Every kind of fishing has its drawbacks, and tarpon is not without them. What wind and trees are to the fly fisherman, catfish, sharks, seaweed, and the tide are to the tarpon fisher. At Marco there are few catfish, but there were lots of sharks and seaweed. I have heard that the tarpon is such a shy and sensitive creature that, as it travels along the bottom of the river in search of food, it would immediately drop the mullet if it felt the least drag attached to it. The tide causes the seaweed to form round the sagged line, the tarpon lifts the bait, finds it suspiciously heavy, and is off like lightning. During my experience the water was never clear enough to see a tarpon take a bait, but I was assured by one guide that it picks it up in a most gingerly manner, travels about eighty or a hundred yards with it, and then stops to swallow it leisurely. Another man, however, denied that the fish stopped.
Our trouble at Marco was principally seaweed. The rough weather of the day before had brought it heavily to the mouth of the pass. It was early yet. Now and then, in the distance, you could see a great swirl in the water, and a tarpon rose, but they kept very clear of our boat. We sat leisurely smoking in the brilliant sunlight, and at the end of twenty minutes I reeled in and found that my bait had been swallowed by a huge shell fish, a conch. It weighed between seven and eight pounds, and we had to cut it open before we could get the hook out of it. In appearance it was not unlike a gigantic whelk. From time immemorial a hole has been cut through the top of this shell, and it has been formed into a kind of signal horn. This was an amusing, though not a brilliant, beginning. We put on fresh bait, moved forty or fifty yards, and cast in again. The day was getting hotter. The great fish began to rise (for air) very numerously. After a time we took to counting the rises, and I am not exaggerating when I say that within sight of my field-glasses (we could see close upon a mile in one direction) there were over fifty distinct black fins showed during that morning.
Another cigar (Havannah is very close to Florida, and there is a good deal of smuggling going on), the decapitation of another mullet, a fresh cast, and we settled down to watch the dial of my reel. I found Hart a pleasant and remarkably well-informed person. There were few modern books of adventure with which he was not acquainted, though not many authors could have produced a more exciting tale than the history of this man's life, spent as it was in exploring the vast, unknown recesses of the Everglades in search of the egret's plumes, with which fashionable ladies adorn their hats and hair. His existence had been hard and solitary, and, though he is now attaining a certain prosperity, he has spent some thousands of nights camping out alone in that strange snake- and panther-ridden country.
Our chat is cut short, however, by a sudden disappearance of the loose line over the side of the boat. Then the reel began to run out like lightning. The excitement of the moment was terrific. One's first salmon, one's first tarpon, one's first tiger, are, I should imagine, the most tremendous moments in a career of sport.
To strike or not to strike is a question that greatly agitates the tarpon fisher. There be those who say that the fish will hook himself. On the other hand, many consider it imperative to strike, and strike hard. Both have equally good arguments. I struck, and within some fifty yards from the boat, but quite in a contrary direction from that in which the line was running out, a monster fish leapt from the water. Immediately at the beginning of the run Hart had pulled up the anchor and we were drifting. When he saw the direction in which the fish had leapt he looked grave. The line covered with seaweed had sagged tremendously ; he feared that the fish had dropped the bait, and he was right. I wound up and found that my intended victim had seized the mullet, and, in that curious way fish have, had ejected it some feet up the line. This power of fish is one I cannot understand, but I have noticed it with almost every kind of game and coarse fish I have captured. In tarpon fishing this action is a source of danger. Occasionally a man will get a tarpon well hooked, the bait will be ejected a considerable way up the line, and taken by a shark, who makes very short work of the reel line and is off. The shark, by the way, is said, though probably not in good truth, to be the mortal enemy of the tarpon. A nigger sang me a quaint old song about the shark and the tarpon and their midnight fights.
We were gloomy and disappointed. Still the day was young and the fish were rising numerously, though it is by some guides not considered a good sign when they are on the top of the water. I cast in again, and almost before the bait had got to the bottom it was taken.
There are guides who say they can tell in a moment if it is the ' bite ' of a shark, tarpon, or jew-fish. The Florida jew-fish is a huge monster who moves slowly when hooked, but I am bound to say that I did not find any guide who was absolutely infallible in detecting the respective runs of sharks and tarpons. A shark is said to swallow the bait, swim rapidly for a few yards, stop, go on again, and so on. Now, on two occasions during my visit to Florida I found that Master Shark did nothing of the sort, and I had ample opportunity of proving that these fish were sharks in both cases. In the particular ' run' I am describing, the shark went off quite as fast as a tarpon and did not pause. Perhaps, as Hart afterwards suggested, he was being chased by some other shark. When the correct one hundred yards of the reel had run out I struck. There was the usual commotion at the top of the water, though not exactly a leap, and we both thought that I was in for a tarpon. The fish, whatever it was, swam hither and thither at lightning speed, and then on a sudden it stopped. I struck again, knowing that if it were a tarpon the pain would cause it to rise to the top and leap. It did not do so.