The Keys Chronicles (Pt. 1)

Casting at a string of Tarpon


In honor of the fast waning tarpon season I have chosen to post a few scribbles about my indoctrination into this dangerously addictive sport. Fittingly, this took place in the quintessential tarpon fishery: the Florida Keys. To be sure, I’d caught tarpon before elsewhere, but it is the fish hooked on those fabled flats that truly seals one as a tarpon fisherman (with all that that entails).

June 13, 2008

I should have kept a proper log, like last time. As it is memory has already faded somewhat; the images in my mind’s eye blurring at the edges except for a few clear visions. I see Nate’s blue shirt precisely matching the color of the sky the day Eric (a.k.a. BarJack [1] ) got his tarpon. I see the northern horizon dark with brooding thunderheads moving improbably against the wind as we cast below for cruising bones, and the squall that caught us off Woman Key as we huddled in our slickers drinking cold coffee to ease the pain of the early morning run we had made to the Marquesas — a rough ride that netted us nothing but a hefty fuel bill and me a sore ass. Of course, there are images of fish too, but none so clear.

It seems my love affair with The Keys has involved a slow, mistimed courtship – the type that finally blossoms into a serious relationship. Perhaps it was all the hype that originally put me off; I’ve never liked things that were too popular, and every magazine, every Saturday morning fishing show featured this string of island on Florida’s southernmost tip. Small wonder I suppose. Easy to get to, predictable, and boasting the highest concentration of skilled guides [2] probably anywhere on the planet, the Keys are the American answer to the exotic fishing destination .

Of course, my initial lack of enthusiasm could also stem from the fact that at first this archipelago seemed reluctant to reveal any of its fishy secrets, and I could scarcely afford a guide to enlighten me. Fish were few, far between, and required more than an inordinate amount of work, not to mention head-scratching, bewilderment, and a string of obscenities nearly as long as The Keys themselves. I grudgingly admit this has made our eventual successes all the sweeter – not to say that I’ve been overwhelmed by good fortune there, but fish have been caught. Each fish from these waters is a prize, and should be treasured as such – like the glass of single malt you savor at the day’s end when the boat, rods, and yourself have been temporarily washed free of the salt spray… or as is more frequently the case, the rum and soda with a splash of lime that you quickly down prior to falling face first onto the bed, couch, or floor to briefly lose consciousness before arising at dawn to do it all again.

Life can be hard in the Keys.

1 Earned because of an uncanny ability to cast into a school of a few dozen bones and pull out a barjack. Consistently. Surely, we reasoned, he must have some affinity for these fish — like being incapable of holding still (unless unconscious), social (with others he considers part of his pack), and highly predatory… or maybe he just likes catching them, you know, more than bonefish. [back]
2 That’s just the point, isn’t it. I mean, other places like Belize, Honduras, or the Bahamas have guides who (as good as they are, and some are good) don’t have a degree in marine biology or philosophy or whathaveyou and their clients still catch the heck out of fish. True story. Honest. After a while you have to wonder, why are all the best guides in the world (allegedly) concentrated here? Could it be because the smartest fish in the world are also concentrated here? It begs the question, doesn’t it? Bit of a red flag, that? I’d much rather go someplace where the fishing’s awesome but “the guide was a bit of hack, right. A good guy, and all, but not exactly a guide’s guide. Still, we caught the hell out of fish, so no worries.” Wouldn’t you? Ok, I should probably let this go, but it deserves at least a glancing notice. Take, for example, the reputation of Key’s guides: they’re moody, grouchy, mean-tempered, in a word, crotchety. No wonder. If you had to deal with uncooperative fish and inexperienced (not to say “green horn”) clients every day — neither of which really does what it takes to connect with the other — you’d be pretty crotchety yourself, right? I mean, this crap goes on DAY AFTER DAY for weeks on end. I mean, bloody ‘ell, right? On the other hand, Caribbean guides (and those of the Pacific, I suppose) are known to be laid back, fun loving, and generally like the coolest guys ever. No wonder; they’ve got thousands of dumb-ass fish in their back yards just waiting to grab the fly/bait/lure of tomorrow’s gringo/tourist/’merican just like they did for today’s gringo/tourist/’merican sport. I’d be a laid back, fun loving local in line for the-coolest-guy-in-the-world prize too. Wouldn’t you? [back]

Wade Fishing Cayman

A Taste of the Islands from Davin Ebanks on Vimeo.

How does one capture the silence, the light, the sense of space, and of course, the often high-paced action of fly fishing in the tropics? How, especially, in one film? Here is one of my early tries. (And, yes, I do have a better camera now.)

Here’s a sample of the variety available in the Cayman Islands, all on foot, by the way. Snook, bonefish, jacks, and permit: it’s all here.

Music Credits:

  • Abja, Crucial Confessions, Inna Red I Hour
  • NiyoRah, Thinking About My Life, A Different Age
  • Habib Koité, Wassiye, Putumayo Presents: Africa
  • Nathan Herrera, Calle Peral

Out There.

I am the darkness on the edge of the firelight.
I am the cold wind in the pines.
I am the rain, hard on the tin roof.
I am the restless ocean, sighing against your shores.

I am the reason you build walls and fence yourselves in.
I cannot be tamed.
I am never lost.
I am the problem to all of your answers.
I am… out there.

Earning the Name (or: How I Roll)

January 2, 2009 (with any luck)

Well, I’m out day before yesterday at —— and find a school of like 3, 4 dozen bones pushed into maybe a foot of water. Ok, take your time here; fish aren’t going anywhere — just wade slow and quiet. A few minutes later I’m standing within casting range and the fish seem unconcerned, ignorant of my presence. Now, aim at the edge of the school. Don’t get greedy. Do this right. I make the cast and immediately hook one, but it comes off only a few seconds onto the reel.

That happens.

The fish aren’t totally spooked though. They swirl around a bit and then push back onto the flat a little ways to the leeward. Fine. I stalk them again, and cast, and cast, and cast. They’re spooky and barely moving in that circular way laid-up fish do sometimes. I’ve got to wait till they’re at the far end of that circle and then fire a cast in close so when they turn the fly is sitting there waiting for them. This goes on for a while: cast, strip, nothing, wait till they turn, cast, strip, nothing, wait. I might have missed a couple short strikes in there, but it could have been the grass–I’m having to let my fly sit for like almost a minute before stripping, so the fly and leader have plenty of time to foul.

By this time I’m pretty keyed up and thinking, Right. Next fish touches this fly I’m hammering it. Which is exactly what I do. I’m using the new XTR and it’s stiff as hell, so when the fish takes off I’m really pulling on it. Zzzzzziiiiiipuhhh… silence. What the…!? I reel in and see a perfect little pigtail where the wind knot I knew was there, knew was there from yesterday, had finally popped. Genius. I stalked those fish for like 15 minutes, made like 30 casts and blew it cause I was too lazy to retie?

That is truly, sadly, far-too-often how I roll.

Loose, man, loose.

December 30, 2008 (probably)

Watch dat reel! Hooked up to a Cayman bonefish.Still dark, had a late night so a little cranky. Drive North to find today’s client waiting in the dark. Ready. Good sign.

SS flat, tailing singles. First cast at first fish and BANG, fish on.
“Easy, now. Let ‘im go.”
“Wa’ ‘appin?”
“I let him go.”
(With mounting trepidation) check drag and it’s a brick wall. Nothings coming off of dat reel.
“Um… loosin’ ya drag.”
Check again: “More.”
“Ya. Really. Da’ drag need’ be loose, man, I tellin’ ya. Loose.”

We miss a few more before the tides done there and head to the windward. Next couple stops have nothing, so we end at the End, walking the beach and seeing nothing. Finally I spot a small school heading away from us. Reel in. Walk beach. Get ahead and strip out line, ready again. Here they come.
“Ok. Cast now… a little left. Good. Let ‘er go. Strip, strip. Got ‘im!”

Fish blasts off and the line jumps back slack. Check drag: tight as ever again.
“Loosin’ ya drag.”

Cast again and miss a couple more: one trouted and one legitimately pulled out. No worries. We’re seeing fish. Keep walking and miss a few more to the usual suspects. Lined fish. Stripping too fast. Etcetera. Then we see a big pair coming down the beach, heading the right direction this time, right for us. Cast, strip, strip, strip. Fish is on the fly, following, going to eat?… never know because with about 4 ft of line out the rod tip dude starts swinging the rod away from the fish.
“No! Why ya swing de rod? Pull de fly away from de fish like dat, man.”
“I was out of fly line.”
“No. Man, I tole’ you: don’ stop strippin’ de fly, les I say so.”

I’d told him stories all day of how we catch fish with the leader in the rod tip, but I suppose that, just like the drag deal, the skepticism factor was too high for such tall tales. Or something. Ok. Still no worries. We’ll find more fish…probably.

Finally we spot another school along the edge. Another perfect setup, but they’re tougher this time. The same strip doesn’t work so we mix it up. The fish go nuts: some blasting off entirely while others charge the fly then bolt.
“Don’t stop strippin’! Strip, man, strip!” A pretty Caymanian Bonefish.
There, a fish blasts up on the fly, sees us, does a complete 360 and grabs the fly with about 2 (no joke, not a word-o’-lie: two) feet of leader out the tip.
“Let ‘im go.”

Finally we’re hooked up and into the backing. And all is well… because we land it.

Ri-dic-u-lous Bonefishing Video: Andros, Bahamas

Big Bonefish with Big Charlie from Davin Ebanks on Vimeo.

We recently made a (much too short) pilgramage to Andros, Bahamas to fish big bones with Big Charlie Neymour. Blowin’ like 25-30 (knots) the whole time but Charlie just said, “Bad weather: big fish.” “Kaaay…” we answered. Nothin’ for it but to grab Pancho (the 9-weight), throw on a #10 line, a short 20-lb leader, and the strongest hook I could find. It was ON… and luckily we brought the video camera.

I’d like to echo the sentiments of the bonefishing saint who turned me onto this place: “If I had one more day to fish, it would be the North Bight with Big Charlie.” That’s a recipe for dying happy right there.

For more pics, verbage, and whatnot on this amazing island and fishery check out, and if you go tell ’em Ebanks sent you.

Day Off: Christmas ’08

December 22, 2008 (The Warm Up)

Grand Cayman wintertime beach (with the all-important fly rod).Awake later than expected and groggily dig through my old fly-boxes from last holidays. Luckily there are several usable flies still clinging to the ragged walls of Styrofoam and I decide to hell with tying freshies, I’m going fishing. I grab leader, boots, new 5pc-8wt, reel, glasses, keys, and what all else and point the aging Toyota to the windward. The sun’s out but it’s blowing a hurricane from the NNE and it looks like tomorrow’s fishing will be tough. Somewhere in there tomorrow’s sport calls to confirm, asking how the fishing is. Yeah, like I know. I’ve been here less time than he has. But, that’s the deal with guiding: you never know anyways, so I swing par for the course and hazard a guess. Well, wind’s up but the clouds have cleared and we’ve got a good tide so I’m optimistic. This seems to answer… an answer, anyways.

First flat is all white caps and waves breaking. Further east at the final flat, having past a series of practically dry flats on the way, I find tailers. A couple schools. First few shots are rusty at best, and this flat is always tough. Low water, spooky fish. Touchy. I tie on the smallest little fly – just some fuzz and rubber legs – and drop it about 3 ft ahead of the school, maybe half dozen times. Every time except the last they turn before reaching it, zigzagging down the flat unpredictably. Then I see the wake, the almost imperceptible but thrilling follow before the fly gets pounded, line stops dead and I’m whoopin and hollerin like a Mexican on a bender.

Things are well, and all manner of things will be well: a nice 4, heck, call it a 5 pounder on the flats.

Tomorrow I’m going guiding.

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