Story of a Fish: A Storm, 2 Friends and a Huge Tarpon Struggled to Shore the Folly Beach Pier

FOLLY BEACH Phillip Sullivan knows fishing gets better when storms approach the Charleston coast.

So, on the blustery afternoon of June 19, he had several rods at the end of the Folly Beach Fishing Pier, including three king rigs with multiple hooks meant to hook something big.

Menhaden was the bait of choice on that gloomy day. Sullivan and his fishing partner James Strange were really hoping to catch a king mackerel.

But when the storm hit, the two realized they’d gotten more than they bargained for.

The pair of Charleston residents weren’t just fighting the clock, they got into a skirmish with a huge silver tarpon.

Tarpon, a species already known for its size, strength and fighting ability, usually appears in Charleston-area waters when temperatures get warm. They average about 100 pounds off our coasts, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

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The fish have hard mouths, almost like concrete, said Matt Perkinson, coordinator of saltwater fisheries for DNR. If a tarpon bites the bait, it will most likely spit out the hook.

“Getting it to your boat without breaking the line or spitting out the hook is an accomplishment,” Perkinson said.

Sullivan said all three of his king rigs folded simultaneously on June 19. He lost two of the fish but put some pressure on the other rod. It was then that she saw him.

“This tarpon flies out of the water and starts jumping acrobatically, doing backflips, goes to the beach and starts running,” Sullivan said.

It fought the fish from the dock for about an hour and 15 minutes as it ran continuously from the beach to the end of the 1,049-foot-long structure. The rain never stopped, striking like pins and needles with lightning all around.

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Sullivan finally dropped the rod onto Strange, who was in the ocean below, for a better chance of getting his hands on the fish, which he did, physically pushing it ashore from behind in the surf.

“We kind of had the upper hand, but the water was still flowing through the gills,” Sullivan said. “It took him a couple of tries, but James grabbed the jaws.”

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Anglers Phillip Sullivan and James Strange battled a tarpon June 19 at Folly Beach. Phillip Sullivan/Supplied

Strange said they were short on time. The two freed the fish and unhooked it as fast as possible. It took about 20 seconds to capture a few photos with their catch estimated at around 150lbs as he jerked around.

As a testament to the experience, both men wear smiles of elation in photographic evidence.

He was then released and swam away unharmed.

Catching a tarpon from Folly Pier is a big deal. Mark Patrick worked as a dock manager for 12 years and said he saw maybe three tarpon caught during that time.

“A fish that size, it would be rare to (wrap) it off the dock because it’s so big,” said Patrick, who is now the assistant parks director for Charleston County Parks. “You should beach that fish.”

Strange said he has caught smaller tarpon in the Florida Keys. But the fish he helped catch on Folly Beach is the first adult he’s been close to.

“It’s quite an accomplishment to hook one and land it specifically,” said Strange. “Many people can hook them, but it’s a challenge to actually land them.”

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When caught, it is important to quickly return tarpon to the water. The species is a seasonal visitor to Palmetto State. Adult tarpon typically spend June through October in the creek mouths and open ocean here.

Perkinson said the fish can live close to 80 years, so “we have to be very careful in handling the ones we catch.”

Sullivan said succinctly that at 24 “this is probably the most memorable thing that has ever happened to me and it’s something I will never forget.”

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