I think the real reason people fly fish on the flats is because it’s challenging. We don’t just one day decide that we are going to start to saltwater fly fish because it looks easy and fun, but rather, because it’s hard and exotic. We find our way to it through airports, long car rides, and some sort of sacrifice in search of something exciting, challenging and beautiful. Sometimes the road will lead there from a freshwater tout or bass background and sometimes it will evolve from a bait and spin-fishing past. The common ground is that it represents the next level in our angling evolution. At some point in this journey of fishing you will have to face down the silver king…
He’s standing on the front of the boat for the first time nervously going through the finer points of the article he read about Florida Keys tarpon fishing. All of the details about angles, the retrieve, the hook set, and low steady pressure are whirling through his head. It looks just like the films, but is much hotter. Now he understands why the guy at the fly shop recommended the brand-new hat he just bought for the all important sun protection factor. Having already accomplished the challenge of post-911 air travel, convincing his wife that this was a good idea, and at last finding the right guide, he’s sure that the difficult part still lies ahead. This point was made clear on the way out when after talking about what kind of fishing he’d done before, the young guide smirked and pointed out that all the other fishing didn’t compare and that Tarpon were going to change his life.
“Tarpon rolling, two o’clock. Did you see him?” The guide asks.
“Two o’clock… right.”
Five days in the prime of season are now coming into focus. Having never seen a tarpon roll before, he recalls the visual diagram of a skiff with clock coordinates, and looks over at two o’clock.
“No, the other right, wrong side… two o’clock… point your rod.”
Nervous and already sweating, he lifts the rod and swings right towards sunrise.
“Yeah, right there, two fish just rolled. ” The guide pauses… “You ever seen a tarpon roll?”
He’s herd of the reputation of the Keys tarpon guides as being brutal, intolerant, and competitive; even to the point of punching one-another at the gas station, or even out on the flats. They are known to break down first-timers who can’t get the job done. But, he had looked online for just the right guide, and asked his buddies on the message board about this guy. Still, being a rookie was nerve racking as hell and he had never seen a tarpon.
“No, I haven’t”
A bead of sweat drops to the deck of the boat. He’s still pointing out at two, wondering if what kind of guide he had come across. Wondering why his admission to having never seen a tarpon has drawn silence from his guide. Is it contempt? Is he one of those brutal guides? What if he punches me?
“Twelve o’clock, school of tarpon, left.”
He swings his rod left, immediately seeing a big tarpon roll about 300 ft out, then another and another. His shoulders drop, and he lowers the rod. He’s, just had the “Oh shit” moment when he realizes how big they are. They were pretty far away and he could see the scales. They’re monsters…Oh Shit!
“Hell yeah,” says the guide. “That’s a big school of them, this is awesome.”
“Wow, those are huge!”
The guide lifts the pushpole and throws it back to the bottom, leaning hard against it; the boat slides forward with purpose. The fish are moving in from the deep basin on the morning flood. He knows that the fish will hit the shallow turtle grass and and turn towards the boat.
“It’s a nice happy school of big fish. They’re eaters for sure.”
Eaters is a term used to call tarpon that will eat a fly. Sometimes you can just tell that whatever you throw in there is going to be eaten! Usually fresh fish on the first day of a push.
“This is really good, you might actually hook one.”
What do you mean?” He says.
“These are fresh fish that just arrived and are looking for something to eat. They’ll eat your fly for sure. They are going to hit that bank and slide toward us.”
He remembers the diagram in the article and how it says to cast way in front of the school. Then begin stripping the fly as the fish approaches it.
“Do you know about leading the school?” The guide asks.
Yeah, you want to put he fly out in front of the school, then strip it right?
Exactly, just make sure to give your self plenty of room and start by casting way out in front. You’ll be fine. Do you know how to set the hook?”
“You strip set right.”
“Yes, then move you rod down and to the side if he’s still coming at you.”
He’s feeling pretty confident knowing the right answers, and remembering the “How To” article. “OK, then I bow when he jumps right?”
“Sure, that’s assuming you can get him to jump and that he’s still connected to your line. He might just garbage your fly, and throw it back in your face before you even know he ate it!.. Just kidding. Yeah bow to him if he jumps.”
The tarpon roll in unison again as they hit he bank. Their tails gently sliding under water as they slow down and make the turn against the grass.
Damn I love this.” says the guide. It’s just so cool watching them roll. You kind of don’t even want to catch them.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” the sport says. But he’s thinking what? Not want to catch them? What the hell is he talking about. I’ve come all this way, I definitely want to catch one.
“Because it’s really not about catching them, there’s something more to it then that. You know what I mean?” The guide continues.
“No, I don’t, I’ve never caught one.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right, you’ve never done this before. Well we should catch one then. Just do everything right and you’ll be fine. You ready?”
He’s already begun his pep talk to himself before the guide finishes. A mental checklist of how it will all go down. Hold on to the the fly at the hook, hands loose, keep your eye on the fish, keep you backcast up, don’t break your wrist, left hand moves with the right hand on the front haul, lead the fish, tighten, animate the fly with tiny wiggles and shakes, strike hard with the line hand, keep your rod low, bend your knees, watch the line clear on to the reel and get ready for the jump. Come on man, you can do this. This is it, your chance, your moment, keep it together. Relax… get ready! Here they come. Lots of them. Wow, is this really going to happen?
“Wait,… let them come in a bit further. Don’t forget to lead them….ready…
Just like he had done hundreds of times before, he throws the fly into the water and lifts the rod into the backcast.
THWAP! The fly nails the top end of the rod and sticks.
“Damn it. Quick, get it off!”
He reaches for the fly and grabs air. The fly is beyond his reach yet he’s still grabbing at it. He’s scared and not thinking, panicking.
“Put the rod down,” the guide instructs…still grabbing…. “Put the rod down”….still grabbing…”Put the rod down!!!”
He drops the rod to the deck and clutches the fly. After shaking it free from the tip of the rod he throws it out of the boat.
The guide watches the fly sink below the deck and warns, “Get the fly away from the boat.”
The tarpon are rolling closer now, there’s still plenty of time for a shot. Instinctually reacting to the situation he starts to cast.
WHAP! The fly buries itself in the gunwale of the boat.
“Get it off, get if off” , he hears from the back of the boat. Shaking the fly violently to get it free is useless. Ten agonizing seconds are lost while he tries this before accepting the fact, and getting down on his knees to free the fly.
Finally the fly is in his hand again. He steps up and throws the fly into his backcast. Gripping the line with his left hand, he begins the double haul. Solid stops forward and back, with a longer and longer rhythm. They are still rolling at the boat.
“That’s it, right there, drop it.”
He’s watching the fish roll and doesn’t hear a thing. In one final burst of rod speed, he unloads the cast, stabbing the rod forward, and letting go of the line. His silhouette looks like an advertisement from the “Come as you are” commercial hyping the Florida Keys fishing on Sunday morning. The line sails over the school…
“No, No, No!” The guide is screaming. But it’s too late. The fish are already spooking as the line drops to the water in slow motion.
Boom! A collective shudder in the school erupts as all the tarpon kick their tails and flee from the fly line. An explosion of giant herring, driven by a memorized fear of things flying overhead. They’re racing toward the boat then suddenly look up and see him. He’s all of a sudden face to face with tarpon. They’re enormous, nearly 7 feet long, and starring right up at him. The fish wheel around and spook harder in every direction from the boat. Water erupts everywhere! The fish are scared for their lives, bouncing in every direction. The vibration from the fish spooking hits the boat. He can feel what happened. He’s standing there dumfounded, watching his colossal screw up unfold all around him.
There’s no advice at this moment from the back of the boat. The guide knows that screwing up is part of the program; it wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t. There’s really nothing to say, everybody has been there and it’s the reason why tarpon change lives.
Very long silence…
To be continued…