The Galley’s Open (Pt. I)
December 25, 2000
After the holiday festivities we went down to the sea, my father and I. We loaded up flies, rods, flashlights, knives, casting buckets, and leader fixings, piled it all in his truck and went in search of tarpon. It seemed the thing to do.
Around here tarpon hunting doesn’t necessarily mean big motors, push poles, and twelve-weight rods. Almost every little puddle seems to hold fish, especially in the rainy season, and when you get tired of combing the canals, old quarry pits, and miscellaneous swampland, there are always the lighted seawalls. Tarpon are unusual; they seem to prefer habitat that would kill other fish in minutes. They breed in the stagnant backwaters and grow in the sluggish canals, especially those far enough inland to feel very little tidal flow. They are even found in completely landlocked ponds and inland mangrove swamps. On the other hand, they seem to have no trouble at all in coping with the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, so much so that segments of their population annually undertake a northward migration to their ancestral spawning grounds off the East Coast of North America. Such adaptability has no doubt been the key to their survival.
Today we were looking for a road to one of our favorite fishing spots. We know the back way to our fishing spot, but, frankly, are a little tired of hiking in every time. On the way we pass a fellow fly fisher by the roadside, parked near an area of what seemed like exposed swamp. He seemed to be scanning the water for signs of fish. Now, we had been through that area during the dry season and knew what he was staring at was nothing more than a low-lying meadow bordering some mangroves, basically a giant puddle. Judging by the rental-plates on his jeep, he probably didn’t know that. We figured we’d stop and save him the trouble of fishing in a rain-puddle. However, before we could get around to tactfully sharing this with him, my dad sees a fish boil about 70 feet out.
I have to say I was surprised, even though I had heard of stuff like this. It just didn’t seem reasonable that such a little patch of water could actually have a real, live sportfish in it. It seemed too much like spotting trout in a drainage ditch along an interstate. But the more I thought about it the more reasons I could find for the tarpon being there. These fish were babies that had been spawned a few seasons ago and had spent the dry season confined to a few relatively permanent pools in the swamp. With the rains they now had a chance to stretch a bit and were widening their range.
Every year around the rainy season tarpon get ready to spawn. Just like all other species they want to give their progeny every possible advantage as far as habitat is concerned. The thing is, they aren’t like other fish. They can go from the brine of the deep ocean to almost fresh water. They don’t need to swim to breathe, nor do they need moving, aerated water. They actually possess a primitive lung and if they need more air they simply come to the surface and get some. They have excellent night vision and have a large swim bladder that acts like a sounding board, picking up low frequency vibrations and amplifying them. They can feel rather than see prey in the murky, tannin-stained waters of canals and swamps.
Here’s what I understand is happening. During the rainy season when the mangroves are flooded the females swim as far inland as they can. Here they spawn and their offspring use these sluggish backwaters as a nursery. The young tarpon are soon kings of their new home, as even babies are much bigger than most other species of the torpid water lanes and drowned lowlands. Their natural predators can’t cope with these conditions so for the meantime the tarpon is safe. Eventually need will drive them to find the cleaner waters of the ocean, joining their brothers and sisters on the reefs and flats. This habitat also keeps the fish fairly distant from most fishermen, who are ill equipped to deal with the swarming mosquitoes, boggy marshes, and dense mangrove thickets. The tarpon’s only concessions are the occasional open marl-pit or backcountry canal where he shows himself by rolling in the cool of the day. Then it’s merely a matter of walking the banks looking for the spreading rings.
After we talked with the fly fisherman (and decided to let him keep fishing), we headed west. Night was coming on and challenging the mosquitoes in the windless mangroves would have been insanity. Instead we decided to try our hand in a place where there would be some wind to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Being what you might call old hands at this, you’d think we’d have given some attention to the weather, but no. By the time we reached the islands north shore a squall was blowing fiercely. The stretch of beach we had fished many times before, catching tarpon, snook, and even the odd snapper, was unrecognizable. Whitecaps broke inside the protective reef, half-drowning the pier we usually fished from. It was clear that no matter how practiced we were, there was no casting into that gale, and no point if we could. The normally clear water was as white and opaque as milk. How could any fish see a fly in that, or catch it if it did. No doubt any tarpon that hadn’t already headed for deeper water had enough trouble without our flies.
At least there were no mosquitoes.