At the beginning of last week, after attending Ralph Delph’s memorial service, Steve Huff and I drove north to Everglades City for another crack at the six. Jason Schratwieser completed the team at 6:04 the next morning at the Island Cafe, and we headed to the ramp to splash the boat after breakfast.
Last April Steve and I had enjoyed a fair amount of fantastic fishing, and our optimism about being able to tangle with a giant was pervasive. Steve ran for an hour or so and we shut down in preparation for our fishing.
At first, things appeared to be just where we wanted them: tarpon rolled and sloshed around us, and we even saw a few tails prick up through the film. As the sun got higher we figured it was only a matter of time before we would be getting enough shots to attach ourselves to a large creature. A fish rolled nearby the boat, and though it was going away from us I threw anyway–with things this ripe, who knew what luck would fall our way?
This cast didn’t work out, and we scanned the water as best we could in expectant calm for a fish to make something out of. As the sun elevated so did our expectations, though both were met with interruptions of the worst kind: the sun was cloaked behind an army of thick cotton clouds, and the fish that we had assumed to be everywhere started to peter out. In two hours of fishing we had not a single shot, and we all commented how strange this was. Given what we’d seen upon our arrival, it was unthinkable that we wouldn’t get a shot at this spot. Steve didn’t tolerate the lack of targets for much longer than our expectations allowed, and soon we moved on to another area.
Here, we found nothing. With the fish apparently evaporating and the clock ticking on our two-day trip, Steve made a call to find some fish in another faraway land and pointed us that way. The next place was marred by a strengthening wind that kept us looking and working hard for a shot. We blew out a few fish on the bottom that we never could have seen, and we spooked a fish near the surface that we never saw but should have. At this point it was mid afternoon, and the Captain made a call to head elsewhere. We racked the rods and moved on.
The next few stops were a series of small places that Steve thought each might hold a fish or two. We went from one to another, spending only a small amount of time in each before moving on to the next one. The fishing was sporadic: at the first stop we found a few rolling fish but never any number large enough to keep our attention. The next yielded nothing, though the third was good to us: immediately after hopping up on the platform, Steve saw a large tarpon laid up in the milky water and called it out. I took a first cast at the fish that didn’t get its attention, and a second shot was put a little too close to the snout. I stripped the fly anyway, and when the fish turned I figured it had been spooked. Steve and Jason had read it differently–they both thought the fish had moved on the fly, I stripped a few times and turned around to apologize to the team for what I thought was blowing the cast; and both of them told me soon thereafter that I had missed a fantastic bite. The fish spun out of the water after the hookset, and Steve immediately called the fish at 100 pounds. Given the number of fish well over this mark we’ve hooked and fought over the years we felt like this fish was on the edge of suitability, and Steve continued to pole along after it while we decided whether or not to go all in. The fish jumped a number of times, and in short order we had the leader in the rod tip as the fish passed by the bow.
As the fish was acting properly and we were relaxed, things happened easily. The fish would run off for a hundred feet or so, and then Steve would cover the ground towards it as we pulled. The fish jumped once, and then again–slow lumbering jumps that told us if we wanted to we may well have a chance at this fish for the record. Just when we started to seriously consider the future of our relationship after 20 minutes, the fish gave another jump and broke the tippet. Of course, as soon as it was gone we wished it had stayed on–nothing like absence to make the heart grow fonder. Additionally, we were slightly perplexed: one of the (much) larger fish we fought through the night jumped 37 times in 12 hours, staying connected throughout. This fish had broken off in a way that we had learned by experience was not likely, and we scratched our heads at the outcome. After we rigged another fly and Steve poled us back into position, we had another shot at a laid up fish without any interest. We moved around for a while in the small basin, holding firmly to the hope that we could scratch out another opportunity.
We circled around, and when Steve started towards some deeper water I started roll casting ten feet of fly line plus my leader to pass the time. Admittedly, I’m a fly dragger: I don’t hang on to the fly as we all should, mostly because I’m a little too manic to hold still for very long, and it’s been known to cause some problems for me. What happened this afternoon, I’m happy to report, was not at all something I wished hadn’t: as I dragged the fly towards me for another flop, the line came tight to 130 pounds of angry tarpon. This fish surprised me in a way I usually associate with horrid internet pranks (and some people’s strange alcohol-fueled admissions over dinner(or strange people’s facebook airings)), but nonetheless we were able to get a decent hook set and a set about clearing the line. Unfortunately, in its haste to ingest the fly the fish had also taken in the leader past the shock tippet, and the fragile six pound nylon survived about as long as you’d expect.
This fish marked the end of our hooked fish for the day, but we didn’t know it at the time and continued to put forward our best effort until the sun set. Steve brought us to a few more small basins, and we saw fish in each but were unable to get the shot off in time. When the light got too low to brighten up our chances we headed home.
With what we’d found the day before in mind, Steve started us in a small bay near the ramp that had shown us some targets the day before. The fish were there once again, but this time we were able to see them before it was too late. Our shots were at tarpon floating high and happy, and as the light got higher our expectations also elevated. We had a few shots at fish that appeared happy but acted as if asleep–no amount of casts could coax the floating dragons from their lay, and each opportunity would end with a somnambulant shuffle away from the fly. Twice, we had a fish that refused the fly simply amble across the small basin and lay up again, a quiet refusal of the most maddening kind.
We stayed around this place and others like it for a few hours before Steve made a run for new water. We arrived a little before lunch time, and in the high sun felt that if a fish were here we would have a good chance of playing ball. It wasn’t long before we had our first shot, and while our expectations were high this fish never rose met them. Within minutes we had another large fish laying in the current, parked and motionless. At this fish we had to make a few casts to get the fly just so, but when we did the whole thing worked like it was supposed to: the big fish kicked off its cushion and headed after the fleeing flatwing, yawning past it and kicking its pale tail as it ate. This fish was perfectly proportioned at around 130 pounds, though it was also smarter than we required it to be. It ran away from us quickly, then doubled back into the manufactured slack. I waited to come tight on the new line, but the fish shook the fly free before we could get the hook buried. We continued along the basin edge, eager now that we had their number. The next shot was just as textbook as the first: a laid up fish that yawned its way onto our fly on the closest shot we could engineer.
This fish was smaller than the last, and when it took off toward the shoreline we didn’t even bother to tighten up. A short run on a relatively slack line was all it took for the fish to shake the fly loose, and we reeled in the line and readied ourselves for some more classic laid up action. The fishing stayed slow, and we picked our way through a half hour or so of lull before Steve found a few more targets. These next fish were all given the same opportunity that the last ones were, though these fish began to show earnest signs of disinterest. After a few hard refusals we switched the fly to a fresh one, suspecting that the frayed leader might have something to do with the lack of interest. We had a shot at a small fish that ate the fly gleefully, and we went slack right away to avoid spoiling the terminal tackle. As soon as the fly stopped swimming away from us I stripped it back quickly, and we all watched the small tarpon park itself under the fly like a puppy, waiting for it to move again and wagging its tail in playful anticipation. We pulled the fly away from the little guy and kept on, stopping for lunch when the fishing slowed. Steve lit us a few cigars in what was probably a very illegal way, and we headed farther from home in search of some more fish.
At this next spot, Steve immediately found a few fish where he expected to. The fish lay all around the bright bottom, apparently begging to have a fly thrown their way. We obliged, and over the course of the next hour we changed flies several times to try to figure out what they wanted. They never could answer this question in the affirmative, and were left only with a clear idea that whatever they didn’t want included everything we had. Surprised as we were by the lack of interest in biting these fish displayed we stuck with it as best we could, trying everything we knew to try before heading towards home. On the way, we made a few stops in small basins but were met with the same icy indifference we’d seen earlier and kept moving along, hoping to find a scrap with a tarpon.
At 5 PM, we were fishing in a muddy wind-blown basin and looking hard for fish that we felt were only barely there. Steve told me to wind it up, and I figured the day to be done–we were, after all, in sight of the ramp. Instead, Steve had other ideas: a faraway basin that we’d fished over the years, an easy 45 minute run away from the dock. I told Steve that his testicles were giant, and as we headed toward this place for a final showdown as the sun set he told me in his own way that he already knew that.
A little before 6 PM we came off plane and Steve hopped up on the platform. We were fishing on a shoreline, slowly picking our way through the low light and hoping to get lucky. Within a few minutes, we spotted a fish, side-lit by the setting sun and glowing. At this fish I threw an abortive cast that scared it off, and soon felt The Doubt creeping in: “Here you are, Nathan, with Steve Huff on the platform and he just ran 45 minutes away from home at 5 PM to get you this shot. And you blew it. Nice one.”
Just then, before The Doubt could start rummaging around in the cooler, we spotted a tick of a tail off the bow. I started to cast before I saw the fish in the water, and when the cast landed realized that it was just in front of and slightly past the business end of the ticking tail. I stripped fast to cross the fish, and we all watched as fish lined up the fly and bucketed its head out of the water for the eat. We set the hook and watched as the fish took flight. Steve immediately put its weight at 110 pounds, and gave chase with the pole. The light was still high enough for us to have a few hours of sunlight, and the fish was acting properly. In 15 minutes Steve started the motor and Jason readied himself for the last 8 feet of this battle should it come to that.
After so many times in exactly this situation, we were all ready for things to go our way. The fish wasn’t as large as some that we’ve spent a night (or more) in pursuit of, and instead of heading for deep water it caromed off of the nearby shorelines, showing no timidity in the shallow water. It ran for an hour and we put as close to six pounds on it as we could, and the effects were encouraging: every 2-5 minutes, the fish would roll and every so often it would jump, getting only its head and shoulders above the surface. The tarpon led us down a winding creek into some close quarters. Jason had a decent shot at taking the game home, though once again the last few feet were up to the angles that didn’t fall in our favor.
Soon, the fish was backtracking through the winding creek, and we were pulling as best we could. Every time I kept a low rod angle the fish would elevate, which led me to a distinct belief that I might be able to get the tarpon off balance enough to flip it. I was fixated on this idea to the point that I barked at Jason when he slid behind me for a gaff shot–despite how unlikely it was, I felt that we might be able to make this fish bend. Amazing, what optimism and opportunity will do to the mind.
Jason never had another chance, and after two hours the fish broke off. I don’t recall putting more pressure on the tippet than I had been, though clearly the pull had been too hard. We stashed our gear and headed home, once again beaten by the fish in the Everglades on six.
As always, I’d like to thank Steve Huff and Jason Schratwieser. I know we’ll catch this fish, and when we do I’ll be sure to write it up. Nothing to do but stick with it and not give up.
I’m still playing catch up on the reports, so I’ll cover a day with Marshall Cutchin and another with Simon before I fish with Doug next Tuesday Wednesday. Jason will be along for that trip also, though as payment for all the late nights and slow days he’ll actually be fishing this time.
More to come as always