My very close friend Jay Preslar and I journeyed to northwest Florida about two weeks ago on a quest. It was all about tarpon. For me, the goal was a photo of your truly actually touching a tarpon, to add to my fly fishing scrapbook and to fill a void on my fishing photo wall, in my fly tying room (otherwise known as the laundry room). Despite having had numerous close encounters of the tarpon type, such a photo remained elusive. This trip was to be the charm.
For Jay, it was to be his first appearance in the court of the Silver King. He sported an impressive resume with trout, bonefish, and other sought after gamefish, all taken on the fly, but tarpon were new and mysterious to him, a wonder of which he had only read and heard tall tales about. Although I was quite anxious to fulfill my mission, I remained fascinated by the prospect of observing Jay locked in a full metal jacket battle with the prehistoric tarpon, a fish well known to give no quarter when engaged in conflict with an angler, a kind of Mortal Combat Fishing.
We had engaged the services of guide Greg Dini, with whom I had chased the unusually large and prolific redfish which inhabit the marshes south of Greg’s home in New Orleans. It was he who had opened my eyes to the tarpon possibilities in the northwestern portions of Florida, where he guides in late spring and summer. Jay and I set forth from home in my Tahoe and drove to Greg’s condo in Florida one Friday, arriving around 6PM after an unhurried, stress free drive. It was so refreshing to leave behind the hassles of commercial flying – no lines, no baggage fees, no TSA agents palpating your “junk”, and no interminable waits at airports for the next flight. After many years of flying,I finally have determined that airline travel actually consists of a series of prolonged periods sitting in grey plastic airport chairs, interrupted by short periods in an airplane seat. A pleasant day of intellectually stimulating conversation with Jay while driving down I-95 proved a much preferable alternative.
The following morning, we connected Greg’s gleaming East Cape Canoes Venture to his pickup and headed to the ramp. We then motored the short distance to our spot. We were clearly far from the madding crowds of the Keys or Boca Grande Pass here. Yet, the scenery was eerily reminiscent of the Keys. We anchored in water clear and clean, its white sand bottom alternating with dark green grass beds. The water depth was a mere three to four feet. You can bet that such spots would be fought over by Keys guides. Here we waited in near isolation for the appearance of the King. “Thank ya, thank ya very much”, I murmured to myself silently, unable to add the snarl that other King was known so well for.
The first day and a half proved slow. We saw a few large tarpon, migrating east to west beneath our keel, but very few. We had only a couple of legitimate shots, and, alas, no hookups. I feared that we were once more victims of the “You should have been here yesterday” syndrome. It turned out that we were actually between migratory pods, as the next afternoon, it was ON!!!! On like Donkey Kong, as the young people say ( or maybe said – I am likely behind the times). Throngs of the giant fish slid past and under us for the remaining day and a half of our trip. It became quite easy to ascertain that we weren’t in the Keys, not so much by the numbers of fish we encountered, but by their willingness to inhale our flies. A well presented fly was frequently, though not always, rewarded by an enthusiastic take by these tarpon. Breathtaking is the most appropriate adjective I can conjure as I consider the take of these magnificent fish. As I stood at the ready in the custom elevated casting cage on the bow of Greg’s boat, I mentally rehearsed my response to a bite. “Make a slow, measured strip strike. Don’t do a giant tip lift a la Jimmy Houston or Roland Martin. Once he turns, then make a couple quick jabs to bury the hook in the fish’s stony jaw, etc”, I silently told myself. When the strike came, however, it was like a flash from a Fourth of July firecracker- instantaneous, exciting, nearly blindingly fast. My tarpon ate, leapt into the azure Florida sky, and unwound my entire fly line and a hundred yards of backing before my next heartbeat. Suddenly, we had made the jump to lightspeed, the great fish heading for the open sea.
Greg quickly detached the anchor buoy, fired up the Yamaha, and followed in pursuit. “Wind! Wind! Wind!” Greg urgently commanded. (Parenthetically, isn’t it interesting how fishing language is usually spoked in triplets?) Anyway, I wound as furiously as an angler accustomed to winding the reel with his dominant right hand could turn the handle of a left hand retrieve reel. “This isn’t going to be too bad”, I smugly, and incorrectly, surmised as Greg stopped the boat directly over the fish. Out of the water came the tarpon, expending energy, and delighting me, both in being able to see such an acrobatic display of power, and in the knowledge that such antics wear the fish down and shorten the fight. Greg estimated the tarpon at 80 to 90 pounds. It made a blistering run, taking back all the line I had just recovered and more. I tightened down the drag on the large arbor Hatch reel, and put all 275 pounds of my not inconsiderable body mass into the 12 weight House of Hardy rod, bending it into absurd curves likely not envisioned by its designers.
I struggled mightily to bring the fish boatside for a photo op and a release, to be followed by a Kalik beer. Each time I brought her near, she responded by flicking that massive tail and pushing away from the skiff. By now, the fight had become intensely physical. Sweat exuded from every pore of my body as I strained to bring her to hand. She fought back valiantly, and it seemed that she had grown to maybe 150 pounds by now, so hard was she to move. Nausea crept over me as the hot Florida sun beat down on us. We were nearly an hour into the struggle. I then utilized the down and dirty technique popularized by tarpon legend Stu Apte as I desperately wanted to end this battle quickly. My pulse soared and it felt as though my heart might explode if I could not rest. Greg suggested that Jay relieve me for a few minutes, a suggestion I immediately refused. “Either I land this fish, or I die trying” was my response. I was completely serious. He brought me a bottle of cold water and I soldiered on. Fortunately for me, the tarpon wearied just slightly faster than I did, and after an additional 15 minutes, I finally had my prize by the boat.
She was massive. Greg estimated her length at 6 feet, though, truth be told, she was closer to five, maybe five and a half. New state laws prevented me from hoisting her aboard for a photo, so I contented myself by kneeling at the gunwale before the Silver Queen as Jay snapped a few pictures from his perch on the poling platform. After Greg released her to continue her journey, I collapsed in the seat, too tired and nauseous for even a celebratory Kalik. To the victor goes the spoils, even though in my case, it was merely a photograph. I turned to Jay and said “Hey man, its your turn – for the rest of the trip!”
Watching Jay tangle with one of these beasts was my secondary goal for the trip, and I eagerly anticipated seeing him sweat , just as I had done. I remained in the seat, rehydrating with more ice water and, yes, a Kalik, my favorite beer. The tarpon continued their parade by the boat, and Jay was able to make a number of excellent casts and presentations to them as they swam past. Greg provided detailed instructions about how to work the fly before the fish. “STRRRRIP, STRRRRIP!” he would command. Then, as the fish showed interest and neared the fly, it was “TICK! TICK! TICK!”, meaning that Jay should make small repetitive 2 inch long movements of the fly. This typically entices the tarpon to take, whether by curiosity or aggravation, I do not know.
Jay had about 5 eats from the tarpon, and a couple of hookups. The fish that took his fly were much larger than the one I had wrestled to the boat. His were all in the 130-140 pound range. They made impressive initial jumps as they took the bunny strip flies, then headed, like a jet fighter, out of the area. Separate, extend, and fight another day was their strategy, just like that of outgunned fighter pilots. These massive fish very rapidly unspooled Jay’s reel. Several times we were just about to see the metal of the spool’s face when finally we got close enough to gain line.
I vividly recall Jay’s initial experience with bonefish. Prior to that, he had been all about trout. Being a scientist and keen observer of nature, he relished the intellectual aspect of identifying the particular bug the trout were taking on a day at the stream. All that tweed jacket and pipe smoking stuff fit him well. When finally I convinced him to try bonefish, I placed him at the bow the first morning. He immediately hooked up with an average size bone and in typical fashion, the fish sped off the flat like a Bonneville racing machine. Jay was cackling with laughter and I asked him what he thought about bonefishing. He turned to me with a big wide grin and said ” Screw the trout!”, or something similar.
His reaction was not dissimilar when first he felt the power and speed of a giant tarpon. He was instantly in love once more. “Let’s go ahead and book for next year!” he said, all the while turning the reel handle as quickly as he could.
Unfortunately for Jay, the larger tarpon tend not to jump, save the initial leap when striking and realizing that something is amiss. All that energy, combined with deeply swallowed flies, makes landing them quite difficult, particularly for novice tarpon fishermen. Spit hooks and abraded tippets left him emptyhanded, but certainly not emptyhearted. He was all grins despite not actually landing a tarpon. I was more disappointed than he, as I was denied the opportunity to see him do the tarpon tango, a truly manly dance, if ever there was one.
Like him, I am ready to sign up for another shot next season. I suppose that landing a large tarpon on a fly rod may be a little like giving birth. It is an intensely painful experience, but one which produces a remarkable result. Like multiparous mothers, I know I will suppress the unpleasant memories, and be back to do it all over again one day.