Gordy and Sons, a primo Houston based outfitter, stuffed a big wad of cash where their mouth is and funded BTT's first year of groundbreaking tarpon research in Texas. In a move that could pay major dividends down the road, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is expanding the scope of acoustic tagging research, already underway in Florida, by working with anglers in Texas to learn more about these fish. Tarpon are a bit of a mystery in terms of migration routes, spawning behavior and even diet. Targeted conservation is not possible without a baseline understanding of habitat utilization and seasonal migration. Read on for a brief history of tarpon in Texas, and a conversation with Bonefish & Tarpon Trust's Dr. Adams in which we discuss tarpon tagging research in Texas.
History of Tarpon in Texas
Tarpon have a turbid history in Texas. At one time, just about anybody could load up the station wagon, head to the Jetties and have a decent shot at hooking a monster Tarpon, and Port Aransas was the mecca. You have probably seen the old black and white photos depicting droves of anglers proudly hoisting their catch for all to see. Although Port Aransas is still a hot destination among fishermen, the pulse along the coast today is much different. Overfishing and a host of other conditions have reduced tarpon numbers in Texas, considerably. People still catch them on occasion, and a few guides still have them dialed in. But gone are they days when the silver kings ruled the seas. A similar story played out across the gulf in Florida. Now, fifty years later, one organization has their sights set on rolling back the clock for a species that invokes raw emotion and excitement for so many anglers. We are joined by Dr. Aaron Adams, BTT Director of Science and Conservation, to talk about some of the ground breaking work occurring on the Texas coast!
BTT Texas Tarpon Acoustic Tagging Project
Matt (M): Thank you for your time doctor. How does the acoustic tagging project along the Texas coast differ from that in FL?
Dr. Aaron Adams (Dr.): The Texas tarpon tagging project is an expansion of the tarpon tagging that has been ongoing for a couple of years in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and along southeastern US coast. Given the success of the tarpon tracking to the east of Texas, the importance of TX to the regional tarpon population (including links to Mexico), and that recent genetic results indicate that we all share a single genetic population, we see it as essential to expand the program into Texas.
(M): How many Tarpon have received acoustic tags and how many are still transmitting data?
(Dr.): For the overall study, more than 100 tarpon have been tagged with acoustic transmitters. We’ve detected 50 of those fish so far, but detections keep coming in. All of the tags are still active – they have a 5 year life. In TX, 4 tarpon have been tagged near Galveston, and tagging efforts have shifted south to Matagorda.
(M): What is the general consensus on the number of "separate" schools of Tarpon that exist in the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico?
(Dr.): There is no consensus on this. Satellite tagging data suggests that some tarpon from Veracruz, Mexico migrate to the coastal area near the Mississippi River, and back. And that some tarpon from Florida migrate to the Mississippi River mouth and back. Recent tracking from acoustic tags shows similar movements in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, as well as movements from South Florida to the Carolinas, and even as far as Chesapeake Bay. Even some fish from the Gulf coast to the southeastern coast. Some fish repeat these migrations in multiple years, others move differently year to year. Then there are some fish that seem to remain in smaller regions – such as the Florida Keys, Florida Bay, and the Everglades.
(M): I understand the schools of tarpon are all part of one single genetic population, but are Texas tarpon thought to be a branch off the Florida school that perhaps continue to contribute to the gene pool? Or are we witnessing increasingly isolated schools, undergoing speciation with migrations limited to the western fringes of the Gulf of Mexico?
(Dr.): Genetic mixing can happen in two ways. First, adult fish can migrate long distances, effectively making them part of fisheries in multiple regions. Mixing can also occur by larvae. Tarpon spawn in open waters offshore, and the larvae that hatch from the eggs live as plankton in the ocean currents for about a month. Larvae spawned off the Mississippi River, for example, could potentially end up in a wetland in east Texas, coastal Louisiana…even all the way to the Florida Everglades. There may be more regional movements of adults, or particular current dynamics that make some regionalization more likely, but we don’t have enough data yet to know. This is the type of insight we hope to gain from the studies.
(M): If your research indicates that Texas tarpon do mix with the Florida school, how does that change our approach to conserving these fish?
(Dr.): We know that in all instances local conservation is important. For example, if we continue to lose juvenile habitats that overall outlook for the tarpon population is not good. This is considered a local issue. But what if juvenile tarpon that grow up in Louisiana become part of the adult groups in TX? Then the habitat conservation need is more regional. If adults don’t mix between the eastern and western Gulf of Mexico, then it might be appropriate to have different management plans as they pertain to adult fisheries regulations.
(M): How reliant is this project upon the participation/cooperation of sportsmen and women in Texas and how has it been received?
(Dr.): As with all of the work that BTT conducts and funds, collaboration with anglers is essential. They know when and where to find fish for tagging and other studies, and as they participate in the studies they learn more about the science and conservation. The response among anglers so far has been good. We anticipate that this will further improve as the study gains momentum.
(M): How does an individual tagging event transpire? For instance, an angler calls TPP to indicate they have a fish on. What happens next?
(Dr.): As you said, the first step is to catch the fish. Then as the fish is landed it is maneuvered into a sling that allows us to restrain the fish while keeping it in the water. The fish is measured (length and girth) and rolled over so it is belly-up. A couple of scales are removed and a small incision made. The transmitter is inserted into the abdominal cavity, the incision is closed with sutures, the fish is rolled back upright. After giving the tarpon time to recover the sling is opened and the fish is released.
(M): How intense and exciting are those moments for you and the team? I can only imagine haha.
(Dr.): Intense and focused is the best way to describe the process.
(M): What has been/what do you suspect will be your biggest revelation from this project?
(Dr.): Good question. To paraphrase a colleague – if we knew the answer it wouldn’t be called research. So far we’ve been surprised by how far smaller fish, in the 50 pound range, have migrated long distances(previous satellite tracking work only tagged tarpon more than 100 pounds). We have seen them traverse from the Florida Keys all the way to Chesapeake Bay. But also interesting is that numerous fish of various sizes stick in smaller areas, or change their movement patterns from year to year.
(M): How does the habitat that tarpon utilize on the TX coast differ from that in Florida.
(Dr.): Good question! This isn't fully understood; We’ll know more as we get more data.
(M): What makes up the Tarpon's diet in TX?
(Dr.): That’s a real unknown. But probably pretty diverse – crabs and shrimp to menhaden and mullet, catfish to croakers….
A Few Final Thoughts
I want to send a giant thank you to Dr. Aaron Adams for taking the time to talk tarpon with me, and also BTT's Nick Roberts for helping facilitate the conversation. They are involved in some amazing work across the Gulf of Mexico, and beyond. You should definitely check them out.
You can become a member of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust for as little as thirty five dollars, and your contribution will make a tremendous impact on a fishery that could still be considered world class. On land, there are certain mammals known as charismatic mega-fauna; think grizzly bears, polar bears, wolves and buffalo. In my humble opinion, tarpon are most definitely to be considered amongst the charismatic mega fauna of the saltwater sportfish variety. Go watch a video of tarpon eating flies and tell me that doesn't get you fired up!!! If you have time to fall into a YouTube rabbit hole, here is a pile of videos featuring one of the best to ever do it.. Jose Wejebe.
Also, Do yourself a favor and check out Eric Estrada's 5wt Chronicles on Vimeo. Season one episode one took home awards from The Drake magazine and is a fun look at how the guys get down in South Florida. If this doesn't get you a little fired up, then I don't know what to do with you.
Finally, from what I understand, November pretty much wraps up most tarpon angling in Texas; although you can apparently still get into them in deeper water with heavier tackle. Through my heavy consumption of fly fishing media and general fish porn over the years, I deduce that two effective fly patterns for tarpon are the Seaducer as well as Bob Clouser's world famous Clouser Minnow. Both are small streamer patterns that mimic baitfish. There are thousands of variations within these two fly patterns, and they tend to work in pursuit of a large myriad of species ;)
So stay warm in those deer stands, get after some ducks and maybe even some monster winter trout. Come spring time maybe time to think about lipping a giant Texas silver king.
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I am a passionate outdoorsman with over 25 years of hunting and fishing experience across the state of TX.