Tarpon feeding by hand in the Florida Keys

By Scott Fais, Feature Reporter
Last Updated: Sunday, July 27, 2014, 6:52 AM EDT
Robbie's Marina
tankful on demand

Just under the surface of the waters off Islamorada awaits a hungry beast.

"You don't use a pole or a hook for this," explains fourth-grader Ava Stamper.

Rather, you use your hands.

"Down, down, down…" shouts father Dave Bull, from England, as he encourages his son to get close.

"Just do it," Bull adds, as his son leaps and swears while our camera rolls.

"Don't swear. You're on the telly," Bull tells his son, laughing.

Yes, yes you are. Just off the Overseas Highway in Islamorada is a natural phenomenon of sorts. For decades, tourists from around the world have visited Robbie's Marina in the Florida Keys to feed tarpon by hand.

"It's the only way to feed them," Bull says. "You got to do it and touch — if you're brave enough."

"No fishing here," says Mark Potez, who over the past 16 years at Robbie's has earned the title of "Tarpon Tamer."

"You don't go to the zoo and bag a lion. You know what I mean?" Potez adds, laughing.

Potez has a "fish tale" of how this all started.

"It started with one fish," he explains. "They got a vet to sew up his jaw, they let him go, and then they started amassing around the docks."

Today, the tarpon at Robbies weigh in at 150 pounds.

"Once you get them to roll, you can see the girth on them," says Potez.

"Giant, about this big," says Natalie Stamper, visiting from Wisconsin, as she spreads her arms to show the size of the tarpon she fed. "Really big!"

Stamper said she used caution when feeding the tarpon.

"I feel like they would come up and bite me," she explained.

The process is intimidating.

"You know they are doing it right when they are screaming," Mark explains.

"They look like a shark, kind of, because they are really big," observes young Ava.

Mark then turns to me and says, "All right. You ready, Scott?"

Dig in, pull out a capelin and lean over.

"Are you ready?" Mark asks again.

"Not yet!" I reply, adding, "Has anybody ever lost a digit?"

"No," Mark tells me. "Not yet."

The camera captures me letting out a yell as the tarpon takes the bait.

"There you go!" Mark says. "Let the fish do the work. He will come get it."

"I've been doing this for 16, 17 years, and it never gets old," he adds, laughing.

After several attempts — and several buckets — the fear subsides, since they have no teeth.

And, well, that is the secret. You see, the tarpon aren't really into people. You could walk up to them and not even get hurt.

"It makes you jump, but it's fun," Bull says.

In fact, learn from the Wall of Shame: You should be more concerned about losing sunglasses or cell phones than a finger.

"If you look at the Wall of Shame, it's a walkthrough of technology," says Mark. "You can see the old phones, the 'brick' phones. It's a montage of technology."

And since admission is only $1, feeding a tarpon is one of the best values in the Florida Keys.

"They are beautiful fish," Bull remarks.

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