Casting call: The fishy history of the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo
In 1928, Charles Jenkins Laboratories became the first holder of a television license from the Federal Radio Commission, Charles Lindbergh was presented with the Medal of Honor for his history-making transatlantic flight, Republican Herbert Hoover won the presidency in a landslide, and the nation’s oldest fishing competition, the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, was founded. In the years since, it’s become a much-anticipated annual event on the local summer calendar that lures anglers of all stripes to the tiny Jefferson Parish barrier island.
For South Louisiana residents, the rodeo is as much a part of summer as fireworks, snowballs and crab boils. It’s an intense fishing competition that’s also a festival and all-night, every-night three-day party. It can be counted to see bigwig politicians intermingling with working-class folks, all of whom “ooh” and “ahh” in unison at the trophy fish brought to the scales. Tarpon is the headline species, but there’s a host of categories, and other fish also carry clout. In 2017, in fact, a 383-pound warsaw grouper set a rodeo record as well as a state record.
- The rodeo, which is always held on the last full weekend in July, was cancelled in 1930 for reasons lost to history, in 1942 to ’45 due to World War II, and in 2010 due to the BP oil spill.
- Since the 1960s, the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo has been known as “the Granddaddy of Fishing Rodeos.”
- For most of the year, Grand Isle has a population of 1,500. On rodeo weekend, however, 25,000 anglers and partiers cram onto the 8 1/2-mile-long island.
- The first tarpon ever caught in the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo was a 103-pounder landed by Leo Marrero in 1928. Though the catch was bettered over the course of the competition, it earned Marrero the Alfred Danziger Cup for the first tarpon landed.
- The winner of that first rodeo was a 129 1/2-pound tarpon caught by Elvyn Moore.
- The contestants of the first rodeo dined on a 117-pound goliath grouper caught by W. Hoehn. Goliath grouper are no longer legal to harvest.
- Old photos and memorabilia from early rodeos were destroyed when Hurricane Katrina flooded Grand Isle in 2005.
- Though it’s held out of Grand Isle, the tarpon rodeo has its roots in New Orleans. Avid angler Hugh Wilkinson caught two tarpon near Fort Livingston in 1927, and proposed the idea of a tarpon tournament to New Orleans businessman John Cletus Donovan. With the sponsorship of the Alker-Donovan Co., the Grand Isle Tarpon Club was formed, and 11 “yachts” assembled at Grand Isle on Aug. 22 of the next year.
- According to rodeo historian Jerald Horst, the vast majority of attendees at the first rodeo were New Orleanians.
- The rodeo now has no location limits, but boundaries used to extend from Four Bayous Pass in the east to Caminada Pass in the west, and Middle Banks to the north and 25 miles offshore to the south.
- In 1951, one of the prizes given away at the rodeo was a brand-new Plymouth four-door sedan.
- Due to the quality of the prizes, cheating became rampant, and the rodeo in the early 1960s had to discontinue the issuance of prizes of significant value.
When it comes to celebrating south Louisiana culture, the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo is tough to beat. Not only does it revel in the state’s abundant natural resources and showcase the expertise of local anglers, but it also serves as a good excuse to party. The 1949 rodeo, for example, was marketed as “a big blow-out with music and abundant eats.” Some things in South Louisiana never change — and, to the delight of local anglers, the Tarpon Rodeo is one of them.