Out of all South Carolinas fishes to target, the mighty tarpon takes the top spot as the toughest, saltwater fish to wrangle to the boat. The bite, involving adult tarpon weighing between 75 to 150 pounds or more, fires off in late June and peaks in August and September. But the discovery of abundant juvenile tarpon inside several of South Carolina’s coastal impoundments has ignited a firestorm of questions and theories by the nation’s top tarpon researchers. 

Last summer, Capt. Steve Roff of Barrier Island Guide Service and several other local captains joined a group of researchers from Florida’s Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT) at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center to look for juvenile tarpon inside the Coastal Santee Reserve.

“I first netted a mini-tarpon 16 years ago while cast netting in the Santee Delta for bait. When I first saw this … fish in the net, I immediately thought ladyfish,” said Roff (843-446-7337).  “I couldn’t help but wonder how this fish arrived in a managed impoundment with water exchanges controlled by historic rice trunks.”

After only five throws of the cast net at the Yawkey Wildlife Preserve on South Island, 22 juvenile tarpon were captured and later released after DNA and scale samples were taken. If anything, the unveiling of a substantial population of juvenile tarpon outside of Florida’s mangrove swamps has produced many new questions over answers for Dr. Aaron Adams, a top research professor at the Florida Institute of Technology and the director of the BTT.

“First of all, are these fish going to be able to survive the winter in these impoundments? If not, they will go down the drain every winter due to cold weather,” he said.

According to Adams, adult tarpon spawn offshore on the full moons of August and September. Sometime after that, the winged larvae make the long journey into South Carolina’s waters and some apparently pass through the small gates on the managed waterfowl impoundments within the Santee Coastal Reserve.

For Adams, it is not unusual for these small juvenile fishes to show up well inside the protection of these impoundments in real shallow water.

“In Florida, the larvae or as a small fingerling tarpon move into the shallow mangrove swamps of the Everglades that are very similar to these managed impoundments here in South Carolina,” Adams said. “But the big question is, what happens to these fish from here? Do they die from cold weather, get eaten by the alligators and wading birds, or do they re-enter the population somewhere down the line?”

There are many questions than need answers to better understand the life history of these fish in South Carolina and across their range. Over the past few years, the BTT has implanted several adult fish in Georgetown with satellite tags to better understand the movements of adults. Another project scheduled to begin this summer will attempt to learn more about the movement of juvenile tarpon, their genetic lineage, temperature tolerance and to map juvenile tarpon occurrences in South Carolina waters.

The University of South Carolina’s Baruch Marine Laboratory in Georgetown will conduct the research efforts after the final 25 percent of funding is obtained to complete the project.

Adams urges fishermen who catch juvenile tarpon to obtain a genetic sampling kit from the BTT and report and keep notes on any juvenile tarpon encountered.