Giant bottom fish highlight final day of Tarpon Rodeo

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GRAND ISLE, La. — A day after a virtual wash-out, Saturday's finale of the 86th Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo finished with typical last minute madness as the scales closed at 6 p.m.

The country's oldest fishing tournament and corresponding "Mardi Gras in July" celebration culminated with the expected flurry of entries.

Though rough weather worked decidedly against tarpon anglers — best conditions are slick calm seas in which bait pods and rolling fish are easily spotted — the rodeo's fifth tarpon was brought to the scales. The rough stuff deterred many hardcore anglers, though the trio of Lee Grafton and Cory Talbot, both of Thibodaux, La., and Casey Fitzpatrick of Mandeville, La., stuck it out far offshore to put three first places on the board.

"Most of our fish were caught Friday morning, when it calmed down to four to six (foot seas). It was 10- to 12-foot out there on Thursday," said Grafton, who headed up the crew's catch with a 64-pound Warsaw Grouper and 22-8 Red Snapper. "We're very pleased with our catch. We stuck it out when, in retrospect, we probably shouldn't have."

The crew members reported they caught most of their fish in 100 to 200 feet of water and used jigs to bring in the prize-winners, which included a 70-9 first-place amberjack by Cory Talbot.

Saturday dawned nicely enough, though the fertile waters to the east around the Louisiana delta were peppered with rain much like Friday when a weak low pressure system rolled in from the western Gulf. Though the rain wasn't as bad as areas to the west, stiff winds persisted in keeping Day Two catches down and water levels up.

Perfectly illustrating the need for a bridge, now under construction, from just north of the island to Golden Meadow, marsh water lapped dangerously close Highway 1, flooding parking lots in Leeville, a town literally under siege from the damaging combination of manmade coastal erosion and naturally subsiding land. Even winds from strong thunderstorms can flood the gateway to almost 20 percent of the nation's energy production.

Mandeville's Pierre Villere said it was a close decision regarding the decision to fish for tarpon or not in light of the rough weather. He and Chris Schouest went for it — saying it was a day that "separates the men from the boys" — and caught a bit of good fortune in bringing the 123-pound silver king to the scales.

"It was a blind strike on the short line. I thought it was a shark at first and even pushed the lever past 'strike'. Then it jumped and we got a little more serious," said Villere, who said the fish hit a slow-trolled Coon Pop. "There was only the two of us, so it took a little longer to land the fish and judge the size. We wish it could have been big enough to take second place, but it was close."