Tarpon, breathing air and making daisy chains

As many Atlantic tarpon1 fishermen will tell you, tarpon are sometimes known to ‘daisy chain’. This is the colloquial name for when a group of fish bump, rub against and follow each other around in a constant circle or wheel. Many believe that this is an act of courtship or spawning, during which time females eject eggs that are fertilized by the males, but scientists maintain that no spawning is actually taking place. Tarpon larvae are rarely found where this occurs, and studies have turned up no roe or milt nearby.

Daisy chaining is just one of this creature’s mysteries. Compared to most other species of fish not much is known about them. This is largely because the tarpon has almost no commercial food value and has therefore warranted far less study than its more nutritious cousins.

While some tarpon are known to remain near the shore all-year-round, most adult fish make their way out to sea in the late summer, over-wintering somewhere in the Atlantic or, in some cases, negotiating the Panama Canal into the Pacific. Their behaviour once there, including their spawning activity, remains a bit of a blur but at some point during this time, eggs are laid and hatch to become tiny, eel-like larvae about 15mm long. These larvae eventually develop into young fish, which make their way back to shallower coastal waters, estuaries, rivers and creeks.

As demonstrated nicely in the video above, what is perhaps most unusual about the tarpon is the fact that it can, and indeed must, breathe air in order to survive. Uniquely, as well as being a buoyancy aid, the tarpon’s swim bladder doubles up as a breathing device, acting much like the lungs of a mammal. That’s why it’s such a common sight to witness tarpon rolling on the surface, visibly taking a gulp of air – even (or perhaps especially) when hooked. The tarpon’s ability to breathe air is a useful defence tool. It means the fish can survive in oxygen-depleted, stagnant waters where other fish would die. Perhaps more importantly though, these are environments in which the juvenile tarpon’s main predators – sharks and large carnivorous fish – cannot hunt. Breathing air, then, has a logical explanation or is at least a behaviour that we understand. Daisy chaining remains a mystery.

If you’re still unclear what daisy chaining means, take a look at the 20-second video below. It isn’t the clearest footage in the world, but you can just about make out these large tarpon ‘daisy chaining’ in a constant circular motion:

Even if it isn’t an act of spawning, the daisy chain may still be a mating ritual, although I know of no studies into the sexes of the protagonists, so for all I know, maybe they’re all girls! They certainly seem preoccupied, but it isn’t uncommon to hook a fish from the daisy chain, so don’t be disheartened. Whatever they’re thinking about, perhaps the sense of competition within the group is too hard for them to resist, especially in larger groups. As angler Jody Collins reports in his blog Rod ‘n’ Barrel:

“I’ve seen chains as small as three fish and as large as 200. If you use a clear fly line and land your fly on the left side of the chain where the oncoming fish are you will almost certainly get a fish to eat.”

Tarpon rolling

That’s good enough for us Jody. All we need now is a day like this one, recalled from 1977 by well known tarpon angler, Steve Huff:

“By 3 in the afternoon Tom [Evans] had landed his seventh tarpon of the day. Five of them were over 150 pounds. […] And the seventh one was a world record at the time, 177 pounds. There was not a boat on the horizon anywhere you could see and there were tarpon to the horizon, thousands of tarpon with their backs out of the water, daisy chains everywhere, daisy chains with 200 fish going around on white sand as far as you could see.”

Photo by Pat Ford

Photo by Pat Ford

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James Green About James Green

James Green loves nothing more than casting a fly in pursuit of salmon, seatrout or, when the opportunity arises, a tailing bonefish, tarpon or permit.