The visitors and patrons aboard tarpon fishing charters in Boca Grande are generally focused on two things – one is snagging a “silver king” and watching one of these majestic fish leap 6 feet out of the water while the other is the subsequent adrenaline pumping action of fighting the fish.
What’s rarely considered is how tarpon fishing came to be in Boca Grande, a tiny island town at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor in southwest Florida. Just how did this sleepy little town and paradise become known as the “Tarpon Capital of the World”?
Although they did not have a written language, oral accounts from Spanish explorers and the Seminole Indians show how fishing-centric the Calusa Indians were. While they had inhabited nearby islands for much longer, it’s believed the Calusa tribe started inhabiting Gasparilla Island in the 9th or 10th century.
Spanish and French explorers explained how the Calusa’s entire life and religion centered around fishing in the waters of today’s Boca Grande Pass.
By the early 18th century though, the Calusa Indians were pretty much wiped out from slavery, disease and war, but the big Tarpon and plethora of other fish remained. By the latter part of the 19th century, the descendants of the first European explorers and settlers established several fish ranches in the area.
As far as sport fishing is concerned, Boca Grande and the Tarpon didn’t gain notoriety until March 1885 when William Halsey Wood from New York is recorded as catching the first tarpon on a rod and reel.
W.H. Wood’s story about snagging a 93 pound Tarpon close to Boca Grande was first published in “Forrest and Stream” but soon spread worldwide
While many contend there were earlier instances of catching Tarpon on rod and reel, W.H. Wood’s was the first recorded instance since no one knew what to call them.
According to Wood’s personal account, he hooked the fish with a 21-thread line on a 5-foot bamboo rod, large reel and mullet bait. From Wood’s account:
“After getting the bait, he moved slowly away. The instant the slack was taken up, I drew and hooked him. He came instantaneously and entirely out of the water trying to shake out the bait. Then the trouble began…”
The fish basically dragged his small boat over a half mile. It took 26 minutes from the fish’s first leap to actually gaffing and pulling the monster into the boat. Wood caught 5 Tarpon total on his trip. To prove his record, Wood put his largest one on ice and took it back to New York.
Once the story spread to New York and then to London, southwest Florida soon became known as the prime sport fishing destination for wealthy businessmen from up north.
In the years following Wood’s story, sport anglers began flocking to southwest Florida and Boca Grande. Wood stayed in nearby Punta Rassa at an old Army barracks from the Seminole wars that had been converted into a hotel. A sign at the entrance said “This is the end of the world, jump right off.”
There were no rail lines or roads to Boca Grande. Traveling anglers were advised to take the train to Tampa then board a ship for the remaining 100 miles.
One particularly notable guest of the original fishing hotel was inventor Thomas Edison. Edison was so impressed with the nearby Caloosahatchee River and town of Ft. Myers that he purchased 13 acres on the river and built a winter home. In discussing Tarpon fishing with reporters, Edison explained that so many Tarpon came up the river in spring that it would raise the water level by almost a foot!
Wood would often share rooms with James M. Roach, another wealthy business magnate who ended up purchasing the nearby Useppa Island. At the end of the 1800s, Roach built “The Tarpon Inn” and would invite wealthy friends to come and fish “…the virgin Florida waters.”
In 1908, Roach sold the island and his Tarpon Inn to Barren Collier who built another “Tarpon Inn” on Gasparilla Island, thereby establishing Boca Grande and beginning its legacy as one of the world’s top sport fishing destinations.
While the original sport anglers would keep the Tarpon for trophy, most of the “silver kings” caught today are released since they have no food value. Tarpon fishing was so popular at one time that their numbers began suffering, which is what led to harvesting rules and catch & release practices being implemented.
Captain Leighton Ingram of Krewe Chief Charters has been tarpon fishing the waters around Boca Grande for many decades. Not only does he have extensive experience finding, snagging and boating trophy Tarpon, he has a deep appreciation of the roots of this popular sport. We invite you to learn more about the amazing story of Tarpon fishing charters in Boca Grande, or schedule a trip today for a chance to experience the amazing power of a Tarpon!