My car has ceased to operate. Or more precisely, the steering has. I am now reduced to biking everywhere, which is ridiculous since it’s already in the mid-eighty’s out there. I hate to begin a day at work by soaking myself in sweat and sending my pulse to levels that, honestly, just can’t be healthy. I haven’t purposefully sat astride a bicycle since I was sixteen, maybe seventeen – come to think of it since I first acquired motorized transport and a license to operate it. Now I’m joining the Canadian and South African dive masters in risking my life on the roads here, with nothing but fabric between my person and what I’ll generously describe as the third-world driving habits of the inhabitants. When you’re out there, in the beeping, honking heat, dodging chickens, scooters, and the ubiquitous tourist, expecting any moment to get crushed flat by an indifferent bus driver, you think certainly there are saner ways to get the blood pumping: amphetamines, maybe, or cliff jumping.
It was late evening and the sun had nearly set. After driving down the pothole-ridden excuse for a road at my habitual breakneck speed (which, upon consideration may have something to do with the busted steering), I hastily strung my rod and waded out to fish Sand Hole Flat. In the fading light I could make out what appeared to be a scattered school of bonefish. I began casting, hopeful, but expecting the usual results. I was not disappointed. No fish ate my fly.
After the sun went down I kept casting to what I’m still convinced were tailing bonefish. Whatever they were, I had no luck, other than a tense moment when I think a fish followed my fly. But, there was no take and with the low light I couldn’t be sure.
Finally I hooked something, something I was sure was no bonefish. For one thing it didn’t bolt for the horizon — as I’ve heard bonefish do — nor had I seen any of the tailing fish follow my fly’s gallant retreat across the flat. It turned out to be a baby grunt barely five inches long. I laughed heartily at the little fellow and promptly released him. I thought this a fluke and joked about it to some nearby baitfishers who had watched me land it.
“Geh’ sumting?” They asked.
“Yea, I had a li’l grunt deh dat t’aut he wa a boonfish. Man, wa’ a monsta’; ya cou’d jus’ bayrli see ‘im.”
They laughed, but seemed just as surprised as I that it had taken a fly. I’d always thought of grunts as scavengers, bottom feeders, certainly not the type to chase down prey. I could be wrong about that.
Fish were still moving — every so often I’d see a swirl or short push of water — so I kept casting and soon hooked another fish. This was much bigger, but though I gave it every opportunity it didn’t fight hard enough to get on the reel. At least I now understand what it means to hand-line a fish on a fly rod. This was another grunt, about twelve inches this time, and it too apparently thought my fly appetizing.
Grunts are actually a lovely fish  (pan-fried in coconut oil), so I gave it to the bait-fishers who were having a bad time of it. I wasn’t in the mood to clean fish myself.
I must admit that before catching these two fish I’d begun to think fly-fishing some elaborate hoax designed to swindle gullible fishermen into parting with large sums of their money. The pictures of old-timers standing beside a one hundred and eighty-plus pound tarpon or holding up a three-foot striper just proved that the whole thing was a great lie, perhaps concocted using computers or careful dark-room manipulation. Admittedly these artifacts weren’t nearly as crude as the postcard of the gang of fishermen heaving ashore the ten-foot trout, but doubtless the same principle applied. Neither fish could ever be caught on something as ridiculous as a fly rod.
Now I’m not so sure. Two grunts may not be a particularly auspicious way to begin a fly fishing career, but at least I now had evidence that the whole thing actually worked… at least it can work.
It was completely dark by this time and the mosquitoes were beginning to swarm, but with renewed hope I reeled in, determined to head home and crank out at least a half dozen flies of the same glorious pattern in various sizes and colors. Then, on the way home, the car broke down. For a brief period I could only turn the steering wheel to the left, which turned out to be fortunate since it allowed me to pull safely off the road . Turned out to be a faulty rack’n’pinion steering thingy, or something. The mechanic says it’s going to cost a hell of a lot anyways. All I know is it’s going to make getting to and from work a perfect nuisance, and going fly fishing practically impossible. It has left me with lots of time on my hands, but since there’s no pressure to rush off fishing soon, only one fly has been spun from my vise. Perhaps more shall follow, but with the resurrection of my aged auto sure take longer than the three days allotted Christ, I have slipped into a state of despondency which only the imminence of fishing can likely banish. My best hope for absolution is that the car shall be ready in time for the young moon and the next good set of fishing tides.
1 To this day every time I see a grunt I smell fried fish… sizzling in coconut oil and heavy on the pepper, just like grandma used to cook ’em. [back]
2 This particular Caribbean island, like much of the third world, has adopted the British habit of driving on the left. Had I been in the U.S. I don’t like to think what might have happened. It would certainly have been far more interesting… but probably only for the “onlookers”. [back]
Where does the time go? Here’s another episode of interesting.
If there was a book written about his life
it would be listed as a controlled substance
in most countries.
His wading shoes alone
have seen more action than most
(What did you think I was going to say?)
As a rule he never runs unless he has to.
Then again, he never has to.
He is… the most interesting guide in the world.
“I don’t always get to fish myself, but when I do I prefer bonefish.
Stay salty, my friends.”
My quest to fish in solitude ends down a long potholed road.  I’m standing on the northeastern-most tip of the peninsula where I grew up and as I look out over the flats I’m facing north toward Cuba and Key West beyond. To my right the beach gradually arcs around to the southeast. The white line of the reef break is clearly visable about a quarter-mile out, but it’s too distant to be heard.
It’s cool here, breezy; seems you can almost hear the silence, which is only accentuated by the incessant sighing of the waves and wind. In the open galleries beneath the casuarinas I can hear the distant sound of rain; the drowsiness is palpable. Of course it is only the song of the breeze whispering through the boughs. I can’t quite catch the words but they speak of sleep and the temptation to nap beneath them is nearly overpowering.I have not been here in years; maybe never. It’s a secluded area, without much to draw the casual visitor. (Even when you’re born and raised on an island, after a while all beaches start to look alike.) Theoretically I’ve driven all the way out here because of the fish, but really I want solitude as I practice my primitive fly casting. It’s going to be bad enough without the embarrassment of an audience.
When I first walk down to the beach I find a school of jacks feeding in a frenzy, probably on fries . The tiny fish are beaching themselves in an attempt to escape, trading a quick death for a slow. Of course, my rod isn’t strung, and by the time I frantically flail through the unfamiliar process (missing a guide or two on the way) the jacks are long gone and the flat is silent. Silent, that is, except for what I can only assume is the beginning of an unseasonably late nor’wester. I hope that’s not the typical weather around here; what a breeze.
Man, it’s hard to cast when you’re chest deep in water and your line is flowing away in a huge loop. I only hit myself with the fly once (square in the back of the head), and yes, it hurt, but I didn’t hook myself. For a first attempt at fly fishing I suppose things went as well as expected. Of course, I didn’t get even one strike — I see now it would have been nothing short of madness to think I would — but I’ve resolved to make up my mind on how that’s not the point, entirely. I get the sense that there is more to this game than merely catching fish, and though days will undoubtedly come when that will be deeply important, for the time being it is enough to revel in a wholly new experience. So, I focus on those present pleasures: the rhythm of the cast, the weight of the rod bending and straightening in my hand, and the entirely cerebral feeling of weightlessness as I watch the line aloft, floating like some ethereal extension of myself.
After today’s experience (and the fading bruise on my skull) I think perhaps dawn fishing would be smart addition to my morning regimen. Since the wind doesn’t usually freshen until eight o’clock or so, that’s probably the best time to cast a fly rod around here. If I remember aright, fish also tend to bite well on the morning tide…
1 I use the term in the strictest possible sense, i.e. attempting to catch fish, though at this point I have about as much chance of actually catching one as walking through walls. The comparison, I think, is apt. [back]
2 Local term for Silverside Minnows. [back]
Ah, time for another episode of interesting.
He once vanished from a fishing trip in Colorado
only to reappear days later in the Caribbean…
as El Presidente.
It was he who taught Castro how to smoke a cigar,
though he doesn’t smoke himself.
He nick-named his favorite fly rod the “Jolly Roger”.
I dare you to find that funny.
He is… the most interesting guide in the world.
“I don’t always get to fish myself, but when I do I prefer bonefish.
Stay salty, my friends.”
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?
This is a lesson I learned well on that first real tarpon trip: make the first shot count. I’d say that ninety percent of the time the first shot was the only real shot. And that’s where most of the bites came. You can definitely pick up and recast, but it’s not as easy as that. For one thing, a tarpon-taper fly line  is very hard to pull off the water if you have more than about forty feet out. For another, that takes time, which you don’t have. Migrating tarpon are, by definition, moving, sometimes quickly. (Of course, the faster the fish is swimming the smaller your chances are of hooking it anyways, but you’ve still got to take the shot. ) Even if you somehow collect your dismembered faculties and do manage to recast successfully, if you’ve already shown the lead fish your fly and she’s ducked it, that means you’ve already alerted the rest of her followers that something’s up. Instead of showing your fly to a group of relatively unsuspecting tarpon, you’ll be trying to convince fish that are on their guard to eat something when that’s not what they want to do in the first place.
Oh, yeah. Did I forget to mention that? There’s some evidence to suggest that traveling tarpon are similar to migrating salmon in that they don’t eat. Of course, the hundreds of salmon and tarpon hooked every year while migrating mock this theory, but it’s basically true. Tarpon do eat while migrating, but that seems to be more of a nighttime activity that takes place in the passes. When they’re actually traveling you can show your fly to literally dozens of tarpon before one decides to eat. But, that’s just part of the game; trying to keep the faith and believe in that first cast is, for me, the secret to tarpon fishing.
8 Lines designed especially for tarpon fishing are basically shooting heads — a short, fat, heavy front section that’s designed to quickly load the rod with a minimum of false casting and carry heavy flies the distance. This is followed by the running line which is much thinner and lighter — to reduce air resistance and make it easy to cast great distances. Tarpon tapers only differ from typical shooting heads in that they float. It’s somewhat complicated to explain, but trust me when I say that it’s very tough to pickup a tarpon line and re-present the fly without first stripping the shooting head back into the guides. [back]
9 After all, fishing is what you came for and actually casting at the fish is part of that, no matter how hopeless it seems. You can’t just stand around all day not casting at fish. [back]
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