Fishing with Steve and Chad

Last month I traveled to the Everglades, once again with Steve Huff in pursuit of the six. As usual Chad “Chadillac” Huff joined us, completing what has become the most recent team iteration. We had three days scheduled to fish, and I drove up the night before as usual. As crazy as the idea of fishing with Steve is for someone that grew up idolizing him, as strange the idea that we might be tarpon fishing on six pound test, as idiotic the notion that we might actually complete this task, driving up felt normal and, at this point, familiar. I’ve become acquainted with hope on these trips as much as I have with failure, and every time I take a left on to 41 into the afternoon sun I am, stupidly, confident that we are going to catch the fish that we have been after for the last 8 years.

In those 8 years we have been set upon by bad luck that’s bordered on complete in its coverage, and each time we cross what we feel is the final threshold there’s another thinner film that separates us from success. In some ways we are closer than we ever have been. In others, we are simply approaching a place we have yet to arrive at, and while closer than ever we are still simply not there at all. Success is binary, and while our approach towards it has been effective it has also been pitifully asymptotic.

This trip felt different from the outset, part of that feeling I’m sure due to the weather finally being something other than the final blush of winter we experienced in March or the gnawing rage of a hurricane that kept us from these September days last year. We had warm weather and a reasonable expectation that we would find some fish to play our game; that was more than enough to keep my hopes high.

The first day we left early. Steve took us to a place he thought would hold a fish, and there we saw a few but never got a shot. We bumped around through the morning, seeing fish nearly everywhere we stopped but never finding a group that was consistent enough to warrant a digging in. In the late morning we found what we had been looking for: a group of fish that was spread out but willing to roll often enough for us to get in range. After 30 minutes of poling towards the bobbing backs we were able to get a cast nearby where a fish rolled, and after stripping it slowly back towards us were tight to a tarpon that I wasn’t able to connect to. We left the fly on since the leader was untouched and kept on in the increasing glare. Another cast towards another roll at the outside of our range led to another bite, and this one remained connected long enough to clear the line to the reel. The fish took a hard run on a tight curve before it jumped, and as soon as it left the water we knew it wasn’t big enough. At 75 pounds it would make a great fish on any other day, but on this day we weren’t interested in any more than its brief interruption and inspection. After going slack in hopes that the fly might fall out I held the spool until the tippet broke and then attached a new leader and got ready.

It didn’t take long before another fish rolled nearby, and a cast out in front of it resulted in another close bite that we hadn’t anticipated. I wasn’t ready when the fish flashed on the fly, figuring that the fish we had thrown at was no longer nearby the fly, and while it may have been big enough we never had the chance to verify before it threw the hook. Another bite came on the very next cast from a different fish, and it was clear that Steve had us located in the middle of group of tarpon that was larger than it first appeared.

From said group we pulled another bite from a small fish that we broke off, though as the morning became afternoon it seemed that the fish were dispersing and Steve moved us onward. We headed to somewhere else, finding at least a fish everywhere we stopped but not coming tight to any of them. Towards the later afternoon we returned to nearby where the fish had been in the morning and were given another pair of bites by the fish. We timed out still trying, though Steve poked our nose nearby on the way home to see if we could find anything extra. On the ride home the consensus among us was that, while tough, the fishing could give us the fish we needed. While it hadn’t felt consistent we had still compiled seven bites, a few of them from fish that may have been big enough, and felt that with two more days of fishing we were likely to attach ourselves to a fish that could do it for us.

The second day of fishing was calm and warm, and mirrored the first in some ways. We didn’t start where we had the day before, Steve instead opting to reach out farther towards the south before working our way back towards home in the early afternoon. We didn’t find much in the morning but fished hard, knowing that when we returned to the area we’d found our bites yesterday we were likely to get some new ones. After lunch Steve brought us to where the fish had been, and after poling around for a bit we were staked within 100 feet of a small depression that held a large number of tarpon. I started pulling the fly through the group, and after not getting a bite we started changing things up. We’d discuss them first, casting all the while and hoping for a bite while we talked about what to change.

“What do you guys think about a fly change?”

“You know what? I was thinking the same thing”

“Which one do you want?”

“Let’s try the [redacted]”

“That’s what they liked yesterday. Let’s do it.”

“One more cast with this one, I’m gonna let it sink this time.”

After one such fly change and a cast towards a rolling 90-pound fish we were tight, though this fish didn’t stay connected. We inspected the leader and kept on, hoping we might get another grab from the fish that seemed to be relaxing and rolling more frequently in the afternoon heat. I made a long cast to the far perimeter of the group, and after a few yards in our direction the fly was detained. I set the hook and the fish took off, twisting its mouth back and forth before taking a solid leap. The fish was giant, and when it left the water we were confronted by what looked like a 150-pound scale-covered dog shaking itself off in the sun before it crashed back into the water and foam. We survived the connection just long enough to comment on the size of this volunteer before it took another hard run and jumped again, breaking off as it came bursting down a second time. I wound up and re-rigged while we talked about how big the fish was, which remained the sole topic of conversation for 15 minutes until we came tight to another fish.

This one was smaller, though not by much–when it came out of the water we felt as if it were 130–but this was an entirely different animal. The tarpon took its time to clear the line before it jumped, and when it did it came halfway out of the water before being sucked slowly back into the same bubbly tear it had left from. Where the first one had been a wolf, this one was a panting Labrador retriever. We started the motor, Chad got strapped in, and we set out after the fish in the shallow basin.

The fight was mostly close to the boat, and we never went very long without the leader in the rod tip. More than once I had the butt section wrapped around the reel, and Chad was in front of me the whole time to make a quick move if the need arose. In the first 25 minutes of the fight we all had the impression that this was the fish we had dreamed of: big, tired, and in hot water. After a half hour, the fish decided to roll and Chad reached out with the gaff to put an end to things. As soon as the handle passed over the fish’s back, however, the fish catapulted vertically out of the water, twisting away from the hook. Chad ducked and retreated around me to give me some space, and when we survived the first jump I figured that things would settle down shortly. The fish made one more vertical lunge, this time landing on the tippet and breaking off. We were heartbroken–not in the way we are when we lose fish after a long fight, but in a way that reflected just how likely things seemed when the fish was on and how unlikely it was that we were going to be connected to a fish so lazy and big (not to mention in such shallow water) again. We re-rigged and kept fishing, getting one more bite from another smaller tarpon at the end of the day before we headed off to elsewhere briefly before home.

At the last stop of the day we found a large group of fish, and while there were plenty of them for us to throw at we were running out of light and quit after 30 minutes and a few shots. We went in with plans to return there at the beginning of the next day.

Our final day of fishing started at the place we’d finished the day before, and after Steve shut down it didn’t take him long to get the skiff near some rolling fish. We never saw any of them laying up, though there were enough rolling that we felt on a number of casts we had a chance of connection. In four hours of our morning fishing we saw perhaps a hundred fish roll, and only three of these interacted with the fly. Halfway through the morning we looked across the basin to see, oddly, a large tarpon sitting vertically with its face out of the water, sawing up and down in the air. Strange stuff, and something that no one on the boat, including Steve, had ever seen. We kept throwing at rolling fish as they were near the boat, though by the time we broke for lunch it was clear that the fish were not doing what we needed them to. We discussed a move on Steve’s suggestion, and after the sandwiches were gone so were we.

Steve took us to a nearby river, in some deeper water, where a fish would be harder to catch than elsewhere. This was less important to us that getting tied to one, and after he staked out the boat we saw a few roll and started making some quartering casts in the current. I hooked an 80-pound fish that jumped a few times, and after the second held tight and broke it off. We hooked another that was about the same size, and went slack on this fish before the hook got buried to get rid of it. After ten more minutes we thought the place might be fished out, and as we were discussing a move saw another roll and made another cast in the direction of what we’d seen. The next bite we had was soft, and the fish didn’t jump. Its headshakes telegraphed a reasonable size, and we had to either give chase or relinquish proximity. The latter of these was not an option, so even though we weren’t sure if the fish was big we pulled the stake and gave chase.

While the fish took some time to show itself, by the time it did I was already convinced that it was big enough. It jumped, and when it did we agreed that it was near 120 pounds: more than enough for us to take home if it allowed us the opportunity. It rolled not long thereafter, a hard directional swerve on the surface of the deep channel in which we’d hooked it. We commented on how different this one was than the one the day before: the lazy Lab that had no issue being within a tippet’s length of us had had been replaced with a skittish greyhound that ducked hard away from us each time the 14-foot leader approached the tip of the rod. The shallow basin we’d been in the day before, too, had been replaced by a deeper channel with only a few shallow oyster beds extending out into it. The good news was that we were attached to a fish that was clearly the right size if not clearly in the right attitude and location.

For whatever reason, I was convinced that this was our fish: as unlikely as it seems in retrospect, my belief was that we were going to take this fight to its intended conclusion. Chad stayed ready in front of me. Steve watched and positioned the boat close when it appeared the fish was about to roll. I did what I could to pull on the fish in a way that would make it do something stupid. We stayed, the three of us, attached to the fish and hoping that we could get a shot when it made a mistake.

After an hour we were in no better location than we’d began, but the fish blinked first: the rolls that had been, at best, surface swerves became more linear and slowed slightly, giving us hope that we might force an error. Chad and I kept talking as we watched the string move back and forth, its angle changing when the fish rose up for another roll every 15 minutes. We communicated what we thought was about to happen to Steve, who would then accelerate the boat to close the distance. Too soon and the fish would go down, choosing to run instead of roll, and too late and the roll would happen outside of Chad’s 8-foot range. We missed a few opportunities to one or the other of these conclusions until on the sixth or seventh Steve got it perfect and Chad deftly attached himself to the fish’s back. The fiberglass handle telegraphed the discontented other side along its length, traveling up Chad’s arms and moving his shoulders back and forth before he simply disappeared. Where I had been watching Chad and the leader for the last few hours there was now nothing, each having been affixed to the other and together now somewhere in the black water of the Everglades. I still had the fish on, and let the drag off to allow whatever was going to happen next to happen.

Chad popped up about 100 feet away, took a breath, told us that we had him. The fish jumped vertically, showing off before crashing back down next to Chad. Steve idled over to Chad, who then informed us that his hand was stuck to the handle, pinned by the rope it was passed through. The fish darted and took Chad along, a short burst in one direction that submersed Chad briefly before he popped up again. The tippet broke at this point, which I didn’t really care about: as long as the fish remained secured, the record was still live. Chad went to clear his hand from the obstruction, and I sat back unsure of what to do next but sure that the three of us had done the thing.

If anyone had asked a member of our party at that moment what had just happened, we would all answer exactly the same way: we just broke the six.

What happened next was something I’ve been thinking about since, and when it happened it wasn’t particularly dramatic or awful right away. Chad just said plainly “He’s gone.”

Steve and I at first couldn’t believe it, and both asked the kinds of questions you ask when you hear news that you really don’t want to know. The fish was gone, having freed itself by some miracle, and we were left with nothing. We sat down after getting Chad in to the boat, wondering what went wrong. There were theories (aren’t there always) and explanations (none worked). Mostly, our feelings reflected the disarrangement of our effort: there was nothing we could do to put this particular thing back together again, and while we had all of the pieces nearby things were in an irreversible disarray. The fish rolled in the channel as if to mock us: Stupid humans, your string is too thin.

We kept working. The three of us have no problem with the grind, and we all reverted to as hard a push as we could make in the afternoon. Steve put us on fish, of course, and we were able to get another four bites, though none that were large enough remained hooked. When the light ran out we just did what we always do and headed home, thinking of what went wrong and proving with each painful mental exercise that yes, in fact, that must have been it since it didn’t work out now did it.

So that’s the report I’ve been working on, and I really hate to have to lay it all out like that. But this stuff isn’t easy, and harming a single fish in the process of fishing for this record is something I have to live with. We are looking for our one fish, and after breaking off who knows how many fish under 90 pounds over the last 8 years on purpose, not to mention at least that many that were unintentionally broken off or to which we didn’t stay hooked thanks to our light leader, I am convinced that fishing light tippet for a record actually means that fewer fish get hurt.

I went back the following week to fish with Chad and Steve again, though from that three days of fishing I have nothing to report except a strong effort and the few bites from fish that were big enough not working out. We tried like hell, and intend to again as soon as we can. It looks like December is on the calendar for now.

Tomorrow I’m fishing with Ian, and I’m going to skip over all of the fun fishing I’ve been doing between the above trip and this and simply call things even and current on these pages. I’ll start with Ian tomorrow and Brian Stilley on Thursday and get things moving again.