Last week, before the Sugarloaf Showdown, I went up to Everglades City to fish with Steve Huff. Again, we were in pursuit of the six pound tippet tarpon record, and as our third member we had Chad Huff, whom I had only met briefly the week prior at the IGFA Hall of Fame dinner.
The weather looked perfect, though we are almost at the point where it’s been too good: the water is warm and has been for months, and without a cold front to shock things into rhythm we’ve been confronted with fish that are spread too thin and are too well fed.
Our day started early, and after a long run we were in an area that clearly held fish. They rolled and splashed, and Steve put us in position for more than a few casts in their direction. What started out as feeling like a sure thing became first frustrating and then a matter of principle: if these fish didn’t want to bite, we’d just keep showing them the fly until one made a mistake. We had, in three or four hours of covering rolling fish, three bites. The first was from a small fish, which I immediately went slack on in order not to burn a nice pre-tested tippet. The second was from a larger fish, though the hook up lasted only a few seconds before the fish came unglued. The third bite came after a cast into the rolling fish, and while this fish may have been big enough the fly again found no place to call home. With a long run in front of us we headed home to get some sleep for the following day.
Given that we’d found a large group of fish in the morning of the first day, Steve hatched a plan to be there early. We woke up before the sun and had a fast breakfast at Island Cafe before heading out to the water. We had some decent shots at first, which seemed better than they were due to our new-day optimism. In fact, we should have held no reasonable expectation that these fish would bite given their reticence the day before, but if poling quietly up to a large group of rolling tarpon isn’t enough to incite some irrational confidence I don’t know what to tell you.
We had a bite in mid-morning, and after a solid hook set went after the fish. We couldn’t tell at first how big the fish was, though in short order we were trying to get a look at a jump to decide if we should fight the fish on the motor or break it off. We soon got a look at the fish in the water, deciding it was around 80 pounds and as such not suitable to mess with much longer. I pulled on the fish as hard as I dared, testing the limits of the six, and in a little over ten minutes we had the fish next to the boat. 20 or more pounds and it may have worked out differently, but as it was I pulled enough to break off the fish and send her on her way.
The rest of the day we made an effort to keep the focus up, and had a short bite from an unseen fish to show for our efforts. We passed the time with fly changes and banter until it was time to make a move towards home. On the way we stopped at a place I’d not yet fished with Steve, and in the calm gloaming we found a few targets to throw at. One was a black drum, floating in the current, and from a distance it had us convinced that it was a tarpon probing the thick evening air with its tail. We had another shot at a small fish in the mangroves, and then one more at a floating fish that spooked off the fly. At a final stop we encountered a family of raccoons, one of which received the last of my tuna salad sandwich as a parting gift. After our cuteness overload, we saw another fin approach us in the calm. I threw the fly out in front of the shake, hoping for a flash. Instead of a tarpon, the fin belonged to a large bull shark, and when the fish flushed off of the fly I was convinced briefly that this was a truly giant tarpon about to eat our fly. Sadness, and a racing heart beat, were all that remained as we moved off and headed toward the lights of Chokoloskee.
Again, Steve wanted to be out earlier than the day before. We ate at the house and were on our way to fish early in the morning, arriving near the fish for another pass. Our fishing was even more frustrating, as cast after cast ended up without so much as a nod from the fish. The tarpon were more spread out than they were the day before, and given these circumstances Steve made a decision to pole away from the large group of fish to find some new targets. We chased down rolling fish for a few hours and had more than a few great shots at close rollers. Despite getting the fly where we wanted it, we were left without a bite.
In the afternoon, we were confronted with a large school of black drum that took our attention for a few minutes. I tied on a small merkin and grabbed the back up rod for a few minutes, though as soon as we made the change the black drum of course disappeared. We staked off and had lunch, and soon Steve called a move to country far away and we ran to a distant basin. Here, we saw a few fish rolling and busting in the afternoon, and in the first hour I had two shots at laid up fish. These shots were not ideal: the fish were facing away from us, sinking down on our approach. Steve continued to pole through the basin, and in another two hours Chad and I were talking when Steve pointed out a fish for us to throw at. The fly landed a few feet in front of the fish, and we all thought it was about to go down as the fish kicked its tail. I kept the strip coming, hoping that the giant dragon was in pursuit, but the fly made it back to the boat unharmed. We stayed in the area for a few hours before Steve called the move back to our earlier location to finish out the day.
We arrived in front of the familiar faces in an hour and a half, and Steve staked off the boat for a final assault. I changed flies after a few casts, then again after a half hour. The light fell, and we continued to pepper the rolling fish with long casts and varied retrieves. At 6:15 PM, on what would have been close to our final cast of the day, I came tight soon after the fly landed. I set the hook hard reflexively, likely a result of my pent-up frustration, though thankfully not too hard to break the tippet. The fish jumped, though with the failing light it was hard to tell how big it was. Steve fired up the motor as Chad and I whooped and yelled, and we went after the fish to get a better look.
Within a few minutes it became clear that this fish was not on par with some of the giants we’ve tussled with in the past, three of which took us through the night. The estimate Steve gave was 110 pounds, which was good news for getting the deed done, and this fish exhibited the same kind of fight that the 80 pounder had the day before: large head shakes were punctuated with half-jumps: a tired fish. We kept at it, and as the minutes ticked by the thing looked more and more plausible.
Chad strapped in to the gaff, and Steve soon started poling in the dark instead of running the motor, both to stay quiet and get close if the right opportunity presented itself. Chad moved around the boat, weapons ready, and I kept what pressure I could on the fish to keep it slowed down. After an hour we were gaining on the fish, and another floppy jump confirmed this was the right fish in both size and attitude. At 7:15, the fish rolled. I pulled hard to keep it off balance, and the fish responded with a wide headshake. The line went slack, and I couldn’t believe the fish broke off. When we saw the fly skittering towards the boat in the spotlight’s beam, I was relieved that I hadn’t been pulling too hard on the fish when the head shake happened to snap the tippet. Soon after though, the relief gave way to frustration: how could a fish this perfect seeming, after this much time, simply give up the hook?
We gathered our gear up and headed home in the dark, fishless once again.
I’d like to thank Steve and Chad for another great trip, and while we didn’t catch the fish it’s no surprise that we’re not going to quit. Ever. Until it’s done.
Next up is the Showdown report, and the next fishing I have planned is with Steve again in December. I’m sure I’ll get out before then and post anything that happens here.