April 25, 2012, 5:25 pm
BarJack: [On poling platform, back to sun straining against the 12 knot ESE breeze.] Ok, he’s facing away from you.
WindKnot: [Searching for fish shape in the glare.] Away? You sure?
[Recast. Slooow strip. The tarpon materializes as it turns.]
WindKnot: Got some kinda reaction from ‘im… oh, dude, that could be really good dude.
[Strip, wiggle, wiggle, pause… line jumps tight, rod bends, rod straightens, line slides back slack.]
WindKnot: Ugh! F***! F******!
BarJack: WindKnot, WindKnot, WindKnot, WindKnot...
WK: [Pulling in fly line and leader.] Aaaah, duuude. F***! Alright. Your turn… Guarantee you I popped that 20-pound. I knew I was holding on a little too tight. That was an awesome eat… oh, noooo!
WK: [Fingering the leader in disbelief.] You’re not going to believe where it broke.
WK: In the F***ing 40!
BJ: And why would it broke in the 40, WindKnot? Can you explain that to me?
BJ: Cause you told me that would never break in the 40. Never break. Never! Forget Wind Knot, your name is now Forty.
Roughly 26 minutes earlier:
BJ: Leader looks a little frayed there. I’d retie, but that’s just me.
WK: Dude, that’s in the 40. [pull hard on line] That’ll never break.
BJ: Ok, man, you say so. I’m just sayin’, I would change it. I dealt with a lot of frayed leaders on Diego and I’d change it.
WK: Bro, look, I retied the 20-pound. I’m telling you, that will break way before the 40.
BJ: Ok, man. You say so… it’s your fish.
Day I: Late start, low tide, breezy. Oceanside: small groups, singles, and doubles. Second cast: hooked up! Jump, jump. Sweeeet. Drag singing. Fish off. “Uhhhh… popped ‘im off.” Nope: reel in to find the backing broke! Motored around searching for a #10 yellow line zipping through the water but was forced to admit both the fish, line, leader and fly were gone forever. Mental note: next time bring a spare line on board. No more fishing for me so Capt. T. throws a few casts, but gets no love. Tide’s off so we head in early, pull boat, and drive down to Worldwide for a new line and grilled Mahi sandwiches from Ma’s Fish Camp. Back home. Sleep. Dream of tarpon.
Day II: Later start, lower tide, still breezy. Best Oceanside spots taken. Headed NW; no fish up there. Dropped back down to Tav’ and fished the outside. Polling sucks. No, wait; I suck at polling. Couple small strings get by us on the outside, Capt. T. gets one shot but no love. Back at Mullet Camp we throw giant steaks and fresh corn on the grill: comfort food. Beer. Sleep. Dreams.
Day III: Later start, even lower tide. Calm. Oceanside on the pole. Fish and follows, but no love. Capt. T. almost fed a 5-pound bone with a 2/0 tarpon fly on 40 lb. tippet but it saw the boat so, again, no love. Head in. Pull boat. Beers. Tequila. Rum. Sleep.
Day IV: Latest start. Dead low tide. Calm, but picking up. We head Bayside looking to hit Flamingo, but a thunderhead forced us West to Twin Keys. We find 1 fish and no love. Crab Key: same. Finally we hit The Pocket and it’s empty except for 1 boat. We pull in line and wait. Time passes. No casts… then we see the guy in front make a cast, strip, pickup, recast, and hookup! “Yeah! Alright. Wooaaah.” That’s the absolute first time I’ve ever seen another boat fighting a fish, much less actually watched the hookup. We head home, pull skiff, clean house. Sleep. No dreams.
Day V: It’s 8:21 AM, coffee’s done and the music’s on. The water calls but it’s been a long week already, with nothing much to show for it. Of course, we’d have nothing to actually show anyways—you don’t keep tarpon—but we’d have something, some feeling, some sense of accomplishment, of being heroes. Today it’s up north into The Bay and, if tarpon are absent, we’ll kick around the backcountry and hope to see redfish or snook. It’s a good plan…
4:45 PM: No love. Pound our way home home, beers, wash boat… sleep.
On the migration,
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.”
Apropos of my upcoming trip to the Keys, I’ve decided to try something new: trailers for my life. That’s right; they’ll be just like actual trailers–short, sweet, and nothing like (and mostly better than) the real thing. Here’s one for tarpon fishing.
A short clip of “Silver” a (2-3 part?) series film about chasing tarpon, bonefish, and permit on the flats. This first clip highlights a little Keys tarpon fishing with the boys.
Tunes: Scott H. Biram, “Blood, Sweat, and Murder”
It’s hot. There’s the smell of stale sweat mingled with the windborne scent of mangroves as the flats to the northward dry out and a zillion myriad invertebrates bake in the sun, and I bake right along with them. We’re west of Key West and south of most everything dry within sight, though I can just make out a few distant keys standing mirrored in the mirage to the south. I’m not alone; tarpon hunting isn’t typically a solitary sport, but when you’re up there on the bow and it’s been awhile since you’ve seen a fish, you tend to forget that there’s someone back there, poling the boat.
The tarpon comes out of nowhere, cruising right to left and on an easy intersect course with our skiff. I’m on the bow, trying to delay that moment when I would have to admit that, dangit, yes, we’re too shallow now and tarpon fishing is over for the day, and knowing that means reeling in and grabbing the smaller rod with a bonefish/permit fly on it.
But, sometimes life hands you those perfect moments.
“Ok, better grab the bonefish rod; we’re too shallow for tarpon here.”
“You mean like that one right there?”
“Where? …Holy Shit! Cast, man, cast! Wait, let me stop the boat.”
The fish is off the starboard bow and I’m afraid to cast directly over the boat and hook my companions, so I make a cast that’s not only off-target, but too short. I know I’ve only got one more chance so I pick up, shoot one back cast, and bomb it out there at an angle calculated to intercept. I hope. It’s a guessing game at this point. The fish could turn aside and miss the fly entirely; the fly could sink too much and hang up on the shallow, weedy bottom; or, the fish could turn toward us and see the fly line. But none of those happen. The fly lands about ten feet ahead of the fish and I just let it sit there, waiting. I can no longer see the tarpon in the water—as it crossed the bow it moved under the glare to our left—so I’m just guessing at where the fish would be if it kept swimming at the same speed.
At what feels like the right moment I twitch the fly. A giant head breaks the surface as the fish rolls, taking the fly on the way back down. It’s headed away from me so the line is instantly tight and the fish is on. After days of fruitless casting, spooked fish, and half-hearted follows from reluctant tarpon, such an obvious, aggressive take leaves us all in disbelief. A microsecond later the fish’s head is out of the water and shaking, and it’s big.
“Holy ––––––––––––– shit!”
All of a sudden everyone’s yelling. The Great White Hoke is trying to start the engine and follow the fish, BarJack is securing the pushpole, and I’m trying not to pass out from shock. The tarpon tries to jump, but the water is so shallow and the fish is so big that it’s more of a belly-flopping lunge. I instantly realize what a foolish thing I’ve done (which is a feeling I’m sure I share with all of the tarpon anglers that have gone before me). The fact that I’m using a little nine-weight—a beast of a flyrod I’ve dubbed “Pancho” —makes my folly a little more dire, and (in retrospect) funnier.
By this time the fish is hell and gone and my backing has vanished in a scary fast-forward of anything I’ve ever experienced. I realize that in a few moments it will be completely gone and I debate jumping in and swimming after the fish. Hoke is doing his best to follow, but we’re so shallow that the motor is just kicking up foam and we’re barely making steerage-way. Way out there the tarpon jumps, this time clearing the surface in a clean leap, straight for the sky. It’s so far away now that it could be a different fish free jumping, and I only know it’s mine because the reel slows and my backing stops in mid-Houdini. (Thank goodness, too, I thought I’d have to go back to Worldwide that evening and feed my brand new ten-weight reel to the guy behind the counter who told me “don’t worry, 200 yards is plenty for any fish.”)
The next twenty minutes or so—I’m merely guessing here, since the whole experience was so surreal that time ceased to register: for all I know I could have been chasing that fish for days, or just a few minutes—the tarpon leads us on a wild chase, first out to the deep water, then back into shallow flat (where, again, we have to tilt the engine so high that we’re barely moving), under a broken anchor line (still attached to the anchor), around a shark, and back out to deep water where the real fight begins. I vaguely remember all this: BarJack leaping past me barefoot off the bow to clear my line from the anchor rope, a momentary scare when the shark showed up, and the endless struggle to retrieve line while keeping it tight. Good ol’ Hoke jockeys the skiff like a pro, speeding up to help me retrieve line, slowing down when the line gets too slack, and even turning away from the fish when it runs back at us. At this point it’s mostly a skiff versus fish game, and I’m just the guy holding the rod and reeling like mad. But that is all about to change.
The fight that follows is mostly quiet, punctuated by curses and the reluctant zzzzzzz—zzz of the drag as the fish takes line. Occasionally Hoke gasses the motor and turns the skiff to give me a better angle. Sweat stings my eyes and various joints begin to cramp, starting with my right hand as I struggle to retrieve line. My left leg keeps shaking. An indeterminate length of time later the fish is rolling next to the boat and I see that I can turn her at will now. BarJack is lying flat on the deck reaching for that giant mouth. He’s got blue gloves on and I can clearly see my little fly stuck in the top lip, slightly right of center. The moment of the grab is hidden from me behind BarJack’s head, but suddenly he screaming, and it’s a good scream so I put down my rod and head forward to see “my” fish. My first touch is delicate. I find the silver mechanism of her open jaw a marvel of streamlined leverage and translucent membrane. The barbless fly is an incongruity that is easily removed. I’m retrospectively worried to see that the hook has opened under the strain of our fight. We ease her head back under water and Hoke puts the skiff in gear. A moment later she shoots from our grasp, drenching us with a farewell tail-slap and vanishing into the green world that surrounds us.
I sit down, shaky and sore. We high-five and slap backs, but there’s no celebratory champagne to pop, nor even cheap beer. In keeping with our minimalist ethos we crack lukewarm bottles of water. As we turn the boat toward Key West and the long run home, I know I’ll be riding this high for days—not so much the fight (where even though I “won” I feel like I’ve just had my ass handed to me), nor even the high of landing my first real big Florida Keys tarpon, or even the clean release and watching the fish swim strongly away, but instead I keep replaying the sight of a 90 pound fish rolling on a fly in two feet of water. I might fish for another 50 years and never witness such a take, much less be a part of it.
I keep hearing the immortal words of Jim Harrison: “Who said that we go through life with a diminishing portfolio of enthusiasm? …So you try to seek out in life moments that give you this immense jolt of electricity. So you try to have something that gives you this electricity, and freshens up your feeling about being alive.”
I’m immediately depressed that I might have peaked with my first experience.
“Massively miraculous, a very powerful force, extraordinary;
so extraordinary as to create immediate unreality
in the process upon contact with the fish.”
~ Richard Brautigan, 1973.
The Keys Chronicles
This season we’re staying at Nate “Dubya’s” Mullet Camp, like always. But this year the flavor is distinctly different, in a bare-bones, fish-camp kind of way. We won’t be sipping our Cuban coffees around his kitchen counter while we whip up new flies, nor lounging on his couch with cocktails after a home cooked dinner of lemon-pepper mahi-mahi. We won’t because (in a fit of hubris and with the best intentions) he gutted the place. This was a few months ago, when business was still booming and before the economy went into low gear and rich people’s portfolios dried up, taking his business with them. His place was a simple structure to begin with—basically a cube with a pitched roof—but when it was full of the accoutrements and paraphernalia of daily life—appliances, stove, counters, tables, and chairs, not to mention lights, walls, and a ceiling—it seemed a normal sort of place. Homely, even. But, with the interior stripped down to the studs and planking, and the ceiling nothing more than a tangle of wires among the rafters—in fact, the underbelly of the roof—well, you feel like you’re seeing a whole different space, like a flat laid bare by low tide.
Thankfully the exterior of the Mullet Camp is much the same, with its wrap-around balcony populated by the odd chair or side table, the warped, moldy floorboards, and the antique tarpon mount hanging at the head of the stairs. It’s cool up there, damp. In the morning—sipping my Cuban coffee and browsing though fly boxes wondering what the fish might like today—I hear doves cooing in the distance and smell the ocean, barely a hundred yards to the south. Even the foliage reminds me of home. There’s Caribbean birch, poinsiana, croton, and coconut palms. However, there are also oak trees and other species I can’t name but which belong firmly to the north American continent.
It feels early, but the rest of the tarpon-fishing world has already put in a good four hours by now. That’s the thing about tarpon fishing, you’re either up before the birds—you can still see stars as you hitch the trailer to the pickup, and you’re on the water when dawn is just a promise on the eastern horizon—or you’re on the veranda nursing your second cup of coffee and checking your leaders while you wait for the sun to rise high enough so you can actually see the fish through the water.
When you do the nocturnal thing you’re looking for rolling fish as dawn breaks, but that’s a hit or miss affair. If the wind is up the fish won’t roll, or you can’t see them if they do. Also, the rolling hour is over quickly and then you’re just sitting there, in a boat, waiting for daylight. If you happen to nail one early you’re glad you made the effort, but if don’t you begin to pine for bed (or wherever you happen to have slept) and wonder if tarpon are really worth all this. By eight o’clock you realize you’ve been blind casting for an hour just to stay awake… and also because the fish are out there, right, one might just grab it.
There’s something magical about that pre-dawn time when tarpon are rolling in channels, canals, and the lee of keys or islands. And if I ever had a perfectly calm morning down here I might be convinced to make the effort and grab a little of that early morning magic for myself, but when’s the last time it was even remotely calm in the Keys in June? Maybe it’s just me—most of my itinerant fishing experience has been in something approaching a young hurricane—but it could simply be the season. I mean, early summer isn’t exactly the calmest period, meteorologically speaking, but that is when the tarpon are here. If I refused to fly fish in the wind I’d never get a cast off. (Never mind that all the trips I’ve taken in the summer, fall, winter or otherwise have been plagued by the same seasonable/unseasonable windy conditions, so maybe it is me after all.) I wonder what would happen if I did encounter a windless day on the flats…
And We Don’t Have A Freakin’ Skiff!
Yup, tarpon season is just around the corner and our brains are heating up along with the weather. Just got this little piece of mental clusterflop from good old Nate “Dubya” down in Tavernier Key. I can’t figure whether to call the Bureau of Mental Health, just feel sorry for him, or start stressing out myself that this tarpon season may find us skiff-less. Read and enjoy.
So I have figured out some things down here. I don’t think the carbon guy has his shit together to spend that sort of loot on his product. “Some” is the operative word here [as in, let’s do “some” of what we should to have a nice skiff]. Damn it! Is skiff construction a winter Olympic sport?
If I knew some of the right answers here I would find the motivation to work on it more at night. Instead I dream I am sanding fiberglass in the nude. I know it’s not smart but I keep on grinding. I do however have a respirator on. Horrific stress dream, man. I just don’t want to waste my energies or miss a tarpon season. I think I have misplaced some of my energies lately, and I know I left it near my sanity somewhere? What do you think, Mr. WindKnot?
Dolphin marine has some goodies to be bought for cash:
- Old school poling platform: single pipe from the transom with a “Y” or split with two steps. We will build an insert like the last boat, as opposed to a mount on top cap. (Hope to score this for no more than $200.00.) It also allows us to choose our desired platform height and gives the room to steer a tiller. Not as stable as I would like it to be, but neither is my life at this point… so why not?
- Slam hatch for the transom replacing the circular access to the bilge. Like the one on the old skiff. $20.00???
- 27-gallon fuel tank? I can’t find one that works with her dimensions or my dementia. It would take the whole space forward. They are [freakin’] seven inches tall. They put carpet on top of them. They have a baffle but not a great one. I am skeptical about this and wonder if they were not pulled for this reason. Plus, that’s a lot of fuel. They have temp ones, but I would rather put a perm one in and glass in the step up to support the span of the cap above.
- Spray rails @ $44.00 apiece. (A steal.) They’re pre drilled and counter sunk and the Keys people quote $190.00 for the job.
- Rubrail, end cap and insert for $130.00… a fair deal and we know it is the right one.
- The tiller? I have been looking on ebay, but no one can seem to tell me exactly what I need. It cost around $600 new from Dolphin.
[And, after all that there’s still] the trailer. It has no title. And is a royal pain in the scrotum to register it as “homemade”. [It’s gotta be] weighed, certified, serial numbered, and $200 bucks for taxable worth. Is it worth it to refit it with new tires, hubs, and bearings? This shit is stressing me out. [I mean,] do I glass the rigging holes or put pie covers?
Tell me if this scheme is nuckin flagrently fucin crazy or smart and nifty/resourceful?
[Wait,] do I put the battery up front?… did you know all the fish froze to death?… L.E.D. lights on the trailer?… paint a tarpon on the entry?… shit, flush mount push pole holders?… composite electric trim tabs or bennett sports?
About the Author:
Mr. Nate “Dubya” runs a successful/struggling/booming/busting business building sweet-ass shit for rich people in the Florida Keys. In his spare time — which he has none of — he a fish-a-holic… recently inducted into the close-knit (yet suspicious) brotherhood of fly fishing tarpon fanatics. A self taught scholar of the flats, tropical architecture, and interior design, he hopes to one day finish rebuilding his own tropical home and have a functional skiff to wet a line on the fabled flats in his (freakin’) backyard (for goodness’ sake). (He has also promised to one day visit the author of this blog and cast flies at little bonefish in my backyard, but I’m not holding my breath.)