As originally published in the St. Petersburg Times
"Man vs. Tarpon" by Jeff Klinkenberg
June 6, 1982
'It was the most amazing
thing you could imagine'

Man vs. tarpon

The place where Harold LeMaster’s longest day began has changed much over the years. Hurricane Pass is no longer wide and clear and full of tarpon. Development and a deteriorating environment have narrowed the Gulf of Mexico inlet and dirtied the water and routed the fish. But a man still has his memories. Thank God for that.

  LeMaster, 67, stood at the wheel of the 16-foot boat and looked at the turbulent pass as rain pounded down. He was there to relive an experience, to relive what was probably the most remarkable day ever spent by a Suncoast tarpon fisherman. The rain and dirty water mattered little at a time like this.

  THIS IS where it started,” LeMaster said finally. He pointed to a patch of water off the bow. “ This is where I hooked the fish. Right around there.”

  The boat bobbed at the mouth of the pass, where it cuts into the Gulf of Mexico between Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island, about two miles west of Dunedin. Other boaters, afraid of the weather, had gone in. But LeMaster stayed in the gulf. He seemed happy to be there, happy to be at the place where the Suncoast’s greatest fish story began 30 years ago today.

  At 7a.m. on June 6, 1952 LeMaster hooked a big tarpon. Nothing was unusual about the fish except for its size—about 170 pounds—and what human beings might call heart. This fish, which did not know enough to quit, fought LeMaster for 17 ½ hours.

  IT WAS the most amazing thing you could imagine,” LeMaster said. “So much happened that day, it was almost as if things were planned. But you couldn’t plan anything like that, really.”

  Before it was over the tarpon dragged the Largo resident on a 25-mile trip along the beaches, through an inlet, up and down a bay and along causeways lined with thousands of spectators who had learned of the battle over the radio.

  The fish added to the reputation of LeMaster, already famous for his MirrOlure fishing lure. Accounts of LeMaster’s fish fight made major newspapers, important outdoor magazines and network news broadcasts. His story made Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. The battle read like Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, except it was not fiction. And LeMaster was no frail, old man. He was 37, husky, at his physical peak.

  I DON'T think I could do it today.” Said LeMaster, still a tall and strong and an avid angler. “ Now I get tired. Now my knees hurt. I had to build a little platform so I could step up to the bow casting platform a little easier. But I still like to fish for the tarpon, you know. Some people shake their heads, wondering what I’m trying to do, fooling with such big fish at my age. But to me, it’s what keeps me young. I play golf and I fish for tarpon. Those are two games a man can never really master.”

  LeMaster has come close to mastering the art of light-tackle fishing. Last year he caught a 115-pound tarpon after a five-hour fight on light tackle and won a Suncoast Tarpon Roundup trophy. In 1980 he whipped a 150-pound tarpon on 20-pound test line in two hours and won a roundup light-tackle division. LeMaster may feel his age these days, but he can still tough it out.

  He still works at his fishing and his business. His sons manage the MirrOlure-making L & S Bait Company in Largo and Costa Rica, but LeMaster still designs and engineers the lures he first began building as a 17-year-old Illinois teenager. Since then he has sold more than 35 million MirrOlures.

  He was using a cigar-sized 60M-27 MirrOlure on the tarpon morning of 1952. The minnow-like lure was attached to a 14-inch section of wire tied to 220 yards of 18-pound test hollow braided nylon which filled the Penn 209 reel. The rod was a Harnell, one that LeMaster built himself. His friend Bill Crown Jr., a city commissioner who fished with him that morning, was using a similar outfit.

  They awakened early, ate scrambled eggs, and launched the boat in a Dunedin Park that no longer exists. Then they skimmed across the shallows in the 16-foot deep-V wooden boat that LeMaster built. Their destination was Big Pass, off Caladesi Island, where the rising tide was right for tarpon. Within an hour Crown had released a 60-pounder and LeMaster an 80-pounder.

  “Then we headed for Hurricane Pass,” said LeMaster, drifting the pass 30 years later. He tugged on a slicker as the rain pounded down. “ We wanted to fish the flood tide. You wouldn’t believe the tarpon that used to be in the pass. Now there aren’t any. Back then the water was clear and there were hundreds of fish. Dredging and filling and the construction of Dunedin Causeway ruined 50 miles of bay by changing the tidal flow. The water never clears.

  On that long-ago morning, they did not have the pass to themselves. Captain Nick Lopez, in his Flo-Jo, was already there with some clients. Lopez fished with pinfish baits while Crown and LeMaster flung MirrOlures.

  At 7 a.m. LeMaster cast to a small school of big fish, swimming in 4 feet of water 100 yards south of the pass. With the water clear and the sun at his back, LeMaster saw the silver flash as the fish struck. A good one, it bolted 80 feet and then leaped 8 feet clear of the water. It was the first of 17 jumps.

  “It was one smart fish,” said LeMaster, pointing the boat south, the way he did in 1952 to follow the tarpon. “It didn’t panic. It didn’t waste its energy by jumping. It was always in control.”

  After the first jump it swam back toward LeMaster and somehow got tangled with a line belonging to Lopez. The taut line could have broken there but LeMaster managed to clear it.

  “The fish kind of stuck near the boat. It zig-zagged around for a while. And then started moving south.”

  An hour passed. Then two. Bill Crown worried about being late for a meeting. Thirty minutes more crept by. By then the fish had traveled three miles to Caladesi Island’s Big Pass. The fish turned into the pass, then stopped. It headed back toward the gulf.

  At that point, Crown jumped overboard and waded ashore. He promised to send gas and food and hurried to catch a cab to take him to his meeting.

  “I was alone.”

  LeMaster still felt strong. A big man with huge muscular arms, he was used to long battles with tarpon on light tackle. He knew how to conserve his strength, how to bide his time. He kept a constant bend in the 7½-foot rod and changed hands frequently or held the rod with both hands while steering the boat with his feet. Most of the time he let the fish tow the boat.

  The fish swam slowly out of Big Pass and turned south, toward Clearwater, paralleling the beach. LeMaster put as much pressure on the fish as the light tackle could bear, but the tarpon didn’t seem frightened. It swam calmly south. About noon, with Little Pass (now called Clearwater Pass) in sight, he maneuvered the fish toward a sandbar and closed in for the kill. He had been fighting the tarpon for five hours.

  NOW THINGS looked good. With one hand LeMaster picked up the 3-foot gaff as the boat slipped closer to the great fish. Now! LeMaster tried for the tarpon. He could not reach the tarpon’s mouth, the most vulnerable spot, so he tried to gaff the fish in the stomach. The silver-dollar sized scales, tough as armor, easily fended off the gaff point. Alarmed, the fish lunged away and LeMaster settled back into the seat.

  Opportunity lost.

  At 2 p.m. the fish towed the boat through Clearwater Pass and into Clearwater Bay. Harold LeMaster didn’t know it but he would spend the next 11 hours there.

  “I kept thinking the whole time that it would be a matter of a few minutes more,” LeMaster said, his boat now at the mouth of Clearwater Pass 30 years later. The rain stopped and the sun came out. “ I kept thinking that the fish would give up, like other fish.”

  But this was like no other fish. Jumping near the boat on one occasion, the tarpon opened its mouth and revealed the snagged MirrOlure.  LeMaster saw the lure hanging just inside the fish’s mouth. “It wasn’t hooked deep, where it would hurt. It was hooked on the side.”

   LeMaster, on the other hand, was hot and tired and thirsty even though he had eaten three oranges, some celery and raw cabbage and been drenched several times by passing squalls. The fish continued to act as if it were not hooked.

   LeMaster, in fact, believed the tarpon had entered the bay to feed. “The way it behaved, jerking suddenly every once in a while, I think it was catching pinfish.”

  BY 4 P.M.  LeMaster and his fish were a few hundred feet from Belleair Causeway. At that point they had traveled 11 miles as the crow flies, but perhaps 20 miles considering the fish’s meandering course. Pulling on the fish, LeMaster noticed a small airplane flying over the gulf at low attitude. It occurred to him: The plane was searching for me.

  Dispatched by worried friends, the Coast Guard plane eventually found him. The pilot dropped a small float containing a message.  LeMaster was to report to Clearwater Marina, about three miles north. He gestured to his bent rod, and the plane dipped its wings in acknowledgement and disappeared.

  Though the fish had been towing the boat for 10 hours, at 5 p.m. it seemed frisky as ever. It slowly dragged LeMaster north three miles to Clearwater Pass.

   “ I thought it was going to go back in the gulf. But it changed its mind.”

  At the Pass, Bill Crown found LeMaster and gave him beer and sandwiches. Nick Lopez, who had watched him hook the fish that morning, appeared with some gasoline. Then the two other fishermen moved off to watch the fight.

 “Then things got really incredible.”

  THE TARPON swam into busy Clearwater Marina. At any moment the fish could have bolted under a dock and broken the line. But it seemed content to remain in the open, within plain view of gaping spectators. At one point it passed within 20 feet of the giant

Scale used by anglers to weigh big tarpon.

  The story of the tarpon and marathon battle, meanwhile, spread across the waterfront by radio. When the tarpon left the marina and headed east along Memorial Causeway, LeMaster was watched by hundreds of people who stopped their cars and blocked traffic.

  “The fish gave the people a good look at him. Then he left.”

  Exhausted, LeMaster could only hold on as the fish once again headed south across the bay toward Belleair Causeway, about three miles away. Skies were dark and LeMaster was tired and hungry, but never considered cutting the line and going home.

  “I’m too stubborn to do that,” he said, his boat retracing the route taken by the tarpon. “I had too much respect for the fish and I had been attached to it too long to quit.”

  By 10 p.m., the tarpon was once again within shouting distance of Belleair Causeway, lit that night by hundreds of car headlights and huge spotlights erected by the fire department. More than one thousand people watched LeMaster and his fish.

  “It was like daylight out here,” LeMaster said, grinning. “It was the craziest thing you could dream of.”

  A shout from shore told him he had broken a previous endurance record for fighting a light-tackle fish, but LeMaster probably did not hear. His right hand was numb and his body was stiff and sore. His chin kept dropping to his chest as he fought sleep.

  “By then I was existing on nervous energy. Nothing more.”

    At midnight a small boat was rowed out and Johnny Carrick, a tarpon fisherman, crawled aboard. He picked up the gaff, ready to perform the coup de grace. At 12:30 a.m. Harold LeMaster believed his time was at hand.

  “Johnny, I think he’s got one more jump in him—and it’ll be a beauty.”

  The fish was swimming within 30 feet of LeMaster’s boat in less than 5 feet of water. It was behaving in a nervous manner, LeMaster remembered, as if it were aware of its vulnerable position in the shallows.

  “Suddenly he dived into a pothole—a little deeper water,” said LeMaster, pointing to a spot about 100 feet from Belleair boat ramp. “That gave him enough water to turn and leap.”

  The fish had been hooked for 17½ hours, but it still managed a classic, head-shaking tarpon jump.

  The MirrOlure came flying out of the tarpon’s mouth and snagged LeMaster’s T-shirt.

  He does not remember if spectators cheered or groaned. He remembers only looking at the lure. The hooks, shiny and new in the morning, were corroded—from salt water and acid in the tarpons mouth. One of the hooks had snapped in half.

   LeMaster that night pulled the boat up on the sand beach. Photographs of that moment show him smiling. “ I was not unhappy.” He said the other day. “I was not sorry to lose that fish. It deserved to get away.”

  In the early morning of June 7,1952, a friend drove him home. Harold LeMaster slept the next 24 hours.

reprinted with permission
Copyright St. Petersburg Times 1982
 

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