The Debate Over Killing Tarpon for Records

April 15, 2005 By: Marshall Cutchin

Knowing most of the characters in this story personally, it’s hard for me to ignore the kinds of issues raised by this article by John Gieger in the Florida Keys Keynoter. The piece talks about the recent killing of a 135-pound tarpon by Diana Rudolph and guide Dale Perez; the fish was taken to establish a new women’s 12-pound tippet record (the current record is 83 pounds). As Gieger notes in the article, “…there is almost no way to set an International Game Fish Association world record without an accurate weight on a certified scale. Weighing on a boat is not allowed, according to the IGFA. Anglers seeking records for smaller fish, like bonefish, can slip them into their live well and keep them alive while they motor to a scale on land.” There are some voices calling for the IGFA to eliminate the need to kill large fish altogether, though it seems unlikely anyone will come up with a solution to verify large catches without weighing them on land. (There is already a significant challenge posed by inaccurate — intentional and not — weights submitted for records.)
If you read the first piece, it’s also worth seeing guide Dale Perez’s well-considered response. One of the points listed by Dale — and one that I think is easily overlooked — is that many released tarpon die. We may never have good mortality data that gives us the ability to estimate how many released large tarpon die, but the fact is that fishing — even release fishing — puts the life of the quarry in danger. Tarpon are notorious for “fighting themselves to death.” We know, still, that we can reduce the numbers of tarpon that die by doing these three things:
1. Fight the fish quickly. Sure, it’s hard to finish the fight in 15-20 minutes, but doing so is better for the fish — and the angler.
2. Don’t gaff the fish, even with a lip gaff. It’s not at all necessary to use a lip gaff to control a tarpon; in fact, it is harder than simply wearing good rubberized gloves and grabbing the fish by the lower jaw.
3. Don’t lift the fish out of the water. The internal organs of large fish may not withstand the lifting (and attendant struggle) to pull them out of the water.
As to whether you choose to leave the fly in the fish’s mouth, that’s a hard one to decide. I like to remove flies, but there’s little question that popping off a large fish after 20-30 minutes, if it looks like the fight will last much longer, is probably a better choice.
There’s no easy answer to the dilemmas raised by world record requirements. Does it help that dedicated anglers like Diana Rudolph and guides like Dale Perez raise the bar for the sport? Certainly the excitement that surrounds a catch like Rudolph’s keeps the sport visible to a larger audience. And rarely are records like this set by people who are not dedicated to the preservation of the species.
Should there be an alternative way to recognize the prowess of anglers like Ms. Rudolph? To take nothing away from the efforts of the IGFA, I think there should be. It may be that enabling records to be set for smaller fish that can be weighed and returned to the water is not enough; and who knows how many of these fish survive after all.
Of course, for many of us, it is enough to say — especially if we have a witness to share it with — “that sure was a big one.” That won’t be enough for more than dinner-table talk, of course, so each of us are left to decide how significant the moment is, with whom we should share it, and how important it is that we are believed.
As anglers, we all know that belief is often suspended in favor of fun … and occasionally in favor of a momentary dip in glory hole.
(Thanks to reader David Dalu for providing the links to for this story.)