The Keys Chronicles (Pt. 4)

Barjack Tight to an Oceanside Tarpon

June 13, 2008

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 [8] 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. [9]) 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]

Speaking of Classic Tarpon…

Couldn’t resist, mate.

Oh, love the tunes.

Most Interesting Fridays…

Wow, is it friday again? Been slacking, I guess, but the calendar says it’s time again for something interesting.

All he ever has to say is, “Fish, right there”
and his clients know exactly what he means.

The last time he had to pay for his own drink
was during the Reagan administration…
hey, it happens.

He secretes a pheramone that tames even the wildest creature to his touch,
but he never uses it on fish.
What would be the fun in that?

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.”

Not familiar with interesting? Check it out here.

The Most Interesting Guide in the World

The Most Interesting Man in the World

"Stay salty, my friends."

He’s never been to Vagas,
he takes Vagas with him.

He’s been known to forget he has a job…
because he was out fishing.

When questioned about his tactics
people often find him unintelligible.

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.”

(Watch him here.)

Coconuts… or just plain nuts.

Dude, that is a lot of work for a few swallows of water. How did these two clowns even get their hands on those coconuts? Buy them? …and did he just ask for a straw? Clearly these guys needed to watch this first: Way more work, but at least it’s manly.

Ok, here’s the proper way to crack a coconut… in case anyone’s interested. First, if you just want the water, green coconuts are the best. Of course, these are usually still in the trees, so someone must get them. You can try throwing rocks or poking at them with your fly rod, maybe you’ll knock one down. Personally, I try to find a short coconut tree. Then climb it (or better yet, bet a buddy a couple cold-ones that he can’t climb it) and twist or cut a couple down.

Good, now all you need is a big rock. Place it on the ground and bang the bottom of the nut hard on the rock. Hopefully this will crack the soft kernel. This isn’t nearly as hard as Hanks makes it look in Castaway. Young coconuts are soft and crack easily. Let the water drain into a cup or drink straight from the source (like we used to do on hot summer days while cleaning fish on the shores with my grandfather).

If you can only get ripe coconuts — which are grayish-brown and often looked dried out — then the job gets a little harder and hardly worth it if you have bottled water on hand.

Stay nutty, my friends.

The Keys Chronicles (Pt. 3)

Florida Keys' Tarpon

June 13, 2008

You know what tarpon fishing really is? It’s a sliding scale of victories beginning with getting the fish to see your fly in the first place [5]. This begins with the guy on the pole, and poling most tarpon flats is no easy task. The water is often deep, the fish are constantly moving, and setting up the skiff at just the right angle is of paramount importance. Tarpon season in the Keys runs from roughly May to July, give or take a few weeks on either end, and this means you’re almost always expecting a good breeze. This is especially true Oceanside, where finding migrating fish seems to be easiest [6].

It doesn’t help that the fish run deeper nowadays, avoiding the shallow sand-patches that were the traditional stake-out points for guides to intercept the migration. The tarpon have apparently learned a few things, which comes as no surprise when you consider they can live for sixty years or so. That means some of these very fish we’re casting to today might have been around in the seventies when legends like Thomas McGuane and Stu Apte were casting giant 3/0 flies at them. The upshot is if you really want to be in the fish these days, you’re poling deeper water along the edges of flats where the fish are both harder to see and pole to. You have to wield a twenty-one-foot pole to even have a chance [7].

Begin Interpolation: Tarpon Migration
The idea of a migration can be misleading. One thinks of geese heading north or salmon swimming upstream. Standard lore is that the tarpon come from points south, Mexico maybe or deep in the Gulf. The islands of the Marquesas off Key West are the first point of intercept for Keys’ anglers in spring. I’ve been lead to understand that every year thousands of tarpon choose that exact point to begin contact with the North American continent in a run that takes them as far north as the Carolinas. So, you’d think the fish would be moving west to east (or south to north as the Key’s folk call it) and that would be that. You could pole a flat in the morning with the sun and wind at your back and get all your shots and poling downwind. Yeah, it’s not quite like that.

I can’t say I understand what’s going on exactly, but it appears the tarpon use the many passes between the keys to move from Oceanside to Bayside, and back again. So, on a falling tide they’ll pour out of the passes and move with the current in the expected direction. As the tide changes, however, they’ll seemingly turn around (though these may be different fish altogether) and ride the tide Bayside back through the passes. This means that at some point on a typical day you’ll be poling and casting into the wind. If you’re poling a 30-some-thousand-dollar Hell’s Bay technical poling skiff, no worries, but if you’re atop a second-hand “aircraft carrier” of a Dolphin Skiff, you’re in a world of hurt. If you let up for half a minute the breeze will spin the bow downwind and turning back around with an angler on the bow acting like a sail is no fun, trust me.
End Interpolation.

Of course, it’s not all up to the guy on the platform. The dude on the bow with the rod has his work cut out too. Simply casting a tarpon rod isn’t exactly second nature to most of us, and casting into the breeze can  be a very tough scenario. I mean, with a 12-weight rod you’ll have the muscle. Nevertheless, turning over wind-resistant tarpon flies on (the necessarily) long leaders into a breeze can give even experienced casters a nervous breakdown. When you take into account that most anglers typically fish with 5-8 weight rods, the odds of a perfect presentation with a 12-weight go down considerably. Remember, these fish have probably seen flies before, lots of flies. They’ve also faced inexperienced anglers before, so they likely know (as much as a tarpon can know anything) that the splash of your leader arriving in a heap after a bungled cast means nothing good for them. Nine times out of ten, if you blow that first shot the lead fish will simply duck around the fly, taking the rest of the string with her.

Pull something like that once too often, and the dude with the pole will be tempted to use it to beat some fishing sense into you.

5 Actually, get the fly anywhere near the fish and they’ll see it. Tarpon are not only hyper-alert, they can really see. Even their name suggests it — megalops: big eye. They are aware of anything sinking through the water around them. Getting the fish to see the fly in the right way is a victory. It all has to do with angles and distances, you see. If you land the fly too far out of the tarpon’s line of travel: no sale. They just won’t swim that far out of their way for a little morsel. Also, even if you land the fly in the line of travel, but you’re positioned at such an angle that when you strip the fly it forces the fish to change course to catch it, same thing. What you want is to land the fly not so far away that the fish has to expend too much effort to catch it, nor so close that it spooks the fish by landing on it’s head, but just far enough away that it’s an easy bite. You have to feed the fish… which is probably the hardest thing in tarpon fishing. [back]
6 Ok, yes, finding them there is pretty easy, but just because you can see a fish coming from 200 yards away doesn’t mean you’ll get it to eat your fly. A hard lesson learned. Mostly, these are show-and-tell fish, as in, “dude check out those fish” and “dude, we saw like 200 today. Lots of shots”. Yes, lots of shots is good, but if they don’t translate into bites then really what you’re doing is something more akin to bird-watching than fishing, as in, “wow, look at all the big fishies. Pretty.” [back]
7 This is important. The longer a push pole is, the more efficient it is. Say you’re in 6 feet of water with an 18-foot pole. Well, you’re also standing about 3 feet above the deck (which is probably close to another foot off the water). Given an average human height of 6-foot, that only leaves about 2 feet of pole to push with. Effective poling means that you get more pushes — actually “walking” your hands down the pole — per each placement of the pole. Poling is actually quite easy, it’s taking the pole out of the water and placing it back down at the correct angle that’s hard. [back]

The Keys Chronicles (Pt. 2)

Eric waiting out a squall.

June 13, 2008

My buddy, Nate W. who now resides on Tavernier Key, was the first to introduce me to the Keys and it was I who in turn introduced him to BarJack (that’s Mister BarJack to you). Since then they’ve been as thick as thieves and fish together whenever Barjack can talk Nate W. into taking time off work… something I’ve never been able to do, by the way.

That’s the other thing about Barjack: he is one of the most likable, easy-going, personable, and persuasive anglers your likely to meet, which has got him into so much sweet fishing that it’s hard not to wonder how much of that is conscious schmoozing and how much is genuine generosity. Heck, he openly admits that he approached me in the Salty Feather (Jacksonville’s only fly-shop) because he heard me mention that I was from the Cayman Islands. (I can almost see the visions of bonefish and tarpon flashing before his eyes.) Next thing I know we’re paddling his kayaks through Jacksonville’s backwater creeks where I jealously watched him catch puppy reds with casual facility while I tried to work out how to take a leak in one of these things without taking a header into the inter-coastal [3].

I eventually caught my first redfish on fly under his watchful eye: a nice 4-pounder that briefly towed my kayak while I tried to fight the fish and simultaneously figure out how you land a fish with a 9-foot rod in these bloody things. I’ve got a framed picture of that first fight that Barjack had the presence of mind to snap. The creek is glass calm with the marsh grass rising high above the head of the angler who sits with rod bowed to a deep boil just beyond an oyster bar. In the background the marsh fades to the purple horizon and an orange sunset [4]. If this was a setup for an invitation for Barjack to come bonefishing with me back home, it couldn’t have been better executed and a few years later I made good on my debt by guiding him to his first permit… which by the grace of the Good Lord I successfully leadered for him, thereby inadvertently saving my own life and him from the disgrace of a court martial and life-in-prison.

Nate W. now lives with bonefish, tarpon, and permit right out his back door, a fortunate circumstance he now takes advantage of almost as often as he should. He also fishes with a flyrod now, where it used to be the other stuff. He still tosses live crabs at permit occasionally just to catch them, but the thrill of casting a fly to tarpon has got him skipping days at work and taking long weekends. I’m proud to say I believe both Barjack and I share a lot of the blame for that.

Of course, it’s been Barjack down there most every other weekend since he moved to Tampa. Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing introducing those two. If they spend any more time fishing together they’ll probably be heading toward bankruptcy and a broken marriage… though I sincerely hope neither is the case. And, of course, when I get on the water with them I can’t help but see their time figuring out the bite as a purely good thing.

Nate W. usually poles the boat, though Barjack is now getting pretty good at that himself. Apparently they’ve been hitting the tarpon migration hard this season, with results. Several times they’ve been in a line of guide skiffs and been the only ones to jump fish all day. Not bad for a couple of amateurs on their first serious season.

Of course, just getting one of those fish to eat is no guarantee of landing it, not by a long shot. I’d say the average fight, from hookup to slack-line, is about 3 seconds or so. The tarpon eats, you strike, it jumps, hook flies out. SOP. But, if you’re the only boat doing that on a particular flat then I suppose you can count that as a kind of victory. Probably.

3 There are actually a number of ways to do this, given the style of kayak and the operator’s athletic ability. None are graceful. Nor will I recount (or relive) any of those I tried here. [back]
4 Of course this was right before I almost ended our young friendship by dropping his $100 BogaGrip into the muddy waters of the creek. The fact that it was still attached to the fish didn’t help. Thankfully I was over an oyster bed at this point so the water was only like 6 inches deep… and a 4-pound fish isn’t dragging 2 pounds of stainless steel anywheres. I merely reached into the water and there it was. Pretty smooth, I thought. [back]

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