Last month I finished fishing the Gold Cup with John O’Hearn. The most competitive of the tournaments in the Keys, this also marked the first tournament we fished since the Keys shut down at the end of March. As such we were excited to get back in to things, and hoped that the Gold Cup would be an opportunity to make up some ground. We started as we usually do on the Thursday before the tournament, looking for places to fish in the following week as well as establishing places we’d prefer not to return to. Our prefishing was frustrating: where fish had been they appeared to have moved on from, and we bumped around in hopes of figuring out their current location without getting a grab. By the end of the day on Friday we were still without a fish to hand, and as the weather plotted against our efforts we elected to call it a day to deal with a broken bilge. As is often the case with tournament fishing, we ended the last day of prefishing without a solid indication of what our competition days would look like.

Day One
With the lack of places we had confidence in, John and I were looking to make a move on the first day. The conditions were slick, providing an easy run, and we knew there were fish some distance from the Lorelei. With those two facts in hand we shot a hundred-mile gap to our first fishing spot on the day one, fueling up along the way, and arrived a little more than two hours after we had throttled up in Islamorada. Great knots of fish welcomed us, rolling slowly in our direction in the slick heat of morning. We both felt that things were going to work out, as the biggest of our issues had been solved; we hopefully awaited shots to numbers of fish we had not found on any of our preparation days.
The first pack of fish refused what we had for them, and we quickly switched the fly to one we thought they might prefer. The second school also decided they wanted something else, and again we had something new to offer the next group. After three fly changes we were back where we started, throwing the thing we felt they were most likely to eat and running the plays as cleanly as we could. By the time the schools stopped coming we were without a bite, and John moved us to a place nearby that also held a large group of fish to keep us interested.
In the coming hours we threw constantly at fish rolling and daisy chaining, reaching out as far as we could to touch down quietly without turning the boat. Our casts landed in places John and I agreed were proper, though each time the fish would swim past the fly without so much as a lean in its direction. We had one tarpon from the hundreds we threw at swipe passively at a fly we dragged over its face, but other than this minimum we were unable to apprehend a tarpon to pull on.
When the morning became afternoon we were decided to leave–if these fish were not going to play, we needed to find new fish to interfere. By early afternoon we were in some of our old haunts, hoping that something would work out to our favor. Nothing did, and at 3:00 we headed back to Islamorada, trimmed up and sent it hard toward check in. There we found that very few teams had been able to post any weight fish for the day, that the tough fishing we had experience had been shared by the majority of participants. Some teams had managed to fool some large fish, however, among them Jeremy Fisher and Sebastian Varney who were destined for great things later in the week.

Day Two
With more wind on the water this day than the day before we ran again towards our faraway place, discussing along the way if 100 miles was worth it. The fish had been there, it was true, but in any tournament giving up that much time on a run was not a call to be made lightly. When we fueled up and left the marina in Key West John made the call: we would return, hoping that the wind would soften the senses of the tarpon and give us a chance to grab a few large fish to make a move on the scoreboard. We arrived where we’d finished the day before full of expectation. Blue skies and off-color water, in addition to the wind chop on the water, made us confident when we arrived that this was going to be the day for us to do some serious damage. Within 20 minutes it was clear that we were not around as many fish as the day before. In an hour we realized things had changed dramatically and for the worse, and another hour brought the wrench in our plan into clear focus: the fish here in such great supply the day before had vacated, and we were floating in water that held not a single tarpon to throw at.
Not to be deterred, John ran to a grass basin nearby. We had a harder time seeing the fish here, the clouds moving in, but even in the increasing glare we had an occasional shot at a pack of large tarpon laying still on the bottom. On one of these casts we came tight, and when we did both John and I were convinced it was going to be a giant. What came out of the water instead was a scrappy 50-pounder, and we pulled on it fast for a release in the bank. John grabbed it quickly and we went on our way, hoping to attach ourselves to one of the back-backed giants that lurked on the grass.
We never had a chance to do that, and when two other boats showed up behind us we lost the option of poling the area a second time. We sat at another spot nearby while we figured what to do next, and after a half hour without seeing a fish we moved towards home, staking out and waiting in a familiar place for a tarpon to swim by.
A storm came through and forced a change in our location, and once again we were in the presence of fish that wanted nothing to do with us. Whatever was forcing the fish to be the way they were was beyond our capabilities to overcome, and we one again left at 3:00 without a weight fish to show for our efforts.

Day Three
The tough fishing we’d experienced continued in to the third day, and for most of the morning we were moving around and trying to get an angle that worked. We lost an acrobatic release at the first place we stopped, and while this seemed a portend of good things to come we were unable to connect with any other tarpon in the morning into the early afternoon. Pushed around by a storm once again we ended up in a place that neither of us had fished recently. Here we were welcomed in short order with a pack of large tarpon slowly moving towards us. We got a fly in front of the lead fish, the largest of the group, and after missing it once it made no mistake the second time and we were tight to a giant. This fish was too large to clear the water on a jump, which made the hook likely to stay put, and it appeared too tired to move very far. In short order we had the fish close and backing up, and things started to look sharply upwards for us. I pulled a hard as I felt we could without breaking the tippet, looking to shorten the fight. In a few minutes I pulled once and was slack; the shock had been drawn across the hinge of the giant’s jaw, and as the fish closed its mouth it had worn through the 60-pound fluorocarbon.
Despite this blow to our future momentum we were relieved, as we had finally made our way to a place we thought we had a chance to make things happen in the final two days.
After we arrived back at the dock it clear that a few teams had put together a decent day of fishing, and we had ground to make up in the final two days if we were to pull this off. Jeremy Fisher and Sebastian Varney added another weight to their day one fish, and the pair Perry Coleman and Bart Beasley as well as Craig Brewer and Ned Johnson posted a pair of weights apiece. Eric Herstedt and Mike Criscola also put a large weight on the board, and between these three teams the highest score was still right around 2,000 points–while the hard fishing made catching two weights seem difficult, the sensation we were left swimming in was one of hope. We had a plan based on our third day of fishing that we felt could push us towards a day where we strapped multiple weights and made a comeback.

Day Four
As we ran down to the lower Keys, John and I remained excited. We knew what we had to do and that we could do it if what we’d found held up, and that sense of possibility was thrilling. We fueled up and headed to where we had finished the day before, and there sat with our optimism intact as the light got higher. For hours the hope lived on, despite being eroded by the complete lack of fish, though slowly through the morning we were standing on land got thinner and thinner to build our comeback upon. We finally left, looking elsewhere in a spasm. We had a large fish miss the fly on a few shots on the ocean nearby, and a single shot at a laid up giant that we saw too close. We quit at lines out, still wondering just how so many things could go so wrong for us when we were trying to hard.
At the Lorelei we saw that we were far from alone in our difficulty: on this day, the entire field of 25 boats had only managed a single release fish, caught by Eric Herstedt and Mike Criscola. Everyone else had posted a day without a capture, and the field remained soft enough for our dreams of a comeback to send deep roots down into.

Day Five
Our ambition continued to rise again on the ride down to Key West, where our plans were to spread their wings: we were going to fish as we would any other day, and hope to get connected with a few weight fish for a final day comeback. The first spot gave us a solid bite that we didn’t connect to, and thereafter we sprinted nearby for some schools to come out of a channel. Multiple schools swam by us in the falling current, and despite a few casts that we both thought great we never got a fish to bite what we had to offer. The feathers of our plan continued to burn slowly away for the rest of the day, bit by sad bit, and by 3:00 it was clear that our comeback bird was not to take flight.

At the check-in, which we’re always last to arrive at from the distance we run, the final was clear: for Jeremy Fisher and Sebastian Varney, another weight fish put them into first place with near 3500 points. Second was taken by Eric Herstedt and Mike Criscola, who were less than 100 points behind Jeremy and Sebastian and also took biggest with a 129 from the first day. In third was Perry Coleman and Bart Beasley, and most releases was won on time by Richard Black and Ed Young. For us it was time only to congratulate the winning team, clap hard, and get back to work. Until 2021, we’ve got plenty to work on.

I’ve been fishing lots since, and actually catching fish, which has been nice. Most of the fish have been permit, which I feel lately are easier to catch than tarpon, and I’ve been having lots of fun. New things are on the horizon: a new Chittum featuring more carbon fiber is on order, and I’ve got a year to work on flies and such to try to increase my chances in 2021.

These pages will be back up and running here, as I’m finally back in the shop, so stay tuned and thanks for checking in after the Covid break.

More to come,

nathaniel