Florida Keys Chronicles: Relentless
April 12, 2011
He’s young, blond, mostly, but fading to gray at the edges. By the way he carries himself I’m guessing football, college, maybe. But it’s his hands that catch my eye; they’re hard, thick, construction workers hands. Though I imagine they’re still mobile enough, they appear solid, immovable, and lay on the table like objects with weight. There’s a stark incongruence between the boyish face and those hands, and as the story unfolds I glance from one to the other, trying to reconcile the two.
“So, I’ve got a story for you.”
“Yeah? Let’s hear it.”
“She was relentless. Super Natural. Spectacular. She was everything I have ever aspired to be and more, and I feel less of a man (and much less than spectacular) for killing her—an athlete the likes of which I’d never seen before this Sunday. I still love this game, but never, ever anticipated feeding a stout 70-year old woman to an 18-foot hammerhead shark.
She thrashed her way across the bow of my little skiff, tail-walking as blood streamed from her gills. You know how time can seem to slow down in those situations? You see every head-shake, the water exploding away like droplets of mercury. Well, I actually had time to have a conversation with Adam about breaking her off because she was gut hooked. Tarpon gut hooked by a fly? But Adam yelled, ‘Na dude it’s normal. Don’t you dare break her off!… Holy shit, look at her walk on water’.
“Wait, that’s normal?”
“I guess… Adam says he sees it all the time.”
“What a beast…”
“Wait, wait, wait. How did you get into this fish? Oceanside, laid-up, migratory, what?”
“Yeah, big migratory fish… so deep and fat. Head like a Clydesdale. Imagine that: a horse running, bucking, bleeding from its ears as it leaves a trail of blood on the green grass.
We were up Largo way and see this huge school in deeper water. So we pole out there but they seem to be ducking the fly out there. They’d come up then go back down, and I couldn’t maneuver the boat; too deep, you know. So, we decide to head up the coast, try to head them off as they push into shallow water. It’s nice up there, sandy, clear, almost like down south. Sure enough here comes the same school—there was a fish in there with a white spot on its back and there it was.
I never know what to do with those large schools like that: like 80 fish. Pretty soon they’re bumping into the boat and just milling around like cattle—not spooked yet but like “shit, there’s a boat here, what do we do?” I’m casting on em, making it worse when Adam yells from the platform, “Go way back in the school; they’re coming forever, man, you’ve got time!” So I look back there and see this big shadow on the edge of the school, big fish. I blast it out there, line like three other fish and put it in that fish’s face. She kicks once, twice, and just hammers that fly. I’m like, ok, clear the line, be calm. The line is gone in a second, and then she starts jumping.
The sheer ferocity of its movements was staggering. I could never expect better ever again—maybe different, but never better. She did four marlin jumps parallel to the water, her wild tail lashing a blur every single time. Adam and I both though the fight would be over soon because of the insane jumps and runs… and the blood too. We were wrong.
I soon leveled my adrenalin and corrected my breathing and posture for battle. I was challenged to a heavyweight fight. I drank water early and remembered to incorporate my legs to save my back. I’ve seen people fight a fish like this one seated on the casting platform with a high rod. That differed from my strategy.
My plan was to bring the fight to the fish. I believe I did this. Blow for blow for three hours. We traveled from the shore of Key Largo to the reef. Around buoys, towers, sea fans, coral outcroppings. I forgot about the blood because I had to. Constant pressure, side pressure, crank down, lift the legs all in rhythm. It was toe-to-toe, and I didn’t feel bad about what I was doing in the least. Dead lifting a monster fish from fifteen feet a hundred times with an 11-weight never got old. Everything was right and I felt good. I was going to land this fish.”
He seemed to be struggling with something at this point. As he continued his words came slowly, as if he were trying to find his way along.
“As the sun set the fight was changing. The fish stayed up longer. When she would take air I could stop her half way from the bottom. I was the Old Man n The Sea, only in much better shape and in a really sweet boat. Technically we had the leader in the rod many times. The fish was caught. I wanted to touch it. Many times I wanted to jump on its back. Shortly after Adam grabbed the leader the fish launched in the air again at the end of the second hour! “and i wanted to grab that fish’s mouth” he said! She later jumped again this time her tail didn’t kick as it soared parallel to the surface. I had so much respect and admiration for that animal at the end. I know what I am capable of. I never expect as much from others. Earlier in the day when fishing was slow I was asked if I had ever lost a Tarpon to a shark. ‘No’, I said.
I had slowed and stopped her again half way from the bottom. In my next breath the fish made an erratic burst and was under the boat in a second. ‘Adam, something’s wrong… I think I just got sharked.’ The fish circled tight under the boat and I felt something new rubbing the leader. Thump. Thump! The fish was hit hard. ‘Shark’. I said, sadly this time as the line went slack.
The light was low; I felt sick. I saw, we both saw the five-foot grey fin surface twenty feet away. There was a silver flash in front of it. A few minutes later a four-foot dorsal surfaced as the monster hammer cleaned his plate. It was so big I felt small and vulnerable. ‘Adam, what say we motor away a bit?’ ‘Yeah, I can even smell the cut fish.’
We split the last beer; I wished we had a spot light to find the way home.”
It’s quite for a bit—a sobering pause, like the moment of silence at a funeral—then he speaks again, his blue eyes staring at his hands on the table.
“So I just gave my modern version old man in the sea. I wish that fish still alive. I will still tarpon fish. I think mother nature tough. I wish the shark indigestion. May the fucker choke on my worm fly. Does a fish of such grandeur deserve to be treated this way? Its not a game, though we tell ourselves it is. Here is what I will do differently next time: Make the cast, hold my marbles , and clear my line. Shout like an Indian and lean into the fish. Every fish is different. Some will come to the boat under the same pressure in a short and reasonable time. Pet on the head, photograph, and be sent on their way, aggravated and winded, but not beat to hell for three hours.
I want to hear the drag scream and lean into a heavy fish. I will do that. Not three hours worth. I could go home and read The Old Man and the Sea with the remaining two and a half hours. The shark and I are the same. Predators. Merciless. But I’m not gonna be that guy again. I think popping the fish off is what is best for the fish. I felt like I should tell this story to encourage others to do the same. I also want to publically pay respect to the animal that helped me arrive at place in my life as a sportsman, a sport with (hopefully) a better understanding of this understanding of mutual respect we all need to have for the animals we love, and those that chase them.”
“Yeah… I’ll drink to that.”