Fishing with Steve and Jason
In the beginning of last week, I fished with Steve Huff and Jason Schratwieser. Our target was, once again, the 6 lb tippet tarpon record. For most of the readership, there isn’t much of a point in recounting how much time and energy (and pain, and hard work, and failure) we have invested in this record by now, so I won’t bother going in to it. On Sunday I rigged up my tippets and flies from Dave Skok, got everything together in the car, and headed up to Steve’s. And here’s a free price of advice: when you’re on 41, the speed limit is 45 at night. Not 60. Even if you started driving when it was light out. Trust me on this one. I’ve got a painful speeding ticket to prove that the sun can in fact set when you’re on the road.
We met Jason Schratwieser the next morning, and had a light breakfast at the Island Cafe before heading out. The conditions that had looked so promising through the before-fishing filter were marginal, and we had a fair amount of wind and consistent cloud cover to contend with. On top of that, the water was barely warm enough for us to feel like we had a shot at finding a tarpon anywhere but on the bottom. Despite these issues we were determined to give it a shot and made our way to a place where Steve thought there might be a fish to find.
Throughout the morning, we fished a few areas that were promising in image only. Steve found a place that had a few tarpon, and for the bulk of the afternoon we picked slowly between distant targets. Every so often, we’d get a shot: the fish seemed to be in small pockets, and where we saw one there was usually another. Because of the lack of sunlight we were on quick-fire mode, knowing that any opportunity we got would be inside of 20 feet. In the early afternoon, we had a shot at a large single fish that was a mere 10 feet from the boat and lifted up its giant dragon face to inhale the fly. I couldn’t get a decent hook set on this fish, and while we were happy with the proof of concept we were left with no fight with this particular beast. We fished until it was nearly dark, the usual operating procedure with Steve, and headed home for dinner and sleep before the next day.
The second day marked a change in the weather, and not for the better. The front that was scheduled to come through the following afternoon seemed to be firing early warning shots, and we arrived in the morning to fish in the rain and wind. Steve found, once again, a large number of fish to keep us interested in the task at hand despite the deteriorating conditions. In the murky water, close to the boat, a fish rolled. We got a shot off in front of the fish, and when a few bubbles appeared we thought we were in the right place. The fish took a soft bite, and when I stripped I didn’t feel anything. A short beat later on a dead drift told us all we needed to know: the fish wanted to bite our fly, but just needed a little more time to get the job done. We got a decent hook set on this fish, and while we couldn’t see the fish at first we thought it not to be a small one. The fish ran off and gave a headshake, and while it didn’t look enormous we made it a point to keep it on long enough to get a proper idea of whether or not we should continue. In a few minutes the fish cleared the water on a jump and Steve called it 75 pounds–too small for what we wanted it for. We took a bit of time to pull on the fish to get reacquainted with the breaking strength of our tippet, and when we pulled too hard the tippet broke.
In the next two hours, we threw at rolling fish in the clouds and rain. Of note was another soft bite that we got on a cast in front of a roller, but this one didn’t result in a hook up. We had a number of shots that we thought would work but didn’t, and as the tide fell away from perfect Steve moved on. We made another stop at a nearby bight for another look-see. There we found only a few rolling fish that we covered for 15 minutes before calling it off. Steve brought us to yet another place that he felt would hold fish (where, incidentally, we had hooked the last fish with Jason that kept us occupied for nearly 10 hours in December) and we started to look. Within an hour it was clear that we were not in the fish we needed to be, and Steve returned to the place where we had found our only bite the day before. With nothing to do but put in The Work, we set out to wring a tarpon out of the cloudy afternoon.
We fished hard, with as much focus as we could muster, for the remaining hours of the day. Looking as hard as we could, we found only a handful of tarpon before they saw us. One of these, easily over 100 pounds, gave us a solid bite but we were unable to keep the hook in the fish. When the light ran low we left for home, ready for our last day to follow.
On the third day, the front was near. The wind had picked up to easily 25 sustained, and we were forced to tuck up tight to shorelines in order to keep from being blown around. The first place we looked held nothing of interest, and in the late morning Steve brought us back to where we had found the few laid up fish over the last two days to make our last stand. I’d like to point out that we really had no right to go tarpon fishing on this day with the weather the way it was. As a fisherman, there’s always some amount of pressure put on when the guide has to work hard. Under a lacquer of clouds, in wind that would put any human force off the case, pushed into the breeze by Steve Huff while Jason Schratwieser looked on, it was all I could do to remain focused and refrain from stressing out. The minutes ticked by and we tried to remain rapt and ready for what would undoubtedly be a quick shot.
We had a few fish that we saw before they saw us, and of these only a single one tracked the fly before falling off the chase prior to the error we required. The day slowly drifted on, and as the wind built Steve had to keep pushing the boat into the wind to prevent a too-fast drift downwind. When we ran out of real estate he would let the boat blow with the wind, stopping us at the bottom of his chosen line before starting the Sisyphean effort once again. As we were being brought swiftly down to the beginning of the next upwind battle, Steve noticed a fish behind the boat–a static blush of peach in a sea of brown. I threw a cast at what little of the fish I could see, landing tight to its right side. We quickly figured out that the fish was facing the other way, which ordinarily would be a simple fix: throw the fly to the other side of the fish. While the idea was simple (put the fly seven or eight feet left of where it just landed) in principle, in practice the problem was far more complex. The wind had blown us away from the fish, so what was at first a 25 foot shot was now closer to 60. The angle of the wind hadn’t changed but the relative angle of the wind on the cast had shifted, and dramatically. Where we had a nearly downwind cast to start, we were left with a longer, cross-wind shot that was getting farther away by the second. What followed was a blind hurl in the direction of the fish, and all I could see before the fish was lost behind the boat was that it looked close enough to work. Instead of stripping the fly, we now had to feed line into the cast to prevent the fly from dragging at our own (way too fast) speed, so as soon as the fly landed I set about putting as much slack as I could into the line to keep the fly moving at tarpon speed. I fed about 20 feet of line into the cast, and just when we all thought the shot was over we came tight on the first strip to a giant.
The fish careened out of the water, and while Jason and Steve didn’t get a look at the fish on its first jump I did. What I saw was a fish that was as big or bigger than some we’d spent all night in pursuit of, and Steve started the motor to give chase to what we all agreed after the second jump was easily 140 pounds of scaly world record class tarpon. The fish would run and shake its head, every 10 minutes making a series of slow jumps. One thing was clear to us in the first 20 minutes: while large, this fish was acting just as we hoped one would for capture on 6 lb tippet.
In the first 30 minutes, chasing the fish around in the teeth of the approaching front, we were taking waves over the bow and making every effort we could to keep the bow of the boat higher than the crests of the waves. The cockpit filled with five inches of what looked like weak coffee, and we accepted the abuse as we chased down a fish we all felt we might finally catch. In another 10 minutes, we were close to a small island in the middle of a basin. The fish’s tail was up on the surface, and it was then that we realized the fish was tail wrapped. There was risk in this, of course, as a fish so entangled could break the leader in a large number of new and interesting ways, but it also afforded us a new and thrilling advantage: we could be sure that every pound of pressure we put on the fish was being applied against its forward momentum. In a game where angles are everything and constantly changing, we were suddenly given the right one with every pull–an advantage we intended to use. We kept pulling, slowing the fish down more and more each time. Soon, the fish slowed enough that we felt we could get a shot soon, which left us with a new problem: approaching the fish from upwind was the only way we could have a reasonable chance of success, and each time the fish beat around us we had to work into the waves again to get on the right side of the transaction. We worked our way upwind when we had to, and in the times we were upwind of the fish tried to maintain our advantage for as long as we could. Occasionally, we put the boat in reverse to keep from overrunning the angle we preferred. Things were happening slowly, easily, and just like we wanted them to.
We discussed what would happen if we were to get a shot when the fish was tail wrapped, and the plan was that Jason would risk it to go over the tippet with the gaff if we were to get an opportunity. In another 10 minutes the fish kicked away and shed the snare on its tail, and what I remember next is my own version of events. I’ve talked to Steve and Jason since this time, and all opinions differ slightly. Either way, here’s what I remember:
The fish jumped at the boat in a series of head-out-of-the-water shakes, the third of which put its left shoulder in range. Jason deftly engineered a different shot (remember–at this point we’d been talking for 15 minutes about going over the leader) with a following angle against the fish as it approached the stern, under the leader, while the fish was in the air. I thought that we had in fact at this point done the deed: in my mind, Jason had the fish pinned and it was just a matter of what was going to happen next. In reality, the fish threw the gaff off and crossed the stern of the boat, and my heart sank when I saw Jason hold up the gaff with yet another scale on it. The gaff had barely penetrated more than an inch, and the fish got a new wind as we tried desperately to get upwind of it again. Another set of jumps was followed by a hard roll, which again caused the fish to get tail wrapped. Given how well this worked for us last time, the risks inherent did not do much to dent our optimism. At 3:15 PM on this day, we all thought we were going to finally break the 6 pound tippet tarpon record.
The cost of our tail wrapped advantage finally came due in a horrible way when the fish turned and broke the tippet. We were left standing in the middle of a nameless basin with a leader that terminated in a lonesome bit of Mason 5 pound monofilament. There wasn’t much to say, and Steve brought the boat behind a nearby shoreline so we could relax for a minute and get out of the wind. The stained water slowly left the boat as we ran.
We were not going to give up our day of fishing, even (especially) after this experience. We rigged another fly and Steve continued to push down the shoreline, and even when the hard leading edge of the front arrived we fished through it, staring into the water for another dragon we might pick a fight with. We got another bite from a large tarpon in the last hour of the day, never getting the hook in before the fish sank back down into the dark water. We headed home as the rain arrived, driving through it until we arrived at the dock.
We will be back at it up there in April. A report will follow as usual.