In the late part of last week (before the Merkin, though I have already uploaded that report) I traveled to the Everglades to fish with Steve and Chad for the six. We had pushed the trip back two days due to weather, so while the wind had howled heavy on Monday it was a low growl by the time we got up there. We spent the first night catching up and checking in on the Shed, Steve’s new custom man-garage. We played some ping pong and got the gear in the boat for the next three days before getting to bed late (due to the ping ponging) for the next day. In the morning we had breakfast and got in the skiff for the first day of our assault.
We started a few hours from home, running through the early morning to catch a tide. We arrived in time for what Steve was looking for, but the tarpon were not in great supply. After a half hour it was clear that the fish had not got the memo and we moved on. In retrospect, this was the first time I noticed the feeling, though at the time I chalked the slight revulsion up to nothing more than a passing thing. We moved on, fished for a while. I felt briefly better. I was reminded of my nausea when it overcame me once again, and in the late morning I finally said something along the lines of “I think I may have eaten something bad. Probably just need to get sick and get rid of it.” I tried to keep it 100 and fish, and did for a while, but when I look back to report about the fishing all I can remember is the overwhelming sensation that terrible things were hard at work within me. I was able to keep the evil inside until a little after 1:00, at which time the exorcism began. I figured I would feel better after the first phase of expulsion, but the Evil was not to be sent off so easily. I stuck with the fishing as much as I could, the violent grip of an awful hand around my guts for the duration. I remember one shot at a fish that I simply couldn’t execute even after five casts, and when I started to fall asleep standing up I conceded the match and we headed in. I slept for a few hours before dinner, ate light, drank as much water as I could and slept again until the next morning. The next day I felt like I’d been on the losing side of a scrap but otherwise felt fine. Not to be deterred, I ate some dry toast and a plum before we ventured out for the second of our scheduled three days.
We headed out into a day that was windy but clear, and for me the renewed clarity was the most memorable part of the ride out. I felt like I had a shot at making something happen, and without the urgent ill I was actually able to think about where to look and what to do if I saw something. The day bumped along from spot to spot, a few fish in some places. We never found a large concentration of fish until the early afternoon, when we came across a hard edge near some deeper water that some tarpon felt comfortable laying up on. I had a few shots at fish rolling away from the boat, though none of these occasions worked out in our favor. We spooked a few fish off the bottom, and stuck with the area in hopes we might wring a shot from it. We did in short order, and I had a great bite from a high-laying tarpon. I tried to stay tight, but as the fish turned hard away from us I gave up some of my hold in order to preserve the light tippet. The fish didn’t break off; instead, it dropped the hook and we were left without something to pull even softly on. We kept with the spot for another hour or two, and in this time were able to scare up a bite from a smaller fish that also kicked hard on contact. This one I held on to for too long, overcompensating for the earlier loss by breaking it off. That my reflexes and improvisational judgement were compromised from the day prior’s events occurred to me, and I quietly decided to work double time to pay more attention to the small stuff. When we’d worn out our welcome at this spot we headed for another nearby and found nothing. Moving again, Steve finished us in a place that was full of fish we couldn’t get a shot at. We threw at rollers and saw plenty of fish at distances out of our range, but we finished without another clean shot at a sighted target. That evening we returned to the Shed for more ping pong (Steve’s hopes of playing me dulled were dashed, by the way), had a solid steak dinner and got some sleep for the next and final day.
On the third day I was not only buoyed by the fact that I felt better than the day before, but I’d surpassed baseline and actually felt on the right side of normal. We loaded in to the skiff and headed out to where the fish had been the day before. The wind had relaxed, and the first place we went to seemed alive. Here and there tarpon rolled, and I contracted my efforts to close in front of us in case we saw a blush. Soon a smudge appeared, and I drop-kicked the fly on the upcurrent side. Steve held the boat off and we waited for something to happen on the drop. The fly fell down out of sight and I felt a sharp tug, and when the scales appeared thrashing in the mud I knew we were on to something. The fish careened around the shallow basin, and on its second jump we called it 80 pounds and broke it off in hopes of getting in to a tussle with a larger animal. We stuck with the fish for another hour or so. Between the rolls and surface bulges that would flush from the boat we figured it was only a matter of time before we got tight to another candidate, but soon the numbers of fish started to show a decline and we left in the late morning. Steve brought us to a place where he felt we might see a body of fish, and after an hour-long run we powered down and went to work. We didn’t see anything for 20 minutes as Steve poled in to the basin, but the first shot happened soon as we found the deposit. Two shiny bricks laid up in the clear water, and I tried to get the fly in front of the closer one twice before we had a hard follow that ended when the fish swerved off the fly. Another close shot caused a similar reaction, but this time we were able to re-present the fly for a bite after the turn off. The fish seized the feathers and we were off to the races, Steve poling after the fish to prevent starting the motor. It was nearly 11 AM, and the idea of attaching ourselves to a fish of sufficient size before the sun fell was on all of our minds. I fought the fish without trying too hard, and after the second roll we were still unclear about whether or not this fish was close to the 100 pound mark we were hoping for. After the third jump we all felt that the fish was close to but not over 100 pounds, and I broke off the fish 20 minutes in. Steve poled us to the spot again, and we rekindled our effort. The fishing was hard, and even in good sunlight and clear water we were struggling to see the fish farther than 20 feet away from the skiff. I threw at more than a few fish that looked interested until they looked up and saw the boat, and when the opportunities became less frequent Steve poled back into the sun for another pass through the lair.
By noon we were on our third pass through the fish, and were struggling still to get a bite. Steve saw a fish sliding high in the water behind the boat, and we were able to get a cast off in its direction for a consultation. I had to drag the fly into the intersection with my rod tip when the fish changed its course, and as I was picking up the slack the giant head cracked open and surrounded the fly. I set the hook as the fish turned, and when it came out of the water there was little doubt that we were in the presence of a potential record. We got the fish on the reel, Chad put on his gloves, and we started the next phase of The Work. It was 12:12 PM.
It’s becoming hard to write about these long fights. I am often tempted to write a very long, very tedious very difficult to read account that would make things feel like they were in the moment. But even that wouldn’t fix things up the way I want them. I hope that if I didn’t have the deadline of these reports to produce by I might wrap things in a more appropriate set of clothes, and maybe tie in some nice parallels between the fight and some other equally mundane but high stakes quest for something. Sadly, I don’t have the time (and quite possibly lack the training) for that. Instead, I can offer a few snapshots of what happened during the next seven hours until it came to an end. Just for fun I’ll put it in the present tense to make the feels realer.
The fish stretches out in front of us, and Chad and I chatter to Steve to get us closer. The boat slides toward the fish and Chad stretches out, missing his shot as the gap closing sucks the power out of his attempt. The fish learns its lesson after the second time when again we are foiled by the aperture closing too quickly, and we never have another shot in this way. Each time the fish gets high and we start to anticipate it lowers down again, tucking away near the bottom and safe.
The fish finds a deep hole and sits there for nearly an hour. We keep light pressure on the animal, waiting for something to change, and every so often the fish ventures away from its nest but quickly returns, sitting idly on the bottom while we navigate the wind on the surface. The fish takes leave even less frequently for a 10 minute walkabout only to return again to locked in a vertical fight we cannot win, only wait out. Finally the fish leaves for good, and we are left scratching our heads as to what precisely it was up to down there.
Towards the end, Steve and Chad are backing up on the fish. We’ve reversed the whole assembly: I’m on the bow, but behind the action. Steve moves the tiller to close the gap as the fish veers away from the chaos, and Chad locks his knees in the cockpit and attempts to rake a shot out of the depths. The fish veers under the motor on one of these attempts, and I find myself the subject of a carom with Steve and Chad the objects. I come to rest against the poling platform, still attached to the fish and asking hurriedly if anyone has a broken limb. The fish recovers a path and Steve kicks it in to reverse again, water splashing over the stern as he tries to gain proximity. He mutters [censored] under his breath and shoves the lever past neutral as he pivots the boat and chases with the bow first, me picking up line as the bow swings around.
My lips becoming numb from the mosquito spray applied by Chad. The hum of sunset in the middle of nowhere.
The fish in a channel, head lamps on now as it searches for the channel marker. We clear the obstruction, and can see the fish kicking now in the light from Chad’s headlamp.
The world shattering, the tippet broken. Chad soaked, shaking with adrenaline and the fish gone.
More reports to follow.