Fishing with Steve Last Week
Last week, I fished for three days with Captain Steve Huff. If you read these reports, you’re familiar with our trips over the last few years. In five years of fishing together (I can’t believe it’s been that long), we have hooked fish nearly every day that would have been the 6 lb record. Some of those fish we have fought for all kinds of time, through the night though never into morning, and all have ended with a loss for our efforts. This most recent trip is similar, and I do not want to give the impression that we are at the end of this journey. Here’s how it all went down:
We started early, as a micro-front was headed our way. After an early breakfast and a long run, we arrived in the place Steve had chosen to fish. The water was slicked off, and even though there were apparently few fish in this little basin we were able to see every movement from a distance.
In very short order, a large fish was finning along the the surface nearly 100 yards away. With minimal effort, Steve got the boat into position. When the fin dropped down as it approached, all we had to do was cut a cast through its line. The fly landed long and I pulled it into what I hoped was proper position, bumping it slowly until such time that I thought the fish might be there. Fishing by assumption is always difficult, especially when it’s been a while since the fish showed through the surface, but a tap and a flash convinced us we were in the right place. The fish ate the fly twice, and the second time we got a decent hook set (or as decent as possible on 6 lb tippet) and the fish barreled off into the slick. The second jump sent the fly toward us fishless. Even though we lost this fish, we were energized and affirmed by the idea that our early start had been a good call: in a game as stacked against us as this one, any positive reinforcement is welcome.
We had a shot at a pair of fish, and while the shot was textbook the cast left much to be desired. The front fish was larger and as such received the majority of my casting efforts, but none made it to the right place. As we blew down on the fish, the front fish spooked and took the rear fish with it.
As we pushed on, the weather deteriorated. What was slick and glassy in the morning was fast becoming cob-rough and overcast as the weather pushed through. We sought protection against the myriad shorelines in Steve’s country, but despite our efforts we were up against the difficulty that is becoming startlingly familiar: cloud cover, wind, and a dearth of targets.
At one point we had a few fish around us, but they were in insufficient supply. The weather, despite starting out perfectly, had jammed our gears. We went home at 6:15 with just a single fish to show for our nearly 12 hours of fishing.
The second day of our fishing was cold to begin with. Since we had not yet found a large population of fish anywhere we had looked, we ran to new water in a new direction in search of some value. In the cold clear weather, we found a few fish rolling. We threw a few casts near fish that had rolled, and though we dragged the fly by fish that were surely nearby we never had a bite. In the afternoon, Steve and I ate lunch as we ran back to a place where we had not yet looked closer to home. As Steve shut down the motor and started poling, our shadow flushed a large number of giant mud plumes from the bottom. We took our time, knowing that there were tarpon here tucked safely near the bottom. With the idea that we may see a fish by color only and not know which way it was facing, we had the conversation about which side of some color to throw at. I made a mental note: if I see some color, throw on the right side.
In short order, I saw the slimmest blush. My second cast landed on target, and as I counted down to the color the fish pushed toward the fly. One strip later and I was tight to the fish, which immediately launched from the water and threw the hook back at us. When you’re working so hard for a bite on 6 lb tippet, the fly coming out is painful but par for the course.
As we picked our way through the fish, blowing them out from our shadows, it became apparent we were in the middle of a large number of tarpon. The tide changed and they pushed in to the new direction, rolling as they moved to chase some warmth. Rolling and sliding, for three hours they gave us ample opportunity to be excited about the number of scales in this small area. Our only touch came from a shot at a rolling fish, though the small tap and mouth-closed jump indicated to us that this fish may have been foul hooked on our retrieve.
We left fish again at 6:45, with growing expectations and a clear idea of exactly where we would begin the next day.
Our start once again came early, and in the quickest possible way we were back to the spot we had left the night before. The sky was clear. Though there were some building clouds being sent our way, we were prepared to find some targets before the glare arrived. In ten minutes we were still taut with focus, and in 20 we were wondering if the fish had moved on. In 20 minutes our focus paid off–close by the boat, there was blush of color that could only be one thing. I threw the fly in front of the shape, and counted it down. The fish kicked forward and ate the fly coming at the boat, giving me an easy opportunity to set the fly as it turned and ran away into the middle of the basin. The fish was an easy 130 pounds, but that wasn’t the best part. In addition to being big enough, this particular fish was acting slow and sluggish: in 10 minutes, we had the leader pass into the rod tip without starting the motor. In another 10 minutes we were treated to a slow-motion vertical jump that indicated this fish may be of the right attitude for light line capture. Perhaps the best part of this fish was the time that we had hooked him: 8:55 AM, meaning that even if we fought him all day we would still have plenty of daylight left. And after the two epic all-nighters we had produced over the last two years, this seemed to be the best news of all.
In 45 minutes the fish was well under control, even without the motor running him down. The nail knot was passing easily into the rod each time we got close, and the runs were becoming slower and with less heart the longer we had him on. Soon the fish jumped again, shaking its mouth and giving us a beautiful broadside view of the fish we wouldn’t catch: the fly was thrown out on a headshake, leaving us cursing and in disbelief that this seemingly perfect opportunity would be foiled in this way. Losing a fish to a thrown fly early on is a quite common thing, but after 45 minutes of pulling it is something that has only happened to me one other time. As we collected ourselves, the clouds marched in and we were left to search in the glossy cover afforded by them.
We stuck in the spot for another two hours, and while we saw a fish or two we never had a clean shot to take. We moved and had lunch on the way, and soon found ourselves on another nameless shoreline with a similarly stocked tarpon population as the one we’d left. We hung there for only an hour before Steve moved us again in the afternoon to one more place he thought might hold a fish.
The fish were showing themselves immediately upon our arrival. We saw fish roll and bust, sticking a tail out of the water ever so often when they moved around. Our first shot came at a stationary fish, and while the fly made it to the business end there was hardly a reaction to its appearance. The next few shots were to rolls and busts, and none of them worked well enough to force an error. Our fishing continued in the glare until we had a rare appearance of sun, during which time we had two clean shots at fish. One of these I hooked, though it was smaller than we wanted and I immediately went slack to let the fish fall off. The clouds came and went once again, and in the long shadows of the evening I had another bite from a fish as I was clearing my line to prepare for a cast. We were, to be sure, among them.
At 4:55 PM, Steve saw a fish next to the boat. He whispered “right here!” and I plopped a cast down near where I thought me meant, and when I asked if it was rightly placed I only heard him say “leave it!” before I felt the weight of a fish and set the hook. As the fish screamed off into the middle of the basin we started the boat: win or lose, this was going to be our last fish of the day. As we watched the giant crash through the waves, Steve and I discussed what happened.
The tail of the fish had started out under the trim tabs of the skiff, but since our shadows were long and cast in the opposite direction we were able to literally pole over the fish without spooking it. My cast had landed in front of the fish, and as he had kicked away he had simply opened his mouth and inhaled the feathers. This is likely why we had such a solid hookset, which we were glad for when the fish took another set of sideways crashes through the surface.
Where our earlier fish had been 130 pounds, tired and hooked early in the day this fish was over 150, lit like a rocket in the dim light of late afternoon. Beggars, especially those begging for a fight with a giant on 6 pound tippet, cannot be choosers.
The first hour was full of bravado and calm. We felt good, confident and prepared. Our fish was huge, yes, but we had spotlights and lessons learned over years of nighttime battles to use to our advantage. The fish was in play, we knew him to be a record, and there was a distinct sense that our time had come to do this thing.
The second hour was equally confident, spent joking with one another about how “we really know how to hook em late”. We continued to feel that we would have an opportunity to catch this fish–all we had to do was keep it up and not quit.
The third hour was spent in transition from daylight to twilight, and our buoyant attitude remained. Steve readied the gear: headlights for us both (each with a spare battery), a spotlight attached to the battery, and an inventory of our food and caffeine.
The fourth hour was spent in the darkness, headlamps illuminating the fish on the rare occasion it came near the surface, and pulling when we could. The jumps continued as we ran the fish down, and the nail knot became our focal point to indicate to us we were getting close.
The fifth hour was spent much like the fourth, and while we were tiring it was only a question of maintaining our attitude and pressure on the fish.
The sixth hour was slow, and we didn’t talk much. Steve at some food and I had some caffeine to keep me alert. Our headlamps had run out of batteries, and Steve replaced mine so that I could keep a light on the fish if it was close. We chose to keep the last battery on hand in case in another two hours we needed to reanimate our failing headlight. It was nearing midnight, once again, in the deep silence of the Everglades.
The seventh hour was the beginning of the pain, and Steve and I were running low on anything except discomfort. The fish continued to jump, though it was showing some cracks in its armor. Steve dragged the gaff towards the fish on a blind shot, and while it stopped the only thing is came up with was a pair of scales, both giant. Steve, for the third time in our friendship, pulled up a shot of insulin for me to give myself.
The eighth hour was marked by a change in our attack. The fish was staying in tight circles, and in an effort to make the fish change its angle we slapped the water nearby with the pushpole, trying to force the fish to make a run or a mistake and come to the surface. The light on my headlamp went dim, and Steve replaced them with the final battery.
The ninth hour I only used my headlamp when the fish was close, and the jumps continued. Steve ate the half sandwich I had left from lunch, and had some caffeine himself. We were both beyond tired and prepared for this to end.
The tenth hour the fish continued back to within a hundred yards of where we had hooked him, and we dug deep for whatever push we had left. The fish jumped for the 30th time.
By the eleventh hour, the final battery on the headlamp had gone out. We took the fixed spotlight and made an effort to get a look at the fish so we could pull across its tail. I used all I had left and then some, and Steve balanced the spotlight, motor and gaff–stepping up each time for a shot if it came.
The twelfth hour we pulled, and pulled. I pulled as close as I could to the limit of the 6 pound tippet, knowing full well that this particular spool tested at only 5.8 pounds. Finally, the fish began to slow at times and give us an opportunity to see some of its tail and we lifted the fish slightly before it got its equilibrium back and continued on. The fish jumped for its 35th time.
A half hour from exactly 12 hours, at 5:30 AM, the fish finally took a slow roll off the bow, and as I pulled with my 9 weight the fish kicked away from us and the tippet broke.
We headed home at 6 AM.
No record this time, but we have one more reason to believe we’ll do it under our belts. I’d like to thank Steve Huff deeply for all of his help and guidance, not to mention sharing the pain with me during these long fights.
Seriously Steve, it’s a pleasure.
Yesterday and the day before I fished with John O’Hearn and Kathryn.
I’ll upload those reports and be current.
More to come,