Through last Wednesday, I fished in the Golden Fly with John O’Hearn. The week prior we fished on Thursday and Friday for some pre-tournament practice. I realize this report is late, but that’s how it is this time of year.
With two days booked and the plan to fish the Sunday before the event as well, we were in no short supply of practice days. Our fishing on the first day was marred by a serious storm that came through, and we made the best of it that we could in the rain. Our first move was to look for some early rolling fish, though when we shut down the lightning had my full attention. We tucked up as best we could in a nearby shoreline, and when the tension became to much we headed back to Drew’s house for a break. By the time we tied off at Drew’s, lightning was crashing only a few hundred yards from us. As the storm sent terrifying bolts of not today down we hung with Drew and his anglers in his house, waiting for a break in the weather. As soon as things looked safe we headed back to the backcountry basin we’d wanted to start in, looking for a roll in the clouds. We had a few shots at too-close fish before John spotted a roll behind the boat. I never saw the fish, and had to rely on John’s “leave it….leave it…..OK, start now” to make things happen. In a few short moments I came tight, and a large tarpon crashed through the water on its first jump. The fish was large but tired; John never started the motor as we got the fish on fly line and started pulling. Within 20 minutes the fish was nearly done, and we made a hard effort to grab the fish (using, of course, a new shock tippet that didn’t break) that paid off perfectly. We estimated the fish at 100 pounds before letting it go, and left these fish for the tournament as we headed elsewhere to scout. The rest of our day was fun but bleak; we found fish in a few more places but never got a hook into another one. The rain continued until we headed to the dock, and we made plans to start elsewhere the following day.
Our second prefish day was also tough, and we struggled to get into a rhythm. We were purposely avoiding the places we knew we’d fish in the event, which was a good idea if a little disadvantageous to our confidence building. We hooked a small fish on the ocean that didn’t stay connected, and loped around from here to there in search of something new. I had enough shots to catch a tarpon, though the most I could muster before our last spot was a jack crevalle off a bull shark to pass the time, in addition to another small release fish that came off on a fast jump right after we set the hook. In the final hours John took us to a nearby place that we thought might be on our Golden Fly menu, and told me later that the plan was to fish until we hooked one no matter how long it took. As it turned out this didn’t take long–likely due to John’s omission of the conditional plan when we got there. Knowing that we had a fish to hook before heading home, the pressure would likely have kept me too far forward on my toes. Instead, we took a few relaxed shots at large tarpon before a single fish snuck toward us on a great angle. I put the fly fairly short of where I wanted to, and even though I was unhappy with the placement the fish gave a hard start toward the feathers and I left it in play. The fish sidled up to the fly and reared up, snapping its top jaw through the surface as it ate. This fish was not long but very round, and I looked forward to getting our hands on it after a tussle. We started the motor and headed after the fish, and it was in the following moment that I knew precisely what shock I was going to use from now on. Going back a little bit: after weeks of busting tarpon both large and small off on the hook set, I had ordered two new types of fluorocarbon to use as bite tippet. From of these I had tied 14 ready-mades: seven from seven each of the candidates. The fish the day before was on A, and this fish was on the other (B). The fish I lost with Simon a few days back had been on B, and the fish I had caught with John the day before had been A. This fish was on type B, though I was still confident. A spool of premium 60 pound fluorocarbon has to work at least sometimes, right? As we pulled on the fish the leader went slack, and we both assumed the hook had pulled out as we reeled it in. When the tippet got close, however, I could feel that there was no fly on the leader. Again, the shock had worn through. With that, a final decision had been reached regarding which fluorocarbon to use, and it wasn’t a tough one. A!. We headed home, confident that we could hook them and that they would stay connected in the event that we used the right shock.
Saturday was a catch up day for me at the shop, and I met John early on Sunday to fish the final day of our prefish days before the tournament started on Monday. We got on the water early, and in the first few hours of fishing hooked a nice tarpon that we caught in 15 minutes–a large fish of what we thought was near 110 pounds that didn’t require us to start the motor. After that we left, heading out into new places to find something we could exploit in the coming three days. This effort led us to a few places that we wouldn’t miss in the tournament, and to one that we would: a backcountry basin that held more than a few large fish, sliding into the current but hard to see in the glare. We messed around with them for a while, our mindframes less than predatory, not hooking any before we left to make it to the captain’s meeting on time.
First Tournament Day:
The first day of the event was beautiful–clear and calm, an easy day to run to the lower Keys and find what we knew had been there in the days past. In what was likely the slowest boat in the tournament a run of this distance would cost us time, but we could make up for this (in theory) by being quieter and more agile when we were actively fishing. We made it to our first stop after being sidetracked by a dredge spot for 45 minutes, during which time we took many shots at rolling fish that evaded our efforts in the glassy morning. When we started to fish at our second spot, two things became apparent: there were a lot of fish, and they would be hard to hook. In the windless glass the fish would roll, and on the few occasions we were able to make a cast in front of a roll we were unable to come tight. Within 45 minutes, a boat decided to get clever and cut us off (of course), which forced us to idle over and explain the situation to them. And let me make this point here if nowhere else: when a boat that’s run from Islamorada to the lower Keys to fish a tournament takes time out of their day to explain why you did something wrong, just listen. They’re doing you a favor. Trust me.
We left after the idiot interruption, making our way into the warren of places we’d been fishing over the last week. In one of them, we found another large deposit of tarpon. We fished for them as best we could, making casts at the farthest reaches of our range, trying to force an error. The fish that we were able to get the fly in front of occasionally made a start in its direction, though each time they lost interest before biting. The fishing was unrewarding and technical–everything that excites me about tarpon fishing. As interested and engaged as I was in the problem in front of me we left before we could solve it, heading elsewhere. John found us two great shots at large fish at another location, and each of these had us convinced we were about to get bit. Neither worked out, and we ran out the clock at a final bank before shooting our way as fast as we could back to Islamorada at a brisk 35-38 miles per hour. At check in we discovered that only a handful of weight fish were caught, leaving the field porous if not wide open. Scott Collins and Ed Young were in the lead with a weight and a few releases, and in second was Heidi Nute and Craig Brewer with a large fish of over 125 pounds. In third, as I recall, were Tad Burke and Roger Fernandez–also with a weight and a release.
Second Tournament Day:
This day was windier than the day before, and John and I decided to run back to where we’d found the infestation of tarpon the day before in hopes that we could make something happen with a little surface chop. As we were running down to the area we wanted to fish we shut down for a bathroom break near a channel we’d seen a few fish in over the years. I took care of my immediate business when John told me there were some fish rolling nearby, and I grabbed a rod in case one rolled in range. We fell slowly into the fishing: neither one of us had fished here except one time a few years ago, and had only a vague idea of just how we should be doing it. The fish were around us but we couldn’t figure out a way to get near them, so we slowly picked our way in the next half hour into a plan. Finally I made the switch to an intermediate line and changed the fly to something I’d been thinking about, and on our third cast we came tight to a large fish. We set the hook and fought the fish as hard as we could for a half hour, making our way closer and closer to the bridge and its terrifying leader-eating stanchions as the fish tired. As soon as this tarpon smelled the bridge, it got a second wind. We followed it through and around the bridge pilings both old and new for another 30 minutes, three times pulling it away from the gap at the base of the new bridge. The fish was tired but energized by the current and the proximity of what it knew would be freedom, and each time we got near to catching the fish it would dig down into the deep water and make a run for the obstructions. We coaxed the fish higher in the water column until John finally got the lip gaff in it, at which point a new problem happened suddenly and awfully. The rope wrist leash on the gaff gave out, and John had to hang on to the lip gaff by finger strength alone. For a brief moment, as John informed me that the wrist strap was broken, I looked up at the concrete ceiling of the old bridge and thought that it was more than a little crazy that we’d caught this fish at all. John’s grip held as we strapped the fish and got its length, and we knew it was a big one when we let it go. The feeling of catching a big weight fish in a tournament is pretty much the reason to fish the events at all, and we headed down to the lower Keys with a euphoria that usually ends with a hangover (or rehab). As happy as we were we also knew that the only hope we had of winning was to catch at least another large weight fish this day, which we each had every intention of doing. By the time we made it to where we wanted to fish we found that we weren’t the only ones with that place on our mind, and moved past it toward the place we’d been unable to crack the day before. We fished on the ocean for 45 minutes before heading to the basin, hooking a small release that jumped off before we could secure the release. When John ran north of the bridge and shut down in the basin we knew we had a shot at getting a bite–there was a little wind on the water, and we felt that our efforts would be far more concealed than they were the day before.
As John poled down the grassy bank, we saw that there were far fewer fish in the area than we had seen the day prior. A single large fish crawled along the bank and we made a cast out in front of it. The fish disappeared over a dark patch of bottom and under the glare of a puffy white cloud, and we both lost sight of the intercept point. I kept the fly coming, and John told me “She ate it!” right after I saw the fly come out of the fish’s mouth. As Dave Skok would say, simply: sadness. We picked our way through the near fishless basin, looking for another fish to throw at. John soon spotted a large single fish laid up in the current, and turned the boat for the shot. The fly landed and the fish swerved hard away from it, and we both dismissed the fish and continued to look for a better target. I soon spotted a fish swimming in our direction and pointed it out to John, who told me that this was the same fish we’d just thrown at. He also said “Go ahead and try it. See how short her memory is.” Famous last words, which I promised myself I’d remember when the fish lined up the fly, elevated, and opened wide. I set the hook and watched as the giant fish crashed out of the water, dragging from us nearly 100 yards of backing. John fired up the motor and we gave chase, narrowly avoiding a twin engine pleasure craft that had stopped to see what the fuss was about. The fish, once we got it back on the fly line, made every effort to make things hard. It stayed deep, jumped only occasionally, and basically acted like a large resident fish that had been around for more than a few decades. After 45 minutes, it became apparent to me that this fish wasn’t going to be caught by the typical “back off 20% from non-tournament fishing” that usually keeps things safe but still effective when it’s on the line. I pulled as hard on this fish as I would on a regular non-tournament day, and within 20 minutes the fish got shallow and gave us a much better angle. The fish was huge and especially long, and in order to get the angle I wanted it felt like I had to wait a long time for the tail to catch up with each turn. Incidentally, while we were fighting this fish, John was making a new fluorocarbon wrist strap for the lip gaff which added an entirely new facet of please-don’t-screw-this-up to the whole ordeal. I thought I might puke near the end, which was likely a product of two epic battles with large tarpon as well as the tournament jitters. Finally, in shallow water, we were able to back the giant up to the gunwhale and John got the lip gaff secured after the second try. I was wiped, and grabbed the bag for the strap and tape. We put the zip tie on the fish, pulled it off, and got the length measurement. I remember thinking “76…that’s a long fish” as I marked the tape, then pulled it again and looked to make sure I was right. I taped the strap and put the boat in gear as John held on to the fish, reviving it in the nearby channel before we let it go. As soon as we did we both asked the other how big the fish was. Neither of us gave a number, though privately I thought 130 was a fair guess. The only fish I’ve caught near this size was with Doug and Jason a few years back, but we never took measurements of that fish. I stowed the strap and marked it with two pieces of tape for our second weight fish, and we left the basin to go get fuel. The rest of our day was spent talking about these two fish, and while we had a few shots at our next spot we decided to leave early in order to make double sure we were back in time. To lose two large weight fish because we tried to maximize our fishing time far away from the tournament headquarters was a move that neither one of us wanted to make. We left at 2:20 for a 5 PM check-in, making it back to the dock with 20 minutes to spare.
At check in, they added up the numbers: our first fish strapped to 118 pounds, and our second to 142. Of note was another giant caught by Ted Margo and Drew Delashmit, who brought in a strap that was just shy of 130. With those two fish we were in second place, behind Scott and Ed who had caught yet another weight fish and multiple releases on the second day and barely in front of Tad Burke and Roger Fernandez who had another weight themselves to add to their first. We checked the weather and our leader situation, deciding not to run down the next and final day of the tournament. That evening, I tied up the rest of the tournament tippet to pass the time and process the day before I fell asleep. Of all the situations to be in, mentally, for me second place is the best place to be: there’s no lead to defend, just a bit to make up, and only good things can happen. The wind was near 30 in the morning, with storms heading through, and when we left the dock we had no doubt that sticking close by and avoiding a long run was the way to go.
Third (and Last) Tournament day:
Our plan was to fish close to Islamorada, get what we could out from the ocean, and hope to get lucky with a weight fish. We stopped by our new favorite deep water hole, spending an hour trying to make another miracle happen. The dredge spot gave us nothing and we headed to the ocean to make our last stand. We pulled in to the spot that John wanted to fish and hooked a release on our second shot after 15 minutes. This fish took off in typical teenage fashion, and we ran it down for the release points. We took a quick look at the fish to verify that it wasn’t a weight fish, and broke it off when we decided it was short. With this additional 200 points added to our total, we were theoretically less than 100 points behind Scott and Ed’s lead, and we dug our heels in and did our best to see fish in the wind and clouds. The next bite came an hour later, and while it didn’t stay connected we had enough fish (and by now enough bites) to give us the hope we needed. The fishing continued to trickle for us, and when we watched Roger and Tad hook what appeared to be a weight fish and chase it out into the ether we redoubled our efforts to get one ourselves. We had another bite from a fish that could have been big enough but we never had a chance to pull on it since the fly came out. We stayed focused and did our best to get another bite before the clock ran out, leaving at lines out to see where it all ended up. We stopped and chatted to Tad and Roger, who showed us the strap from the weight fish we’d seen them head out to battle. We knew that third was the best we could hope for after that, though that Tad and Roger took their time to show us an easier way back to the Lorelei made us happy that a good day was had by such good guys.
Back at check in we found that Rob Fordyce and Carlos Duncan had caught two weight fish and two releases in their last hour of fishing, putting them in first place. We got knocked to fourth, and while the leaderboard shuffled again when Ed and Scott came back it did so above our paygrade. We remained in fourth place, with the largest, and went to the awards dinner to have some food and hang with the crowd. The final results were Scott Collins and Ed Young in first, Rob Fordyce and Carlos Duncan in second, Tad Burke and Roger Fernandez in third, and us in fourth with the biggest fish award as well.
I’d like to thank John O’Hearn for some amazing fishing, and after last year’s tough Gold Cup it was great to come back and make a strong effort. We are there to win, of course, but it’s also nice to have a strong showing and pick up a prize for the biggest. I’d also like to thank Steve Ward and Betsy Bullard for putting on a great event and I can’t wait to do it again next year.
After the Gold Fly I had a day on the water with Ian Slater, and yesterday I fished with Simon Becker and Kat.
Reports to follow as quick as I can get them written.
more to come,