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THE SILVER KING: Tarpon Making a Comeback Off Coast

August 19, 2007

By Al Jones, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Aug. 19–GULF OF MEXICO — To some, the tarpon is nothing more than a saltwater fish cruising through passes and inlets all across the world.

To others, this fish with no food value is a graceful animal with which few people of South Mississippi will ever come face-to-face.

Regardless, an animal known as the “Silver King,” appears to be making a comeback off the Mississippi Coast after decades of near non-existence.

For the next two months, tarpon can be found south of Ship Island near the bend in the shipping channel. The fish are invading the area because of water clarity, warmth and plenty of bait, including red minnows and mullet, the favorite of tarpon.

These fish, which range in size between 50 and 120 pounds, are being caught by boats trolling for redfish, jacks, Spanish mackerel and king mackerel using blue-colored spoons.

Since the bend in the channel features a quick drop off from 20 feet in depth to more than 60 feet, baitfish school up around the area, signifying the start of the food chain.

Tarpon are one of a few fish in the world capable of breathing oxygen and are often seen swirling or rolling on the surface while feeding.

Smaller tarpon have been spotted and caught during the winter in the Mississippi Power Company’s warm water discharge canal on Biloxi’s Back Bay.

Tarpon fishing isn’t a new thing to South Mississippi. Back in the early 1900s, the area was one of the top destinations in the world with several fish weighing more than 100 pounds being caught off the beachfront in Biloxi and Bay St. Louis.

Migration mystery

The first recorded catch was by Ernest Desporte on Oct. 25, 1895 off the Lameuse St. Pier in Biloxi. Desporte’s fish weighed 115 pounds and measured six feet, seven inches.

To date, the fish, one that looks like an over grown shad, ranks as one of the world’s most sought after gamefish, but little is know about the animal in terms of migration.

Jim Franks, a fisheries biologists at the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, said he’s fascinated with the tarpon. Franks, known nationally for his efforts with the Cobia Tagging Program, said tarpon invade the waters off South Mississippi looking for food before migrating to either South Florida or Mexico.

“For two to three months, big tarpon show up on the south side of Ship Island,” Franks said. “There appears to be more in recent years.

“We know they come here to feed and fatten up for the fall and winter, but we don’t think they spawn here. We have one of the richest marine system in the world and that’s been documented. We know they migrate here, we just don’t know where they go when they leave here. My guess is they go to south Florida and Mexico to find warm waters. We hope to learn more.”

Despite not spawning in South Mississippi, Franks remains baffled that smaller tarpon are caught in the river systems of South Mississippi during the summer and winter months. Some of the fish have been caught near Fort Bayou in Ocean Springs and Biloxi’s Big Lake. In fact, smaller fish, in the 12-inch range, have been caught past I-10 near D’Iberville.

If the fish do not spawn in South Mississippi, how do the smaller tarpon — a warm water animal — survive winter months when water temperature drops to the 50 degree mark or lower?

How did the fish arrive in South Mississippi?

“They can tolerate a lot,” Franks said. “They have adapted, obviously. We really don’t know where they came from. They could have drifted in here through currents or from recent hurricanes. I’ve had fishermen in Destin tell me they’re catching tarpon in the bays, which has never happened. Those fishermen believe Hurricane Ivan brought the fish in.

“Our fish could very well have come in with Hurricane Katrina. But some of our fish are three years old, and we’re two years removed from Katrina. I really don’t know the answer. If the hurricanes brought them in, we don’t know how many might have made it or how many didn’t survive.”

Loop Current a top spawning area

Since south Florida and Mexico are top breeding grounds, hurricanes like Ivan and Katrina could have brought the fish into South Mississippi, Alabama and northwest Florida with strong winds and currents. Katrina actually came across south Florida, and the tarpon breeding grounds, and eventually made landfall on the Mississippi-Louisiana border while Ivan made landfall in south Alabama.

Another possibility deals directly with the Loop Current, a warm body of water that comes up from the Caribbean and into the northern Gulf of Mexico. Last year, for example, the Loop Current sat off the mouth of the Mississippi River.

“The Loop Current came real close,” Franks said. “The Loop Current came right by Mexico, and we know that’s a top spawning area. But our area has not been documented to be a spawning area. I’m curious to see if the fish we have can grow and survive.”

One thing known about the tarpon is the animal goes through three phases starting from larvae. A fully formed larvae reaches an inch and a half in length in highly saline waters as far offshore as 150 miles. The second phase has the larvae shrinking — yes, getting smaller — in lower salinity waters and estuaries, marshes and mangrove swamps in south Florida. The final stage, growing into juveniles, occurs in lower salinity areas along beaches, lagoons, marsh lands and tidal ponds, also in south Florida.

Of note, Franks became the first biologists to record juvenile tarpon taken from the ponds at Horn Island in 1965 and 1966. One was an inch and a half while the other was 15 inches.

“That was pretty neat,” Franks said.

Tarpon reach maturity at 3 1/2 feet in length and can live to 50 years of age.

Tarpon not new to Mississippi Sound

The Mississippi record was caught by Keith Goodfellow. It weighed 167 pounds in 2001 and is estimated to be 35 years old. That fish was caught between the north tip of Chandeleur Island and Ship Island.

“They (larvae) spend two to three months at sea before entering the estuaries,” Franks said. “They kind of look like a transparent leaf floating along. Many aspects of this stage are still a mystery.”

Tarpon, however, are not new to the waters in the Mississippi Sound. Back in the early 1900s to the mid-1950s, places like Biloxi and Bay St. Louis were considered better fishing destinations than Texas or Florida.

The Coast was home to the Pass Christian Tarpon Club and considered by early biologists as a feeding ground or stopover location during the annual migration.

Those days disappeared due to long line fishing and the loss of spawning habitat, but things are once again looking up.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

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