The Keys Chronicles (Pt. 7): Tarpon
It’s hot. There’s the smell of stale sweat mingled with the windborne scent of mangroves as the flats to the northward dry out and a zillion myriad invertebrates bake in the sun, and I bake right along with them. We’re west of Key West and south of most everything dry within sight, though I can just make out a few distant keys standing mirrored in the mirage to the south. I’m not alone; tarpon hunting isn’t typically a solitary sport, but when you’re up there on the bow and it’s been awhile since you’ve seen a fish, you tend to forget that there’s someone back there, poling the boat.
The tarpon comes out of nowhere, cruising right to left and on an easy intersect course with our skiff. I’m on the bow, trying to delay that moment when I would have to admit that, dangit, yes, we’re too shallow now and tarpon fishing is over for the day, and knowing that means reeling in and grabbing the smaller rod with a bonefish/permit fly on it.
But, sometimes life hands you those perfect moments.
“Ok, better grab the bonefish rod; we’re too shallow for tarpon here.”
“You mean like that one right there?”
“Where? …Holy Shit! Cast, man, cast! Wait, let me stop the boat.”
The fish is off the starboard bow and I’m afraid to cast directly over the boat and hook my companions, so I make a cast that’s not only off-target, but too short. I know I’ve only got one more chance so I pick up, shoot one back cast, and bomb it out there at an angle calculated to intercept. I hope. It’s a guessing game at this point. The fish could turn aside and miss the fly entirely; the fly could sink too much and hang up on the shallow, weedy bottom; or, the fish could turn toward us and see the fly line. But none of those happen. The fly lands about ten feet ahead of the fish and I just let it sit there, waiting. I can no longer see the tarpon in the water—as it crossed the bow it moved under the glare to our left—so I’m just guessing at where the fish would be if it kept swimming at the same speed.
At what feels like the right moment I twitch the fly. A giant head breaks the surface as the fish rolls, taking the fly on the way back down. It’s headed away from me so the line is instantly tight and the fish is on. After days of fruitless casting, spooked fish, and half-hearted follows from reluctant tarpon, such an obvious, aggressive take leaves us all in disbelief. A microsecond later the fish’s head is out of the water and shaking, and it’s big.
“Holy ––––––––––––– shit!”
All of a sudden everyone’s yelling. The Great White Hoke is trying to start the engine and follow the fish, BarJack is securing the pushpole, and I’m trying not to pass out from shock. The tarpon tries to jump, but the water is so shallow and the fish is so big that it’s more of a belly-flopping lunge. I instantly realize what a foolish thing I’ve done (which is a feeling I’m sure I share with all of the tarpon anglers that have gone before me). The fact that I’m using a little nine-weight—a beast of a flyrod I’ve dubbed “Pancho” —makes my folly a little more dire, and (in retrospect) funnier.
By this time the fish is hell and gone and my backing has vanished in a scary fast-forward of anything I’ve ever experienced. I realize that in a few moments it will be completely gone and I debate jumping in and swimming after the fish. Hoke is doing his best to follow, but we’re so shallow that the motor is just kicking up foam and we’re barely making steerage-way. Way out there the tarpon jumps, this time clearing the surface in a clean leap, straight for the sky. It’s so far away now that it could be a different fish free jumping, and I only know it’s mine because the reel slows and my backing stops in mid-Houdini. (Thank goodness, too, I thought I’d have to go back to Worldwide that evening and feed my brand new ten-weight reel to the guy behind the counter who told me “don’t worry, 200 yards is plenty for any fish.”)
The next twenty minutes or so—I’m merely guessing here, since the whole experience was so surreal that time ceased to register: for all I know I could have been chasing that fish for days, or just a few minutes—the tarpon leads us on a wild chase, first out to the deep water, then back into shallow flat (where, again, we have to tilt the engine so high that we’re barely moving), under a broken anchor line (still attached to the anchor), around a shark, and back out to deep water where the real fight begins. I vaguely remember all this: BarJack leaping past me barefoot off the bow to clear my line from the anchor rope, a momentary scare when the shark showed up, and the endless struggle to retrieve line while keeping it tight. Good ol’ Hoke jockeys the skiff like a pro, speeding up to help me retrieve line, slowing down when the line gets too slack, and even turning away from the fish when it runs back at us. At this point it’s mostly a skiff versus fish game, and I’m just the guy holding the rod and reeling like mad. But that is all about to change.
The fight that follows is mostly quiet, punctuated by curses and the reluctant zzzzzzz—zzz of the drag as the fish takes line. Occasionally Hoke gasses the motor and turns the skiff to give me a better angle. Sweat stings my eyes and various joints begin to cramp, starting with my right hand as I struggle to retrieve line. My left leg keeps shaking. An indeterminate length of time later the fish is rolling next to the boat and I see that I can turn her at will now. BarJack is lying flat on the deck reaching for that giant mouth. He’s got blue gloves on and I can clearly see my little fly stuck in the top lip, slightly right of center. The moment of the grab is hidden from me behind BarJack’s head, but suddenly he screaming, and it’s a good scream so I put down my rod and head forward to see “my” fish. My first touch is delicate. I find the silver mechanism of her open jaw a marvel of streamlined leverage and translucent membrane. The barbless fly is an incongruity that is easily removed. I’m retrospectively worried to see that the hook has opened under the strain of our fight. We ease her head back under water and Hoke puts the skiff in gear. A moment later she shoots from our grasp, drenching us with a farewell tail-slap and vanishing into the green world that surrounds us.
I sit down, shaky and sore. We high-five and slap backs, but there’s no celebratory champagne to pop, nor even cheap beer. In keeping with our minimalist ethos we crack lukewarm bottles of water. As we turn the boat toward Key West and the long run home, I know I’ll be riding this high for days—not so much the fight (where even though I “won” I feel like I’ve just had my ass handed to me), nor even the high of landing my first real big Florida Keys tarpon, or even the clean release and watching the fish swim strongly away, but instead I keep replaying the sight of a 90 pound fish rolling on a fly in two feet of water. I might fish for another 50 years and never witness such a take, much less be a part of it.
I keep hearing the immortal words of Jim Harrison: “Who said that we go through life with a diminishing portfolio of enthusiasm? …So you try to seek out in life moments that give you this immense jolt of electricity. So you try to have something that gives you this electricity, and freshens up your feeling about being alive.”
I’m immediately depressed that I might have peaked with my first experience.