Gregg Holshouser’s Outdoors Column | Tarpon provides surprise in cast net

It was the afternoon of September 15, and I was throwing a cast net in the backwaters of Murrells Inlet to catch some bait for the next day’s fishing trip.

The target was finger mullet which I planned to hold overnight in a bait pen and then offer to redfish and flounder in the inlet bright and early the next morning.

I successfully snared my target – finger mullet in the 2-6 inch range along with some small pinfish. But there was also a big surprise in the net after one cast of the net – a juvenile tarpon that measured about a foot in length.

I literally shook my head, doubting what I was seeing, but this fish had the unmistakable tarpon body shape and the trademark upturned lower jaw.

Of course, there was no camera to be found when I truly needed it. So I checked out the little fish for a few moments, returned it to the brackish water and watched it swim away, wondering what the future held in store for it.

Several questions quickly popped into my mind. Surely this little silver king was too small to make the trek up the Southeast coast from Florida, like his much bigger kin do every late spring, right?

Just how old was this fish? And could it have been spawned locally? Could I possibly have misidentified it?

I spoke with fisheries biologist Robert Wiggers of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources earlier this week to try to make some sense of this surprising encounter.

First, Wiggers agreed that it very likely was a juvenile tarpon.

“I wouldn’t say that is common at all, but even at that size they look like the big ones,” Wiggers said.

As far as the fish’s age and where it was spawned, Wiggers surmised it was approximately a year old, indicating it was indeed spawned somewhere along the South Carolina coast.

“Chances are that it was probably spawned here last year,” Wiggers said. “We’ve found juvenile tarpon, 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, in saltwater impoundments. We do think there is some kind of tarpon spawning going on up here.”

DNR’s tagging program also has provided an indication that tarpon spawning may be occurring along the South Carolina coast.

“In our public tagging program, we will have a half dozen tarpon tagged and released each year,” Wiggers said. “A guide in Charleston tagged one and recaptured it almost to the day a year later in the same location. We believe there is some site fidelity going on with tarpon [where the fish] return to the same spot. Sometimes that’s an indication spawning is going on.”

Adult tarpon migrate up the coast from Florida each late spring, typically in late May/early June when the water temperature reaches the upper 70s to lower 80s.

Then in the fall, they head back south likely when the water temperature drops below 80, usually in late September or early October, tagging along with migrating mullet along the way.

Wiggers noted a tarpon that was tagged and released in August 1996 at Hilton Head Island was recovered in June 1997 at Tavernier in the Florida Keys, helping to confirm the Florida to South Carolina migratory pattern and vice versa.

Smaller tarpon, like the foot-long specimen I encountered, likely aren’t able to make the long trip south, and instead remain in the estuaries, where they are at the mercy of the winter weather.

“They don’t have a very high tolerance for rapid temperature change,” Wiggers said. “When we have a cold winter that kills trout, it kills any tarpon that are around.”

But Wiggers pointed out “last winter was really mild,” another sign the juvenile tarpon I netted may indeed have been spawned locally and survived the winter.

Wiggers acknowledges tarpon are around but wouldn’t consider them commonly found in South Carolina waters during the summer months, but he feels there could be an uptick in the species numbers in Palmetto State waters.

“They are a rare event species, although there seems to be more of them around,” Wiggers said. “But they’re hard to sample and do a study on them [in South Carolina waters].”

Rumble in the Jungle

The Southern Kingfish Association returns to the area this weekend with a tournament in Division 9 (Carolinas) – the 10th annual Rumble in the Jungle out of Harbourgate Marina in Little River. Registration and captains meeting is set for Friday and fishing for Saturday. Call the marina 843-249-8888 or John Gore Jr. 843-602-3376 for more information.

Prince George Tournament

The Prince George Winyah Inshore Tournament will be held Saturday out of Georgetown Landing Marina. Eligible species are red drum (spottails), spotted seatrout (speckled trout) and flounder. For more information, call the marina at 843-546-1776.

Mullet Hut Tournament

This tournament will provide a $300 first-place prize for the largest mullet weighed in at the Mullet Hut on the Marshwalk in Murrells Inlet. Captains meeting is Friday at 6 p.m. with fishing set to begin at 7 a.m. Saturday with weigh-in from 4 to 6 p.m. Mullet can be caught by any legal means including rod-and-reels and cast nets.