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Tarpon Fishing - Two anglers properly support an enormous Lowcountry tarpon. Inset: The Lowcountry Tarpon Tournament burgee combines the fish with the Palmetto State emblem.
Tarpon Fishing - Two anglers properly support an enormous Lowcountry tarpon. Inset: The Lowcountry Tarpon Tournament burgee combines the fish with the Palmetto State emblem.

Tarpon Fishing and Tagging Takes Off in South Carolina

Tarpon Fishing and Tagging is taking off in South Carolina. The third annual Lowcountry Tarpon Tournament out of Georgetown, S.C., in September drew anglers from as far away as England. Local fishing guides said more visitors are coming to tackle tarpon.

Six tarpon caught and released by tournament anglers were fitted with satellite tags provided by the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. No prizes were awarded apart from annual bragging rights, since everyone wants to learn more about the movements of these S.C. tarpon.

Three years ago, BTT board member Andrew McLain rallied local tarpon anglers together to launch this research tourney, where entry fees go towards the purchase of satellite tags. “I’m aware of only one other tournament of this type outside the Florida Keys, and that one is in Texas,” said McLain. “Tracking tarpon travel from South Carolina has never been tried before, so any information will help to build a data set for future fisheries managers to analyze.”

An unexpected dividend from the Lowcountry tarpon tagging efforts is increased awareness about tarpon fighting and handling techniques, in order to release them in the best possible health. While it is still legal to keep one tarpon per angler in South Carolina, McLain notes that any harvest of a tarpon is incompatible with the BTT mission.

That same conservation ethic is catching on with others. Dr. David Dalu, a physician in Charleston, has fished in and won tarpon tournaments in Florida and is excited about the recent increased tarpon traffic in his local waters. Dalu spoke to the anglers at the Lowcountry Tarpon Tournament, expressing regret that tarpon could still be harvested. Two weeks later, he spoke to the Marine Resources Board of the SCDNR to further spread the message that recreational anglers are concerned about tarpon conservation.

Scientist Jerry Ault at the University of Miami travels the world to track tarpon. He visited Georgetown for the tarpon tourney in 2010 and 2011, giving a talk titled “Sustaining the U.S. Tarpon Fishery: the South Carolina Connection.” Ault answered questions from curious anglers, eagerly sharing his data.

Working with local guide Capt. Steve Roffs, Ault caught and released a 132-pounder at the mouth of the Pee Dee River in September 2011. Now carrying a satellite tag, that tarpon was tracked two weeks later just off the St. John’s River near Jacksonville, Fla. Two weeks later the fish had passed Cape Canaveral and was in Haulover Cut near Biscayne Bay. Such rapid movement shows that tarpon can migrate long distances rather quickly.

Emerging data like the tracks of satellite-tagged S.C. tarpon could lead to the development of a management plan beyond the current state-by-state level. BTT Director of Operations Dr. Aaron Adams from the Mote Marine Lab said tarpon are a slow growing, long-lived fish. “We have only identified a limited number of tarpon aggregation sites,” said Adams. “We hope to unlock spawning secrets in the future, in order to set up conservation measures that benefit juvenile tarpon.”

McLain said S.C. tarpon are gaining renown. “Some leading saltwater fishing magazines are highlighting the S.C. area as the top spot in August and September,” he said. “The tarpon are keying on the mullet run in Bull’s Bay and surrounding areas, which serves to narrow the timeframe when anglers should target them. With each successful hook-up, local anglers are learning which techniques work in the waters that are often silted from constant tidal changes.”

Capt. Roffs recommends using a variety of medium-sized baits, rigging some of them to fish on top of the water using a popping cork. Now with Barrier Island Guide Service, Roffs is a trained marine biologist who used to work for the S.C. State Park Service. “I was working in September of 2000 in Cape Romain Inlet and was astonished to see about 70 tarpon just mauling a school of mullet,” he recalled. “I went back to that spot the next day and caught my first S.C. tarpon… It can offer a real test since our fish might average 100 pounds. Add current and channels with deep water – different than your typical tarpon haunts in Florida – and you’ve got a fight on your hands.”

Jeff Dennis is an outdoor writer and photographer who grew up on a creek in Charleston loving the saltwater, and he contributes regularly to All At Sea Southeast. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com

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