The Keys Chronicles (Pt. 1)

Casting at a string of Tarpon


In honor of the fast waning tarpon season I have chosen to post a few scribbles about my indoctrination into this dangerously addictive sport. Fittingly, this took place in the quintessential tarpon fishery: the Florida Keys. To be sure, I’d caught tarpon before elsewhere, but it is the fish hooked on those fabled flats that truly seals one as a tarpon fisherman (with all that that entails).

June 13, 2008

I should have kept a proper log, like last time. As it is memory has already faded somewhat; the images in my mind’s eye blurring at the edges except for a few clear visions. I see Nate’s blue shirt precisely matching the color of the sky the day Eric (a.k.a. BarJack [1] ) got his tarpon. I see the northern horizon dark with brooding thunderheads moving improbably against the wind as we cast below for cruising bones, and the squall that caught us off Woman Key as we huddled in our slickers drinking cold coffee to ease the pain of the early morning run we had made to the Marquesas — a rough ride that netted us nothing but a hefty fuel bill and me a sore ass. Of course, there are images of fish too, but none so clear.

It seems my love affair with The Keys has involved a slow, mistimed courtship – the type that finally blossoms into a serious relationship. Perhaps it was all the hype that originally put me off; I’ve never liked things that were too popular, and every magazine, every Saturday morning fishing show featured this string of island on Florida’s southernmost tip. Small wonder I suppose. Easy to get to, predictable, and boasting the highest concentration of skilled guides [2] probably anywhere on the planet, the Keys are the American answer to the exotic fishing destination .

Of course, my initial lack of enthusiasm could also stem from the fact that at first this archipelago seemed reluctant to reveal any of its fishy secrets, and I could scarcely afford a guide to enlighten me. Fish were few, far between, and required more than an inordinate amount of work, not to mention head-scratching, bewilderment, and a string of obscenities nearly as long as The Keys themselves. I grudgingly admit this has made our eventual successes all the sweeter – not to say that I’ve been overwhelmed by good fortune there, but fish have been caught. Each fish from these waters is a prize, and should be treasured as such – like the glass of single malt you savor at the day’s end when the boat, rods, and yourself have been temporarily washed free of the salt spray… or as is more frequently the case, the rum and soda with a splash of lime that you quickly down prior to falling face first onto the bed, couch, or floor to briefly lose consciousness before arising at dawn to do it all again.

Life can be hard in the Keys.

1 Earned because of an uncanny ability to cast into a school of a few dozen bones and pull out a barjack. Consistently. Surely, we reasoned, he must have some affinity for these fish — like being incapable of holding still (unless unconscious), social (with others he considers part of his pack), and highly predatory… or maybe he just likes catching them, you know, more than bonefish. [back]
2 That’s just the point, isn’t it. I mean, other places like Belize, Honduras, or the Bahamas have guides who (as good as they are, and some are good) don’t have a degree in marine biology or philosophy or whathaveyou and their clients still catch the heck out of fish. True story. Honest. After a while you have to wonder, why are all the best guides in the world (allegedly) concentrated here? Could it be because the smartest fish in the world are also concentrated here? It begs the question, doesn’t it? Bit of a red flag, that? I’d much rather go someplace where the fishing’s awesome but “the guide was a bit of hack, right. A good guy, and all, but not exactly a guide’s guide. Still, we caught the hell out of fish, so no worries.” Wouldn’t you? Ok, I should probably let this go, but it deserves at least a glancing notice. Take, for example, the reputation of Key’s guides: they’re moody, grouchy, mean-tempered, in a word, crotchety. No wonder. If you had to deal with uncooperative fish and inexperienced (not to say “green horn”) clients every day — neither of which really does what it takes to connect with the other — you’d be pretty crotchety yourself, right? I mean, this crap goes on DAY AFTER DAY for weeks on end. I mean, bloody ‘ell, right? On the other hand, Caribbean guides (and those of the Pacific, I suppose) are known to be laid back, fun loving, and generally like the coolest guys ever. No wonder; they’ve got thousands of dumb-ass fish in their back yards just waiting to grab the fly/bait/lure of tomorrow’s gringo/tourist/’merican just like they did for today’s gringo/tourist/’merican sport. I’d be a laid back, fun loving local in line for the-coolest-guy-in-the-world prize too. Wouldn’t you? [back]

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