The Sea is on Fire

Scenes from a tarpon fisherman's notebook.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Beneath the blood sun of the Key West dawn, a solitary fish rolls on the surface of Starlight Basin. Nearly 6 feet long, the giant burns orange in the reflection of the sun. It takes a gulp of oxygen and submerges.

"We're going to get a shot in just a minute now," the guide says, his sun mask puckering at his lips. He plants the forked end of his pushpole into the marl bottom, and the skiff glides forward.

Standing on the bow with sweating palms, I find the presence of mind to glance at my shoes. I don't want to be stepping on the line. I envision a coil girdling my foot, catapulting me out of the boat when the tarpon strikes-"pulling an Ahab" was the expression I heard at the dock.

"Start your cast."

I raise the rod. In a lifetime of flyfishing I have begun more than a million casts, but never before in a lair of sea serpents, never with my mouth this full of cotton. The line pulses hurriedly, shock waves destroying the loop. The fly falls behind the tarpon, the line crossing the backs of the fish in its wake, and the school scatters like steroid-ridden herring, leaving Volkswagen-size boils on the surface of the basin. My hands are shaking; I am almost thankful the chance was blown. What if I'd hooked one? I turn to look at the guide, who is thoughtfully staring out to sea.

"The tarpon doesn't eat from that end," he says quietly.

Five a.m. Fifteen years have passed since my first visit to this island to cast for tarpon, but the predawn visage of Key West is little changed. Feral roosters drag broken feathers across the dust in the alley behind the motel. Six-toed cats sleep on marble crypts in the cemetery. As my friend and I pedal past on our rented bicycles, one cat lifts its head from the mist and yawns. We follow a trail of Spanish to the M&M; Laundry and Deli on White Street, where we stop at the window counter for sandwiches and bitter Cuban coffee.

By the time we park our bikes at Garrison Bight, the guide is walking toward the dock, two fistfuls of fly rods bending like divining rods toward the jellyfish that float in the harbor's illuminated water. It takes a minute to slip the rods into racks under the gunwales of the skiff and put our lunch on ice. Then we are off, past the sign for the Harbor Lights Restaurant-entertainment, romance and live bait-and in another minute the boat is up on plane, shearing the rippled moonstone surface as we leave one world for another.

I catch my friend casting a covert glance at our escort. The popular image of the skiff captain, bolstered by flamboyant characterizations in rum-and-punch novels, is a bronzed eagle with a buried past, a penchant for women of whom Mother would disapprove, and at least a touch of a hangover. By contrast, Simon Becker, the guide who had accompanied me on my first trip, is a fair-skinned straight arrow with a shock of copper hair and an orderly boat. He is a gentleman, although not without a wry sense of humor-"your other left" being one of his favorite expressions when the fish are off the port side and the angler, contrary to instruction, is looking right-and just might be the only Keys guide to have reached the pinnacle of his profession without ever having gotten a tan.

Becker cuts the motor inside a bracelet of mangrove keys and pulls up his mask. He puts on fingerless gloves to blunt the sun on his freckled hands. In his checked, long-sleeved shirt, he looks like an upscale train robber from a Western. Past him in the basin, one fish rolls quickly, then another.

"Squirrelly tarpon," he mutters.

"Not happy," I say, sticking to the lingo.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there's a shark around."

Preoccupied, my friend nods at these observations, repeatedly wiping his palms against his pants. I know the feeling and start to tick off all the things he'll have to remember: For fish that average from 60 to 130 unds, tarpon are surprisingly spooky. Pull a fly toward them, and they'll flare away. Cross a fish with your line, and it will react as if the sea is on fire. Never strike until you feel resistance. Hit them hard, jabbing backward with the line hand as the rod hand swings in an arc parallel to the water. Clear the line. Bow to throw slack when the tarpon jumps. It's a lot to remember and a little like parachuting. Half the lessons drilled into you on the ground are forgotten when the airplane door opens; the other half, when you step into the void.

This time everything goes by script. The fly falls 5 feet in front of the lead fish, is pulled smartly once. It vanishes in a bathtub whorl. The tarpon muscles its torso into the air, its gill rakers rattling, and for a heartbeat we are looking up-not down-at the fish before it crashes back to the surface. It jumps again, and then the third time it jumps as if someone has detonated a bomb underneath it, and Becker is shouting, "Shark! Break the line!"

Panicked, my friend clamps his hand over the burning reel spool, but already the line has gone limp. Ripping boils hump the water where the tarpon last jumped, and abruptly the sea falls silent. When my friend reels up, the fly and leader are missing. I can see where the line has been sheared to a fine point. I hand the damaged end to Becker, who makes a motion of cleaning his teeth with it.

"Bull shark dental floss," he says. "Nothing you could do."

I try to imagine the size of the shark that would attack a 100-pound tarpon.

"Do you think it got away?" my friend asks.

Becker nods. "Might be short a few scales."

My friend pushes the rod to me with shaking hands. I fish in my pockets for an aspirin to thin my blood, just in case I hook one.

Evening Now. The last chance of this trip. On Key West, revelers are barhopping down Duval Street. They bend elbows in Sloppy Joe's-where Hemingway drank bare-chested and hitched his pants with anchor rope-then gather at Mallory Square, tequila sunrises in hand, to watch the sun go down in a flaming ball.

Out in the channel, Becker is off the clock. He is fishing for the adrenaline rush now, and the two of us stand at opposite ends of the drifting skiff, pushing long loops of line through the tepid tropical air. Thirty feet down, red sea worms thin as pipe cleaners emerge from the bottom and swim to the surface. Tarpon pop them intermittently up and down the channel.

Following Becker's lead, I place the rod under my right arm and smoothly pull the line hand over hand to make the fly imitate the steady swimming of the worms. I've used this retrieve before, fishing for trout in lakes, but this is the first time my major concern is keeping hold of the rod if a fish strikes.

A tarpon breaks the surface with the slurp of a cutthroat taking a salmon fly; I mutter, "Small fish," as I lay out a cast. Without turning his head, Becker says something about how you never can be sure-but he'll have to remind me of that later. Like the victim of an accident who loses his short-term memory, I will be unable to recall at what point in the retrieve the anvil fell on the fly, or how I managed to keep my grip on the cork as the tarpon cartwheeled past the channel marker, drawing shouts and applause from sunset worshippers in a passing catamaran. My muscles will remember the strength of the brute, though; and the bruise where the rod butt ground into my belly as the tarpon hauled us half a mile out to sea will still be changing colors when my plane lands back in Montana.

Thirty minutes after hooking up, I finally reel the tag end of my fly line up to the rod tip. The tarpon's circles draw smaller and smaller around the boat. It rolls to the surface, gulping oxygen into its rudimentary air bladder. Its unfathomable eye stares at us.

"Pull harder," Becker says.

Sweat beads pop off my forehead. The tarpon responds to the pressure with its last ounce of energy. It wrenches its chrome-plated body out of the water less than a rod's length from the boat and falls back. The leader snaps with the sound of a rifle shot.

An indeterminate time later, I swim up out of a daze to find myself sitting on the bow, opening and closing my cramped hands. My unfocused eyes are set on some middle distance, like the eyes of a soldier who has felt the strength of the enemy and found himself wanting.

"High-octane fish," Becker says admiringly.

I hold up a single finger, but even that takes an effort.

"Everybody ought to do this at least once," I tell him.

Becker turns toward the smear of color where the sun has drowned in the gulf. He starts the motor.

"We have a half hour of twilight left," he says. "There might still be time to do it twice." R> Sweat beads pop off my forehead. The tarpon responds to the pressure with its last ounce of energy. It wrenches its chrome-plated body out of the water less than a rod's length from the boat and falls back. The leader snaps with the sound of a rifle shot.

An indeterminate time later, I swim up out of a daze to find myself sitting on the bow, opening and closing my cramped hands. My unfocused eyes are set on some middle distance, like the eyes of a soldier who has felt the strength of the enemy and found himself wanting.

"High-octane fish," Becker says admiringly.

I hold up a single finger, but even that takes an effort.

"Everybody ought to do this at least once," I tell him.

Becker turns toward the smear of color where the sun has drowned in the gulf. He starts the motor.

"We have a half hour of twilight left," he says. "There might still be time to do it twice."