The old salt saying goes, “the bluer the water, the bigger the fish.” It’s not just a catchy line, and nowhere is it more evident than Southwest Florida. With waters ranging in color from radiant turquoise to royal blue, the mighty tarpon has been migrating here annually for centuries.
By the late 1800’s anglers were coming in droves to test their luck in these legendary waters and engage in fierce battles of will against the shimmering giant. Ultimately, the Sarasota Tarpon Tournament was spawned. According to Captain Jeffri Durrance, current organizer of the event, it’s the world’s oldest tarpon tournament, with the earliest recorded catch in 1930.
Then billed as the International Tarpon Tournament, it gained further recognition thanks to Powell Crosley Jr. The famous industrialist and radio magnate was responsible for the first live radio broadcast of the tournament from a boat at sea. Crosley came to Sarasota in 1929 to visit his buddy Robert Ringling, landed his first silver king and was hooked. He called it “the sport of kings” and was so enamored with it and the area that he moved here and built the 11,000 square-foot palatial bayfront home now known as Crosley Mansion.
A year later, as president of the Sarasota County Anglers’ Club, he arranged the live broadcast of the club’s tournament to his Cincinnati radio station, WLW, choosing moonrise on June 10th to hold the now historic event. Microphones and a short wave transmitter installed in a fishing boat created a floating radio station, from which the broadcast was sent to a receiver atop a bathing pavilion at Venice beach. From there it was relayed via telephone lines to Ohio and affiliate stations nationwide, spellbinding audiences and putting Sarasota and the tournament on the map.
But the fuss wasn’t just over fish. The tournament also became famous for the elegant prizes lavished upon the winners, such as boats, cars and all-expense paid vacations. In 1933, the Palmer family commissioned a gorgeous three-foot-tall silver trophy on which the winners’ names would be inscribed, instituting a tradition that is carried on to this day. The extravaganza came to include a beauty pageant, during which a beautiful young woman was crowned “Tarpon Queen.” In 1961 the Chamber of Commerce approved the creation of a tarpon queen costume, a bathing suit elaborately adorned with 1,200 tarpon scales and spray-painted the color of a live tarpon. It took volunteer Rita Roehr, who later became mayor in 1982 and director of the tournament in 1989, three weeks to painstakingly sew each scale onto the suit, first donned by Tarpon Queen Barbara Glidden.
Over the years the tournament has seen many changes. In the 80’s opulent prizes were scaled back to more modest rods, reels, dinners, gift certificates and the pride of having your name etched permanently on the Palmer trophy. It also changed from a “kill” competition to an all-release format, a bold move in 1984 by SCAC president Bill Mindlin.
“In the early 80’s we started looking at conservation,” explains Jeffri, who won the tournament in 1997. “It was several years before people went to all-release, it was pretty progressive.” Previously, the fish were killed and brought in for girth measurement and weigh-in; now they are instead subdued, measured by length, revived and released. A witness must be present and both angler and witness must return to the club’s sign-in station to swear in writing the size, time and date of the catch.
Jeffri was one of the forces behind the tournament’s revitalization in the 90’s, along with other club chairmen, including Dennis Hart of Hart’s Landing and Aledia Tush of CB’s Saltwater Outfitters. The focus of the tournament further expanded from the exhilaration of challenging a thrashing game fish to preserving the magnificent fighters. In 1997 the Sarasota County Anglers merged with the Sarasota Sportfishing Club to become the Sarasota Sportfishing Anglers Club, which now sponsors this yearly event. The Club typically hosts the tournament from May 20th to the last Sunday night in June.
What’s it like to land a silver king in Sarasota? “The average tarpon is about 100 pounds and it flies up above your head — it’s spectacular!” Jeffri says. While Boca Grande is famous for tarpon, “… in Sarasota, it’s spread out and more exciting,” he explains. “You idle down the beach until you see fish; sneak up on ‘em and cast to ‘em. When the line goes tight it gets exciting in a hurry. One day we were fighting a fish we caught off shore but he ran toward the beach. He was real close to some swimmers and I didn’t want the line to get caught around somebody, so I started yelling, ‘Shark! Shark!’ They saw the shadow and ran away – that spooked him back into deeper waters.”
Every day is different, which is why Aledia warns that tarpon fishing is not for everyone. “Sometimes it’s a lot of sitting there; my sister says it’s like watching paint dry,” she laughs. “But oh man, it’s just in you. I mean it makes you shake when you see ‘em comin’. You just get chill bumps. They will bring you to your knees. When you get lucky and throw into a whole school and one takes the bait, the tarpon explode into the air! I scream and everyone laughs — they know when I’ve got one on. But you get so excited you can’t help it.” During last year’s tournament Aledia was pitched overboard by a wave, but refused to release her rod lest her fish be disqualified. She won the tournament in 1999.
Full-time fishing guide Captain Rick Grassett describes it as 90 percent hunting and ten percent fishing. “You are really looking for the fish; there’s a real hunting aspect to it,” he explains. This year’s hunt holds even more promise than last as red tide put a damper on the season. “Tarpon went way offshore, where they were much more difficult to fish,” he says. “Even the ones that didn’t wouldn’t bite because of red tide. Everyone’s hoping things will return to normal this year so that we’ll catch a lot of fish.”
A hot topic among all of the key players in this “sport of kings” is courtesy. Rick says it’s simply a matter of common sense. Stay well offshore when going through a pass, otherwise you’ll run over the tarpon and they’ll take off as fast as they can. When someone is working a school of tarpon, don’t come between the boat and the school. “It’s kind of like butting in front of someone at the grocery store,” Rick describes. “It’s just a matter of etiquette. If everyone cooperates, is polite and nice, everyone can catch fish.”
There are several tournament divisions, including fly fishing, women’s and juniors. The entry fee is $85 per person and includes a t-shirt and dinner at the awards banquet in mid-July. For more information about the tournament and related upcoming events, call Jeffri Durrance at 371-4231 or 915-2933.
Historical information in this story was obtained with permission from an article by Rusty Chinnis and Christine Killeen as well as the Sarasota History Center.
Reprinted from H20 Magazine