Chris Tilley

Fishing the "Ding" Darling Tarpon Tournament and Exploring Ft. Myers and Sanibel

A trip to see Ft. Myers and Sanibel, Florida included one important mission: compete in the "Ding" Darling Tarpon Tournament.

There's a lot to like about the beaches of Florida, and I'd only gotten a few rare opportunities to experience them myself. That was before a recent invite to participate in the ninth annual "Ding" Darling Tarpon Tournament. I looked forward to getting a feel for the local fishing community and the vibrant culture emerging from the growing region on the water that comprised Sanibel and Ft. Myers, and was eager to test my mettle against the famous silver king.

This would be my first trip to the area and my first experience in a tarpon fishing tournament. It was meant to provide a true taste of what the area was like as a destination, not just for great angling but for family vacations, reunions with friends, and seeing a bit of Florida's thriving coastal lifestyle.

I made my way to the Marriott Sanibel Harbor Resort & Spa, checked into my room overlooking the pool and the beach, and settled in for what was sure to be a good time.

Seeing the Sights

I met my media member counterpart Lina the next morning, and learned she shared my inexperience in the tarpon fishing department. In fact, she'd never caught a fish before in her life. I was determined to see her make personal history in the coming days.

Our hosts for the trip, members of the local Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau, started us off by showing some of the highlights of Ft. Myers and Sanibel, including some downtown shops and restaurants, a few new hotel compounds, and even the Spring Training facilities for the Minnesota Twins. Since I'm originally from a suburb of the Twin Cities, I couldn't resist the opportunity to snap a photo and send it to my baseball fan father, with a half-hearted invite to meet me down in Florida the following year. It was something we always talked about doing, and actually being there felt pretty cool.

We also learned who exactly Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling was, and what it was that connected him to the tournament. It turns out he was a cartoonist for the better part of 50 years, but also an avid hunter and angler with a strong conservationist's mind. Darling won Pulitzer prizes in 1923 and 1942, and used his cartoons to invoke the idea that regulations governing outdoor pursuits should be established and followed. He truly believed humans can benefit from nature without damaging it.

That mentality led to Darling becoming the head of the U.S. Biological Survey, the predecessor of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. He'd go on to establish the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission and even came up with the idea for the Federal Duck Stamp, and was (naturally) the illustrator for the first edition. The more I found out about him, the more it seemed he and I saw things from a similar perspective. It doesn't seem like a Pulitzer-winning cartoonist could double as a devoted sportsman, but in this case it was entirely the case.

As we continued seeing a bit of the Ft. Myers and Sanibel region, we learned of Darling's winter home in Florida on Captiva Island. Not far away is the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, named in his honor and officially dedicated to him in 1967. In turn, the J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society was created to help further promote his legacy, and the tarpon tournament we'd come to participate in helped support the cause.

It was fascinating to learn about the connection Darling had to the area, the sportsman lifestyle, and the conservationist mentality that's still so important, even to this day.

After our mini tour we returned to the resort and ate a spectacular dinner while going over our fishing plans for the next two days. First we'd start out on a trial run, fishing for fun and getting our sea legs underneath us, before participating in the tournament the following day.

I knew I had work to do. I'd never fished for tarpon before, and wanted to soak up as much information as I could.

Time for Tarpon

Our captain for the two days, Ryan Kane, was a lifelong Floridian with family roots in the area dating back generations. It was clear he was cut out for this type of work, and almost instantly his demeanor told us we were in store for a good time. Our other guide, Wes, owned the boat we were on and definitely knew his way around (the deck and the water). The two combined to create a formidable team, and they were bullish on our chances of finding, hooking, and landing a tarpon.

As a complete novice, I was eager to get a feel for what tarpon fishing was like. I knew this part of Florida was a hot spot, and because it is home to such a popular tournament, it's not exactly a secret. Ryan told us we'd be competing against boats from all over, as far away as New England and the Caribbean. It felt pretty special to be a part of something that's grown to be so big.

We barely had a chance to wrap our heads around it when we spotted a group of boats that seemed to be focused in on something. It didn't take long to notice the school of tarpon in the midst of the boats, and everyone was vying for a chance at catching one.

Our guides told us that's how it often works: a school is located thanks to the fish breaking the surface of the water, executing a "roll" as it's often called. Interestingly enough, a tarpon rolls to breath oxygen into its swimbladder as a way to compensate for low oxygen levels in the water. It's just one of the fascinating things about these fish, and part of what makes targeting them so exciting.

Sure enough, once we were close enough we saw several tarpon rolling, and took our spot right alongside the other boats for a few casts and attempts.

Unfortunately, "attempts" would be as far as we'd get that first day. We stuck with the crowd of boats for a while but never had a bite. We did see a couple other boats hook up, but no one brought their tarpon close enough to their boat before it broke off. The species was staying true to its reputation, or at least the one I'd built up in my mind.

We bailed on the big group of boats to seek out some other spots Ryan and Wes thought would be promising. That was before breaking for one of the greatest fishermen's lunches I've ever had.

Cabbage Key

I didn't realize we'd wind up eating at such a quintessential restaurant that day, one that epitomized the Florida vibe really well. Cabbage Key is an island in Lee County complete with rental cottages, boat dock access, and an open air restaurant. Straight off the water after a morning of unsuccessful fishing, we walked up to the facility and had a drink in our hand within minutes. It was the famous Cabbage Creeper, strongly recommended by Ryan and Wes, and it helped set the tone for an excellent meal with incredible ambiance.

On the grounds surrounding the restaurant building were several turtles, minding their own business, only showing interest if a patron brought them the lettuce leaf garnish from their meal. A pair of ospreys had built a nest on top of the island's water tower, and you could hear periodic screeches from the birds of prey. And the view of the water was, to put it simply, perfect.

After our meal we hit the water for the afternoon, but the tarpon didn't cooperate. A few close calls and more rolling sightings never developed into a catch, and we resorted to heading back to our hotel so we could make it to the annual Captain's Meeting, held the night before every "Ding" Darling Tarpon Tournament.

Competing in the "Ding" Darling Tarpon Tournament

We met back up with Wes and Ryan, along with our hosts, at Doc Ford's. Another well-known retreat for good food and drinks, Doc Ford's was abuzz with boat captains and tarpon fishermen (along with the normal crowd of seafood fans and vacationers enjoying their meals). As though things couldn't get any more interesting, I was nominated by Ryan as the honorary captain and got to sit in on the meeting that disclosed the rules, start/end times, and process for reporting tournament catches.

In fact, the "Ding" Darling Tarpon Tournament had adopted the "catch, release, and care" methodology. That meant no fish would be weighed or measured, and merely touching the leader and snapping a photo would be enough to deem it "caught."

Ryan explained how this would work on our boat. We'd each have wristbands on both wrists indicating what team we were on. Should anyone manage to bring a tarpon close enough to the boat, any of us could reach down to touch the leader below the knot, and anyone could then take a photo, ideally with the tarpon, wristband, and leader all clearly indicated. It seemed easy enough, but still put a small amount of nervousness into my system.

We wrapped up the Captain's Meeting, and set an objective to sleep fast up to our early morning alarms. When we woke up, it would be go time.

The morning started cloudy, windy, and awfully choppy out on the water. In other words, the conditions weren't great. Instead of seeking a group of boats and trying to piggyback on some rolling tarpon, Ryan and Wes made a move early on to an area we'd have more or less to ourselves. At first, it seemed promising.

Suddenly, there was a strong tug on the rod, but when I began to reel it in, something didn't feel right. I'd yet to hook into a tarpon, so I wrote it off as a beginner experience, something I'd get used to. As it turns out, my inclination was right. I hadn't hooked a tarpon, it was actually a small shark. Likely a black tip, the shark was actually foul hooked, right behind its pectoral fin, which accounted for the odd feeling I experienced when I reeled it in. A quick release by Ryan, followed by a boat relocation, took us to calmer waters as the sun began peeking through the clouds.

The sky was going to brighten up, and we only hoped the fishing would, too.

Look on the Bright Side

Our relocated position was meant to produce action, but unfortunately all we ended up landing were two large stingrays. The tarpon were less abundant in this area but still showing themselves; we just couldn't get any to take the bait.

As the clouds broke apart and the sun's rays took over, we started to realize that catching tarpon, and therefore serving a competitive role in this tournament, was going to be tougher than we thought.

The thing is, I never anticipated actually standing a chance to win the whole kit and kaboodle. That was too good to even imagine. But I quickly saw that just taking part, enjoying a day on the water in such a beautiful area, was a prize in itself.

Chris Tilley

It's probably good that I never really intended to compete, because we'd wind up finishing the day with exactly zero tarpon catches. We may have had one on the line once or twice, but they broke off too soon to say for sure.

The winning boat caught and released four fish, and throughout the entire day's tournament there were only 15 total catches out of the 55 registered teams. Since the 2020 event was cancelled (thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic), entries were rolled into the next year, producing the tournament's biggest pay out to date.

The 2021 "Ding" Darling Tarpon Tournament rewarded the winners a combined $56,500 in prizes, but more importantly, sponsorships and donations accounted for $180,000. All of that money went to to support conservation efforts at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

That's the sort of outcome you root for, regardless of how many fish you catch.

As the day approached its end, we moved once again and found ourselves in the midst of some potential tarpon action. Several casts, which felt really good and seemed to land right where they needed to, proved futile. Wes and Ryan cracked a final beer, to which I raised a can of my own in honor of such a great time. How often do you feel that good after a day of unsuccessful fishing?

I had seen for myself what kind of experience awaits folks who head down to Florida, and I knew the fishing added the potential for an incredible bucket list opportunity. But after failing to catch even one tarpon, I only have more desire to someday reel in a silver king myself, tournaments be damned.

Luckily that made it simple for me. I'd already suggested to my dad that we meet each other here, and my next tarpon opportunity awaited. Hopefully Ryan and Wes are available, and we can set out to accomplish the goal once again.

Because I know this is the type of place I'll return to before long.