It was perfect timing, a perfect cast, perfect presentation. Capt. Chris Wilson and his fishing partner John Kammerer had slowed the boat when they spotted tarpon just a few minutes after fishing officially began last weekend in the 25th annual Charleston Harbor Tarpon Release Tournament.
Wilson eased the trolling motor into the water and tossed a pink Zman Fishing HeroZ soft plastic bait to the fish. He began working the lure and was quickly rewarded with a strike. Wilson got the fish, estimated at 80 pounds, to the boat at 6:37 a.m. to become the first of the 62 contestants to score a release. It was the fourth time that Wilson or his fishing partner had won the tournament.
The only other angler to release a tarpon in the event was Capt. John Irwin, the defending champion, whose tarpon release came at 8:10 p.m.
"It was basically the first cast of the morning," said Wilson, who operates FinAddict Fly/Light Tackle Charters (charlestonflyfishingguide.com). "We were in some fish that were rolling. I sight-fish, and the fish was coming at me. We hooked the fish around 6:20 in the morning at landed it at 6:37.
"It was right at daybreak. The sun was coming up while I was fighting the fish. It was pretty cool."
Wilson said he and Kammerer had a few more bites and jumped off another tarpon during the day.
"This is a fun tournament. Cantey (Smith, the tournament founder) has been holding it for a long time. I enjoy it and look forward to it. For a guide, it's good bragging rights, especially for a fish like the tarpon, catching it around here," Wilson said.
An interesting aspect is that Wilson caught the fish using an artificial lure. The general perception is that you need to fish natural bait — menhaden, croakers, pinfish or mullet — to catch tarpon in the Charleston area. But that's not the case, Wilson said.
"We threw plastic the whole time," Wilson said. "The Zman HeroZ is a 10-inch soft plastic jerk bait, a fluke-style bait like you would fish for redfish or largemouth bass. It was rigged with a 12/0 jerk-bait style hook."
Wilson said Charleston-area anglers in recent years have been doing well catching tarpon on artificials, including fly-fishing.
"It's a lot of days doing your homework, studying and finding fish in areas that you can do that style of fishing," he said. "You have to have the right conditions and it all has to line up perfectly."
Fishing the outer sandbars is old school. Sight-fishing for the tarpon is finding them in shallow water and making the proper presentation.
"As long as you can see the fish and know they're there and present a lure to them, you'll get a bite out of them," Wilson said. "There are a lot of good baits out there that work. I do a lot of fly fishing, and over the last 10 years I've taken my business pretty much into that. If you can catch them on a feather ... Under the right conditions, you can catch them on a piece of plastic, for sure."