- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

ISLAMORADA, Fla. — It’s always feeding time at Robbie’s of Islamorada, where the 100 or so tarpon lined up like miniature submarines below a bayside pier don’t have to worry about getting a hook in the mouth to get a meal.

To get the giant tarpon to leap up in the air at the marina on this island in the Florida Keys, tourists offer dinner in the form of dead herring tossed from a bucket or dangled a few inches out of the water.

The hungry tarpon have been the marina’s star attraction for decades, attracting visitors who want a close encounter with the fish nicknamed the “Silver King.”

Cynthia Maddox, on vacation with her family from Chicago, encouraged her 13-year-old daughter, Pattie, to hold her fish closer to a 7-foot-long, 100-pound-plus behemoth whose oversized eyes were focused on her.

“She’s a coward,” she said, as her daughter decided instead to toss the fish well out into the water as three tarpon raced to it.

The Maddoxes learned about Robbie’s from a tour book, and found this was the cheapest entertainment in town — $1 per person, and $2 per bucket of herring.

The tarpon-feeding at the marina started nearly three decades ago, when a lone injured tarpon was rescued by a kindly business owner who had recently set up his bayside business at mile marker 77 on the north side of the island.

Robbie Reckwerdt called a local veterinarian to help the tarpon with the torn jaw, and the fish got stitched up and earned the nickname “Scarface.” The injured fish recovered in a tank and was released back into Florida Bay, but he kept returning to the dock to get fed. More and more tarpon joined him, and soon Robbie’s was the local tarpon population’s choice for a free lunch.

It’s not uncommon for tarpon to hang out at marinas and docks, but not in the numbers that gather daily at Robbie’s.

Scarface hasn’t been seen in the last decade, and has since likely moved on to “the big aquarium in the sky,” said Robbie’s manager Mark Poetz.

Tarpon can grow to up to 8 feet long and 280 pounds, and can live more than 50 years, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

They are considered game fish that are not good for eating. They’re usually caught and released, but anglers in Florida with a special tag can keep them for mounting at $50 a fish. But there’s no fishing allowed at Robbie’s dock.

At the marina, there appears to be a bit of a hierarchy to determine what areas the tarpon stake out. The smaller ones congregate at the beginning of the pier. The larger ones pretty much go wherever they want, but mostly hang out at the end of the 60-foot long pier.

“We provide a haven for them,” said Annie Reckwerdt, who owns the marina with her husband, Michael. “Nobody messes with them here.” The couple took over the business from his father — Robbie Reckwerdt — about nine years ago. In addition to tarpon feeding, the marina offers boat rentals, fishing charters and snorkel tours.

While tarpon may look intimidating, they’re harmless, and will quickly scatter if someone has the misfortune to fall in, which has happened a few times, Mrs. Reckwerdt said. “The tarpon are more frightened of them.”

After getting helped out of the water, a soggy tourist is usually consoled with a T-shirt.

In the summer, up to 400 people a day visit the marina, Mrs. Reckwerdt said. Posted above the cash register is currency from South Africa, New Zealand, Poland, Costa Rica and Iraq.

The only time the fish take off is when the weather dips below 70 degrees, which happens occasionally in the winter.

“The fish will go out to deeper water in the gulf, then they come back when the temperature rises,” Mrs. Reckwerdt said. “Sometimes they’re gone for two to three weeks.”

Other times, crowded around the pier, they’re constantly eyeing upward in anticipation of the next tossed fish.

“You wonder who’s watching who, honestly,” Mr. Poetz said.

• • •

Robbie’s of Islamorada is on Route 1 in Islamorada at mile marker 77, about 65 miles southwest of Miami and 79 miles east of Key West.

Admission is $1 per person to see the tarpon, $2 per bucket of thread herring.

Robbie’s is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Christmas. For more information, visit www.robbies.com or call 877/664-8498.

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