Last week I traveled to the Everglades to fish once again with Steve Huff and Jason Schratwieser. We were again in pursuit of the six pound tarpon record, and again we had some fair weather in which to get it done.
We started at 6 with breakfast as usual, and headed out in the clouds to conditions that could best be described as marginal. We took a short run to a place where Steve thought we may find a few creatures to toss the feathers at, and when we arrived it was apparent that he was (once again) right on the money. We pushed around for a while in the glare of clouds, and by mid-morning we had only a pair of barely possible shots to show for our efforts. Fish surrounded us, but so too did a glare that even our optimism couldn’t penetrate.
We moved on, facing the reality that this was going to be harder than we would like. Every time we saw any indication of anything at all we threw; time and again, we blew out a fish that was laying on the bottom before we had a shot at it.
Our day bumped along through spot after spot, and by mid-afternoon we had only a pair of barely workable shots. Our focus in the tough conditions continued, and when we ran out of light we headed home. The fish were there, though we had to face the fact that our best efforts were not enough on this day.
Our fishing started at the same time, and we left for the fishing spot in a dense fog. We made a short run in more time than we had the day before, though within an hour we were set up on a shoreline awaiting a shot. We saw a few fish roll, and then another. Soon, a fish rolled going away from the boat. I put a cast beyond the fish and slowly brought it towards it, not wanting to move the fly too fast and spook the fish. We saw some bubbles where the fly should be, and after a few slow pulls saw a peach colored flash and were tight. The fish came howling out of the water, and we all agreed this fish was well over 120 pounds. After a few more jumps we started the motor and gave chase to a fish we knew was well large enough for the record.
The fog cleared and we were tight to a fish in bright sunlight, a new and valuable set of circumstances for a few guys that have cut their teeth on overnight fights. We knew that the early hour presented a true advantage, though it wouldn’t be until later that we realized what this advantage was.
The fish jumped occasionally and rolled often, and after an hour and a half Steve decided that our best bet would be to crowd the fish and wait for it to make a mistake. We stayed on the monster for another few hours, and each time the fish rolled or jumped we were unable to make an opportunity. After a little over three hours, we decided to change our tactics: with the stationary reference points afforded to us by the shorelines in the daylight, I could figure out which way the fish was facing and have a chance at pulling down its back. We all thought this might be a good idea, and Steve put the boat about 20 feet behind the fish and I started to pull. Slowly at first, and then quite easily, the fish slowed. Steve was able to shut the motor off as I put as close to 6.5 pounds as I dared, as close to down the monster’s back as I could figure. The fish rose up in the water after 20 minutes, and while out of range it was clear that the fish was both bigger than we thought and more tired than we could have hoped for. The fish changed angles, and a little over four hours into the fight I pulled and the leader broke.
It was hard to say what exactly did us in. At the moment the fish broke off, we weren’t putting the max pressure we had been on the fish, though the leader could have stretched and lost some of its strength from the earlier pulling. The angle had changed, with the bow swinging around to the fish, so maybe with the added pressure of that angle we made a little too much out of too little. We really didn’t know why the fish broke off, but after it did we were sure of two things: the fish represented a great opportunity, and that the daylight fixing of reference points gave us a tremendous advantage. We set off into the afternoon with these things on our mind, still licking our recent four-hour wound.
The rest of the afternoon was tough. We were around a fair number of fish, and had many shots at pushing and waking fish. Our shots at laid-up and rolling fish, however, were few and far between. We had a single bite from a medium-sized fish in the mid-afternoon, from a fish that wasn’t the one we were throwing at, but the tarpon all remained hidden and strange acting. We finished our day in the sunset, and headed home to prepare for our final day.
We started out where we had hooked the fish the day prior, and while there still remained a large number of tarpon we struggled for a clean shot. The fish were behaving oddly still: not rolling, moving around, plucking around the surface in a way that we couldn’t anticipate.
In the late morning, Steve decided we should move. When we arrived in the new spot, it was clear that we were in the presence of tarpon once again, though these fish seemed to be acting more normally. For every surface rush we saw a roll or two also, and while the light was tough we were still able to see a few fish before they saw us.
We picked away at the fish for an hour, until we found a small area that was populated by some laid up fish. The fish were all facing away from us, which made the cast tough but made up for it by letting us get close without spooking them. After a fly change and some shots that didn’t pan out, we spotted a single fish facing away from us. I put the fly over its back, and kept the rod high for fear of dragging the leader across its back. This did the trick, and when the fish beat forward it sucked in the fly and we watched it come careening out of the water on its way behind us.
The fish looked easily 100 pounds, and it was 1:30: more than enough time for a fish that was smaller than those we had tussled with overnight in trips past. Steve diligently poled after the fish instead of starting the motor, and within 20 minutes we were on the fly line and putting our best efforts forward. The fish rolled intermittently but would jump: something that we imagined contributed to the second wind that it apparently acquired after the third hour. As we politely dodged the few laid up fish around, we continued to fight the fish and put what we hoped was enough pressure on it to take its edges down.
As evening approached and our fixed reference points disappeared, Steve started the motor and the fish continued to make things hard for us. The fish still wouldn’t jump, and the moonless night wrapped us up in confusion. Additionally, the mosquitoes decided to make a swarming appearance, one from which I am still recovering now nearly two weeks later. Evening faded to night proper, and while we did our best to keep the pressure on our fish we were totally unable to divine which way we should pull. Time and time again we approached, spinning circles around the fish as we sought an angle. After about 8 hours, we made a risky call: we would shut the motor off and let the fish take a few hundred feet of line. Our hope was that this approach would ensure the fish being slowed by the pressure instead of being dragged around circuitously by our close-quarters press.
The first run accomplished just what we had hoped: the fish ran out and stopped, shaking its head. We retrieved the line and shut down again, letting the fish run. The fish ran a hundred feet and turned abruptly around. It approached the boat and made a pass towards a nearby shoreline.
Suddenly, we were slack to the fish. I wound as fast as I could, and while we all hoped that the fish was just running back at us it soon became clear that the fish was not ours any longer.
After nearly 9 hours, easily as many minutes as we all had mosquito bites, the fly had simply come out. We stowed our gear, grabbed something to drink, and made our way home, again fishless in the quiet dark of the Everglades.
I’m not sure how to take it all in anymore, these long battles with giants through the night. On one hand, we’re there to close the deal. That we haven’t after so many years and trips, hours on end and into the wee hours, makes the competitive side of me burn. The purpose of this pursuit is to break the six pound tippet tarpon record, not to fail. There is an unfortunate reality to it: there is no second place. There is no “biggest fish award”. There is no consolation prize, no almost. There is either yes or no, success or failure, and that’s that.
We have learned, of course. We’ve lost in every imaginable way, but we know more now than we once did. I can say honestly that I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve been connected to a world record tarpon on 6 pound tippet for over 75 hours total. All that’s left is for us to catch this fish and put the pursuit (and the pain) behind us.
I’ll be back with Steve and Jason in February, and again in April. I’ll report back with what we find.
More to come,