Outdoors

Note to Miami anglers: Don’t mess with Capt. Jimmy’s tame tarpon

Capt. Jimmy’s Tarpon Feeding

For more than a decade, Capt. Jimmy Lewis has been tending a school of tarpon that congregate near his Bayside slip in downtown Miami, providing bait for kids and using them as an opportunity to educate them about the mighty fish.
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For more than a decade, Capt. Jimmy Lewis has been tending a school of tarpon that congregate near his Bayside slip in downtown Miami, providing bait for kids and using them as an opportunity to educate them about the mighty fish.

Capt. Jimmy should be happy. A cold front just blew through, stirring up the sailfish. His bait business is good. The holidays are just around the corner.

Instead Jimmy Lewis is fuming. This week a school of tarpon he’s been watching over near his boat slips at Bayside Marina in downtown Miami for more than a decade vanished. Lewis, who uses the school to educate kids, tourists and anybody who’ll listen, says he had to scour the bay, locate the fish under a nearby bridge and coax them back to the docks.

Then Lewis believes he found out why: someone tried to hook one of the fish more conditioned to handouts.

A video posted on Facebook showed the furtive fisherman walking along a second-story balcony out of range of security cameras. “You filming?” he asks the cameraman. He then casts and hooks a fish. After a brief fight, the line snaps. “Alright, let’s go,” he says, clearly in a hurry, before the video ends.

It’s not the most atrocious behavior — last year a group of West Coast men enraged anglers when video posts surfaced showing them dragging a shark behind a boat — but the sheer audacity enraged Lewis.

“It’s like going to the Seaquarium and trying to hook a porpoise in the porpoise tank,” Lewis said Friday, sitting on the stern of his boat, the Kite Hunter.

Lewis is well-known in Miami fishing circles, a third-generation captain and son of famed angler Bob Lewis, who perfected Gulfstream kite-fishing for sailfish, a complicated rigging that uses kites to dangle bait close to the ocean surface. Jimmy Lewis worked as a flats guide until he got tired of baking in the sun and realized catching bait was more lucrative.

He now rises well before dawn every morning to catch goggle eyes and other bait fish that he sells from his boat anchored near Stiltsville. After the bait is sold and in between charters, Lewis offers sightseeing tours and tends to the tame tarpon, providing free bait, insight and a chance to see a particular monster fish named Mo up close.

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Joshua Lewis (right) , son of Captain Jimmy Lewis, helps 10 year-old Ian Duarte of Costa Rica feed a tarpon at Bayside marina, where Capt. Jimmy Lewis has tended a school of the fish for more than a decade. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

“We don’t make a single dime. We do this for the community. We give the sh-t away,” he said.

While he talked, Lewis’ son Josh dangled bait fish from a nearby floating dock to coax the tarpon up, then wrapped his arms around them or rubbed their backs as they circled behind the boat.

“These fish are so used to human beings they’ll actually come up,” Lewis said. “You can call them up and you can pet them.”

The fish weren’t always here. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, Lewis said he spotted a small tarpon, about 60 pounds, repeatedly jumping off the marina and realized it was tangled in fishing line. Lewis said he managed to get close enough to free the fish from the line, but saw it had a circle hook and leader line caught in its mouth. So he started feeding it, eventually taming the fish enough to pull out the hook and line. When he finally got the hook out, he assumed he’d seen the last of the fish. Instead, it stayed by his slip. Others soon showed up.

When kids started climbing on his boat to feed them, Lewis said the marina dock master suggested installing a floating dock rather than risk the kids being hurt scrambling on and off the boat. Lewis soon had an attraction.

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Joshua Lewis (second from left), son of Captain Jimmy Lewis, helps 16 year-old Leticia Silva of Brazil feed a tarpon at Bayside marina. For more than a decade, Capt. Jimmy Lewis has been tending a school of tarpon that congregate near his Bayside slip in downtown Miami. He educates people about the fish, which can weigh more than 200 pounds. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

That first fish, named Mo, is now the star attraction. Lewis estimates its weight at over 250 pounds. The world record is slightly bigger, at 286 pounds, caught off Africa.

The tarpon can be found at the dock year-round, except in May when they go offshore to spawn, Lewis said. So earlier this week when he arrived and found no fish, he wondered if something hadn’t spooked them. Then a client sent the video.

Under Florida law, tarpon can legally be hooked off docks and seawalls — and often are — although they cannot be lifted out of the water if they are over 40 inches long, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Amanda Nalley. Private property owners, and marinas like the city’s Bayside marina, can post no fishing signs.

People can also feed tarpon from docks and boats, just not while they’re diving. Some critics say that can overly tame the fish, which are inshore fish and tend to congregate around busy marinas where fish scraps are plentiful. In the Keys, anglers call them dock tarpon.

“As long as it’s not creating a litter problem,” Nalley said. “Otherwise, we don’t have a rule.”

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Joshua Lewis (right) , son of Captain Jimmy Lewis, helps 10 year-old Ian Duarte of Costa Rica feed a tarpon at Bayside marina. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

But many anglers consider it unsporting to catch them.

“There is a code and there is an ethic and a way you behave,” Lewis said. “This is not fishing.”

But increasingly, videos that highlight such behavior are popping up on the Internet. When the video of the shark dragging surfaced last year, it quickly went viral. The fishing community was outraged when more videos surfaced showing the same men shooting handguns at fish, pouring beer into their gills and other illegal activity.

“It’s an adrenalin rush for these guys,” Lewis said.

But Lewis has a message for this particular guy.

“Bro, you do it again and we’re going to catch you.” he said. “You made the mistake of putting your face on video. So the next time you do it, we’re going to catch you.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
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