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3 Days and 3 Boats



located on the edge
of america

Located on the edge of America (think: closer to Cuba than Miami), Key West is home to pastel-hued houses, wild roosters, and Ernest Hemingway’s six-toed cats. But it’s also a revered saltwater fishing destination, thanks to the elusive game fish that live in Florida’s shallow-water flats. We spent three days on the water with Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, who are working to conserve and restore declining fish populations — specifically bonefish, tarpon, and permit — in the Keys.


Shannon Moorhead is practicing her fly cast on a school of false albacore when the call comes through. Another boat caught a tarpon, the coastal game fish that Shannon and her peers, Luke Griffin and Robbie Roemer, have been contracted by Bonefish & Tarpon Trust to tag. The three PhD candidates traveled to Key West for Trippe’s Invitational Tarpon Series, an elite fishing tournament with a conservation bent — since tarpon have a low stress tolerance, anglers can fight the enormous, muscular fish for a maximum of 20 minutes. Fish have to be handled in the water and cannot be pulled onto the boat for a photo op. Each measure is made to avoid exhausting the fish, which increases the likelihood it will fall prey to sharks.

The three-day tournament is designed for people who know their way around a fly rod and have a deep respect for the fish they’re chasing, despite the colorful names anglers tend to call tarpon while waiting for a bite on the line. Instead of towing fish into weigh stations, competitors are urged to contact Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT) so they can tag tarpon and permit (another game fish) with an acoustic tracker that allows the trust to study their migrations. But the call we receive is unusual, even for this competition: The team needs to revive a tarpon, which is too tired from his fight with the fisherman to be released on its own.

Luke cuts the boat’s engine as we approach two men standing knee deep in the flats, holding the tarpon upright to help it regain equilibrium. “He’s got good color and his eyes are clear, he just doesn’t want to swim,” calls out BTT Director of Science and Conservation, Dr. Aaron Adams, who’s gently handling the four-foot-long tarpon. Luke, Robbie, and Shannon trudge through the shark-infested water to inspect the fish. A couple stitches among the fish’s half dollar–sized scales reveal that Aaron has successfully managed to tag the tarpon. Luke takes Aaron’s place, ensuring water passes over the tarpon’s gills as he works up the strength to swim on his own. Relieved of his tarpon-reviving duties, Aaron takes off to catch and tag more fish.

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