This past Saturday, Aug. 1, a fisherman caught and released what is being heralded as the first tarpon confirmed to have been caught on fly-fishing tackle in North Carolina waters. Bill Rustin, who splits time between Raleigh and Southport, teamed with Capt. John Huff of Circle H Charters in Wrightsville Beach to subdue a tarpon in the lower Cape Fear River they estimated at 125 pounds.

Huff had a client hook a tarpon on a fly the day before, but the tippet broke. After the trip, Huff called Rustin, a friend for the past 10 years, and asked if he wanted to give it a shot the next day.

"We met early the next morning and slipped into my spot early to avoid spooking any fish that might already be there," Huff said. "We were watching and waiting and saw a couple of tarpon as they were moving in. A few minutes later, two tarpon rolled off the starboard bow, right on the edge of casting range, and Bill was ready. He laid a cast right out there on their noses. 

"Bill stripped the line twice, and one of them slurped down his fly like it was candy," Huff said.

Rustin came tight on the line, reared back and drove the hook home.

"This tarpon was as strong and acrobatic and worked me as hard as any I've caught," Rustin said. "There's a lot of water where we were, but not much is deep, so it could only run and jump, and that's what it did. It tried to sulk a little near the end of the fight, but not much. I didn't count them, but it jumped a number of times." 

Rustin fought the tarpon hard and slowly gained line as it tired. He led the tarpon to Huff, who grabbed the leader after 40 minutes, making it a legal catch. While reaching for his camera, the tarpon surged, and Huff let go of the leader, thinking Rustin would bring it back to him again and they would pose some pictures. However, Rustin made the decision to clamp down on the reel and break the line, rather than fight it another 5 minutes and wear it down too much bringing it in again for pictures. The battle, however, is preserved on video.

Rustin has been fishing for tarpon in the lower Cape Fear River and off area beaches more than 50 years. He caught his first tarpon off Bald Head Island in August 1961. He has spent plenty of time fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys, and knowing that tarpon often slip into the Cape Fear River on high tides, he made it a goal to catch one on a fly. He and Huff have caught them on conventional tackle and even jumped a few on flies, but until last Saturday’s tarpon clamped down on a purple/black, aka “peanut butter” Toad Fly, he’d never gotten one to the boat.

Rustin was using an Orvis Helios 12-weight rod with a 15-pound tippet and 60-pound shock leader.

The next day, fishing with Huff, Rustin’s wife, Mary Louise, hooked up with two tarpon on spinning tackle from the stern of the boat while he was casting from the bow. She broke the first fish off on the first jump but re-rigged and hooked another 20 minutes later. After a 30-minute fight, she subdued and Huff released a fish estimated at between 90 and 100 pounds.