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This article appeared in the August 6,1954 issue of The Panama Canal Review.

 

Tarpon is Still King in Waters of Chagres

Members of the Panama Canal Tarpon Club, which has its headquarters on the brink of Gatun Spillway within sight of the Gatun Locks, claim that their club is the third oldest organized fishing club in the world and the first chartered fishing club on the Isthmus.

These claims are possibly true since the Tarpon Club was fist organized in 1914 by a group of Panama Canal employees who called themselves the Gatun Fishing Club.

First record of the activities of this club was in 1915 when P.R. Joyce, representing members of the organization, wrote a letter to Gov. George W. Goethals asking permission to buy a small building formerly used as a dynamite shed, and relocate it in a spot west of the railroad siding below the the hydroelectric station at Gatun. This building, he said, was to be used for the comfort of the club members.

Permission was granted and the building was bought for $6. Later the Governor granted the club certain privileges such as the right to purchase equipment from The Panama Canal, supplies for the refreshment counter at the Canal Zone Commissary, and permission to have their printing done at the regular surcharge rate. He, however, refused to grant them such luxuries as free water and electricity, which in those happy days were provided without charge to the Canal residents.

Famed Fishermen

By 1916 the officers of the Tarpon Club had the club in such smooth running order, and the clubhouse itself such a comfortable place, that they sent letters to the managers of the Hotel Washington and Hotel Tivoli asking them to send them all tourists who might want to be taken on angling trips.

The fame of the elusive hard-fighting silver tarpon was spread by the many visitors who either came to see the wonderful new canal or who arrived here on official business and then relaxed between conferences. One of these was energetic Teddy Roosevelt, one of the world's best known sportsmen.

The old club records show that Roosevelt and a party visited the club and stayed overnight and went fishing. He became one of the early honorary members as later did his famous cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt who paid a visit to the club in 1934 when he was President of the United States.

In addition to the two Roosevelts, other well-known personages whose names appear on the club guest book include William Vanderbilt of Belgium, and Harry F. Sinclair of the Sinclair Oil Company.

Charter Members

The list of charter members of the Tarpon Club reads like an Isthmian Who's Who with a few Stateside millionaires thrown in for good measure. The records list William D. Taylor, then Postmaster at Gatun; Dow R. Walker; David Westman, now head of the Westman Brothers Accounting firm, then a clerk at Gatun; W.E.Minnix, later Chief of the Cristobal Fire Department; Sir Claude Mallet, British Minister to Panama; T.B. Monniche, designer of the Canal emergency damns and former engineer of docks in Cristobal; Herbert C. Clark, then with Gorgas Hospital; Fred G. Whaler, Panama Canal employee who later became world-known as a fishing guide; Captain Charles B. Fenton of Cristobal; David T. Abercrombie, well-known new York sporting goods merchant; George G. Hamilton of Kentucky; Edward Leavitt Howe of Princeton, N.J.; and A.B. Legare of Washington, D.C..

In later years, members and guests included the late Monnett Davis, U.S. Ambassador to Panama; Muray Wise, Concilor of Embassy' C.S. Adams, Secretary and Treasurer of Braniff Airways; General Horace McBride, former Commander-in-Chief of the Caribbean Command, as well as a number of well-known fishermen from the United States who came to Panama to try their luck with the elusive tarpon.

In the early days as now, the members brought the family out to the club for the weekend, and sometimes there was a bang-up party such as the one given by R.K. Morris, then Chief Quartermaster of the Panama Canal, who donated a sheep for a barbeque.

Alligator Trouble

Around 1922 the Tarpon Club members had a little trouble with 20-foot alligators which hung around the spillway apron and kept the members from going into the water to fish. Calls for help were sent to C.A. McIllvaine, Executive Secretary, who gave instructions to the Canal police to get rid of the pests.

Wading into the water at the foot of the spillway to fish was a thrilling but dangerous sport even without alligators and there were several fatal accidents, when fishermen were swept off the cement apron into the swirling waters of the Chagres. In 1934 rules were made which prohibited fishing alone and required the use of cleated shoes, shorts, and life preservers when fishing from the spillway apron or off shore when standing in the waters of the Chagres.

Although some fishing is still done from the spillway apron, it is no longer the common sight it once was. Trolling on the seven-mile stretch from the spillway to the mouth of the Chagres River near Fort San Lorenzo has become more popular and seldom fails to result in a succession of thrills which brings members of the Tarpon Club out night after night as well as over the weekends.

Silver King

Snook, jack, and snapper also are caught in these waters but the legendary Silver King is the true lure for most sportsmen. It is one of the gamest and prettiest fish known and one of the hardest to land because of the hard bones in its jaws and head. There are records of tarpon in the Atlantic as far back as 1643 but up to the time of the construction of the Panama Canal they did not inhabit the Pacific. In recent years they have been found in Gatun and Miraflores lakes and there is excellent evidence that they have passed through the Canal.

It is a warm-water fish averaging from 30 to 80 pounds, which retires toward the tropics during cold weather. Its breeding habits are unknown but many people believe that the tarpon follow up the rivers to spawn. This theory seems likely as at certain times of the year the Chagres River is alive with tarpon while at other times they are fairly scarce.

At Gatun, according to an old newspaper account, the tarpon are caught on a fly. This method was started about 1916 probably about the time that Governor Goethals issued an official circular prohibiting fishing in the Chagres River below the spillway at Gatun except with a rod and reel.

Circa 1950s, Mr. Wendell Cotton of Gatun, with the Tarpon he caught fishing the Chagres River. Picture compliments of his son, Allen Cotton.

Thrill Of Thrills

An angler standing on the bank of the spillway with a 12-foot bass rod or a 9 1/2 foot fly rod, 200 yards of 12- or 13-pound line, small lead wires, Brown Hackle fly and a No. 6 hook can get a thrill that he will remember the rest of his days, old-timers reported.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor Day, the Gatun Tarpon Club was closed for the duration,the locale commandeered for defense purposes and the historic old Tarpon Club demolished as a fire hazard because of its strategic position near the Gatun Locks.

Since the war, much of the old life has been resumed at the Tarpon Club with a transfer of the members and their equipment to three Quonset huts placed at their disposal by the U.S. Army subject to the right of the Army to reoccupy the buildings if and when necessary as a defense measure. At the beginning of the war in Korea, the Army did just that. They reoccupied four Army buildings in that area and one and half belonging to the Tarpon Club.
Future Plans

The 138 members of the Tarpon Club, however, are making plans for the future, and within a few years they hope to have a new clubhouse constructed which will have all the comforts of the pre-war fishing headquarters plus a few modern touches. The site chosen for the new building is on a hill overlooking both the Chagres River and Gatun Lake.

Meanwhile, a number of the members have built fishing boats on which they spend their weekends. The boats range from 18 to 20 feet in length and have names as ingenuous as their construction. Visitors should not be misled by the fact that they are homemade, however, for each is a hardy, seagoing craft which could stand up to a mild buffeting at sea should the owner decide to go fishing beyond the mouth of the Chagres River.

During the past few years, fishing here as well as in other parts of the world has become more specialized and there is increasing emphasis on the conservation of game fish. It is no longer considered sporting to catch fish in large numbers.

Experts now use a point system which takes into consideration the size of the fish in relation to the size of the line and equipment used. The point system is a complicated business understood only by fishermen but on this system trophies are awarded twice each year to the members with the largest number of points. Usually they go to the anglers with skill rather than luck and with perserverance rather than brawn.

August, 1949 - L-R; Fred Hatchett, George Hatchett ... Bill Hildeman and the tarpon they caught fishing downriver! (The Chagres River below the Spillway and Tarpon Club). Picture compliments of George Hatchett.


A TARPON TALE

From: Yearbook - Society of the Chagres, 1915
***
Where the spillway from Gatun Lake runs into the old Chagres River the river is just full of salt water fish, and while the fish are just as thick as
herring in the Potomac in the spring, unlike the herring, these have come up
to feed and have brought their appetites with them.

Tarpon have been caught weighing 50, 60 and 70 pounds. A chap who loaned me a rod and reel told me to use only two lengths of the rod, for if a tarpon did strike it he would break the tip. this chap told me had hooked four
tarpons and that if he had landed one of them he would have called it a day
and knocked off. I asked him how he fished for them and he said: "Well,
you see the tarpon chase the snooks up into shallow water, and the snooks
chase the minnows up close to the bank. first you catch the minnows with a
pin hook, then you catch a small snook, and then you use the snook for bait
to catch a tarpon."

I caught the minnows O.K. and then had so much fun catching snooks that I
didn't try for tarpon. One good reason is that snooks are good to eat,
while tarpon taste about like carp, so they say. Another good reason is I
didn't have enough line. You should have at least 50 yards, and a hook that
will just about fit around an egg. Then you use about two feet of wire for
a leader on the hook, as they can bite the line off. I hooked one, and he
sure cut some circles for about two minutes, was in the air most of the
time, but on one trip he flipped his tail at me, said "adios," and broke the
hook.

It is well to have a thumb stall on or a piece of leather over the reel to
press on as a brake when they start to run. If you don't, the line will
burn your thumb.

An Army officer who, like me, had never fished there before and, also like
me, was just fishing for snooks, hooked one. The tarpon must have decided this was no place for a preacher's son, and crowded on all steam for the open sea and home. The officer tried to use his thumb for a brake, but gave it up quickly. The tarpon took all the line off the reel and out to sea
with him. I will never forget how surprised and funny that officer looked
as the end of the line whipped off the end of his rod, and he said: "My
God, that must have been a whale."

--Contributed by Frank Mack

 


The Gatun Tarpon Club, circa 1958, picture compliments of Lance Terrell, CHS '58.

Gatun Tarpon Club, as she looks today - both this picture and the following picture, compliments of El Senor Jim. Who says, "One still can't beat the Corvina Sandwich for lunch here"!

The Spillway Bridge, March 1999

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