In My Opinion

Sebastian River teeming with tarpon

Captain Tom Pierce with a tarpon estimated at 10 pounds caught in the Sebastian River using a live mullet.  Pierce took a DNA swab of the tarpon's cheek before releasing it.
Captain Tom Pierce with a tarpon estimated at 10 pounds caught in the Sebastian River using a live mullet. Pierce took a DNA swab of the tarpon's cheek before releasing it.
Susan Cocking / Miami Herald Staff

If you go

To book an Indian River Lagoon area light tackle fishing trip with captain Tom Pierce, call 305-294-6098.

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With the annual fall mullet run in full force, captain Tom Pierce and I planned to drift along the beach north and south of Sebastian Inlet to catch tarpon, snook, or whatever gamefish might be found chasing the massive schools of jumping baitfish.

But on the day we were scheduled to fish, the washing-machine effect of gusty northeast winds and an outgoing tide generated big waves in the inlet and beyond, so safety concerns restricted us to staying inshore.

Pierce made quick work of catching live bait, loading his cast net with fidgety finger mullet in only one throw near the Sebastian River bridge. Then we made a few drifts in the Indian River hoping for tarpon, but releasing only a ladyfish and a bluefish.

One of Pierce’s fishing buddies telephoned to say plentiful tarpon were rolling on the surface way up the Sebastian River where it straightens into the C-54 canal and dead-ends at a dam. The two men reported hooking two on fly rod.

Since the river is an idle-only zone, it took us about 45 minutes to wind our way up to where the silver kings were boiling on the surface. Pierce took out a 15-pound spinning outfit with 40-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to a 1/0 live bait hook stuck with one of the finger mullet. He placed a Styrofoam bobber above the leader to make it easier to follow the mullet’s herky-jerky progress.

It took perhaps two minutes for our mullet to attract a strike. A large fish, probably a tarpon, grabbed it and dived down, submerging the bobber. But when I began to reel, I felt no pressure, and the mullet bobbed back to the surface, still hooked. I reeled it back to the boat to find it had been scaled down one side, and the leader was roughed up by the attacker’s jaws. Pierce re-tied the leader and replaced the bait with a fresh one.

On the next drift, a tarpon of about 10pounds committed to eating my mullet. It piled on the bait like an NFL linebacker and made at least a half-dozen surface-clearing leaps before I got it to boatside.

Pierce was ready with a DNA kit supplied by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. He held the fish by the lower jaw and swabbed its face with a rough sponge, picking up a thin coating of grayish-silver cells that he put in a vial and sealed. After a quick photo, he put the fish back into the water to swim away. The DNA sample serves as an identification tag for scientists if and when the fish is recaptured and another swab taken. It tells them roughly where a particular fish went and how long it took to get there.

Our next drift was a virtual repeat, but this time the fish was about half the size of the first — small enough it couldn’t manage to leap out of the water with the mullet in its mouth. Pierce swabbed that one, too.

Not long afterward, the outgoing current died and tarpon stopped rolling on the surface. A jack crevalle ate a mullet of ours, but we got no other strikes.

Pierce said he expected the tarpon fishing to improve in the river with the onset of cooler weather.

“A lot of these fish push up here for the warmer water in the winter,” he said. “They have depth — as deep as 20 feet in some spots — so there’s warmth even when the surface waters are cool.”

The appearance of frequent “rollers” on the surface means it’s time to break out the fly rods. His favorite patterns are a “gurgler” made with spongy material and feathers that bubbles on the surface and — when there are lots of small tarpon around — a glass minnow pattern with a strip of Mylar running along the body. The gurgler also attracts big snook that lurk along the river banks and beneath docks and seawalls.

“The strikes are exciting when they blow up on it,” Pierce said.

For anglers who don’t fly-fish but prefer artificials, he recommends topwater plugs such as Zara Spooks when fish are showing on the surface or root-beer-colored D.O.A. Terror-Eyz or 1/4- to 1/2-ounce jigs bumped along the bottom when they’re not as visible.

For those who just want to see and feel the jump and pull of a tarpon or snook and don’t really care how they do it, the mullet should be around for quite a while longer.

“A lot of things will work,” Pierce said. “But it’s hard to beat mullet.”

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