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The Metropolitan Tarpon of San Juan

love Leadin

    There have been many nights spent far up unnamed river tributaries, the only sounds that of tiny frogs, the rustle of wind in the thatch roof and a distant deep voice of mystery from the jungle. But not this time. Not in this place.
    San Juan, Puerto Rico, waits until well past the witching hour before its nightlife takes an unfathomable breath and open its eyes. The lights are bright, the traffic pounds. Sidewalks clatter with footsteps as diners, drinkers and dancers find their paths through open doorways, until the night sky overhead rotates away to the other side of the earth. The music scene is muy rico y suave. Salsa is taken to the next level by altosaxophone lines speaking the language of ska. It’s smoother than the dark 8-year-old rum. The place is a ball. It leaves much to reflect upon, then, in the hallowed stillness, the quiet holy moment of the fisherman’s morning, waiting at the water’s edge for the first light of dawn. Shortly, the sun will reflect enough orange light from the bottom of the clouds in the east to go out on to the water. Mist rises from the lagoon’s surface, gray edges of mangroves just perceived without enough light to stimulate the color receptors of our retinas. A sublime instant.
    Then, instead of the call of gulls heading out to sea for the first flight of morning, a Boeing 757, the Jet Blue redeye from Nueva York, roars down the trigonometry of its approach to San Juan International just next door. This is countered by an Airbus 320, blasting skyward on the first flight of the morning to Miami. Tiger Woods could ping the thing with a 3-iron.
    “Forty-five minutes,” says Capt. Omar Orraca of Caribbean Outfitters, sitting beside me. “That’s my record.”
    He nods at the next jet throttling down toward the runway. “A lady from the States who fishes here regularly had her first tarpon on within 45 minutes of walking off the plane.” That tells the tale of this rather unique place.
    Indeed there are many examples of urban fisheries, such as striper fishing before the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, the record sturgeon in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bay or even the streams and ponds of Tulsa. All are jewels of respite from the neighboring hectic environment. Yet these brackish mangrove lagoons are large and the fishing pressure is low … and they’re full of tarpon all of the time.
    This includes the San Jose and Torrecilla lagunas. In fact this fishery claims some other records, including the most tarpon caught in a single day (56), and the second most (47) by a group of one captain and two anglers.
    Tarpon drive me crazy. They make me nuts. I go totally crackers. They roll and gulp air all around the boat, even when they are not feeding. What or who else does that?
    Tarpon have an air bladder connected to their esophagus that is full of blood vessel-rich alveolar tissue similar to a lung. This exchanges oxygen across the membranes of arterioles onto hemoglobin for transport in the blood. Juvenile tarpon are obligatory air-breathers, dependent upon air for their oxygen, even while swimming in oxygen-rich water. As adults, they continue this more likely as a learned behavior. In one study, adults were placed in an aquarium with a lid so they couldn’t gulp air and still thrived, so they were no longer air-dependent.
    This behavior does make them more adaptable to oxygen-depleted brackish water, but I still think they mainly do this to exasperate me.

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