that bite. I greet that adrenaline rush like an old friend. So in the most miserable, sweltering, frustrating moments, I stay motivated knowing I can get a bite at any time. That keeps me fresh — and it’s kept me tarpon fishing for over 30 years.

The desire to catch a tarpon was spawned at a young age as my maternal grandmother always spoke of them and how beautiful they were. We fished a few times for them together, always trolling big spoons down the Gulf beach, but never got a bite. I also saw my paternal grandfather catch a small one while speckled-trout fishing off the Gulf beach.

I’d been on a few tarpon trips without success and asked questions to my mentors Robert Hope, John Edwards, William McFadden and Noel Nelson to help me out. At the risk of sounding cliché, I don’t know whether I hooked my first tarpon or if it hooked me. What I do know is that I’ll remember the moment for the rest of my life. I was about 19, hoping to catch my first tarpon with my buddy John Williams in Navy Cove, on the north side of Fort Morgan. We had been there since early morning, chumming and hooking nothing but bycatch: jacks, sharks and stingrays, which, at that age, was still fun. 

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We were almost out of bait, and it was just about dark. All of a sudden, John got a bite. I didn’t hear the splash, but John’s eyes got big as saucers. “It’s a tarpon! He jumped and spit the bait!” he screamed.

I don’t know if I believed him, but we continued fishing with a renewed energy. We were down to the very last bait, and by this point a full moon was rising over Bon Secour Bay. Next thing I knew, I saw my line going against the current and thought, That’s odd. I reeled up the slack and set the hook, and suddenly the fish jumped right by the boat, silhouetted against the full moon. I could hear the gills rattling and see that big fish of silver; it was the most incredible sight I’d ever seen while fishing. 

I had grown lazy towards the end of the day and hadn’t re-tied my frayed leader, so the fish broke the leader on the jump. But that was the moment, seeing it come out of the water, that really hooked me on tarpon. To this day, I’ve never tired of the jump. Just the thought of seeing that fish come out of the water helps me sit through the hours of boredom and baking sun.

Some of the tarpon I’ve caught have more years to them than I do. By staining their otoliths, calcium carbonate structures that help with a fish’s hearing and balance, scientists can determine a specimen’s age like counting the rings of a tree. It’s not unusual for a tarpon to reach age 50, and many live beyond that.

I’ve never had any desire to kill one, and most fishermen are getting onboard with catch and release. It’s $50 to purchase a kill tag from the state, but there’s really no reason to kill them; these fish are worth more to me alive than a photo op at the dock or a state record. Why kill a fish just for a photo? In 2003, while in the Bay fishing solo, I caught what would’ve been the state record at 231 pounds according to the tarpon weight calculator: 87.5 inches fork length, 42-inch girth (the current record is 203 pounds). I’m really glad I didn’t kill that fish as she was upwards of 80 years old and could spawn more tarpon for me to catch. And I’m the last person who wants to get in the way of that. I am equally glad the official state record still belongs to Billy Wildberger, one of the few early legendary tarpon fishermen.

All our fish are migratory, coming from south Florida en route to Venice, Louisiana, a mass aggregation and spawning point for the Florida and Mexican tarpon populations. As they pass by our beaches in July or slip into the Bay in August, you might see a solo tarpon or you might see a school of 500. These days, I mostly catch them off the beach from a boat. I’ve chased them from Alabama to Venice, Louisiana, Boca Grande, Florida, and Costa Rica. A lot of the time, I’m sight-fishing — looking for a school of tarpon, getting out in front of it and casting to them. You’re looking for them to break the water, which we call a “roll.” It can look similar to a porpoise from a distance, but a tarpon’s roll is more elongated.

Finding them is one thing, but the hardest part of the sport is getting the “eat,” convincing a fish to eat your bait or fly. Most will just swim by and not pay any attention to your offering. I have been in the middle of a 1,000-fish school, with tarpon rolling everywhere and on all points of the compass — blowing bubbles underneath the boat, coming up, looking at you, bumping your lines — and no eats. That’s when you want to pull your hair out. But then you finally get an eat, and it’s all worth it. A great day tarpon fishing is getting three bites all day and each being a tarpon. Many days end with no bites or one bite. That is a long day. Like I said, you have to be crazy to chase these fish, and most people don’t have an interest in dedicating that much time for so little action and for a fish you can’t eat. Tarpon are the poor man’s billfish — hours of boredom for a few minutes of pure adrenaline-rushing pandemonium.

Ladd captures the exciting moment of the first jump after the bite during a solo fishing excursion.

Once you hook one, it’s usually just a second or two before it’s airborne. Therein lies the thrill for most fishermen, seeing that seven-foot fish burst out of the water with gills rattling right next to you. The best part of the fight is the first five minutes. That’s when most of the big jumps occur, then it’s a tug of war before you can pull that beautiful fish alongside the boat.

I’ve always been conservation-minded. I remember the time, when fishing with my grandfather at 15, I released a 6-pound trout back into the water.

“What are you doing?!” he asked, shocked.

“We’ve got 15 in the box,” I answered. “There’s no sense in keeping any more.”

“No Ladd has thrown back a 6-pound trout,” he said.

“Well, Dee Dee, you just watched one,” I said. “You have to leave something for your great-grandkids.” It took a couple years, but he eventually came around to that notion.

I first got involved with tarpon conservation and science in 2007 in a collaborative effort with Mike Larkin of the Rosenstiel School of Marine Science and local tarpon anglers Noel Nelson and Hayden Olds to place a PAT (popup archival tag) on an Alabama tarpon. The goal was to learn as much as we could about the fish, their movements and habits, so that we can help protect them. I ended up being fortunate enough to catch the first tarpon tagged in Alabama, which was a special experience. In three months’ time, that fish traveled 1,200 miles, covering water between Venice, Louisiana and the Shark River in the Everglades. Later, I worked with Andrea Kroetz and Crystal Hightower of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab on tarpon tagging with SPOT satellite tags, as well as acoustical tags. I also participated in DNA study efforts with the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, collecting DNA samples from tarpon I caught. What we’ve learned is that they’re everyone’s fish — some migrate from the Yucatan, some from Cuba and some travel all the way up to Nova Scotia. Even though we’ve got pretty good conservation measures in the U.S., other countries don’t have the same measures, so the goal is to pass along this information to show that their fish are our fish, and vice versa.

Locally, I’m most concerned about the state of Mobile Bay. Tarpon just aren’t there like they used to be. In 2003, my best year fishing the Bay, I caught 21; tarpon could once be found consistently, but over the past five years, that just hasn’t been the case. Frankly, I’d be lucky if I saw one. I only saw three fish over several trips in the Bay in 2019. Something has changed, and now the fish are avoiding the Bay. Of the fish we’ve tagged at the beach, a couple have ventured into the Bay, but within two or three days, they’re gone.

So what’s changed? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but water quality is likely the culprit. As more people come to the coast, there’s more runoff, sewage spills and pollutants entering the Bay. 

I’m hoping that we can use science learned through the Sea Lab’s tarpon research to address that issue and prevent the spoil dumpage from the planned widening of the ship channel in the Bay. This is going to potentially release heavy metals and other toxins which have accumulated and embedded over decades in the spoil, not to mention create cloudy water conditions as the spoils are fine particulate silky clays coupled with mud. They’re proposing to put a 1600-acre spoil island right where these tarpon like to rest in the Bay and mill around. But it’s not just tarpon; you’ll see redfish at times, cavallas (jack crevalle), skipjacks, Spanish mackerel, just all kinds of marine life. It’s ironic that, 25 years or so ago, Alabama Marine Resources permanently closed portions of the Bay to shrimping in order to protect the seagrass beds, which are vital nursery grounds. Now, the Department of Conservation is in favor of destroying the very area they protected. We need to preserve that area for our tarpon and seagrass beds to help the overall water quality and for our children and future generations.  

I’m really blessed that my two sons have enjoyed tarpon fishing with me since they were 4 or 5 years old, and each of them have participated in tarpon conservation by catching and tagging tarpon. They’ve contributed to the science, which makes me proud. It’s nice when your children enjoy the same things you do, although, down the road, they might curse me for spawning the tarpon addiction. I see a lot of frustration and sweating in their futures. And not enough eats.

Ernest Ladd IV is a lifelong Mobilian and a partner at Thames Batre Insurance. MB contributor Breck Pappas assisted with this story.

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