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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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;