Last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I fished with Steve Huff. If you keep up with the reports, you may recall the days I had with him last year netted us a long battle (2 hours) with a large fish on 6, though the outcome of that was a broken hook. This year Aaron was unable to join us, so Steve and I set out together for a rematch on 6 lb tippet.
We started early, and by 8:15 were fishing the same shoreline that gave us our hook up last year. Within a few hours, with the light good and the fish rising up, we had a few shots. Two of these should have worked out, but the fish didn’t eat. By 10 AM the fish had thinned out when I spotted a tail, the top half waiving like a flag in the current. Steve pushed me toward it, and the fly landed and was immediately inhaled. All 130 pounds of this fish came flying out of the water, and the last thing I saw was the fly coming out of its mouth when it landed, draping the fly line over Steve and landing behind the boat. We stayed here for another half hour before we moved on.
The next stop didn’t produce the number of shots that it could have: the fish were laying on the bottom, and we blew many out before we were able to get a shot at them. We were able, however, to see two fish far enough away to get a shot, and each one of these ate the fly. Each one was large, and each one threw the hook before I could clear the line. We left at 6 PM, ready for the next day.
We began at the same area we had the day before, and while we had good light the clouds were building higher, approaching us in short order. Immediately upon starting, Steve spotted a fish high in the water and next to the boat. I got the fly in front of it on my second cast, but by this point the fish had seen us and swam off. The cloud moved in after this, something that would define the day. Through the clouds I saw two fish laying in the current just under the bow, and was able to feed the rear-most fish. Again, the fly came out, and I was beginning to become frustrated with our hook up ratio.
In the afternoon, socked in by thick cloud cover and glare that I usually associate with the sunglasses of cops in 80’s movies, we found a group of fish tightly packed in an area. Since we couldn’t see them, Steve and I made the decision to cover some water. I tied on a larger brighter fly and for the next four hours we shredded the place with cast after cast. Every cast I made I believed would hook us a fish, and every cast made it back to the boat untouched. At 6 PM, tired and fed up, we left the cloud cloaked tarpon and headed home.
I tried not to look at the clouds building in the distance, but we both saw them coming. We never had a shot but we stuck with it, neither one of us wanting to give up, both of us believing that a single shot could be the only one we needed.
At 2:15 PM, I saw a flicker of a tail break the surface, and as soon as I made a cast about 7 feet in front of the tail another fish came to the surface and climbed onto the fly. I have never wanted a fish to stay on as badly as I did then, and the relief I felt when the fish landed and remained connected nearly made me pass out. I was shaking when I said to Steve “Are you ready to catch a 150 on 6?” Steve quietly informed me that this tarpon hadn’t been 150 pounds for a long time–our estimates at that time were simply “over 150” and we went to work.
By 3:15 the fish was still connected, and I started to play a more offensive game. The fish was where we needed it to be, behaving well, and all we had to do was stick with it. Pull when you can, as much as you can, then back off when the fish needs to run. By 4 PM we were putting it all into the fight, and we spent another hour on the fish. The rain started, and soon the sun was setting. The fight continued. The next 10 hours were some of the most difficult, painful, unbelievable, and deeply moving of my life. I owe them to Steve Huff, and the fish.
It’s nearly impossible to write about what happened next without leaving something out, or putting something in that doesn’t make sense. I’m not going to try; I’m leaving most of this experience for the book I’m writing this year, and I imagine that it will be one of the more ambitious projects I’ve ever attempted to write about what happened.
I’m not going to leave what happened out there a mystery: after 12 hours and 45 minutes, at precisely 3 AM, the 6 lb tippet parted, and we lost the fish. After the spotlight died, Steve ran nearly 2 hours home, in the dead of night.
The next day I asked Steve for his honest assessment of the fish’s size. “It was 180 if it was a pound.”
My deepest thanks are owed to Captain Steve Huff, fishing guide, for one of the most compelling and emotional experiences of my life.
Even though we failed, we gave it our best effort. I never understood that concept until now.
Tonight I’m heading to the dock lights with an old friend Nick Gagliardi from Connecticut, and I hope we see some baby tarpon to play with.