The Keys Chronicles (Pt. 5)

Grabbing a Key West Tarpon

June 13, 2008

Of course, the first time you’re out there you have no trouble believing. Watching that first string of fish headed your way, their dark shapes seeming to progress like stop-motion animation down the flat, you think, one of these has got to eat, right? Even if it’s a small bunch, say a dozen fish or so, the bite seems inevitable. You get ready, trying to remember all you’ve read or heard about tarpon fishing: don’t cast too soon, don’t cast too late, don’t cast too much, please turn over the fly, and, oh yeah, breath. Then comes that moment when your fly is finally in the air, for better or worse on an intercept with these fish which, you’re gradually realizing, are way too big for you to handle on a fly rod.

This has to be a mistake; you should never have come. These are extra-large fish, rare giants. Any second now you’re partner will say, get your fly out of there, those fish are too big! But the fly lands and you remember not to strip until the fish get close (which is miraculous since you would be hard pressed to remember your name if someone were to pick this particularly unfortunate moment to ask). Then the unbelievable happens: the lead fish puts on the brakes and slowly turns, giving the fly a wide birth. The rest of them follow, scarcely giving your precious fly so much as a glance.

On the poling platform your partner is frantically whispering for you to recast, but you can hardly hear their voice, which seems to come from a great distance, like you were at the bottom of a well. All you can think is, shut up; what good are instructions if you aren’t even going to speak English! Meanwhile you’re frantically stripping line back in to recast, but you try the back-cast too soon and your massive 12-weight “cannon” folds under the weight before you’re halfway through the stroke. Somehow you make it work anyway, hauling deeper than you ever have before to get the line moving. One more cast and you shoot again, this time over the lead fish’s back hoping the second or third tarpon is more amenable.

Of course, by now the fish are truly alarmed and they blow out unceremoniously. After a moment’s silence you very clearly hear your partner say, no worries, those were young fish anyways – I’d say fifty pounds tops. No problem, once the tide really gets moving we’ll get some bigger fish. Like a buffalo casually wandering across the green at the PGA Open, that phrase drifts through your mingled thoughts of disappointment and relief, scattering them like so many polyester polos… bigger fish?

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