The Only Word to Explain it is … Epic!

Before I get too ahead of myself, let me start from the beginning.

June 20th, 1994 – I was on my first tarpon trip with my ex-husband. It was our honeymoon, and all I caught was a catfish. I had never seen a tarpon; the guide said they were greenish-silver, and I would see them rise on the waves. But I never saw a thing, and neither did anyone else. That day was never thought about again until last week.

April 28th, 2022 – It’s two days before my birthday, and I have three days of birthday fishing planned on the other coast with 14 other lady anglers. I get a call from my neurologist; the tumor on my brain, which has been under watchful waiting for four years, decides she wants to come out and play now, so surgery will be in the next few weeks. I’m in shock as I drive home from the store. This is not great news for my birthday.

The minute I walk in the door, I get a text that the seas are 5-7ft, and the offshore trip for the next day is called off; it’s just too dangerous to go out. I decide to tell my friend Amy about my news and how maybe it’s a good idea for me not to drive across the state. I’m still in shock, so I go to bed. I’m upset because this is not the birthday weekend I had planned.

April 29th, 2022 – I decide to go to the Fly Fishing movie with friends from our local Fly Fishing Club – Mangrove Coast FF Club. Had a great time, won some hats and gave some things away. Saw some great films.

April 30th, 2022 – It’s my birthday, and I wake up deciding I’m not going to stay in bed feeling sorry for myself. So, I meet members from Mangrove Coast out on Longboat Key and try for some snook on fly. I meet up with my friend Jackie, and we do our best to try casting in 15 mph winds. We try not to hook anyone; I came the closest by wrapping a 10-year-old girl in my brighter than the sun yellow. It should be super easy to see, yellow line, and luckily my fly lands on her shoulder with the hook sitting next to her skin; not in it. Whew!

Jackie and I talk a lot about fishing; we swear we see a tarpon rise from the pass, and it starts a new discussion. I told her about the fly fishing film I watched yesterday and how this one guy had waited 12 years to catch a permit fish. I told her it had been six years since I first tried for a tarpon. Just then, my trip from 1994 on my 1st honeymoon raced into my mind, and I started finger calculations. It was the same year our oldest was born, so I stopped counting on my fingers. It had been 28 years since my first tarpon trip, and I had never caught a tarpon.

I told her it was my mission to catch a tarpon before surgery. I didn’t care if I had to beg friends because I know a few that are some of the best tarpon wranglers in town. (Rusty and Lori) Or, if I had to, I would sneak onto the Longboat Key Club golf course and catch a micro tarpon in the pond there. It could be the smallest Tarpon ever caught on record. But I wouldn’t care. I just needed a win after getting such bad news. I just needed a Tarpon.

Without hesitation, Jackie looks at me over the howling wind and the crashing of waves, smiles, and says, “I’ll split a trip with you.”

Okay, I was thinking about different scenarios for getting to a place to find Tarpon. Totally didn’t even think about a tarpon trip. Easy peezy. Man, talk about overthinking things.

So, now I go home, and I reach out to my friend Tim for advice on who to go with. I tell him my situation, and he suggests. Captain Brock Harner of Tarpon Coast Fishing Charter. I had never heard of him, so I stalked him on some social sites, and he looked too good to be true. Giant fish, big smiles from his guests, 4.9 stars. Oh, and Tim said he targeted Tarpon all year round. In Sarasota, I know a lot of captains who see a couple here and there throughout the year. Still, our Tarpon season here is usually just May and June.

For those who don’t know about Tarpon, they get massive, up to 300 lbs. They are very long, solid, sardine-shaped fish made of pure muscle. They are trophy fish, but you can’t keep them. And no, we don’t eat them. But, in other countries, I think they do. You don’t fight these fish for 15-20 minutes; okay, maybe the small ones like only 2-3 feet long. We all want to catch the 5-8 ft fish where you fight for 45 minutes to sometimes well over an hour. We all wish the bigger ones would come in a little quicker, so they aren’t so tired. When they are tired, it makes them more susceptible to being eaten by sharks. Sadly it happens a lot.

After having a large pool of outstanding women anglers and friends to pick from, Amy Lockhart and Nancy Llacuna, both from IWFA – International Women’s Fishing Association, completed the foursome of anglers for our tarpon trip. We started to plan this fantastic trip, and I suggested matching colored performance shirts. Then we just spoke about fishing and how I’m suddenly obsessed with floral prints. I had no idea what was being organized behind the scenes.

On the morning of the trip, Amy and Jackie said they had never received their matching shirts from Amazon. I shrugged it off, thinking, who cares, we would get to catch Tarpon!
Little did I know when we met up with Nancy in Punta Gorda, the “Birthday” gift she handed me would cause so many tears. In the bag was a lavender fishing shirt like the one I picked out, but on the front and back were printed “#teamcorinne” with a beautiful tarpon. There was a matching buff and a floral headband. I was crying because they were so lovely and thoughtful.
Then all the girls laughed at me as they took shirts out of another bag and started putting on matching shirts and buffs. I was so touched, and they understood this was so much more than just about fishing. I struggled with my health and needed to check off bucket list items before removing a tumor from my brain. A surgery that could change my ability to do the things I take for granted now.
We hugged, cried, and laughed. We headed off to meet our Captain, who joined our cause by wearing all grey to support Brain Tumor awareness for May.
I know he felt a lot of pressure to put me on a tarpon, but the weather would add a little more pressure. The moment we hit the water, the winds kicked up a notch, and the white caps started to roll toward shore.
We started fishing in his usual spot, but not before we caught bluefish and ladyfish for chunk bait. We cast our lines in, and my reel went off. Attached to my line was a 5-foot blacktip shark. Definitely a bucket list fish for me! Although it wasn’t what we came for, I was grateful to have caught one.
The winds picked up, and the white caps were now 2-3 ft waves. Brock wasn’t seeing the amount of Tarpon he was used to, so he started calling other captains to see how the conditions were in the pass. He heard all he needed to hear, and off we headed to Boca Grande Pass, the place of legends. On a calm day during the summer months, you can find over 200 boats within this one channel, all dead set on hooking and landing a tarpon. Having 199 other boats with the same goal makes it difficult to fish for Tarpon since they are large, strong fish known for their air jumps and acrobats even when they’re not hooked and being reeled in.

There are many other factors to consider when wondering if you will land or catch your Tarpon. The proper gear is essential, good strong hooks, line, leader, and a rod and reel ready to take a good beating for long periods. The bait of choice is a pass or blue crab, but size can be a significant factor; they don’t want the biggest ones. But then sometimes they do. They have to be just the right size, and they must be alive. How you present the crab can be freelining or can be floating under a popping cork.

The other boats are an issue since they are fighting against the same odds as you are. The boats get close enough to spit on and sometimes ride over the line you have a tarpon hooked on. Definitely not ideal conditions.

So, now you have a tarpon hooked, and you know this because it feels like a car has just fallen off a cliff and is attached to your line. They hit hard. From that moment on, you hold on for dear life. Your hands will go numb, you will use all of your weight to gain some feet of line, you bend from your waist to your knees and pray and bow when they jump. Then you lean back to almost lying down when they rest and stop running. It’s not for the weak of heart, mind, or body.

I feel I need to explain all of this because unless you’ve ever actually caught a giant tarpon, you have no earthly clue what is in store for you. Photos and videos don’t do it justice.

So, back to the adventure. We head into Boca Grande Pass to hunt for Tarpon. I have now checked off two bucket list items. Since the wind was blowing about 15-20 mph, the weak of heart or maybe the strong in mind stayed home, knowing it would be a rough day. There were maybe 40 boats, not the usual 200. So, we were lucky to have one thing in our favor.

Immediately when we arrived, we noticed there were about 3 to 4 boats hooked up with Tarpon. There were about 4 Tarpon hooked up every moment we were there. Still, for the entire 6-7 hours we were out there, we only saw maybe two other boats who successfully landed their fish and got them to the boat. Now the most exciting thing about this moment, is not only are you trying to catch a Tarpon, watch other boats catch Tarpon, but there are tons of Tarpon jumping and rolling in the surf to distract you. It’s just incredible!

Within a few minutes of arriving in the pass amidst the other boats, I was hooked up with nice Tarpon; it stayed on for maybe 5 minutes and was then eaten by a shark. Oh, I forgot to mention the sharks. The 5-foot shark I caught earlier was like a baby compared to what lives and eats within the pass. 14-16 ft hammerheads, bull sharks, and black tips live well on the Tarpon that run back and forth through the pass all day.

So, after we lose that fish, we have another hookup or two, but they break off or throw the hook. When tarpon jump, they also thrash around shaking their heads, most of the time, the hook comes loose, and they swim away while you are left fishless. You have to bow down when they jump and make sure to point the rod tip at them, or you will lose your fish.

We hook another fish; this time, Amy keeps it on. This fish, she’s a big girl! I call all big fish “girls,” which is usually true since the females grow bigger and live longer than the males. Amy fights the Tarpon for about 30 minutes; the fish’s many air-jumps and flips keep us in awe of her strength and size. During her fight, Amy offered for me to fight the fish, knowing while everyone wanted to catch a tarpon today, today was about me catching one. I politely declined; this was Amy’s fish; this one was meant for her and only her.

Amy lands the fish at the side of the boat; we all cheer and quickly take photos. I start tearing up. I stare into this big beautiful eye looking up at me. I see a million different colors reflect off the silver scales. I know at this moment this is something so special, and I’m grateful to be here. The odds against this happening are imaginable. I am soaking up everything happening at this moment. Our team, #teamcorinnesrq caught a tarpon.

I look at the time and realize it’s time to go in. The waves are now 4-6, and the winds have shifted, and while I’m disappointed I didn’t catch one myself, I’m grateful our boat caught one. We ride closer to the middle of the boats, and the Captain stops the boat and starts putting crabs on our lines. We’re not done.

We all drop the lines, and Nancy’s rod bends over within a couple of minutes. She immediately yells for me to get to the cooler on the boat’s bow and sit down. I look at her, and she smiles. She tells me this is my fish. Captain Brock turns on one of my favorite songs by Kenny Chesney, “How Forever Feels.” I don’t have time to get emotional, but all kinds of feelings happen. I have a massive tarpon on my line, and it will be a long hard fight.

It sounds cool to say you fought a tarpon for an hour when you catch a tarpon. But it’s not cool for the fish. When you exhaust any fish by fighting it for long periods, whether Tarpon or sailfish, you risk that fish’s life. They no longer have the strength to outrun a shark. If they haven’t been eaten while you’re fighting it, the odds of getting eaten increase the longer you fight it.

I’m battling this fish, doing my best to get her to the boat as fast as possible, so she can swim away, but that option is not within my power. She is far too strong for me to strong-arm her in like I do with a redfish or snook. I always try to get fish in as fast as possible, so they can swim away strong. This fish had other plans.

While I was fighting the fish, I noticed that I almost fell off the cooler into the water a few times. The waves are now 5-7 ft; it looks like a scene from the movie “The Perfect Storm,” and I’m holding on for dear life with my toes and butt cheeks. I had a rod in my hands, so there was no other way to hold on. I know hundreds of sharks are in the water below me, and they are close by because they are chasing my Tarpon.

I notice my Captain has put the boat in reverse, and we start heading toward the beach. The beach is about half a mile from where we are, so I keep reeling when she rests, and I hold on with all I have when she runs the line out from my rod. It’s a dance of give and take, which lasts about 45 minutes.

Waves are building, the wind speeds are increasing, and I’m not sure I can hold on much longer. I don’t want to lose this fish, but it’s all over for both of us if I fall in. I’ve never been so scared and so excited in my entire life. I’m praying to God and asking for help from my fishing partner, Melissa, who I lost last year to cancer. I fished the Sarasota Tarpon Tournament with her for three years and still never caught a Tarpon. Those were some great days spent well on the water, talking about life and appreciating the beauty right in front of us.

As we get about 50 feet from the beach, I notice we have other captains that followed us in to watch me land my fish. There are about 20 people now taking photos and videos from up on the beach. I’m trying to get her to one side of the boat, but I can no longer reel; my hands are numb, my back is in so much pain, and I have no strength to stand up and keep reeling when the boat is so unstable.
Captain Brock quickly decides to beach his boat since there is no way his power pole would hold for this. He beaches the boat, jumps down to the beach, and waits for the fish. I hand the rod to Jackie to hold so I can stand and get my bearings. I walk a few feet to the side, she gives me the rod, and I bring the fish to the beach. I hand the rod to Captain Brock, and when I step off the boat, I fall right into the water and can barely stand. I’m that tired.
Captain Brock helps me up, I grab the rod, and the fish is right at the beach. All of the girls cheer and laugh as we sit holding the Tarpon in the water for photos. The waves are hitting us as they break on the shore, knocking us over but giving the fish time to rest.

When the girls stand up, we then take a photo with our Captain Brock. Then we hear someone ask the Captain about his boat; it has now floated into the dark part of the water where the sharks are. He swims off to retrieve the boat, and I am left holding this fantastic creature with all of the care and love I have in my body. Tears are running down my face, but nobody notices. I’m soaked by each wave, but I still hold her.

God had carried me to this moment, with friends supporting me every step, new friends, old friends, crossing off more than just catching a tarpon of my bucket list. I wanted more than anything to have a beach photo with a tarpon, and I got exactly that. Brock said it was destiny that the fish wanted to go for the beach; she wanted me to have my perfect catch and photo.

So, this is the part of the story where I ask for some help.

May 24th, 2022 at 7:30 AM – I go in for surgery to remove a tumor on my brain. I will have a long recovery, and I will not be able to have much in the way of adventure unless I watch a movie, but what fun is that?

So, I’m encouraging you to get out there and have your own adventures! Whether it’s a new food, a new way to exercise, a new jeep, a theme park, fishing, looking for birds, skiing, scuba diving, anything that makes you feel alive … I want to see it! For you and for me! I want to live your adventures with you until I’m healed enough to experience them again on my own.

Can I ask you to do that for me? For any photos or videos, just use the hashtag #teamcorinnesrq when you post them, and I can see them all. Either on Facebook or Instagram. I can’t wait to see what you’ll post!

Until my next adventure and story!! Have a great life because it’s the only one we’re given.

-Corinne Noel