Last week I fished with Steve Huff, locked in sick pursuit of the six pound tarpon record as always. Chad, our designated gaff man and spirit-lifter, was along as usual to lend his skills to our hunt. We started early on Monday morning, after breakfast, and headed out to find a fight.
Our first day was windy, and while we spent our time in the face of it we soon tucked behind enough mangroves to shield us from the blow. At lunch time we started to find a few fish, though before we could eat I was overcome, for the second time in the Everglades, by a wicked nausea. This time was only slightly different from the last time, two years ago when I experienced the same. Between bouts of regurgitation I was also overcome by grim delusion, a departure from reality that came to rest occasionally on dry heaves and drifted on waves of impending discomfort. I don’t know from where this came, and I’m not sure I want to get into much more detail about just how horrible I felt, but it’s part of the story of the trip and as such something I feel wrong leaving out. We called it a day when it became apparent that I couldn’t continue, threading our way back to Chokoloskee over the course of a few hours, my mind adrift and stomach in knots. I got some sleep and tried to drink as much water as I could, and by the morning of the second day it had passed completely. Beyond a bit sore from the trip I was good to go, and we set out into the wind to see if we might turn things around.
On our second day of fishing Steve decided to bring us to some new places, and in the first of these we were welcomed by a few rolling tarpon to keep our attention focused. A few fish rolled, and that was enough for us to commence an assault of the water that held them. We slowly poled around before digging our heels in, trying to find a laid up fish to throw at before we staked off and tried to make it happen on a blind drag through a deeper cut that was often topped off with a tarpon back sliding slowly up and down. It didn’t take long once we stood still to hook one in the deeper water; a dozen or so casts and we were tight on a soft bite to what we hoped would be a tarpon over 100 pounds. After seeing the first jump we were unsure of the size of the fish, as it sat on the slim line between not quite and for sure, but since the fish was taking line out we had to either start the motor or lose the fish for sure. Unwilling to detach ourselves from this fish right away we gave chase, sacrificing the rest of the fish in pursuit of the one we had on. Within a few minutes it became clear that this fish was marginal–we put its weight at between 85 and 95 pounds. With the current record at 88 pounds, choosing to go forward with this fish was not going to happen, though having it on gave us a chance to reacquaint ourselves with 6 pound and we pulled on it for ten minutes to see what we were in for. I’ve been using a new drag system in an attempt to change things up, and after some time with this fish it was clear that everything save for a few pounds was working as it should. The fish stayed close and taunted us, every so often showing a dimension on a roll or a jump that made us question its dismissal, but we just kept ratcheting up the drag and finally the fish got its mouth on the class on a close headshake and terminated the connection.
A cursory return to where we’d hooked the fish confirmed our suspicions that things were over, and Steve soon headed toward another place in the early afternoon. We staked off and had lunch, watching a few fish roll, and for the next three hours were in reach of a large number of tarpon in deeper water that held our attention. We made blind casts and Steve moved us around, and every 45 minutes or so our fly found its way in front of a willing partner and we were tight. In four hours of fishing we hooked three fish, and the only one that stayed on long enough to give us a look at its size appeared small.
In the late afternoon Steve moved us once again, to a place that had been the site of another near miss with Chad, and we worked hard to find a shot at a laid up fish. Two or three shots were all we could come across, and on one of these this fish tracked the fly back to the boat but never committed to what would have been a pretty severe error. We left when the light was gone, driving back to the dock in the humid light of dusk. We had dinner and I went to bed early, hoping to catch up on some internal repairs after the day one vomit party.
Our last day of fishing was also windy, but the clouds had dissipated somewhat and there was a wetter, warmer feel to the air. Steve took us to where we’d been attached to a small one the day before, and we began to the process of picking it apart. We moved a few fish that were laying on the bottom, and Steve slowly poled towards fish that were rolling to maximize our chnaces. After staking off upcurrent of a place that the fish seemed to favor we threw a few blind casts towards them, hoping to cross paths with a volunteer. It didn’t take long: inside of an hour we had a large swirl on the fly, and after continuing the bringing of it slowly another few feet were able to cause a second mistake from the fish that had simply missed it the first time. I came tight cautiously with the light line, and after the tarpon jumped and we knew it was suitable for the record I just tried to stay connected as it swam into the current and towards the bow of the boat. I had most of my line stripped out for the longer casts to cover water, and since the fish hadn’t put itself on the reel most of it was in the water, pulled by the current in a foot-wide loop that sat increasingly in a bad place. If the fish were to jump, I reasoned, it could potentially do it toward or from inside the loop of running line, and this would create problems that we’d be hard pressed to fix. The tarpon sat near the bow, doing not much other than daring me to do something stupid. Never one to back down from a challenge I started to reel, holding the rod and line with the same hand, accepting the temptation the fish had offered. Steve and Chad both voiced their objection to this; everyone knows that reeling up a fish before it puts itself on the reel is a bad idea, but I was well inside my head and disobeyed. The fly came out, predictably and annoyingly, in short order. It swayed like a sad bent flag on my leader and I shook my head at myself as much as the fish for putting such stupid thoughts into my head.
After this we kept on; while painful, losing this fish hadn’t cost us anything beyond itself, and we stayed in the zone looking for a new dance partner. I hooked a small one from a roll, a fifty pounder that broke the class as it jumped at the boat, and the Steve stayed slowly poled around. It was clear we were about to get a shot, and we just moved slowly and tried to see the fish first in the dingy water. We saw a fish laid up near the surface away from the boat, and Steve put us in position for a good cast that was dismissed rudely by the tarpon. We kept moving around, searching and focused, and within minutes spotted a large fish next to the boat that offered a short window to get the fly to it before it spooked. I left an imperfect cast in play, hoping for the best, and when the fish kicked its tail and snatched the fly we had confirmation that the plan had worked.
The fish tore off towards the shoreline, jumping once to give as a clear idea that it was well over 100 pounds before heading fast to the deeper channel nearby. Steve racked the pole and started the motor. The fish continued on its way as we gave chase, Steve peering around me as I reeled as fast as I could to retrieve line. Soon the angle of the line changed sharply and it was clear that it was wrapped around something, so I hollered to Steve to put the boat in reverse. He did this quickly, slowing our momentum and kicking the bow around, wrapping to the near side and upcurrent of whatever the line was around as I put my rod tip under water to free it. The line never moved; all that happened from our initial antics was a quick changing of the angle as we went around the obstruction. With no options left and a fish that was clearly a record on I jumped in with the rod, following the line from the tip with my hands with my eyes open. In the dark I found a tree, branches sticking up, and with my hands I felt the backing down its length until it disappeared in the skeletal fingers. The current was stronger than I wanted it to be, (also than I thought it would be), and as soon as I let go of the trunk I drifted back. Fighting my way back up to it I took another winded shallow dive, once again confirming the unacceptable. We kept at it: at some point, the fish broke off, though there was no moment of failure. Instead, it was a slow descent: Chad lifted the tree with the gaff, me still in the water trying to figure out what the hell was going on while ignoring the sad reality that things were over. I finally got back in the boat, breaking my rod as I seal-slid my weight on to the deck, and only then things were over enough that I believed it.
We finally cut the backing, unable to remove the backing from its trip through the center of the rotting foliage, and I grabbed the spare line we had and put it on the reel. I put on my spare glasses (my others I’d lost in the dip), and we kept on. The fish were gone from where we’d been, clearly, though we went for a quick trip back to verify this fact before heading away.
The rest of the day we tried to get another bite on a program similar to the day prior, but by the time the light got low we had only these two near misses (and of course my joyous swim in the ocean) to show for it. I’d like to thank Steve as always for sticking with what we’ve been after for so long, and Chad for sitting patiently in wait for something to kill, working himself into a murderous rage that requires so much to go right before it’s unleashed.
I was scheduled to fish with Steve and Chad this week, though the weather conspired against us and we have rescheduled. Since this trip I’ve fished in the Cuda Bow with Mike Hetzel and Lenny Leonard, and had a pretty amazing day with Ian Slater, and those will be posted shortly. Barring losing another one of these fishing reports to the evil digital landlord that oversees them during their drafts I’ll be up to date by the time I fish with Ian and Josef Borski on Monday.
More to come,