At the close of a brisk December workday in 1890, 69-year old Walter N. Haldeman rose from behind his desk, slipped into his overcoat, draped a wool scarf around his neck, and hat in hand headed home. For the next few weeks, the staff at the Louisville Courier-Journal was instructed to tell all who inquired about the newspaper owner’s whereabouts that he had simply ‘gone fishin.‘
Walter N. Haldeman’s final destination the following morning was sparsely populated in Southwest Florida. Leaving Louisville and its 161,129 residents behind, he boarded a train with a small suitcase of lightweight clothing and a strong pliable 8-foot long split bamboo rod with a multiplying reel in hand, which he had custom-made in Louisville. His first stop was Jacksonville where, via the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West and Florida Southern Railroads, he was transported as far south as Punta Gorda, on Charlotte Harbor.
Upon arrival, Haldeman boarded a steamer and traveled south for 90 miles and disembarked at the 2-year old Naples Pier. A prize was lying in wait beneath the brackish waters between the mouth of Naples’ Gordon River and the Gulf of Mexico where in his words “here the Tarpon abounds-here is the angler’s paradise.”
In 1892, a select group of 20 men, each thorough in his knowledge of a specific game fish, were asked to write an essay for publication in a book titled “American Game Fish.” Walter N. Haldeman wrote a 20-page essay about the Tarpon, an excerpt of which appears below.
“THE Tarpon has been technically described as Mcgalops Atlanticns and Mcgalops Thrissoidcs, the latter being used in the excellent compilation known as ‘The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States,’ issued by the United States Fish Commission.
“The Tarpon is therein called Tarpon, and classed under ‘families related to the Clupcidiey.’
“In this connection, it may be stated that comparatively little is known of the habits. A search through the Encyclopedia Britannica, or other authorities, will make this fact patent. The authority above quoted is the best with which I am acquainted. It says: An immense, herring-like fish, which occurs in the Western Atlantic and in the Gulf of Mexico, ranging north to Cape Cod and south at least to Western Brazil.’
“During September 1879, I saw large numbers of Silver Fish eight or ten miles up the Apalachicola River, and am told that that was not an unusual occurrence. They go up the Homosassa River in Florida, and several of the Texas rivers, so I have subsequently learned The Tarpon will take a baited hook, but it is difficult to handle and is seldom landed. The Pensacola seine-fishermen dread it while dragging their seines, for they have known of persons having been killed or severely injured by its leaping against them from the seine in which it was enclosed. Even when it does not jump over the cork-line of a seine, it is quite likely to break through the netting before being landed.
“I have secured several specimens, the smallest of which weighed thirty pounds, and the largest about seventy-five pounds. Since the publication of ‘The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States,’ in 1884, much valuable literature in connection with the Tarpon has been furnished the periodical press of the country. Yet the ichthyology of the Tarpon is far from complete, and there remain many facts relative to his habits, habitat, etc., to be, and which it is hoped will be, in time, unfolded.
“I consider Tarpon-fishing the grandest sport with the rod and reel to be had upon the globe; and the study, therefore, of the ways and peculiarities of the fish is an absorbing one. After taking a Tarpon on light tackle, other forms of angling become a tame sport. His magnificent vaults into mid-air, wonderful spurts and powerful dashes for liberty, allied to his remarkable beauty, quickly convert the tyro in this form of angling into an enthusiast.
“His weight varies, according to my observations, between fifteen or twenty pounds and one hundred and seventy-five, and in length they reach as much as seven feet and over. Their build indicates great power, and a generous and dainty fare. In shape they are very symmetrical; and in a large and powerful tail, and numerous fins of ample size and sweep, they possess most formidable weapons in a contest for liberty.
“They are covered with brilliant scales; whose exposed portions are almost one-fourth of the whole. When detached, the part of the scale which gives the fish its beautiful luster looks as though it had been dipped in molten silver. It is this remarkable brilliance which has won the Tarpon its designation of the ‘Silver King.’ The bronze and golden tints on the sides of the fish, noticeable only a few hours after being landed, add much to his beauty.”
Upon his return to Louisville, Walter N. Haldeman, founder of Naples, had an extra piece of baggage, a 78-pound, 6-foot 11-inch Tarpon he landed after a one hour and forty-five-minute encounter with the king of the seas and had preserved by a Fort Myers taxidermist.
Since he already had a previous catch mounted on the wall behind his desk at the Courier-Journal, he donated this exhausted adversary to the Polytechnic Society of Louisville, Kentucky.
Naples Historical Society is the Central Voice of Naples History and operates Historic Palm Cottage a 3500 square foot house–museum opened to the public throughout the year. This article is part of the Society Sage Stories series prepared exclusively for this publication. It was written in March 2020, and is based primarily on the 2010 book “Naples, A Second Paradise: The History of Naples, Florida. For more information, go to www.NaplesHistoricalSociety.org.