Giant tarpon are swarming like sharks in the black water, devouring their prey whole. The predators leap out of the water in pursuit of their quarry––each splash so sudden and severe it startles me into flinching. The sun will not rise over the Atlantic Ocean for another two hours, but spotlights under Little Palm Island’s dock illuminate just enough water for me to spot a tarpon cruising for something to kill. I toss my bait out in front of the notoriously finicky fish, and it slowly swims toward it.
My eyes grow wide as saucers as the tarpon inhales the pilchard a dozen yards in front of me and I set the hook as hard as I can. Tarpon are famous for their leaping ability, and this one is no exception. Hating the feeling of the hook in her front lip, she promptly goes airborne. The aerial assault she launches seems to wake every creature within earshot. It definitely causes my heart to jump into my throat.
I’ve never before hooked a tarpon, but I’ve seen the photos and videos and have read numerous stories about the coveted trophy. The marlin is the fish that battles Santiago for days in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but tarpon is the species that Hemingway himself chased all over the Florida Keys––perhaps, as is rumored, at this exact island some 12 miles off the coast of Little Torch Key.
The tarpon’s combination of size and strength, along with its incredible reluctance to bite and its incredible propensity to get away, if by chance it does get fooled, is legendary. While pockets of anglers across the globe prefer different species for different challenges, it is not an unreasonable assertion to state that tarpon are one of the most coveted sportfish in North America, if not the world. The one on the end of my line is going ballistic.
I repeatedly “bow to the king” as I’ve read you’re supposed to do, leaning forward and extending my arms each time the tarpon leaps. My goal is to give the fish slack in the line, and to avoid pulling the hook out of its tough mouth as it flies through the air shaking it head violently. I recall a conversation at dinner two nights prior, up in Islamorada, with an angler who confessed to me that he’s hooked 76 tarpon but hasn’t landed a single one. The silver fish jumps again––much farther from me now than when I first hooked it ten minutes ago––and I wonder if I will begin my tarpon career 0-for-1.
But then the tides turn, and with adrenaline on my side I outlast the prized fighter and drag the fish to shore. Wow! My arms shake; I struggle to lift the monster, and I know the moment will last in my head for years. A grin spreads across my face as I stand on the shore of Little Palm Island Resort & Spa holding the fish of a lifetime.
If there is a better saltwater fishing resort on the planet than Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, I have yet to see it. Little Palm was once the favored fishing camp for old-time movie stars and U.S. presidents, dating back to Harry Truman. In the past couple decades, the 5.5-acre island resort has opened its doors to a select number of discerning guests, offering 30 two-person, thatched-roofed bungalow suites with ocean views and private beaches.
The ironic part, however, is that the resort is so plush that travelers who disdain fishing herald it as the ultimate relax-and-do-nothing getaway, while hardcore anglers simultaneously hale it as the premiere fishing resort. Travel + Leisure and Conde Naste consistently include Little Palm Island Resort and Spa in their annual gold list of the world’s top hotels; meanwhile, North American Fisherman last year named the resort one of the five best fishing destinations in the world.
Put another way, Little Palm Island is paradise island … surrounded by fish. Catching the tarpon was just one of numerous memorable moments I encountered fishing during my 4-day stay in May. Fittingly, my fantastic angling experiences stemmed from a combination of the resort’s unparalleled fishing action and its unparalleled service and amenities. They treat you like a celebrity, and they put you on some of the best fishing in the Western hemisphere.
On my first morning, I took out one of the 20-foot Twin V Catamaran boats Little Palm Island makes available to guests at no extra charge. The boat’s powered by a 90-horsepower Suzuki outboard, complete with top-of-the-line Lowrance electronics.
Action was fast that morning, with big grouper, permit, lots of snapper, and an exciting follow by a 4-foot long barracuda that trailed my chum bag for several minutes and chased two of the fish I caught.
But the coolest thing that morning didn’t even involve me catching a fish. I zipped out a mile or so from the island––which again, is a dozen miles from the Keys to begin with––and started some open water drifting. I was in the middle of nowhere, with the sun shining down on the turquoise water with nothing around me but the flat horizon.
All of a sudden, a huge spotted eagle ray jumped completely out of the water no more than 20 feet from my boat. The giant sting ray came crashing back down with a huge splash––just in front of it was a long, skinny baitfish being chased. To witness this ray, with no sign of civilization in sight, was awesome.
The next morning fishing off the dock produced one of the hottest fishing stretches of my entire life, kick-started by catching a solid black grouper. I released the fish, dropped down my bait again, and immediately caught a large pompano. I released it, tossed my shrimp back out, and promptly caught a mid-sized silver fish I couldn’t identify. I snapped a photo, released the fish, and dropped my line back in the water for a fourth consecutive, immediate bite. This time, I landed a decent mutton snapper, followed by a mangrove snapper on my fifth cast.
So it went, for eight consecutive casts with eight consecutive fish, each one biting within ten seconds of my bait hitting the water. During this stretch, I proceeded to catch ten fish in 12 casts; during the two casts on which I didn’t catch fish I immediately had strikes––I simply missed the bite and lost my shrimp. The west-side dock at Little Palm Island extends into deep water and holds incredible quantities of fish, so by “casting” all I had to do was drop my shrimp straight down from the dock, wait five to ten seconds, and get a bite.
Adding to the thrill was the variety of different species I hauled in during this flurry––including a number of species I had never before caught. By the time I walked back to my bungalow for breakfast, I had already caught over 40 fish! How cool is that?
Little Palm Island offers a variety of fishing guides you can book, and I saw one guest return after a day with his guide with a +100-pound swordfish in tow. All the fish I caught, however, came on my own, unguided, which is a testament to both the quality of fishing in the area and the quality of helpful staff at the resort.
Ronaldo was the dock-hand for my first couple days, and this soft-spoken Central America native was a fountain of knowledge. He graciously walked the docks with me and pointed out hiding snook, tarpon, sand sharks and several colorful parrotfish.
He taught me how to fish for sharks, and when and where to search for them. When I managed to catch a shark while fishing on a stand-up paddleboard, Ronaldo hustled over with a pair of pliers and unhooked it for me.
“Little Palm boasts a very tenured staff that is accustomed to serving high profile and celebrity guests with the utmost privacy, as well as quiet and gracious service,” said Bill Foster, Area Director of Sales & Marketing at Noble House Hotels & Resorts. “It’s a well-loved and well cared for family owned business where every detail is approved from owners themselves.
The dock-hand the next couple days, Nathan, was perhaps the kindest, most helpful person I met during my week in Florida. Nathan explained to me that I likely wouldn’t trick a giant tarpon with shrimp, or with the particular line and leader I was using. So, Nathan set me up with low-visibility line and a high-end rod-and-reel combo (Little Palm provides all the fishing gear you need at no additional charge). Then he gave me another light-weight rod with a Sabiki rig he personally tied on for me to catch pilchards to use for bait.
Nathan was so patient in answering my endless questions and explaining all the detailed info I needed to apply these new techniques. I think he was the most excited guy on the island when he learned later that I had caught the big tarpon, which was all thanks to his help.
Indeed, I still smile about it now when I look back. The tarpon was just the cherry on top––the fish of a lifetime that capped off what would have been the trip of a lifetime, even had I not caught a thing.
The website for Little Palm Island Resort & Spa is www.littlepalmisland.com. For more information, call 800.343.8567 or email email@example.com.
My Costa Del Mar sunglasses helped me see through the water and spot fish that were hiding under the pier.
For tons of information on other fun things to do in Florida, including great spots to stop along the Keys as you drive to Little Palm Island's base camp on Little Torch Key, go to VisitFlorida.com or Fla-keys.com.