My Tarpon Addiction

By the end of last year's tarpon season I was sleep deprived, malnourished, sunburned, and running out of cash. I'd fished 100 days in a row and put thousands of miles on my skiff. What is it about these fish that makes you go insane.

Field & Stream Online Editors

In the dark, not quite dark with a three-quarter moon shining overhead, I pictured myself colliding with unlighted pilings, stone crab traps or oyster bars that I couldn't see. Chains of islands both to the east and the west were just streaks in the night sky, and I hoped I would recognize my destination when I got to it. There would be a row of fishermen's shacks on an oyster reef, then an opening, then a small, hidden basin appended to a forked channel. I knew I'd see the silhouettes of the shacks but was not so sure I'd see the opening. Indeed, I overran it and only the sudden dark shapes in front of me made me know that I was about to go high and dry in a planing skiff.

By the time I shut down, I was floating in less than a foot of water. I got out my pushpole and began to work my way in the presumed direction of the basin. If, as I worried, I had fetched up on some wide shallow, I would find no tarpon today. Fish were shooting off around me, I guessed redfish, and it was interesting going but uncertainty had taken away some of the pleasure. At about the time I thought I would try a new angle, the pushpole dropped out from under me and I knew I was in the basin. I was confident that when the sun came up, I'd be in the middle of a lot of innocent tarpon. If there were rollers, I'd see them in the moonlight or at daybreak, which was now less than an hour away. In any case, a bonanza was at hand. All I needed was a little light.

The sun came up and I poled myself into an irritable sweat before admitting that the fish were not here. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose if you can't take this, you can't take tarpon fishing. Only the vision of things going right, of fish this big that can run this far and jump this high, keep tarpon fishermen knocking their heads against the mysteries. I had been immersed since the earliest fish showed here in South Florida in March, and despite irregular success, I could think of little else. The fuel bills were mounting and miles by the thousands were accumulating on the log of my GPS.

When I've found them in years past, the fishing has had a classic quality: laid-up fish, floating, asleep but ready to be drawn into pursuit. This is exacting, addictive fishing because the casts must be accurate and from a distance. When the cast is right, and the fish stirs to track the fly, in all his great weight and pent-up exuberance, the riveted excitement is like nothing else. This year, I couldn't find them. The fish were not in short supply in nearby water, were thick even, but they weren't coming to my hidden basin, not many anyway, not enough-though with each visit something happened that made me come back for another look. Inevitably, it was a free jumper rocketing from the water, hanging in midair before the crash that seemed to be the fish's object; or it was a fish feeding, perhaps on a mullet: an abrupt canyon in the tannic water that closed with overlapping waves gathering at the middle of a subsiding hole. Gone.

I came back that night, the next morning: I never caught them. This was a scene of subtle opportunity, and I seemed not to be up to it. At night as I drifted off, I pictured a sustained time during which I stayed in that basin, risking time, consuming failure, until the answers of tide, wind and migration were understood. Of course, if I succeeded, it would be all mine and perhaps I would be slow to share my secret.

[NEXT "Continued..."] I started the engine and idled while I thought about what to do, whereupon I received one of the gifts that come to anglers only when they fish unstintingly, especially in saltwater where the tide goes from something you read on a chart to something in your blood; a tissue laid over the intuitions of fish movement that gets teased about by the vagaries of weather, especially winds that change water temperature or produce lees in specific places-from all of which comes the gift: hunch.

Here was the hunch: a long grassy hump, almost black, in 4 feet of water with a round sand spot that would expose anything swimming over it. The falling tide crossed it at an acute angle and it would be an ideal checkpoint for tarpon moving on the tide to one of three passes opening to the Gulf of Mexico.

An angler ignoring his hunches discounts his opportunities. This one was strong and I followed it, a long run in a steep quartering chop that kept me in stinging spray the whole way, or at least until I entered the quieter waters of the sound. When I reached my spot, the hunch transformed itself into real conviction as I savored the light on my pass point, light which seemed to illuminate a broad area of turtle grass and the nicely defined edge. I anchored my skiff and tied the rode off with a quick-release knot, the bitter end of which was attached to an orange float.

I was not long awaiting my travelers. The first were a string of smaller fish, rolling and moving merrily a bit out of range. They were followed by singles and more strings of fish, also out of range. And just as my conviction began to weaken and I thought of moving my anchor, five big fish cut across the grass toward the edge from an entirely new angle, one less advantageous to me as it would have my fly approaching them from behind, something tarpon will not tolerate. I suspected that there might be one more fish, coming after these five. I cast just behind the last fish I could see and let my fly float until an apparition appeared, moving over the grass, and I started my retrieve. The fish moved so quickly, I never saw it. Instead, the rod jolted in my hand, the fish was running, and I was clambering to the stern to pull the slipknot on my anchor line. The first jump was a twister that had the fish landing on its back; then one marlin style with a lot of horizontal distance covered; then several more until they became diminished efforts with only the upper part of the fish's body above the surface. Still I had trouble moving it and had to go to the fish with the motor. I stopped and tried to turn the fish, which responded with shorter and shorter but still powerful surges. We had gone a long way together. Halfway across the sound, the tarpon was finning beside the boat. The lower jaw makes a good grip for removing the hook and I held on for a few more moments just to feel the weight, the remaining power.

The best part is watching them swim away, in no particular hurry. Now, to hunt up the orange float, and perhaps have my beer and ham sandwich. It was 90 degrees and I was imagining the big chunk of ice in my cooler, the lovely breeze as I ran home. [NEXT "Continued..."]

I went out to the Gulf on a hot evening to fish one tide. It was very quiet with a few swimmers on the beach in the distance and towering pink thunderheads with dark bellies over the mainland. I scared some tarpon as I maneuvered into my stakeout and was not waiting long before the first fish came along from the south, singles, pairs, strings, moving quickly. I misunderstood the speed of the first fish and they overtook me before I could present my fly and flushed from the boat in whirlpools of turbulence. The next bunch came at a bad angle to my left but I cast anyway and to my surprise the biggest fish turned out and tracked my fly for a long way, then lifted up in the deep shoveling take that no one gets accustomed to, and I hooked it. This, like most first jumps, seemed enraged, an attempt to knock me out with the first blow, then several more as violent followed by a burning run. The fight took us straight offshore in fading light, and trying to force the issue, I leaned into the 11-weight, faithful friend of over a decade, and broke it. The shattered tip traveled down the line and then the sharp edge of the broken butt cut the backing, and my fly line went over the horizon. If there is any weakness in your tackle, tarpon find out about it.

When I got home, Austin Lowder was in my living room with the battered insulated coffee cup with which guides keep their bodies in motion during tarpon season. He looked discouraged. "I had my guy in fish all day. Nice guy. But stupid. IQ around 55 but we got along great. Show him a hundred fish and he goes, ¿¿¿Which one do I cast to?' He casts and I have to tell him to strip. ¿¿¿Strip,' I tell him. ¿¿¿STRIP! STRIP! STRIP!' It was hopeless. At the end of the day, still no fish. He asks me to tell him what he should do. I'm like, ¿¿¿Dude! I can't take any more! Catch a tarpon! I recommend that you catch a tarpon.'"

My Montana friends George Anderson and Bill Hart showed up, as well as a stream of other visitors, most with beer in hand. We had line burns in the crevices of our fingers. There were bits of 80-pound fluorocarbon in the rug from building shock tippets. An argument broke out as to whether the Slim Beauty knot is as strong as the Australian plait or the Bimini twist. Everyone was thinner than they were 60 days ago. Two-stroke engines had made us half deaf. We tried to remember the last time we'd read a book or newspaper. One report said the president was flying to France to meet with a bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. No other news available. The fishing guides seemed embittered that when they finally get into fish, the clients have to go back for massages or manicures. There was also some tension between the guides and us unguided "privateers."

Austin started his day at five in the morning, took a short nap at my house at midday, fished till nine at night, dropped the client, headed out to fish himself, came in at 3:30 a.m., made a peanut butter jelly sandwich in my kitchen, then picked up his client 90 minutes later for another day on the water. Some guides actually like to fish.

[NEXT "Continued..."] I felt that I really should catch up on the news: Here and there, we are advised to stay the course. Tests show that doctors' ties are full of germs. Most Americans are too busy to floss. Others have made "the ultimate sacrifice." Everything seemed so abstract, especially the pompous overviews of the talking heads. I'd lost touch and the fishing had become a parallel universe. It couldn't last, could it? Probably it shouldn't last but it seemed so real next to the streaming nightmare of the news. I could get pretty abstract myself, explaining that I was "trying to get to the bottom of this" by way of accounting for how a tarpon obsession could get so out of control for three unbroken months.

"When do you think you're coming home?" asked my wife.

"I have a ticket for Sunday," I assured her.

"Do you think you'll be on that plane?"

After a thoughtful pause, I said, "I wish I knew." I said that I was like the house cat that had been making love t tarpon find out about it.

When I got home, Austin Lowder was in my living room with the battered insulated coffee cup with which guides keep their bodies in motion during tarpon season. He looked discouraged. "I had my guy in fish all day. Nice guy. But stupid. IQ around 55 but we got along great. Show him a hundred fish and he goes, ¿¿¿Which one do I cast to?' He casts and I have to tell him to strip. ¿¿¿Strip,' I tell him. ¿¿¿STRIP! STRIP! STRIP!' It was hopeless. At the end of the day, still no fish. He asks me to tell him what he should do. I'm like, ¿¿¿Dude! I can't take any more! Catch a tarpon! I recommend that you catch a tarpon.'"

My Montana friends George Anderson and Bill Hart showed up, as well as a stream of other visitors, most with beer in hand. We had line burns in the crevices of our fingers. There were bits of 80-pound fluorocarbon in the rug from building shock tippets. An argument broke out as to whether the Slim Beauty knot is as strong as the Australian plait or the Bimini twist. Everyone was thinner than they were 60 days ago. Two-stroke engines had made us half deaf. We tried to remember the last time we'd read a book or newspaper. One report said the president was flying to France to meet with a bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. No other news available. The fishing guides seemed embittered that when they finally get into fish, the clients have to go back for massages or manicures. There was also some tension between the guides and us unguided "privateers."

Austin started his day at five in the morning, took a short nap at my house at midday, fished till nine at night, dropped the client, headed out to fish himself, came in at 3:30 a.m., made a peanut butter jelly sandwich in my kitchen, then picked up his client 90 minutes later for another day on the water. Some guides actually like to fish.

[NEXT "Continued..."] I felt that I really should catch up on the news: Here and there, we are advised to stay the course. Tests show that doctors' ties are full of germs. Most Americans are too busy to floss. Others have made "the ultimate sacrifice." Everything seemed so abstract, especially the pompous overviews of the talking heads. I'd lost touch and the fishing had become a parallel universe. It couldn't last, could it? Probably it shouldn't last but it seemed so real next to the streaming nightmare of the news. I could get pretty abstract myself, explaining that I was "trying to get to the bottom of this" by way of accounting for how a tarpon obsession could get so out of control for three unbroken months.

"When do you think you're coming home?" asked my wife.

"I have a ticket for Sunday," I assured her.

"Do you think you'll be on that plane?"

After a thoughtful pause, I said, "I wish I knew." I said that I was like the house cat that had been making love t