REIGN OF THE OLD SCHOOL
100 million years ago, the oldest relatives of modern tarpon ( Megalops atlanticus ) swam the oceans with prehistoric creatures that would make most science fiction novels seem tame. Some of these monsters have evolved into totally different life forms, while many have disappeared from our world completely. A small few however, have changed very little over the years, despite drastic environmental changes. Like fashions, cars, and weapons, some designs are so good they never go out of style. From the beginning, Mother Nature designed an opportunistic survivor in the tarpon family that shows no signs of giving way to a new order.
Tarpon live on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, with their populations concentrated around tropical climates. Many scientists describe them as thermophilic, or able to live in high temperature conditions. The range of the species exists along Africa's coast from Senegal to Congo, and American waters primarily from North Carolina south to the West Indies. That puts our own Lee County as one of the premier tarpon fishing areas in the world.
It's hard to believe that the king begins as a microscopic egg floating around in the plankton of the sea. Spawning occurs offshore, primarily around the full and new moons of May and June. At this time, mature females can produce as many as 15 million oocytes, or unfertilized eggs. Once the females release the oocytes, they are fertilized by the males "milt" of sperm, beginning the long treacherous journey for the juvenile tarpon. In the first stage of their lives, the larvae resemble a very small eel or leech which will travel long distances by currents, tides, and swimming to inshore estuaries, mangroves, feeder ponds and even drainage ditches. Along the way, the larvae are very vulnerable to predators like zooplankton and small fish, and it takes all 15 million fertilized eggs to overcome the amount eaten by them. For the lucky ones that reach the estuaries, they develop through different stages, eventually becoming small juveniles that are recognizable as baby tarpon at about 2 inches in length.
Have you ever watched a school of tarpon and noticed they often break the surface of the water frequently? Prehistoric in design, tarpon are one of the few fish that are able to breath air directly from the surface. Using their swim bladder much like a lung, this ability enables the young to survive in stagnant, oxygen depleted waters, far out of reach from the many predators living in the sounds and oceans. In fact, studies have shown that tarpon cannot survive without the ability to breath air directly. As adults, they continue to gulp air from the surface when their activity level is high, such as in times of feeding and spawning. This enables them to provide quick oxygen to the body, which prevents fatigue and the build up of lactic acid in the muscles.
Once tarpon reach about 2 feet in length they will move to inhabit rivers, canals, and the upper reaches of bays until sexual maturity is reached at about 6-7 years. At this point, they join the seasonal migrations and offshore spawning with other adults. Male tarpon may live over 30 years, while females can live in excess of 50 years, grow to lengths of 8.2 feet, and weigh as much as 355 pounds! These silver kings are opportunistic feeders to say the least. They use speed, power, a keen sense of smell, and superior eyesight to locate prey of all kinds. The genus name Megalops even comes from the Greek language meaning "large eyed". These large, highly sensitive eyes allow tarpon to see well at night when smaller, less developed fish and crabs are at a disadvantage.
Traditionally there has been little scientific interest in tarpon, primarily due to their inability to be used as a food source for mankind. However, with the huge economical increase in sport fishing for the species, more and more money is being allocated for research into the lives and habits of these incredible beasts. After surviving millions of years in an ocean full of large sharks and prehistoric monsters, tarpon have rightfully earned the respect of scientist and anglers alike. No need for sharp teeth or pretty colors, these silver kings have made their way through history on a classic design. They have outlasted many of Mother Nature's wonderful creations, and they have done it by staying."old school".
Keep on plugg'n!
Capt. George Howell