It has been on Earth for at least 50 million years; its fossil ancestors go back more than 100 million years.
Its females can live 50 years, with males living approximately 30 years.
It is a slow-growing fish, but can reach up to eight feet long, and the largest can weigh over 300 pounds (though none that big was caught on a fly rod). Spawning occurs over 100 miles from shore, with females laying twelve million eggs at once. The eggs that are fertilized hatch quickly into a ribbon-like larval stage (called leptocephalus). The larvae make their way back over the 100 miles to the brackish waters of the estuaries where they grow through the juvenile stage – the estuaries are often low in oxygen, which protects the young tarpon from predation by jacks and snooks; the tarpon have an air bladder that allows them to gulp air.
Michelangelo painted its image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, next to Jonah.
It is the Atlantic Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus).
It is one of the most prized saltwater sport-fishing species, along with bonefish and permit. And the pursuit of catching world-record tarpon led to an intense competition near a small town on the Gulf Coast of Florida in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Homosassa, Florida was the center of this competition, and it’s the backdrop (along with the Florida Keys) for Lords of the Fly, by Monte Burke.
His story is a tale that is basically sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It’s a book that should be of interest beyond those who pursue saltwater fly fishing for it is a universal story of human competition to the point of obsession – and the damage and destruction resulting from that obsession.
And it is filled with fascinating real-life characters that included the baseball player Ted Williams; the writers Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison; the painter Russell Chatham; a descendant of Davy Crockett; a New York gangster; the singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett; a number of rich sportsman; a few unabashed self promoters; and a group of intense, highly competitive guides.
Record catches were made and were soon broken.
As might be expected, it couldn’t last.
The crowds came as word of the numbers of large tarpon spread, bringing more fishers chasing the tarpon; development inland (the Villages of Citrus Hills – on the Crystal River) drew down the aquifers that fed the four rivers flowing into Homosassa Bay. The estuary became more brackish, reducing the blue crab population on which the tarpon fed, and the tarpon population collapsed.
And yet, the big tarpon were, and are, still there – though in much reduced numbers. A 200-pound fish was caught in 2001.
But, time brings change – some good, some bad, and adaptation is needed. Whether tarpon and humans can adapt to the changing climate and the often short-sighted political decision-making remains to be seen. And as we are reminded at the end of the book, time passes and the memories of experiences, and our youth, become all we have.
This is a funny, interesting, and ultimately wistful, book. Highly recommended.