Fishing the Silver Kings of Georgia08/26/2016
Tarpon. Silver, scaly slabs of muscle that have an affinity for flight once hooked. To many saltwater fishermen, the tarpon is the fish that swims through their minds while they sleep. These sport fish are receptive to flies, artificial lures and live bait, giving everyone the opportunity to try and tame them. When we got the call to be a part of Hell’s Bay Boatworks’ third annual Cabin Bluff Tarpon Cup near the Cumberland Island National Seashore in Woodbine, Georgia, we could not resist.
For the uninitiated, Cabin Bluff is a sporting paradise, with access to over 24,000 acres along the coast of south Georgia. Trust us, if you are into hunting, fishing and great food, it is a place that you must visit.
We arrived Thursday evening and were welcomed by their usual opening night oyster roast. This being our second trip to Cabin Bluff, we had been looking forward to this feast since the last time we visited. The shucking table, nearly 20 yards long with enough room for everyone to get in on the action at once, is really a thing to behold. After we had our fill, we retired to our cabins for the night. The accommodations at Cabin Bluff are a real treat.
Friday morning, the fishing started early, and we punched the throttle of our Hell’s Bay Professional with Captain Scott Dykes at the controls. After a quick cruise through the creek to see if we could find any backwater rollers (to no avail), we headed out to the beach. Once there, it didn’t take us long to find the tarpon working bait balls. We pitched at them for a bit, but they didn’t like our menu, so we went several miles down the beach in search of a less selective crowd.
Fishing for tarpon in Georgia is not like fishing for tarpon in the Keys. Our plan was simple: Find the birds. Find the bait. Find the tarpon. After several hours of looking, we got into a slick patch of water that stunk with pogies. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by tarpon busting bait everywhere. It was amazing watching these giant fish working bait underwater, right next to the boat. The visual of seeing that silver flash underneath the water is something we will absolutely never forget. After one awesome blowup that left bait flying through the air, our friend George Douglas pitched a paddle-tail Hogy right in the wake of one of the frenzied tarpon. After a few cranks on the reel, he hooked up on a monster, and it was on.
The fish didn’t waste much time, only jumping once before heading straight offshore. After the initial adrenaline rush of the hookup, it was time to get to work and try to break the fish’s spirit to get her boatside. This fish had a will like no other, and after we had her seemingly beat multiple times, she would find it in her will to take a deep dive and make 100-foot runs time after time after time. Finally, after one of her many rolls, George was able to pull against her and turn her back toward the boat, where the crew was waiting to leader the fish. After a fight that lasted three full hours — an eternity for a tarpon to fight (much less for a leader to last) — we slapped hands, cracked a few beers and cashed it in for the day.
Saturday was much the same as the day before, only no such luck on getting a tarpon to eat. We battled a few sharks, and Fish Hippie co-founder Drew Denny caught a hell of a Jack Crevalle, but we pulled into the docks late Saturday afternoon with only the one catch and release from the previous day.
That night, we once again arrived to a meal fit for a king. Beef tenderloin, crab cakes, grilled shrimp kabobs and an ice cream that allegedly cost $13 a pint. We don’t know if that is actually true, but it tasted damn good.
As the awards ceremony started, we weren’t really sure where we would place, or if we would place at all. We hadn’t heard a lot of details on how other teams had done that day, and we didn’t imagine our one fish from the day before would be enough. As Todd Fuller from Hell’s Bay started rolling through the awards, we heard other team names called for “most jumped” and third place and figured we were out. Much to our surprise — shock, really — Todd started in on explaining that the first-place winner was a team that caught and released a giant tarpon after a three-hour fight. “The winner of the 2016 Hell’s Bay Tarpon Cup is George Douglas and Team Fish Hippie!”
We couldn’t believe it, really. It turns out our tarpon, which was estimated at 160 pounds by the representative from the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust who was there to see the fight, was the only tarpon caught on artificial bait. Fly anglers had jumped fish but been broken off, and all other fish had been caught on live bait, giving our one fish the highest score in the tournament.
As we celebrated into the night with friends new and old out on the dock listening to live music, we couldn’t help but be thankful. The win was great, although it wasn’t really about that. We got to live an experience that was truly memorable. Catching that fish in such a battle, spending the weekend with friends on the water and disconnecting from our phones for a few days really made the trip something we won’t soon forget.
A big thank you to Cabin Bluff for letting us come down to partake, and to our friends at Hell’s Bay Boatworks for putting on one hell of an event. Consider this our formal acceptance to defend our title in the 2017 Tarpon Cup!
Photography by Craig Francis and George Douglas