BY MARCY SHORTUSE AND ADAM MARTON – When Boca Grande resident Rees Poag heard about a tarpon tagging expedition to Belize, he really didn’t hesitate to jump on board. The fly fisherman has been a silver king addict since the early 1990s, and his concerns about boating and jigging pressure on the tarpon in our Pass spurred him to act when called.
“I hooked a nice tarpon several years ago, and a boat from the University of Miami Tarpon and Bonefish Research Center came over to satellite tag it,” Rees said. “The fish broke off, but I was introduced to the satellite tagging program then.”
The trip was coordinated by Adam Marton, founder of the Fieldworker’s Club of Chicago, who has long held the belief that the tarpon of Belize are the tarpon of the Pass … and everywhere else in the world.
Rees said they learned a lot on their trip to Belize. While his wife, Sara, went with him on the trip, she did not participate too much in the fishing part of their stay.
“In Belize, we learned about migration from earlier tags that the Caribbean tarpon move up and around the Gulf along the Mexican and Texas coast, that tarpon coming from the Florida Keys pass through Boca Grande on their way to Louisiana and that some tarpon move in both directions sometimes far to the north in the Atlantic,” he said. “Andy Mill, multiple tarpon tournament winner and author of ‘A Passion For Tarpon,’ shared his knowledge and experience in fly fishing and was an incredible resource in the practical aspects of fly fishing for tarpon. This combination of scientific inquiry and practical fishing instruction is the hallmark of Adam Marton’s vision and the Fieldworker’s Club.”
Rees said he fly fished with Lew Morgan for 17 days in June and July this year, and he has seen the numbers of boats increase and the numbers of tarpon diminish since the 1990s. He has also watched their behavior change.
“The migratory tarpon seem to be arriving earlier in April and May,” he said. “There aren’t as many running up and down the beach and they don’t roll as high or as often. A no wake zone or idle zone off the beach might help.”
The Fieldworkers Club 2015 Belize Tarpon Tagging Expedition has concluded with unparalleled success.
Led by Adam Marton and Andy Mill, 17 anglers from all over the United States, working in partnership with scientists from the Tarpon and Bonefish Research Center at the University of Miami, went to northern Belize with the goal of deploying satellite tags on adult migratory tarpon. This year’s expedition occurred out of El Pescador Lodge and Villas from August 15 through the 22.
These dates were chosen a year ahead of time to coincide with suspected peak migratory tarpon population numbers, optimal moon and tide phases, stable weather patterns and angler availability.
The expedition team hooked or landed a total of 44 tarpon ranging in size from approximately 15-150 pounds.
Expedition Leader Adam Marton said, “That is an important number as it represents the overall number of opportunities for tagging. It’s also important to note that 44 tarpon is more than double the combined tagging opportunities of the 2013 and 2014 expeditions.”
He continued, “Of the 44 fish hooked, more than a dozen not landed were estimated to be of taggable size (80-pounds or over). The increase of these numbers can be attributed to many factors, including: greater numbers of tarpon, increased angler skill level, favorable weather conditions, and concentrated fishing in the most populated tarpon habitats.”
In the end, three satellite tags were successfully deployed on adult tarpon in Northern Belize. On August 19 an 80-pound tarpon was safely released at 7:35 a.m. with a SPOT tag. On August 21st at 7:40 a.m. a 90-pound tarpon was also tagged with a SPOT and released. At 12:40 p.m. that same day, in the 11th hour of the expedition, a third tarpon estimated at 110-pounds was released with a PAT tag. All fish were revived for more than 40-minutes after landing using a process developed by scientists at the University of Miami, released and swam strongly away from the tagging boat into the open ocean.
“Three might not sound like a big number, but in fact it’s a huge number and one we’ve been trying to get to for four years,” Marten said. “Imagine all the challenges involved in actually getting a large group of anglers to pack their bags, get on an airplane and come to Belize to participate in an expedition at their own cost. Then, consider all the factors standing in the way of actually landing a huge tarpon. Finally, add in a tagging boat, safety, communications, weather and well, it’s fishing … there are many plates spinning in the air at once to make this all work, and of course, the stars must align. I am grateful to and totally impressed by the dedication of the anglers and guides who dug in, fully participated in this year’s expedition and made it the total success that is was. No one person can make this effort a success, it’s the combined efforts of the entire team that made these amazing accomplishments possible.”
Exactly what the future holds for these three tarpon is unknown. But as a result of these expedition efforts the scientific and resource management community is now in a more powerful position to begin to collect factual data about tarpon in Central America than it was even three weeks ago.
The groundbreaking news is that we have heard from the SPOT tags on two of the tarpon,” Marten said. “They appear to be working, the fish look to be resuming normal behavior and reports continue to come in from the tags. Tarpon number three has a PAT tag, which works differently and is preprogrammed not to report until some time down the road. Combined, these two cutting edge technologies (all being well) will start to answer the $64,000-tarpon question – ‘Are our fish their fish?’ as well as many, many more. The hope is this research effort will open the door to a better understanding of critical tarpon habitats, usage patterns and migration routes for fishes in this part of the world. We also hope these efforts will help to support the multi-generational legacy of tarpon fishermen for decades to come.”
Rees agreed, saying, “The takeaway from the expedition was that we have much to learn about the tarpon migratory patterns. But it is clear that our large tarpon come from other places and move on to other fisheries, facing increasing fishing pressure and environmental influences along the way. The satellite tags and DNA tests are key to understanding this process and this extraordinary gamefish. I look forward to more Caribbean trips and tagged fish, but would like to satellite tag and DNA test many more tarpon here in Boca Grande.”
It turns out that tarpon do not acknowledge federal, state or regional political borders as they make their annual migrations, which seems to be a key factor in the success of the species. Therefore, the global resource management community that makes critical decisions about how to protect this important resource must be armed with fact based data from all over the tarpon’s range to support their federal, regional and local policy-making efforts.
The tagging program of the University of Miami is now more than 10-years-old, and more than 400 individual tarpon have been tagged in Belize, Mexico, Trinidad, Nicaragua, Florida, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
For more information about the tagging program contact Dr. Jerry Ault at the Tarpon and Bonefish Research Center, University of Miami at email@example.com or at (305) 421-4884.
For more information about the 2015 or 2016 expeditions, contact Adam Marton at The Fieldworkers Club, firstname.lastname@example.org, at (312) 440-1200 or go to the web site, fieldworkersclub.com.