The Keys Chronicles (Pt. 6): Tarpon
“Massively miraculous, a very powerful force, extraordinary;
so extraordinary as to create immediate unreality
in the process upon contact with the fish.”
~ Richard Brautigan, 1973.
The Keys Chronicles
This season we’re staying at Nate “Dubya’s” Mullet Camp, like always. But this year the flavor is distinctly different, in a bare-bones, fish-camp kind of way. We won’t be sipping our Cuban coffees around his kitchen counter while we whip up new flies, nor lounging on his couch with cocktails after a home cooked dinner of lemon-pepper mahi-mahi. We won’t because (in a fit of hubris and with the best intentions) he gutted the place. This was a few months ago, when business was still booming and before the economy went into low gear and rich people’s portfolios dried up, taking his business with them. His place was a simple structure to begin with—basically a cube with a pitched roof—but when it was full of the accoutrements and paraphernalia of daily life—appliances, stove, counters, tables, and chairs, not to mention lights, walls, and a ceiling—it seemed a normal sort of place. Homely, even. But, with the interior stripped down to the studs and planking, and the ceiling nothing more than a tangle of wires among the rafters—in fact, the underbelly of the roof—well, you feel like you’re seeing a whole different space, like a flat laid bare by low tide.
Thankfully the exterior of the Mullet Camp is much the same, with its wrap-around balcony populated by the odd chair or side table, the warped, moldy floorboards, and the antique tarpon mount hanging at the head of the stairs. It’s cool up there, damp. In the morning—sipping my Cuban coffee and browsing though fly boxes wondering what the fish might like today—I hear doves cooing in the distance and smell the ocean, barely a hundred yards to the south. Even the foliage reminds me of home. There’s Caribbean birch, poinsiana, croton, and coconut palms. However, there are also oak trees and other species I can’t name but which belong firmly to the north American continent.
It feels early, but the rest of the tarpon-fishing world has already put in a good four hours by now. That’s the thing about tarpon fishing, you’re either up before the birds—you can still see stars as you hitch the trailer to the pickup, and you’re on the water when dawn is just a promise on the eastern horizon—or you’re on the veranda nursing your second cup of coffee and checking your leaders while you wait for the sun to rise high enough so you can actually see the fish through the water.
When you do the nocturnal thing you’re looking for rolling fish as dawn breaks, but that’s a hit or miss affair. If the wind is up the fish won’t roll, or you can’t see them if they do. Also, the rolling hour is over quickly and then you’re just sitting there, in a boat, waiting for daylight. If you happen to nail one early you’re glad you made the effort, but if don’t you begin to pine for bed (or wherever you happen to have slept) and wonder if tarpon are really worth all this. By eight o’clock you realize you’ve been blind casting for an hour just to stay awake… and also because the fish are out there, right, one might just grab it.
There’s something magical about that pre-dawn time when tarpon are rolling in channels, canals, and the lee of keys or islands. And if I ever had a perfectly calm morning down here I might be convinced to make the effort and grab a little of that early morning magic for myself, but when’s the last time it was even remotely calm in the Keys in June? Maybe it’s just me—most of my itinerant fishing experience has been in something approaching a young hurricane—but it could simply be the season. I mean, early summer isn’t exactly the calmest period, meteorologically speaking, but that is when the tarpon are here. If I refused to fly fish in the wind I’d never get a cast off. (Never mind that all the trips I’ve taken in the summer, fall, winter or otherwise have been plagued by the same seasonable/unseasonable windy conditions, so maybe it is me after all.) I wonder what would happen if I did encounter a windless day on the flats…