Take a reasonably large map of the United States, cast your eye down to the south-west of Florida, and you will be looking at the coast outline of one of the best of sporting countries. If you are an angler, you can kill a dozen varieties of game fish of from 1 lb. up to 200 lbs.
Florida sounds such a long way off, it is so usually associated with tropical flowers, oranges, and ne'er-do-weels, that the leisured angler, in searching for fresh spheres of sport, fails to give one of the best fishing countries in the world due attention. As a matter of fact, all but the most remote portions of Florida can be reached in nine days from London, and when one arrives at one's destination there is a capital assortment of outdoor amusements open. Had I been an all-round sportsman of the pot-hunting variety I doubt not but that with three months of rod, rifle, and gun I could have brought back a shipload of trophies. The quality of the sport in Florida is of the best. Great kills of fish or game are often the result of unsportsmanlike methods, but such Florida sportsmen as I encountered fished and shot irreproachably.
In glancing again at your map of the United States you will find that Florida is snugly ensconced away down to the south of that vast Republic. From New York one travels for little more than a day and a half to Jacksonville, the chief town of this great, straggling, unpopulated State.
We drove to the railway station in New York in a sleigh ; next day we left the train at- Jacksonville, and found ourselves in a climate exactly similar to that of Cairo at the beginning of March. Journeying is pleasant in America. There may be delays ; one may be ' side-tracked' for three or four hours or more ; the speed in the remoter parts of the country is not such as a Briton, or the man of the Eastern States, is accustomed to ; but the people who come and go from town to town are amusing and delightful and, like all provincials, wonderfully inquisitive. They do not seem to be able to understand that there is a kind of man who will go on long journeys with any other object than that of money-making, and regard the sportsman as a good deal of a fool.
I had first been led to think of tarpon fishing by occasional references in the ' Field' and the ' Fishing Gazette,' and on seeking for information Mr. Marston referred me to one of the best-known American anglers, Mr. A. N. Cheney, Glens Fall, N.Y.
There are so many kinds of fishing in the United States ; the country, or rather the aggregation of counties, is so enormous, that it was not unnatural to find that Mr. Cheney himself had never made an expedition in search of what can unhesitatingly be claimed as the king of game fish, salmon not excepted. Mr. Cheney, however, supplied me with an amount of information that enabled me to go to Florida and back with as much ease and considerably more comfort than would be experienced in a trip to the Black Forest.
First let me ask and answer the question, What is the tarpon ? According to the United States Fish Commission he is Alegalops atlanticus and Megalops thrissoides, a branch of the Clupea family. His official description is :
An immense herring-like fish, which occurs in the western Atlantic and in the Gulf of Mexico, ranging north to Cape Cod, and south at least to western Brazil. The sailors' name for this fish, by which name it is also known at Key West, Bermuda, Brunswick, Georgia, and elsewhere, is 'Tarpum' or 'Tarpon.' It is also known as the ' Silver King,' ' Silver Fish,' or ' Grand Ecaille'.
One leading authority describes it as :
An immense and active fish, preying eagerly upon schools of young fry or any small fish that it is able to receive into its mouth, and in pursuit of which it ascends freshwater rivers quite a long distance. They go up the Homosassa River in Florida, and several of the Texas rivers. Fishermen dread it while dragging their nets, for they have known of persons having been killed or severely injured by its leaping against them from the seine in which it was enclosed.
So much for the official account of the fish. A mounted specimen of my own capture before me is indeed something like a mammoth herring, and the herring, mind you, is a remarkably handsome little fellow. The scales of the tarpon belie description. The largest tarpon scale I have ever seen was eight times the size of a two-shilling piece, more than one-third of it covered with what looks like an artificial painting of burnished silver. The first time I saw a tarpon scale I imagined that it had been improved by artificial means.
There are, indeed, many matters in connection with tarpon fishing so surprising as to incline the Briton to a belief that they are the offsprings of the imagination and enthusiasm of his American kinsmen.
Until I had killed a tarpon I regarded the statement that he was a stronger, more active and clever fish than the salmon as rank heresy. Born on the brink of a salmon river, I could not imagine that there was anything finer in the world than our friend Salmo salar ; and yet it is a fact that, taking the maximum weight of salmon as about 60 lbs., the largest tarpon killed up to date is three and a half times that weight, and, in more than one particular, of better build for fighting.
I can imagine nothing more powerful than the tail of a tarpon. Accustomed to battle out his life among the storms on the Gulf of Mexico, he is naturally able to tire a human being, and it is a fact that many a man has been obliged to cut himself loose from his fish after a fight of three or four hours. The tarpon fights all the time. He rarely sulks. Indeed, but for the fact that he helps to kill himself by his terrific and frequent leaps from the water, it would be rarely possible to capture him at all.
Among the most successful tarpon anglers are the Lord and Lady Orford. Lady Orford is probably the only woman in the world who has killed two in one day. Her best fish was 128 lbs. Lord Orford has killed one weighing 183 lbs., the fifth largest known tarpon at the time of writing.