They were intended to be warnings. Rendered out of myth, legend, and tales of peril faced by those lucky enough to return from doomed voyages, illustrations of great monsters of the sea and beasts of the land were lent to maps and atlases to instill a sense of foreboding in those who looked upon the portraits of those places charted and uncharted and dreamt of beholding them. It was the mapping of menace. A seemingly well-intentioned helping hand lent by cartographers who wished to see their clients return. Though it seems to be a miscalculated one. They should have made no mark, said nothing of what dwelt in those far away places. There would have been less appeal in a blank page. For there is no siren song that so gravely beseeches the intrepid heart of man to go ranging in strange wilds then that which says, “Do not trespass here. Danger awaits.”
Though perhaps it is there, in mans heart, where the true danger lives. Where that need to go and see in spite of all hazard lurks tucked away on some small, far away coast. Waiting in the darkness to be summoned up and sent adventuring to suncured lands where wicked things swim.
Three weeks ago I set out for the tranquil shores of Florida’s northern Gulf Coast. A place whose pastoral elegance exists as much in the briny veneer of the things found there and the smack of history and pace of an older Florida as it does in the way that the spartina grass tilts just so in the gentle english of an offshore breeze and sublimates into verges of weeping jade.
The balmy charm and beauty of this part of the world is undeniable. It’s intoxicating. When you’re here the worries of the world float away with tide and disappear in the Arcadian haze strung across the horizon of the summerslick Gulf.
But there is a darkness that haunts these idyllic territories.
Those who live there speak of the sinister happenings in small voices or not at all as their eyes run about a room in surreptitious pursuit of eavesdroppers. Likenesses of the monsters that comprise the marauding hordes swarming the vitreous shallows dealing despair and heartbreak and madness to those unwise enough to cross their path can be seen tucked away in shop windows and in the names of things like totems meant to ward off the wickedness. And these titans of the tideland are sought by cabals of strange, brightly dressed acolytes that speak in tongues and who with brutal instruments of ritual seek to raise these leviathans from the brine only to bow in supplication at the very sight of them. A depraved act that often leaves those very same apostles sent to from whence they came, red about the eyes with arms gesticulating widly and gibbering like feral lunatics about the black heart and fiendish stare of the soul devouring demonfish that they had once kept as their idol.
Once a year they come. Driven by an inexorable need to swim, hardwired in them over the millennia, these ancient beasts clad in lustrous coats of torsional silver are the foundations upon which angling dreams are built and the accelerant that turns those same dreams into a fiery furnace of nightmare. These oceanic kings go by many names, but there is one that will suffice in bringing any anglers in the room to attention no matter where in the world you find yourself. Tarpon.
Like the Spaniards who had come to La Florida five hundred years ago seeking treasure and glory, I too had traveled to Florida, in parts unknown to me, seeking. A piscine treasure that could not be mined nor minted. A glory that could only be won by standing toe to fin with giants. Where the warriors of the old world faced the consequence of broken bodies and the promise of a shallow grave, I faced a fractured psyche and the prospect of a heartbreak so severe that it has caused some to lay down their fly rods for all time. I had come to fly fish for Tarpon.
I sat in the cab of Greg Dini’s truck. We were just west of Chalmette, Louisiana. Pin head rain soaked through the cheesecloth belly of a black sky and fell and held in gossamer baubles on the windshield and winked in their constellations as the train tipped and rocked as it passed along before us. Watching the rain continue to fall I gave up my contemplation of the vagaries of February weather in Louisiana and wondered if redfish ever got as sad as I was at that very moment to have left the Louisiana Marsh behind under floes of overcast and a wind stiff enough to blow the stink off a shithouse in August. By degrees the train slowed and slowed and eventually stopped. Dini looked up from his phone.
“What the fuck? Did it stop?”
“Of course it did. Why wouldn’t it?”
Dini shook his head.
“No shit, right?”
Dini went back to drafting his email and as he wrote his phone gave up a small, robotic chime. He punched a few keys and put the phone to his ear. A long moment passed and he let out a long, low whistle.
Dini set the phone in the console and looked over at me.
“A client of mine just cancelled on three primo poon dates in June,” he tipped his sunglasses down to the point of his nose. He stared over the tortoise shell frame. “You want ’em?”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket. I clicked it to life. I checked the time. The afternoon was only a few minutes old. I slid my digital arrow east to unlock the keypad then I stuffed the phone back in my pocket.
“It’s the fourth, fifth, and sixth.”
I felt a roll of adrenaline touch off within me. Like an infant tsunami beginning in a great ocean it was just the tiniest swelling of excitement. There were no guarantees. Only the chance of getting in front of a giant tarpon. Thrashing maws, flared gills, and shaking scales. I felt the wave pick up speed. I was already gone.
We sat a while a longer listening to a cold man sing of love lost over the radio as a wind came up and spun the rain in its falling into a froth that fell like sheets of frost across the hood of the truck. The train had not yet resumed it’s journey. We would have to wait a while longer. I took my phone out again and opened the calendar. 105 days to go.
Catch a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Catch a man a tarpon, and he’ll that think that he personally invented the sport of fishing.
Tarpon have the ability to breed uncompromising hubris in those anglers lucky enough to bring one to hand. Little of this is the fault of the angler though, as often it is not a conscious decision to behave so brazenly in the wake of landing a tarpon, but is a by-product of these fish being so spectacularly difficult catch. Even more impressive is that the degree of difficulty associated with catching a tarpon stems directly from the fact tarpon are a genuinely uncomplicated animal.
Yes. That’s what I said. Tarpon are uncomplicated fish.
Situationally speaking, tarpon are predictable. They will be right where they should be given the right tide, time of year, moon phase, etc. They will do all the fishy things that tarpon do. Roll, lay-up, belly crawl, swim, and free jump, when and as they should. But none of those things can be taken as a guarantee that a tarpon can be caught. Will eat. Will look at whatever fly, bait, or lure you’re feverishly offering to them. Or even whether or not they will even acknowledge the fact that you’re drifting above them.
Now, intuition would dictate that because Tarpon are often detached and recalcitrant when presented a fly and brutal and unrelenting when hooked that the individual fish is given to making a choice. That each tarpon is possessed of the ability to determine his own behavior. I don’t buy it. If that was true tarpon fish would be easier to catch. No, when you face down tarpon you are not confronting just a fish. You are facing something older. Something primitive and beholden only to the most basic primordial urges. For tarpon have been roaming the shallows seas and oceans of planet Earth essentially unchanged, save the disappearance of their fangs, from their initial incarnation for over 100 million years.
Let’s put that into perspective, shall we?
This is what Earth looked when ancient tarpon frist appeared on the scene. Recognizable, sure, but completely exploded. The Middle East and North Africa look like the Keys backcountry and the American south and midwest are underwater. You could have sight-fished a poon on a shallow beach in Tennessee.
Tarpon had a head start of a few million years before, Isisfordia duncani, the species that would eventually evolve into modern crocodiles first appeared.
Tyrannosaurus Rex didn’t show up until 35 million years AFTER the first tarpon. Imagine the advantage you would have sight-fishing if you were twenty feet tall? Throwing a fly with those stupid, little arms would be another story.
The giant meteor that plummeted from the heavens, crashed into Earth and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs? Yes, tarpon survived that.
Centropomidae, or the snook family, took their sweet time and waited 50 million years after tarpon appeared before showing up to the party.
As for the age difference between redfish and tarpon, well, lets put it this way: Tarpon would have been around partying with Ernest Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald while redfish wouldn’t have even been born until the original Saved By The Bell had already been in syndication for five years.
And then there is us. Humans. And we’re talking like barely erect, shaved versions of the Outbreak monkey, that took another million years once they arrived just figure out how to control fire. We didn’t show up until the Tarpon was already 100 million years old.
So, when you mount the casting deck and a 175-pound tarpon appears out of the ether and hits that edge where that pure white sand meets the turtle grass, forever suspended in its skyward reaching and that fish kicks down the flat straight at you, and you’re peering into those great eyes, all brassy and moss green, polishing and polishing as sunlight blooms in them and think that you’re gonna present your fly, come tight with a furious strip-set, and launch that terrible, gleaming beast skyward while adrenaline floods your brain like a hurricane tide, take a deep breath. Set your feet. Relax.
Because you’re already fucked.
You’re not just trying to outsmart and circumvent everything that single fish knows and has learned in her lifetime. For every tarpon that swims carries with it an evolutionary codex compiled over a hundred thousand millennia, written in the delicate, elemental script of amino acids and protein chains that details every tide on which to feed, what to eat, when to eat, how prey moves and the shape of it, the color and contour of predators, how a shark feels, how a mullet feels, how a crab feels, how a human feels, the unnatural sound of water slapping on something that shouldn’t be there, when to spawn, when to swim, when to breathe, where to go when it gets cold, when to play, when to sleep, the shape of a Spanish galleon, the shrilling of a T-rex, the sound of weight-forward floating line slapping at its back, and when to look you off, keep on swimming and leave you standing there with your heart beating out the brutal staccato of stones tumbling down a slatey ravine in the black hollow of your chest.
When you face down that tarpon, you’re trying to outsmart and circumvent everything that every tarpon that has ever lived long enough to spawn little tarpon over the last 100 million years knew to be true. You’re taking on the entire of scope of tarpon history.
And therein lies the black magic of tarpon fishing. It’s not about that fish deciding whether it will eat or not eat, because at the end of the day that decision does not belong to that fish swimming towards you. The decision belongs to the countless generations of its forebears. Tarpon are like the wheel. Perfect machines designed with few moving parts to unconsciously do one thing without any complication, interruption or deviation. Wheels roll because they’re supposed to. The design dictates it. Tarpon behave like tarpon because their design dictates it. They don’t get to choose. And this is what tarpon fishing, more so than any other type of fishing, must speak to. Tarpon fishing is centered on triggering something that resonates all way down into the deep and dark and ancient permanent heart of that fish that will bring to bear the instincts of its ancestors and compel that fish to eat. That will make that fish feel as though it must consume what swims before it at that very moment or perish for all time. And the violence inherent in driving something to partake in an act against its will is at the fore of presenting a fly to a tarpon. But tarpon fishing is an elegant violence. There is something beautiful in the motion of fur, fiber, and steel and the way it can evoke, in a split second, the brutal, elemental force of a tarpon. We play at a game of instants for a fish that is millions of years old.
It’s lunacy. It’s tarpon fishing. Magnificent.
Gulf Coast Highway
We stood on the curb outside of the airport watching the last few passengers from our flight ford a sea of hugs and how-are-yous and embark into the air-conditioned confines of SUV’s and sedans. Sludgy, waxen clouds swam above us and the vault was a grey dome of hammered pig-iron. Rain bands rode the horizon distant to the west of us in thick black cords that twisted and blew apart in the downdrafts like smoldering sugar cane. Palmettos plagued the edges of the parking lots. Their fronds screwing ever so slightly in a betrayal of small breaths of wind. The air about us still and heavy with smoke.
A woman with spindly fingers all traced with vague purple reports of varicose veins was seated on a bench next to us. She reached out her hand and offered me a light.
She nodded and stowed the lighter back in her pocket. She looked Nicki and I over.
“You all from New York?”
Nicki offered that she was from Westchester. The woman nodded.
“I’m from Florida,” I said. “Jupiter”
The woman nodded again.
“I don’t like it up there. New York.”
She took a drag from her cigarette.
“My daughter lives up there. But, I don’t know.”
“It can be like that.”
“That’s why you get away,” said Nicki.
The woman smiled and buried her cigarette in the sandy bowl atop the garbage can next to her.
“And that’s what you’re here doing? Vacation?”
“We’re here to fish,” I said.
The woman eyed the long, cylindrical tubes balanced carefully atop the rest of our baggage.
“You came all the way down here to go fishing?”
The woman chased a bit of ash from her trouser leg. With the long quills of her fingers she smoothed the fabric of her trousers until the pleats were the only embellishment to be seen. She looked back up at me.
“Well, good luck.”
I nodded in thanks.
“What are you fishing for?”
“We’re tarpon fishing.”
The woman shook her head.
“I’m not sure about that either.”
“No,” I said. “Most aren’t.”
The woman smiled and rose. I thanked her for the light and she excused herself and stepped down from the curb and set out for the parking lot.
As we shed the suburban sprawl so did we shed the foul weather. By degrees the sky cleared and so did the strip malls and low slung traffic lights. Before long we found ourselves on an empty belt of highway, bound up on either side by palmetto scrub and slash pine that ran all the way out to the point of the highway, gathering the sky between their slender trunks into stalactites of electric white.
As we drove, the shining sapphire plate of the Gulf would appear through a break in the trees where it rode some narrow headland, and then disappear in a blink. A bend in the highway would take us past some blackwater creek studded with mud reefs and small prairies of spartina grass that would ignite in a patina of sun flares as we sped past. As is sometimes the case with unfamiliar parts of the world, the notion that we were traveling between places disappeared, and it felt as though the world was racing up to meet us.
A Strange Place for Angels
Time. It is often in very short supply when we travel and the majority of it, as in that time which is not allotted to traveling or sleeping, is spent fishing. This is a reality into which Nicki has been thrown, albeit with fair warning and great enthusiasm on her part, rather hastily. She’s only been fishing with me a year, but has already endured enough sleepless nights and early mornings to suit someone with many more years invested in the madness that is saltwater fishing. And make no mistake. Nicki is damn salty to still be in year first year.
In light of this it seemed apropos to change the game ever so slightly and take a couple of extra days to do what we both find extremely difficult to do on these fishing excursions. We decided to just relax. No work, no 5am wake-up, no racing from airplane to skiff, no talk of tides, tarpon, or flies. Literally, we had nothing to do once we arrived at our first destination.
A modest, one bedroom condo teeming with shadows drawn from the figures of spanish moss tumbled down from boughs the of old oaks that stood above the sabal palms and oleander rushes.
Pretty though our lodging was, we didn’t spend more time there then it took to drop our gear and hit the road once more. For as much as we were in the Land of Poons we were also in the land of Crassotrea virginica. The eastern oyster.
Full disclosure: I often find the Gulf of Mexico iterations of the eastern oyster to be lacking when compared to their Canadian and Yankee cousins. I know that might sound blasphemous or elitist, but I assure that’s not the case. It simply means that they aren’t my first choice when eating oysters. That said, rarely do I find myself in a situation where fresh, wild product is as readily available and found so close to the source of harvest as it was on that day. And as such, being the obedient lotus-eaters that we are, we partook of those fine, briny flowers.
We ate them unadorned, and spritzed with citrus, and bloodied with hot sauce.
We even found them ridden under by mounds of brightly colored fish roe.
After nearly five dozen of the native oysters and enough cold beer to fill the livewell in an East Cape Vantage we returned to our humble abode.
It’s always a fun experiment, getting drunk. That fine, atomic edge of your senses is blunted just enough so that you can cause the outside world to obscure into white noise around you with little effort and focus your attentions better on the small minutiae that might otherwise escape the calculations of a mind preoccupied with sobriety.
Take this small, deceased insect. I saw him drop out of the blackness surrounding our small porch and land just as you see on top off my phone. And I was FASCINATED by it. When I set out to edit the photos we’d amassed on the trip I counted 72 frames of this unfortunate fellow.
Though the most interesting thing that I discovered that evening as I roamed the condo in search of something exciting to photograph was the sticker I found. Small and of the kind that come cellophane wrapped by the dozens and stuck there to assure the cleanliness of the place as a whole, it held the perforated edge on the roll of toilet paper hung from the dispenser to those sheets still whole on the roll.
Such an odd place to find an angel. And one feeding a seagull at that. I couldn’t help but think, holy shit. Holy shit, indeed.
Me Daba Quenta Que Estaba Relajado
About 100 or so miles south of Sydney, Australia, lies Jervis Bay along which runs a stretch of coastline called Hyams Beach. Guinness maintains that it has the whitest sand of any beach in the world. I have walked those shores and I can attest to the fact that the sand is very, very white. Almost blindingly so. Much more interesting though is the texture of the sand. So fine is the grain of the pulverized sand that it feels like corn starch as it fills the gaps between your toes and makes a zip-zip-zip sound, like a bolt of denim being rubbed against itself as you stride across it.
In the time that has passed since I was at Hyams I have been on many beaches, but until I mounted the green, saltbeaten steps and stared across the stretch of beach we’d chosen to lounge on that day I had not seen any that were as beautiful. And in that moment I had.
The sand wasn’t as white as Hyams, but it didn’t matter. It was white enough and the familiar zip-zip-zip of my feet tracking across the obliterated stone rose to meet us as we went looking for a bit of uncrowded real estate.
We unpacked our towels and blankets and applied the appropriate amount of sunblock. Then we opened a pair of cold beers and sat down. Far out to the west I watched the deep blue sash of horizon carefully revising as the open Gulf moved against the sky.
“What are we supposed to do?”
Nicki shook her head and handed me my beer.
I lasted about thirty minutes. I lounged on the beach in full sun-worship. I drank beer. Then I began to grow antsy at the sight of the clear, lazy surf lapping the sand only twenty yards from us. I had brought with me to the beach a brand new Colton Tradewinds XS 8-weight that I was dying to cast. Much like a child who has so patiently waited for what seems like and excruciating amount of time to play with a new toy, I shot Nicki an expectant glance and a sheepish smile.
“What are you waiting for?,” she said. “Go!”
In my haste to to assemble the rod, tie a leader, and attach a fresh gangster krab from 239Flies, I neglected to reapply sunblock, a mistake for which I would later pay, but who cares. I was finally fishing.
I found a pair of sandbars running perpendicular to the beach about 75 yards apart with a trough of deeper water running the distance between them. I patrolled the shoreline in hopes of sightfishing something worthy. No dice. Just a few ladyfish.
So, I got in. More ladyfish. The Colton felt great though. Nice and fast, quick loads, and plenty of power.
At this point Nicki was fed up with me flailing around in the surf like an asshole and decided that it was time to for her to fish. I got the spinning rod out, got it rigged, and advised her as to where I thought the fish would be and where she should cast. I started back up the beach to collect my fly rod and I hadn’t gone but fifty feet when I heard the familiar pealing of a spinning reel drag in reverse.
And there you have it. A fine, summertime bluefish. Nicki’s first. We took a few photos and I went back up the beach to trade the camera for my fly rod and a turn to catch a fish worth mentioning. Nicki let me make it all the way back to the water before she hooked another fish and sent me back up the beach for the camera.
As clean and silver a seatrout as I’ve ever seen. And a respectable one too.
At this point I considered my ass whipped. And so, handily beaten, I decided it was time to trade the Colton up, not for a spinning rod, but a cold beer, a sunburn, and a chance to enjoy the rest of the afternoon. The skies stayed clear and the wind light and it was nothing less than a beautiful day.
Briefly I let my mind wander off to the Land of Poons, where we would soon find ourselves, and felt a slight pang of remorse that we were not chasing silver at that very moment with the visibility so perfect and the water nearly Caribbean in its clarity. I also briefly entertained a fear that the weather might undergo a drastic and sudden change and leave us shorebound instead of hunting giants and that this perfect day would be squandered. I quickly pushed that thought from my mind. After all it was early June. The time of predictable weather.
I did not sleep much that night. An hour. Two at most. It may have been the sunburn. It may have been excitement. It may have been the strings coming taut once again, resuming their usual high tension, after a day of having absolutely no stress. Whatever it was that kept me tossing all the night long I felt consumed by it. And by the time the cool blue of impending dawn began spilling through the slats in window blinds I was wild-eyed and sick with longing.
If you’re anything like me you can remember every tarpon you’ve ever caught, nearly all the tarpon that you’ve ever hooked, and can recall at the very least, the endocrine rush that attends every shot at a tarpon that you’ve ever taken. This is not the result of my not having caught many tarpon. Quite the opposite in fact. These fish just feel different. The mark they leave is indelible.
I caught my first tarpon on June 5th, 1995 in Islamorada. I was just a kid. Holes in my smile. Still a little fat in the cheeks. And fixated on fishing. The tarpon ate half a mullet floated back with the tide into the channel that butted up against the edge of the flat where we had staked out. Put to the scale it would have shown at right around 100 pounds. I fought the fish for an hour and a half. When the fish was leadered my face was soaked with tears of frustration. Pain. I was shaking. My breathing was short and harsh. When the hook was drawn from the tarpon’s maw and she swam off as easy as if the fight had never happened I sank to the deck of Bud Grace’s skiff and cried. I was just kid.
Gimme Danger, Gimme Poons
17 years, 11 months, and 29 days after I’d been turned into a sniffling, soaking mess by my first tarpon we met Greg Dini at the oyster crusted embarkation point that serves as portal in The Land of Poons between the terra damnata one must walk before encountering the great giants and the open Gulf itself. That watery world where men no longer hold sway and the only laws set forth are those mandated by the ancient beasts rising to meet their challengers.
We rehearsed the plan that we hatched with Dini the night before over roasted grouper and fine wine. We would stalk rolling fish in the morning as we waited for the sun to achieve a more agreeable celestial latitude and once we were under the full light of the star we would move to the great tarpon highways at the brink of a shallow expanse of flats and meet the monsters head on.
Dini committed the skiff to the water and we set out under the kind of long, shallow skirts of white cloud that keep waters black and wrapped in glare until the afternoon sun finally burns them away, and made our descent into the Land of Poons.
It didn’t take long before the other boats gathered in cabalistic pursuit of these gleaming deities began to appear before us on the flat we were approaching like wading birds rising from a slumber. We took our place in line. I stepped up into the cage and peeled sixty feet of floating line into the stripping bucket as Dini explained the mechanics of the presentation.
“You’ve got to get the fly out in front of the fish.”
“Be sure that when you present the fly you’re leading the fish.”
“The cadence will be, ‘slide, slide, slide,” where you’ll make long, steady strips to keep the fly high in the water to get it on the fish’s line, then, ‘tick, tick, tick, tick,’ and you’re just barely going to move the fly. Short, short strips. Get it on front of him and create the train wreck.”
Up to this moment I’d fished tarpon in pretty much every scenario in which they’re found, except for the one I was in at that very moment that dealt with huge, swimming fish, concerned with little else but their migration. I was prepared to experience a bit of a learning curve.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been fishing, how many different places you’ve fished, or how many of whatever fish you’re fishing for you’ve actually caught. Sure, those things count and having the experience to draw from is always helpful, but when you’re in a new fishery, it must be treated as such and you’ve got to adapt to it accordingly.
“You ready to whack ’em?”
Dini ascended the platform and just like that we were tarpon fishing.
The first tarpon we saw were rolling as they came.
“9 o’clock. Here they come.”
I started the cast. One false cast. One more. The fish rolled again. I let the cast go. The fly fell four feet ahead of where the fish had gone down only an instant before. I leaned in and readied myself to start stripping.
“No. Again. Get it out in front.”
I picked up the line and started another cast.
The fish rolled again.
I hauled and laid down another shot. Maybe five feet ahead this time.
“No. Come on. Go again.”
I took another shot.
“Ahead of the fish. You just hit him in the back. Come on. Again.”
I let another cast fly.
“You gotta be ahead of the fish. Ahead of them. They’re swimming. This isn’t redfishing.”
I started another cast.
“Don’t bother. They’re already gone.”
It was all over in less than minute. My ears were ringing. I wasn’t breathing. The fly rod felt strange and unwieldy in my hands. The gentle lap of wavelets at the hull boomed in my ears like massive surf colliding with a breakwater. The harsh heat of the morning sun pressed hard against me. It scalded my hands and it would not relent. Strange colors overtook the water and the tide seemed to push in at me from all points of the compass. I’d been ravaged. Ransacked. Everything I knew to be true about fly fishing was wrong. All my preparations had been in vain. I was a transgressor in The Land of Poons and I’d been made to pay the forefit for my mad wanderings.
To the uninitiated tarpon fishing is glamorous. Crystal clear water, long strings of fish, the tense clipped dialogue of a tarpon being called, leaping fish, doubled over rods, flashing scales, strip-sets, high fives, epic eats, and look and feel of the pinnacle of sport fishing. Everyone casts like Andy Mill and everything is exciting and all of it is captured in high definition.
The dirty little secret of tarpon fishing is that ninety percent of it is a tedious, soul-sucking business of constantly watching and waiting for hours on end, in a state of the highest alert, and often in one spot, for the tarpon to swim through. And when the tarpon do fall into their approach on that tiny intersection of flat that you’re occupying, they’re moving so quickly that you realistically only have one chance, maybe two if they don’t spook, to take down that fish. It’s true combat fishing.
The rest of that first day passed very much in that fashion. Slowly. There was much waiting, lot’s of conversation, and a solid hours long block of excellent 90’s hip-hop bumping from Dini’s iphone courtesy of Pandora radio. Then the outgoing tide hit whatever perfect stage that it did and the poons began to swim.
They came in singles, triples, in fives. I took some bad shots that fell far too close or too far off the mark. Those shots hurt and I can still feel them. I took some good shots and got refused. Fine. That’s fishing.
Then, a pair of fish in the 150 pound range, heads crowned by scales bejeweled with the cerulean and amethyst hues bestowed upon them by the adamantine depths of the open Gulf, made their turn around the edge of the grassflat we’d been bird-dogging all afternoon.
“Here they come. Ready.”
“You got ’em? Twelve o’clock.”
“Wait for it…Okay. Go.”
One. Two. Three. I let it go.
“Good. Leave it. Leave it. Wait. Slide, slide. Don’t touch it. Slide, tick, tick, tick.”
I would have fallen off the platform if it wasn’t for the cage. My bones were broken inside my legs.
“Ahh, pick it up. Go again.”
I shot again.
“No. In front of him. Go again.”
This time I held the fish in my periphery, judged his speed, and let the cast go. I could feel the rightness of the cast as the loop laid down.
The lightbulb hadn’t just come on. It had fucking exploded.
“Good. Leave it. Leave it. Slide, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick!”
The lead fish didn’t deviate from her line an inch. She rose in the water column as though she might breach and sipped the baitfish fly like a brown trout rising to an Adams.
I strip-set. I felt the line go rigid against the weight of the fish, but I knew the hook had not found its mark. A better fisherman would have waited a heartbeat, spent that extra second to allow the line to fully come tight before hitting the fish again and sending her skyward. I didn’t. I immediately tried to set again. The fly came out.
At the bottom of my heart the shame and embarassment fused into a fiery crag that scorched the very core of my soul and sent cold sweat leeching from every pore in my body. I stripped my line back into the bucket. There was no dignity in the suffering of that defeat. I had stood against the marvelous silver champion and been crushed. Annihilated. Put down and not given a second thought like some journeyman fly fisherman coming to the end of a suicide mission. Whatever steel I had retained from the near misses occurring earlier that day was gone. Melted. I had lost.
In my estimation fly fishing for tarpon is about as close to doing hard drugs as you can ever get without ever actually crossing over into that terrible state of being. The idea of it is alluring and mysterious. It’s glamorized in the media and the people who look up to do it and don’t seem any worse for the wear. There is a definite and exacting ritual that goes into preparing for it and ultimately doing it. The moment of impact when you get that first hit is pure euphoria. It’s washes over your brain and body and if you got any higher you’d blast off into the ether. When that moment finally passes the only thing that occupies your thoughts is doing it again. And again. And until you can fix again you feel shitty and dirty and awful because all you can think about is how good it will feel once you do it and how bad you feel right at that moment when you’re not doing it. You start to get desperate. You’ll do anything to get it. Hike through the woods to a remote location, trespass, spend whatever money you’ve got, miss work, ignore your loved ones. It’s awful. It’s a drug.
We’d been quiet for a long time when Dini stiffened again.
“Okay. We’ve got fish coming in. Ten o’clock.”
It wasn’t more than a forty-foot cast. Probably less. I let it go. I could hear the gentle pop of the fly breaking the water.
“Leave it…tick, tick, tick, tick, tick…tick, tick, tick, tick. He ate. Hit him!”
We’d both seen it. The tarpon just cocked his jaw and his mouth opened and broke the meniscus of limpid Gulf water and you could see right down into the dark pit of his throat.
I stripped hard. Nothing. I stripped hard again. The fish was swimming at me with the fly in his mouth. He still hadn’t seen the boat. I stripped as fast as I could trying to gather the slack. At the sight of the boat the poon broke right in a huge boiling of water. There at the surface, slowly spinning in a dark little pinwheel was the fly.
We’d been seeing them most of the afternoon. Redfish lifting out of the deeper grooves in the flat and cruising up onto the stretch of shallow water crowning the flat behind us. As Dini and I regrouped for the next wave of poons, Nicki exhibited the kind of calm that I been seeking that entire day. She saw a redfish work its way up into the skinny water. She went to the stern of the boat, drew the spinning rod, and made one cast. It was the only one that she needed.
When Nicki brought that beautiful summertime redfish into the boat I can promise you that my smile was as big as hers. At least one of us could be held to the standards of an angler that day.
I had one last shot at a tarpon that first day. The fish came in on a different line then the others. I made the cast, the tiny strips, and in a great boil the fish ate. I stripped hard and got tight to the fish. I hit him again. Then I hit him once more. For a reason that is still unknown to me, call it adrenaline, call it overreaching to make for the mistakes I’d already made that day, call it just fucking stupid, I decided that the hook still hadn’t found its mark yet. One last time I hit the fish. At the same moment that fish decided to turn and start its first run. There was audible sigh that came from the fly line as it went slack.
“Hey, dude. You put the hook in one.”
“That counts for something.”
We fist bumped. But I didn’t want to. What I wanted to do was lay down on the deck and cry.
It took an awful lot of beer to wash away the stink from my shitty performance that day. Make no mistake, hunting big fish in shallow water is a team sport. There are no two ways about it. Dini held up his end of the bargain. We were getting run over by tarpon all afternoon. He called the shots perfectly. All I did was make mistakes. I could not take us those last fifty or sixty feet necessary to put those fish in the air, to close the deal. And that feeling, of letting someone else down, is much worse that then feeling of just not catching fish. It’s awful.
A day earlier and unbeknownst to us a tropical depression had formed six hundred miles away over the lower Keys. By the time we got on the water on that second day, the storm had advanced north through the Gulf of Mexico and was gathering strength near Tampa. Heavy cloud cover being driven north by the storm blanketed the sky all the way into southern Georgia. We would be fishing in the dark.
Wind blew. Rain fell. By noon there was no suggestion that the sun had even risen. Just a diffusion of grey light. But we weren’t deterred. We knew that the poons would swim. They had no choice.
As the tide drained we watched massive tarpon charging hard across the flats through water less than two feet deep. A hundred yards off our port a giant launched from the shallows and entered the water again in a thunderclap.
Around 5pm rain was falling in a slow, crackling dribble from the sky. A massive push of water erupted on the flat adjacent to the little strip of tarpon highway that we’d road blocked. Silver tails carved amongst the wavelets. Bolts of emerald flashed beneath the water.
“You see that?”
“Those are our fish. Get ready.”
The head wakes subsided and all signs of the tarpon were gone. The fish appeared again a hundred feet ahead of where we’d last seen them. Water humped up six inches high on the gentle concave slope of their foreheads.
Sixty feet of floating line was all that remained between me and what I had come so far to find.
“Yep. Leave it. Slide it. Slide it. Tick, tick, tick…tick.”
The fish turned broadside to us when he ate the fly and in the roiling water the great, bulbous eye of the monster was magnified and it strobed white-hot where it caught a strand of aberrant sunlight that had crept in through the clouds. I stripped hard, nearly splitting open the flesh at the top of my thumb, and came tight. When the tarpon launched her brilliant pewter scales were muted and dull looking in the flat light. The great cavern of her maw was a black gape and the seagreen of her back was run through with vermiculate strands of white and blue and silver. She hung there, back arched and gills flared, for just an instant. An immense and bewitching ornament reaching above the distant, sable shore and gouging the dark gut of the sky.
As the fish sank back into the water the leader parted. Severed by the heavy blades hinging the great fish’s jaws. The fly line returned to me in an ugly, tangle of loops and whorls.
Whoops and cheers lifted from the cockpit of the only other boat still fishing.
I looked back to Dini. He was smiling. So was I. He shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s tarpon fishing.”
I woke up on the morning of our third day to find Tropical Storm Andrea sending sheets of rain sideways against the windows of our condo.
The idea of possibly getting out that afternoon to fish the outgoing tide that had been so good to us was discussed over breakfast. It was little more than a last ditch attempt at diverting ourselves from what we all knew to be true. There would be no tarpon fishing that day.
Around mid-afternoon our goodbyes were said and luck was wished and we left The Land of Poons under heavy skies and with heavy hearts. I felt sick as we drove along the Gulf, tumultuous under the westward crusades of the gusting wind, with only the rain glazing the windshield and the washpot motion of the fouling shallows to console us as we began our long journey home.
“Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
I try now, nearly a month removed from these days in early June, to think about anything other than tarpon. The titanic shadows racing down flat. The feel of a twelve-weight pumping out line. The shape of their powerful, ancient archiecture shuddering as they quit the weight of water and tide and hurl themselves skyward. Gleaming. Divine.
I can still feel the weight of them at the business end of a strip set.
The great eyes haunt me from the edges of sleep as I drift into dreams of skiffs, and fish, and sun licked water and hunting those silver beings.
And I find myself now staring long at maps of Florida and the jagged lines where the Gulf of Mexico makes its eastern shores.
I whisper to myself.
Here are tarpon. And I shall return.
As always, huge thanks go out to Capt. Greg Dini for an outstanding couple of days on the water where, conceptually speaking, I learned more about the art of sight fishing poons in 48 hours than I have in nearly twenty years. In tarpon hunting there is a vast difference between being in a situation where you’re around tarpon and being in a situation where you’re in a position to actually catch tarpon. It is a rare and select group of anglers that have the ability to decode the ancient habits of these amazing fish and constantly have you in a position where it’s not a question of if but when you’ll get tight. And among them Dini is one of the best. If you have any desire to put your soul at hazard and chase giant tarpon with a fly rod in a place that is beautiful and serene and devoid of the maddening fishing politics found in other tarpon fisheries that would seem better suited to reality TV than fishing, then call him.
Get in touch with him now, thank me later.
I have been to the Everglades more in the last eight months than I have been home in the last six years. And so, very much the prodigal son, in six days time I will make my return to Jupiter, Florida. Land of my youthful misdeeds and past angling glories. We go in search of heavyweight snook and anything else willing to oblige us. Will I be able to conjure the angling magic of my youth? Hard to say. Maybe. At the very least though I’m sure I’ll come back with a story worth telling. Until next time.