Tarpon Tom

Thomas F. Gibson, Jr, is a tarpon fishing enthusiast who has set many records for the biggest fish caught. An engineer for NASA, Gibson catches the fish using large, No. 16/0 circle hooks that trail nine-inch wiggly, green plastic lures called Texas Term Pops.
He’s known as “Tarpon Tom” to the guides along the Texas coast from Galveston to Padre Island, and with good reason. Thomas F. Gibson, Jr. doesn’t fool around. His single-minded quest for giant tarpon – tarpon big enough to make the IGFA record book – is as obsessive as Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the Great White Whale, except that in the forty-four years since

Gibson fought his first tarpon at age eleven, he has caught over a thousand of the fish he seeks, five of which have qualified as world records, and two more which set state records in Texas and Louisiana.

At 4:30 A.M. on this September morning, as Tom knocks on doors, rousting the men who will act as his crew, he says,”I don’t want to push too hard today.” Exactly one cup of instant coffee later the crew is being hustled out of the Galveston beach house and into a truck towing a 22-foot Whaler – Catch 22 – a bare-bones boat belonging to Charles Park, Gibson’s friend, host, and skipper for the day. “We’ll take it easy, won’t we, Chas,” Gibson continues. “No need to get up in the middle of the night.” But this man dearly is not given to taking things easy where tarpon are concerned. He radiates a bristling sort of energy, the kind that flows so readily from those few humans whose springs are forever tightly wound. And when he does relax, or at least give up his quest for the day, he still surrounds himself with tarpon. Step through the door of his study at his home in Houston and you enter what would need only an official sign to become the Tarpon Hall of Fame.

In here is Gibson’s personal library, its shelves stocked with tarpon data, and his personal tackle shop consisting of shelf after shelf of cigar boxes jammed with leaders, hooks, swivels, plugs, guides, lead heads for handcrafted jigs, and every conceivable configuration of rod, fine, reel, leader, hook, lure, connecting swivels, and snap hooks. In this room, an angler could put together a complete arsenal of tarpon tackle and when the job was done, there would be no visible diminution of the materials on hand.

Besides the filing cabinets, shelves, desk tops, drawers, and boxes are the walls themselves, all plastered with marine charts, photos, certificates, and plaques commemorating records set by Tarpon Tom.

“That’s Gabon, Port Michel,” Gibson says, his voice filling the room as his stubby boxer’s hand slaps a framed chart of Africa’s west coast on the wall over his desk. “That’s where I caught the 262-pounder. Took it on 50-pound-test. Made the record book with that one, but not for long. It was broken this year by Pierre Closterman.

“And down here,” he says, talking past the bulky stub of one of the cigars he keeps parked between his teeth, “down here off Sherbro Island, that’s Sierra Leone. I took a 265-pounder. That was another record, and still is. They’re bigger fish there, plenty of them. Right here,” he says, his knuckles rapping West Africa’s coastal plain, “right here is where the world’s biggest tarpon are swimming. They’re giants.

“And here,” he says, his index finger tapping yet another chart, this one of the Gulf of Mexico, “here’s where I got the 230-pounder a couple of weeks ago. That’s a new state record for Louisiana. Took it off Grand Isle, the last day, bad weather, rough. Normally, I wouldn’t have gone out. But look what happened. That fish broke a record that’s been around since 1979.”

And that’s not all. Filed away is a computer printout that lists just about everything there is to know about Gibson’s tarpon fishing statistics. It includes the number of tarpon jumped, the number caught, the number of days fished, the number of those days when fish were sighted, the fish that were hooked, the fish that threw the hook, catch percentages, failures, weights, lures, methods, locations. . . it’s all there, perhaps the most detailed assemblage of tarpon fishing data on the globe.

Data comes naturally to Tom Gibson, for when he’s not pursuing his angling obsession, he is an engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) where he has worked for thirty-five years following graduation from Georgia Tech. After three years at Langley Field in Virginia, he was assigned to Houston, where he managed the on-board guidance system software for the Apollo Program. Ever since, he has plotted trajectory details and managed various software programs for NASA. Leafing through the large library of oversize loose-leaf notebooks in Gibson’s study, each one holding page after page of newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, letters, and official IGFA citations and documents verifying record tarpon taken Gibson in waters that span a hemisphere, it seems hard to believe he could have found the time during his entire fifty-five years to do all that record-setting and, at the same time, contribute so much to the nation’s space program.

One part of the answer is that Tom Gibson doesn’t spend much time eating and sleeping, especially not when he’s tarpon fishing. There’s also the man’s rocketing energy levels, which hurtle him into each new day like a tarpon blasting out of the water when hooked.

But mainly, perhaps, there is the single-mindedness of his tarpon obsession. No other fish, no other person except for his wife, Billie (who has a tarpon record of her own), and no other activities (except the occasional game of bridge) have a part in this man’s daily routine. When he’s not working, he’s tarpon fishing – and when he’s tarpon fishing, he fishes harder than most.

On this particular morning at the Galveston Yacht Basin launching ramp in Galveston Harbor, the air is still and, in spite of the irregular flicker of distant lightning in the west, a bright morning star in the east promises a well-mannered day.

“Gonna be a fine morning,” Tom Gibson says with authority as he paces the sea wall, impatience in every step. We are waiting for Mark Banneyer, a husky, blond-mustached south Texas guide known as the Terminator – Term, for short – because his work as a charter boat skipper and guide has resulted in the termination of so many fish in the fertile Gulf.

Term is responsible for bringing along mullet chunks, frozen menhaden, and other tidbits Gibson uses for chum and baits designed to tempt tarpon into taking a hook. He is also the provider of Texas Term Pops, an artificial tarpon lure inspired by and manufactured in close consultation with Tom Gibson.

Term finally arrives with several large baggies filled with bait and a brown paper bag loaded with Texas Term Pops, a lure unlike anything most anglers have ever seen.

Inspired by the Louisiana Coon Pop and almost a foot long from the tip of its tail to its business end, the Term Pop has a round, lead head about the size of a man’s index finger; behind it trails about 9 inches of glittery lime-green plastic imbedded with flecks of gold glitter. It’s the same wiggly synthethic stuff favored by so many largemouth bass anglers for a variety of artificial worms and frogs. The tapered leadhead wears a pair of big, wide-open eyes manufactured by Term himself, and just above the eyes, wired to the top of the Term Pop’s unfurrowed brow, is the hook that’s made Tom Gibson famous.

If it hadn’t made him famous, it would have made him ridiculous. For that’s the way it presents itself. One look, and your average angler would say (when he stopped laughing), “What the hell is that?”

What it is a really large, No. 16/0 circle hook – a hook with a curve that could slip over a golf ball and a barbed end that almost turns completely in on itself. If your standard hook is shaped something like a horseshoe, this one is almost as round as a wagon wheel. It’s a hook with a South Sea ancestry; Polynesian fishermen first carved them from shells. Now manufactured by Mustad and others, the hook was used primarily by deep-water bottom fishermen until Tom Gibson took it on after a fishing trip to Mexico when he first saw it used by commercial fishermen. Since then, it has accounted for his record tarpon in Africa, Louisiana, and Texas. “I experiment all the time,” he explains. “Try something, see if it works. It’s my nature. I’m a scientist. This hook works. I found that out pretty fast. I use it on all my lures.”

Twenty years ago, worried over the number of big tarpon he was losing because hooks were thrown, Gibson wrote the IGFA to ask if mounting a single, curved hook on top of a lure, as opposed to the several dusters of dangling treble hooks that were standard, would meet IGFA standards for landing record fish. The answer was yes, and Gibson has been landing more tarpon per strike, and getting more strikes per offering, ever since.

So there is no shortage of Term Pops for this fishing day in the Gulf, and with gear and crew all aboard at last, the Catch 22 leaves Galveston Harbor just as the early dawn dilutes the inky darkness in the east. And east is where we’re headed, offshore of the Bolivar Peninsula, following the 5-fathom line, watching for the first grand good-morning of a tarpon rolling silver on the vast blanket of windless, gray Gulf waters. “You’re lucky,” Tarpon Tom tells his crew. “Most days this is a rough hole; wind blows all the time.”

And as the sun finally gains strength in the east, the calm continues. Across the entire Gulf there are only momentary flusterings on the slick surface as wayward breezes visit and then depart. On such a morning, a rolling tarpon could be seen a long way off.

But this is not that morning. Not because the crew is laggardly about their work. Tom Chas, and Term each have two rods working, some in holders, others hand-held, poised with the eager expectations of a fishing trip’s first hour. The rods are sturdy, with butts designed to fit the stand-up harness each angler wears. “My rods are Kunnans,” Tom explains. “I use Fi-Nor reels, Ande mono. The rods are 5-foot-6. I like the shorter rod. Gives you leverage, beats the fish faster, less tiring for the angler. I’ve tried all combinations for more than forty years of tarpon fighting. This combination is what does the job best.”

Now the sun is definitely in command, high enough in the cloudless sky to take charge, to insist that the men in the boat drifting with the currents feel the heat.

It’s an odd tableau, there in the empty Gulf. From each of the upright rods, 50 to 70 feet of monofilament reaches across the surface, some ending at a toy balloon, inflated and made fast with a rubber band. This on-the-spot float holds a baited hook at different depths on each line, some 15 feet, others at 20, and one at 25.

“We’re fishing on the 5-fathom line,” Tom explains. “We know that most of the tarpon taken here during the past two weeks or so have been caught in 28 to 30 feet of water. So that’s where we’re looking.

“This isn’t like fishing in the Keys where the tarpon are in shoal water or on the flats. And it’s not like Mexico where we fish the river mouths. These tarpon are moving across the open Gulf, feeding on mullet, or herring. It’s a big place. We can miss the schools altogether. That’s why we keep in touch with the other boats. We have to work together out here.”

Those “other boats” add up to no more than five, most of them duplicates of them Catch 22, Whalers with center consoles, open decks, and husky outboards. They are the Galveston tarpon fleet, a close-knit group of young skippers, all of them fishing for the same species and with the same techniques and lures, including the Texas Term Pop.

Indeed, Term has been chatting with them on the radio most of the morning, giving the same answer – “Negatory” – to each when they ask if he’s seen any tarpon.

The morning proceeds, dignified, hot, and airless. The anticipatory edge that hypes every angler’s first hours of fishing has worn off. Like the Ancient Mariner, Tom Gibson is becalmed, adrift on an empty sea.

But unlike almost everyone else, he is neither bored nor relaxed. That’s not his nature. He raises his right hand, holding one of his latest data collectors. It’s a Global Positioning System – GPS – that will display the longitude and latitude of any place on the globe, given proper programming and whatever else its operator has fed into the system.

“Guess how far we are from where I caught that state record fish of Grand Isle,” the navigator yells at his crew. “Come on, take a guess, you guys.” It’s an order, but no one obeys.

“It’s exactly 248 miles,” the navigator replies, undeterred by the crew’s lack of response.

Fifteen minutes shuffles by.

“Guess how far we are from Pont Neuf,” comes another high-volume order in proper Texas dialect. “Come on, now, guess.”

Still no enthusiasm on deck.

“Aw, come on, you guys. It’s 4,338 miles. You fellas ought to get one of these. Then you’d know where you are all the time.”

As an after thought he adds, “Pont Neuf. That’s in Paris. You knew that, didn’t you?”

Just as Tom Gibson is about to ask another GPS question, the voices on Term’s radio grow louder. Captain Jim Plaak, a Silver King Adventures guide, is calling. “Hey Term, hey, you all ought to get over here. There’s tarpon all over the place.” The voice has that frantic pitch that verifies an honest fish report.

Moments later the Catch 22 is that full speed ahead on a course that should put her within sighting range of the lucky angler already surrounded by tarpon.

The crew sights the school and the boat simultaneously. Now that some 8 hours have passed since the expedition began, everyone on board is properly ecstatic at the sight of silver bodies rolling under the high sun, breaking the Gulf’s glassy surface, leaving gouts of white water to mark their massive splashings.

A Texas yell cascades across the water as a tarpon leaps off the bow of Captain Jim Leavelly’s boat. “He’s got one on,” says Term.

Another yell, from another boat. “And he does, too:

As the Catch 22 drifts through tarpon, Tom Gibson stands in the stern, flips a circle hook baited with a mullet chunk into the vast Gulf, and waits.

Not for long. The rod jerks downward, the reel raises in voice. Tom Gibson yells, “Hey! Now I got….” Within seconds he knows he does not have tarpon.

“It’s a shark. Now I got to waste all this time hauling in a shark, right while the tarpon are around us.”

By the time the 50-pound black-tip shark is released, the tarpon have vanished.

The crew has been after them for almost 10 hours now. Ong cup of coffee for breakfast. A few corn chips for lunch. When you go tarpon fishing with Tom Gibson, that’s all you do.

Another hour and a half of cruising, hoping against hope that the school will surface again.

It does not. At 330, Tom Gibson asks, “Guess how far we are from Galveston Harbor.” Nobody answers. “We’re exactly 16.2 miles,” the navigator tells us, holding his GPS aloft like a banner.”

“We’ll,” says Chas, at the helm as we head home, “it looks like the Tarpon Guru crapped out today, don’t it. That’s what they call him, you know,” Chas explains to the crew, “the Tarpon Guru.”

The Terminator smiles. He’s been on his feet for 11 hours, but there’s still a smile there.

“Hey,” says the Guru, “you don’t catch them every day. I’ve learned that much.”

Back on shore Tarpon Tom has already put the day behind him. But not the tarpon. Holding up the GPS black box he asks, “Guess how far it is to Sierra Leone. Come on, take a guess. That’s where I’ll be when I catch my 300-pounder. He’s over there swimming around right now Waiting for me.”


* Tom Gibson demonstrates his circular hook by putting it in a cigar box and pulling on the leader. The hook slides to the corner, and when the leader is pulled harder, the hook goes right through the box.

That’s why you want to fish with the rod in the holder,” Gibson explains. “You don’t strike the fish. The hook does the work. The fish hooks itself, almost always in the corner of the mouth, just where you want it.


* Tom Gibson attributes much of his success to the fact that he is a stickler for detail. He not only keeps meticulous records, but he tests his fishing lines with a precise, breaking-point scale, ties his own knots, and has perfected a reel-on leader of 200-pound-test monofilament threaded through the center core of 130-pound-test Dacron. It’s a connection that slides right through the guides.

“I know how to handle tarpon on a leader,” he says. “I know how to keep pressure on a fish. You must be firm, unforgiving, but not brutal. It’s a matter of judgment based on experience. No one else has so much experience. That’s. why no one else has so many records in the books. They don’t pay attention to details the way I do. Hey, this is my career.”

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