Fishing with Steve and Chad

Fishing with Steve and Chad

As the readership of these pages (and pretty much anyone that knows me) is aware, I’ve been fishing for the 6 lb tippet tarpon record for a long time. In fact, it’s been over 9 years that I’ve been after this particular record. In that time, I’ve been in the company of great friends. I’ve seen amazing things, in beautiful places. I’ve become as close to the people I’ve fished with as I have to catching the record. We have fed a fly to hundreds of fish. Most of the resulting connections didn’t last, since with the 6 pound we’ve been unable to set the hook strongly, and many that stayed on through the hook set have come off on a subsequent jump. Of the ones that remained on, most have been broken off on purpose–for fish that we weren’t positive would be over 100 pounds, we’ve decided not to bother with. Of the fraction that remain, we’ve fought with them for a total of over 100 hours. 4 fights have lasted past sunset, and for longer than 10 hours. More than I can remember have been on more than four, and we’ve been heart-stoppingly close twice.
I’ve gotten to know a few of my favorite people through this process, and grown closer to them through our efforts and failures. I’ve been introduced to other people through learning about the history of this record and others, and the more I’ve fished for it and failed the more impressed I’ve become by what records held by other anglers and guides represent. The reality of fishing for records that have been attended by the best efforts of anglers like Tom Evans, Stu Apte, and Thane Morgan is much different than I could have ever imagined without actually trying to do it, and when I look back I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit how little I knew when I started. These records have been looked at, fished for, and caught by anglers that represent a level of focus and effort that I aspired to long before I ever understood. The simple reality is that the only people that know what a record is, or what it feels like to have one, are the people that have it. Those that hold retired records should be added to this list, surely–which is why we celebrate people who once held a record as often as we do those that do currently.
The history of this record goes back to 1977, when Stu Apte caught an 82-pound fish with Captain Hal Chittum (who has recently succeeded in his second act as Lord Carbon Fiber), in Florida Bay. That record stood for 34 years, tempting a fair number of anglers to at least give it a shot. I was one of these anglers, and when I first started fishing for the six it was still Stu and Hal’s. It didn’t take long for it to be broken, in unreal fashion: Thane Morgan and Dustin Huff caught, on 4 lb tippet, an 88 pound tarpon. This fish would have eclipsed the 48 caught in 1997 by Charles Owen, Jr., but the tippet over tested and it was instead bumped up to set a new six pound tarpon record. It has been held, since that time, by Thane and Dustin. (In an interesting aside about their record efforts, they went on to catch a mind-melting 119-pound tarpon on 4 pound, eclipsing not only the record they were trying to beat but their own previous best catch on 4. This record stands as the highest tippet-strength-to-weight ratio in the fly rod records for tarpon: over 27:1).

I first started fishing with Steve in 2013, after attempts with a number of other guides, and in 2014 we together tied ourselves to a fish that Steve estimated at 180 pounds for a January evening. For years after we were joined by our great friend (and now president of the IGFA) Jason Schratwieser, who stood by our efforts for more than a few hours of darkness with a spotlight in his hand. Ian Slater and John O’Hearn also made trips along through the years, each spending a few days on the boat with Steve and me as we tried to chip away at this fish. Over the years of fishing for the six, I’ve amassed a catalog of failures that would be comparable to the sub-prime balance sheet of Washington Mutual in 2008. We’ve lost fish at the boat and during the hook set, and at every conceivable point between. We’ve been foiled by shorelines, submerged trees, cold fronts and food poisoning. More.

Three years ago Steve and I cast Chad, his eldest son, in the role of gaff man. As soon as we put him in charge of the endgame, the weather conspired against us. Where the first four years of fishing with Steve had shown us summer days in January and February, when Chad arrived the cold mouth of winter opened each time I drove north to fish for the six. Recently, a friend of mine sent me an article titled “There’s a place in the US where it’s been over 80 degrees since March”. I was scheduled to fish with Steve in November when a cold front shut us out. It was only when I looked at a calendar that I realized the last time Key West was under 80 was during the last days I’d had booked with Steve in March. Two cold fronts, 233 days apart, had punctured two consecutive trips I’d planned to pursue the six.
This time, another cold front was growling its way across the southeast, coming for the weekend days we had already rescheduled. Chad and I were fishing in Key West earlier in the week with John O’Hearn, having just jumped back into the light tippet permit game. Our fishing was decent if not amazing, and in two days of fishing together Chad was the only one between us who had been able to feed a permit a fly. We finished up at 5:30 on Wednesday, packed fast and got on our way. If the cold front was coming our way we were going to get in front of it, even if it meant fishing just a single day.

I narrowly avoided a severe ticket as I turned to Everglades City, released by a nicer than necessary trooper. I arrived at Steve’s a little before 11, and had little trouble falling asleep. We met Chad at the Island Cafe as we normally do in the morning, got the boat ready and headed out for what was going to be our first and last day of fishing.

At our first spot a fish rolled within minutes, and a cast in front of it got a bite. I wasn’t able to stay connected to this fish, and while it was annoying to lose an opportunity it was also a good omen–despite the weather on the way, it was clear that today we would at least have a chance to attach ourselves to fish that would work. The morning continued on, Steve moving us around from place to place to find fish to throw at. We had maybe a dozen shots of varying quality, and from these we pulled no more bites. The fish seemed on edge, not willing to crack open.

We had lunch on the way to a new spot, sliding in to a nameless bay near a deep channel a little after 1:00. Within minutes we spotted a large fish facing away from us, angling in to the slight current. I took a crossing shot, dragging the fly slowly towards the fish’s face so as not to scare it with a fast approach. The fish sunk down, curling tightly before falling in behind the fly. I watched the face appear from behind the fly and the jaws wrap around it before the fish turned away and gave us a look at its size. We all thought it was close enough to stick with, and before we were entirely sure that it was over 100 pounds we activated Chad anyway as a precaution. He strapped in and the three of us waited for more to be revealed. The fish acted perfectly, never running more than 100 feet away, and within minutes we had the nail knot in and out of the leader as we pulled, backing the fish up and causing it to make some close jumps. We discussed the size, finally deciding that the fish was 95-100 pounds as best we could tell. With our standing rule of looking for a fish that is at least 100 pounds this put the fish shy of our limit, and as such we broke it off in hopes of a bigger one.
It took Steve a few minutes to pole back to where we had found the bite earlier, and we poled slowly around the shoreline of the bay. In 20 minutes Steve spotted a smudge and mentioned casually that it might be a fish. It’s always free to try, so we put a fly over the upcurrent side of the blotch and slowly twitched it back towards us. Within a few seconds an orange tail kicked hard on its way up to the feathers, and we watched as the face on the other side of the elevating blob opened wide. I set the hook cautiously, though this was probably unneccessary–the fish turned away after it had opened up and howled off as it cleared the line on its way across the basin. Where the fish we’d broken off had stayed close and acted lazy, this one seemed possessed by places far from where it started. There was another difference between the two fish we connected with this February afternoon: about the size of this fish there was no doubt. Chad activated without discussion, strapping to the gaff handle after lowering the motor to get us moving. Us moving fast was important now, as the fish continued on a roaring sprint towards anywhere but where we were. At its farthest from the boat we estimated the distance to be 150 yards, though from where we started to where things slowed down was easily twice that. In only a few minutes this fish had covered a distance of over 300 yards, and how it didn’t break off I have no idea. I did what I could to wind quickly when we were closing the gap, and get away from the handle when the fish made up some ground. Once the initial run ended we were still attached, miraculously.
As soon as we were within sight of the leader Steve coasted in toward the fish, avoiding smartly overrunning it. We swerved behind the fish as it headed towards deeper water and watched up close the first time its wide back sliced through the surface of the water on a tired roll. Our survival of the first run, as tense as it had been, now became an advantage. This fish was tired from the sprint, and suddenly things seemed like they’d been going on for a lot longer than 20 minutes. Chad sat in front of me as I fought the fish, ready for the shot if it came, and I did what I could to keep three pounds of pressure on the fish to force whatever error I could. Steve drove the boat, looking between the two of us on the bow, and when the leader angle became more acute we shuffled our weight and chattered between us in hopeful anticipation that the fish would roll in range of Chad.
A half hour passed slowly, and as we kept up our pressure on the fish it became clear that things could work to our advantage. Its rolls were now coming faster, and Steve would crowd the fish as much as he could when the leader started to rise up. After five or six rolls that were just out of range Steve got us just right, and the fish put its back out of the water inside of Chad’s reach. I watched Chad gaff the fish, watched him kept coming as the fish stayed put. Things slowed down, as they can in moments where you’ve worked for ten years toward a goal, and then sped up beyond any previous pace as the fish surged off on a run faster than its first. I had questions immediately: How is the fish taking line? What happened? Why the hell is Chad still in the boat?
It took me longer than it should have to figure it out, though when I did the reality was stranger than fiction. Of all the things that could break, the one which we never figured would had given way. Chad held the fiberglass handle of Steve’s gaff, that had caught multiple world records and won three Gold Cups, now headless through the failure of half inch stainless steel.
We all talked one another through it, as much for ourselves as the group: The fish was wounded but still running hard, and we were still attached. Chad grabbed the back up gaff that Steve had given me two years ago, a smaller one that had only been used for one other world record catch: the largest permit ever caught on fly, a 41-pound monster caught by Steve and Del Brown In 1984.
The tarpon was slowed now; regardless of how things were going to turn out, it was clear that the end game was going to be soon. The pace of the fight, previously a fast idle, now sat awkwardly between neutral and in gear. We struggled as a team to adjust to this new pace, near frantic as the reality of this opportunity began to settle on the deck. Looking back the moments leading up to catching the fish seem present still, unchanged from when they happened to now.

The fish finally rolls near the boat, and Chad strikes once again. This shot doesn’t connect, though it causes a change—-instead of tracing the bottom, the giant fish now sits on the surface with its mouth open. Things are closing in, and as we approach I notice with a near retch that the six pound tippet is sitting through the open jaws. The shock has wrapped around the bottom hinge of its jaw, and on its way back around the face it passes through the one part of the fish that could end it all. I do the only thing I can think of, which is to thread the tippet back through with my rod tip, and watch as the shock rises up victoriously when I finish this awkward play. We slide alongside the thing, the three of us speaking quickly and issuing instructions to each other as much to the universe. Chad gaffs the fish a second time, snugging it against the side of the boat, securing it to the hull with a bend in the handle. I drop down to my knees and get my left arm through the gill plate and my right arm latches on through the mouth. We slide the fish into the boat moments later, our task complete.

I have never experienced a singular moment like this. The successes I’ve had in my life have been great but have arrived slowly, bit by bit over time. The drug habit that I kicked nearly a decade ago has long been in the rearview, though my restoration to sanity never happened in a moment. It happened deliberately, with great effort. Tournaments I have won have meant something, though in every tournament I have won I knew going in to the final day that it was a possibility. Even the 2-pound permit record I caught with Chad and John O’Hearn in 2018 was not like this, though it was as close as I have ever felt to how I felt in that moment. For the three of us, this was a moment that meant much more than the sum of its own parts. The mass of our efforts was contained in what we had done: years of my life, my relationship with Steve and Chad, the totality of our failures and near misses, the tiny rusted remnants of every time we had been close but not close enough– all were immediately re-worked as a perfect polished sphere. Never have I imagined what the moment of success would look like, let alone feel like, and the effect was jarring. For years we had been building a machine designed to do one thing, and one thing only. We have replaced or re-designed each piece, and in an hour on February 20, 2020, that machine had worked perfectly.

We took toward Ted Juracsik’s house, where we have returned so many times with nothing but a story or a scale to show for our efforts, and his response when he walked up to the boat summed it up perfectly: “What took you guys so long?” We discussed how big the fish might be before stopping to buy beer for Steve and Chad, guessing between 130 and 140 pounds by the time we made it to Steve’s house to weigh it. When the scale read 99.2 with the anal fin and tail still on the ground I knew with certainty we had broken the record. When the tail was clear of the ground the scale bounced between 140.4 and 140.3 pounds. I talked to Jason Schratwieser, who told me to take the lower of these numbers for the record application. We filled out the record application and made some calls, aligning scientists to retrieve the fish to study it after it had been molded at King Sailfish. We had dinner in shock, still processing a cocktail of endorphins that stayed with us through the night. In the morning we had breakfast, and the fact that we all had slept horribly came up in conversation. What we had done the day before lived within us chemically, and each of us was not alone in our vivid dreams interrupted hourly by an adrenaline alarm clock. Our ragged crew welcomed coffee at the breakfast table, reporting to the morning crew at Island Cafe that this time, in fact, we had actually caught the fish we’re always chattering about.

We drove to King Sailfish and then to the IGFA, where we handed in the record application and met Jason Schratwieser for lunch as the tippet soaked prior to testing. After lunch we sat in his corner office, euphoric and chatty, until the tippet was ready to be broken. Watching our leader be measured on their machinery was a particular kind of misery that I wish never to re-live, and I was stressed enough that after the first test was below 6 pounds I was unable to do the simple math to determine what the second test would have to be under in order for the average to be below the 6.6-pound class limit (hint: it’s 7.2 pounds….). The second test came back also under six pounds, and with that departed the last thing that could possibly have but some tarnish on our chrome ball bearing.

There are a few things about this record that I want to mention, that I think are important. First, I want to thank every person that has been a part of it over the years. I’ve fished with a handful of guides and friends along the way, and each of these people has contributed to our success. As I fished with Steve and became more intent on breaking the record with him, the hours I spent with Jason Schratwieser were some of the best times I’ve had as a fisherman. Chad’s later joining of the team also has been the ground we’ve rooted a close friendship in, and through both of these has been a friendship with Steve that I am thankful for in a way I can’t quite articulate. Without every one of these people I am much less than I am now, and I truly look up to these people as much for what they have done as much as I do for what they have worked through. To stand on top of a mountain with these guys is a moment I will not forget, though it’s the time spent trying that makes what we did so valuable. I also want to mention, to the folks that (rightly) are upset by the idea of killing a tarpon, that this record and others like it are not mortality-intensive undertakings. They take hundreds of days spent catching nothing, at the expense of one at the end, but also to the benefit of many along the way. Had we been fishing 16 for the years we spent fishing 6, a larger number of fish would have died. It’s true that killing one is not a thing to be taken lightly, though the math of how many were not killed as we pursued this benchmark is worth considering and takes experience and touch to understand. I hope that the readership has seen through the years what has gone in to a record like this, what it means, and how difficult it is to undertake the pursuit of an IGFA record for a fish like a tarpon. I wish those that disagree with what we’ve done no harm.

The following two photos were taken moments after we caught it, and they sum up what it was like better than any other picture I have:

Next week is the March Merkin, and after three wins John and I have hung up our Merkin hats. I’ll be fishing it with Ian Slater, and reports will follow as always.


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Nathaniel Linville

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