Below is an account of a marathon tarpon battle
as told to the author by the angler himself ( Harold LeMaster)
Founder of  'L & S Bait Company Inc' ( MirrOlure )


             Main Fishing Page

 
The text and title as originally published in 1955 are as follows:
Click here to share this story with a friend
uu

 


'Young Man
and the
Sea Devil'

By HAROLD A. Le MASTER
as told to BOB MURPHY

This is the story of a fish - a tarpon- the smartest fish I ever met. He put up a bruising battle and matched his wits and brawn against mine for 18 solid, heartbreaking hours off Clearwater, Florida. This should have been written by him.
    It may sound strange to a non-fisherman but this fish matched me move for move, just like an expert chess player. But he fought like a gentleman; at times he was obliging.
    Even though it happened three long years ago. I often dream of that great fight and imagine myself back in the boat, face to face with the giant fish, his sleek silver body arched in the moonlight. Thousands watched the battle from ship and shore and before it was over, the Police Department, Fire Department and the U.S. Coast Guard wound up with one big collective headache-all because of this fish.
    It all started simply enough. My fishing partner Bill Crown and I were heading north in the Gulf of Mexico. We had left the Clearwater marina at 5:00 am June 6, 1952, as we do almost every day during tarpon season. Bill and I each had boated a tarpon and set them free. Too small.
    The tarpon - or silver king as he is sometimes known-is I believe, one of the smartest fish in the sea. He's fast, big, strong, he fights hard, has stamina and is clever to boot. A school of tarpon when hungry, forms a wide circle around a school of minnows or pinfish. They circulate counter-clockwise and snap up would-be escape artists. Not many schools operate that cleverly.
    Bill and I were discussing the probabilities of hooking into a giant and winning a prize in the St. Petersburg Tarpon Roundup, which was in full swing. Winning a prize in the Roundup is like a baseball rookie hitting a grand slam in the World Series. But the competition is rough. Top anglers from all over the world try their luck.
    Bill and I are old fishing partners. Bill a CPA was then a City Commissioner of Clearwater. We became fast friends after I opened a branch plant of my L&S Bait Co.-its main plant is in Bradley Illinois-in Clearwater.
    Crown was dozing in the bottom of my 16-foot skiff. He'd been up too late the night before, trying to fill too many inside straights, and he had to attend a city commission meeting later in the morning.
    Just about 7:30 a.m. I spotted a school of tarpon coming slowly out of Hurricane Pass. But so did Nick Lopez of the charter boat Flo-Jo. He moved in fast and so did we. We were using 60M MirrOlures an artificial bait we manufacture, which closely resembles a minnow.
    I dropped one on the outside of the moving circle. If the lure had landed inside they would have scattered. I saw a big tarpon roll over and dive for it. He clamped his steel-like jaws on the lure and almost pulled me out of the boat.
    He shot about six feet straight out of the water, with his mouth wide open and his gills rattling like a pair of dice. When they come up with their jaws wide open you know they are hooked well and not hurt.
    To add to the confusion, Bill Crown had hooked into a sea trout. We almost tangled lines.
    The tarpon headed for the deep waters of the gulf at about five miles an hour. He made three more violent jumps , then he settled down to circling our small boat in a huge half-mile circle. I was beginning to get worried. We were getting low on gas-and no oars. And Bill was scheduled for that city commission meeting.
    "Maybe he's a gentleman and will take us into the yacht basin," I called to Bill.
  The tarpon must have heard me. He flashed toward Hog Island Beach. About 15 feet offshore in shallow water, he turned and headed into Hurricane Pass. We were 30 feet offshore when Crown yelled, " This is where I get off."
    Overboard he went and landed on a snook-a rare fish in this area. The snook was as surprised as Bill and he bolted off in search of another resting place. Bill floundered ashore and called back that he would get some gas, food and some beer and meet me later. The tarpon had very obligingly let Bill off about a half a mile from his parents' house!
    And then the big fish hauled me out through the pass again, headed for the gulf.
   As time passed the tarpon ceased to be merely a fish. He became an adversary. And he had an admirable personality. To kill time I tried to think of a name for him. I decided on "Mr. Chips" for several reasons. This tarpon represented the chips that were down on the Tarpon Roundup. And, too he sort of reminded me of the late James Hilton's fictional character, Mr. Chips, the English schoolteacher. My Mr. Chips was well educated too.
    For a while I'd play him close, always-applying pressure to make him nervous. Shallow water makes tarpon jittery, as does constant pressure. But not Mr. Chips. He thrived on both.
    At one point he headed up the bay in among the people swimming there, obviously trying to snag the line. He dodged in among the swimmers but never even brushed against them. A tarpon has never been known to hurt a human being.
    Nature has been good to the tarpon. She provided him with protection against his deep-sea enemy, the shark, and against his topside enemy, the fisherman. Tarpon have a sixth sense-a sort of radar system-that enables them to avoid any solid objects, and they have an acid in their system, which practically disintegrates a fish hook. At this point I wondered how long the hooks on my lure would hold out. I'd already put in nine hours with this baby.
    I was running low on gas again, but two fellows in another boat gave me a spare can. It was getting along toward dusk and those two were the only people I had seen since I left Bill Crown.
    I noticed a Coast Guard plane-circling overhead. The pilot dropped a note encased in a balsa wood and cork. Holding Mr. Chips on the line with one hand, I fished the note out of the water with the other and opened it.
It read: "If you are Mr. LeMaster wave and head back toward marina"
    I complied and was contemplating cutting the line when the obliging Mr. Chips noised off in the direction of the marina; where hundreds of small craft are moored.
    Near the marina we met Nick Lopez in Flo-Jo and a newspaper photographer, Al Hackett. They told me I was nearing the world's record for holding a tarpon on light tackle. We estimated he was almost 170 pounds, 74 inches long and about 40 inches in girth, just about my size. The fact that I was so close to setting a word record gave me renewed energy, and a second wind. Hackett told me that word of the fight had spread all over the area and that a local radio station was broadcasting regular bulletins on the progress of the battle.
    They also told me why the Coast Guard had been looking for me. Bill Crown had alerted the harbormaster Col. A.G. Simson, that I was out in the gulf. Since no one had reported seeing me. Simson feared I had been stranded in the Gulf without gas. He then had alerted the Coast Guard. Hackett and Lopez passed me some fried chicken, French fried potatoes and beer-this time with an opener. Naturally, the polite Mr. Chips was standing idly by while we talked.
    But he quickly tired of their company and took off into the marina area, dodging between anchored boats and dragging me along. He stopped about 30 feet from where I tie up my homemade skiff. He waited there as if to say "Haven't you had enough for one day; why don't you go home to your wife and children?"
    As a final nose-thumbing gesture, he traveled on a few yards and stopped in front of the big scales used to measure prize catches. Then he leaped high out of the water and shook his head violently as if to say " You haven't got me yet" and how right he was. Every part of my body was numb.
    When he pulled in a little closer to the dock area, a friend named Johnny Carrick climbed aboard to help me gaff him if we could. But Mr. Chips was having no part of that oversize hook. He kept his distance.
    By this time the dock area was thick with people shouting encouragement and advice, and Mr. Chips took the hint and gave them the show they came to see. He gave a six-foot leap and headed close inshore, to give everyone a good view.
    Six o'clock came and passed. Seven, seven thirty. Mr. Chips and I had been at it for half a day. My eyes burned, my back ached and my feet hurt but I was determined to stick with him all night if necessary.
  When darkness rolled in the Fire Department lined the causeway with portable searchlights. Small craft flooded the area with powerful lights. Motorists lined the shores and flashed their headlights into the bay. Mayor Herb Brown ordered Police and Fire department mounted lights to follow the battle. The Coast Guard brought lights into play. And as a result of all the attention, Mr. Chips turned "ham." He played the act to the hilt, jumping, flashing, twisting his huge silver body. He pulled right up to the city dock on the mainland. So many people crowded on that it was closed off for fear it might collapse.
    At 10 p.m. I was told that I had set the worlds record for holding tarpon on light tackle, a record that still stands. The previous record was 14 hours, 29 minutes.
    As time and the tarpon dragged on Johnny Carrick had to keep nudging me and talking to keep me awake. My arms were numb, my legs cramped.
    Johnny and I could see the mud churning up, a sure sign Mr. Chips was working furiously to snag or tear the line.
    It was about 1 a.m.. He had made 17 leaps in all. He was tired and nervous too. He had kept pace with this battle of wits for close to 18 hours. I could sense one final, desperate bid for freedom coming up.
    Wham! The boat lurched and he shot eight feet out of the water. My arms were almost torn lose from their sockets.
    At the height of his jump this sleek silver beauty was framed in the moonlight; a sight to behold. The dripping water looked liked thousands of tiny diamonds falling into the bay.
    That powerful head, with mouth wide open, turned to look me straight in the eye. He was only 10 feet away. Then Carrick and I heard a metallic snap as one barb on the forward set of hooks gave way. There was an almost deathly silence.
    With one final defiant gesture, like that of a great warrior, he literally spit the bait in my face. It hit my chest with such great force I was knocked off balance. The barbs were imbedded in my chest, through my T-shirt. There was a final splash. Goodby, Mr. Chips.
The battle was over. I had lost. But I wasn't mad I was sort of happy to see him rolling, twisting, leaping out of the sea in the darkness. I could feel he was happy too.
I returned to the dock. Everyone in town was there. I was too glassy-eyed and tired to see or hear them. I went home and slept for two days.
    I had lost my one big chance to win the top prize in the Tarpon Roundup. But my disappointment was short-lived. A few days later I was presented with a miniature replica of the winners trophy. It reads: "18 Annual St Petersburg Tarpon Roundup Won by Harold LeMaster." It's all of three inches tall and bears the additional inscription; "Hard luck." …

Originally published 1955 in 'SAFARI ' a Hearst publication    

special thanks to Jerry Spaulding, COO  L & S Bait Co Inc


Click here to share this story with a friend