Bowing Down


Fishing, like marriage, is first and foremost an act of faith.

[by Miles Nolte]

Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.
—D. Elton Trueblood

A FAMILY WEDDING WAS MY OFFICIAL REASON FOR TRAVELING TO KEY WEST. Fishing was a side project, away to squeeze the most from an expensive plane ticket. But I spent more time organizing fishing gear than planning wedding attire.

I expected a tarpon trip. In the Keys, migrating chrome flanks are the marquee spring event. But having never caught a permit, their gospel, from the pastoral essays of McGuane to the rapid-fire imagery of fly fishing films, nagged at me. Everyone said May was the wrong time of year to fish for these big-eyed fly critics. It was tarpon time, they said, so I contented myself with targeting tarpon, a first-world problem.

The wedding went well. I sat in the shade of palms, smiling at the well-coiffed couple. They beamed at each other in front of the people who loved them most, and I didn’t think about flats fishing for a good half hour.

I know that weddings are the shine on a freshly detailed relationship. I also know that roughly half of American marriages end in divorce. Western Rationalism instills the value of abstract modeling: statistics, probabilities, and equations allow us to send winged hunks of metal skyward, suspend bridges across chasms, and predict the instability of human cohabitation.

“You might’ve hooked Permzilla.”

But rationality doesn’t fully explain the human experience. Love and atavism persist. Weddings and fishing trips are powerful. It seemed fitting that the ceremony took place less than a mile from that lusty, fecund force known as the ocean. Salt water dripped from the corners of my eyes, mixing with the salt water beading through my pores, all of it roughly the same salinity as the sea. Marriage is only a bit more logical than catch-and-release fishing. At least there are tax benefits.

Two days later, friends and family scattered, and I was left with a musty hotel room, a chattering mind, and three days of fishing. Todd Peter, a friend from Palm Beach, came down for a day and we met our guide, Rob Kessler, at the dock early.

The tarpon were plentiful, albeit uncooperative, all morning. Before the sun stretched high enough to locate their dark shapes, they rolled. Silver underbites and dorsal antennae appeared and disappeared with unhurried gulps. We cast, slow-stripped, cast again, repositioned, repeated.

We were intellectual about it, focusing on angles, using the swing of tide and the curl of daisy-chaining fish to present our flies in front of them. We switched patterns like puzzled trout anglers trying to decode a masking hatch, tried casting farther back in the string, used an intermediate sinking line to get the flies deeper. Fish over five feet long continued to spook at the sight of three inches of fur or feathers.

Early in the day, it’s easy to be cerebral and philosophical about cranky tarpon; it’s an exercise in optimism, odds, and problem solving, like dating in your 20s. But when the sun progresses to the other side of the horizon, emotion and desperation trump levity and calculation.

A big string of fish appeared as we were tucking into the second halves of our lunches. Trading sandwich for rod, Todd presented his fly to a cruising line of fish. Logic dictates that our result should have been the same. There should have been either no response or a fleeing rejection. Instead there was a violent boil, a flash, and then nothing. The hook didn’t grab, but the bite tippet came back looking as though it had ticked a belt-sander.

Later that afternoon, I was on deck and followed Rob’s stare to a dark mass, 15 or 20 feet in diameter, 100 yards ahead of us. “Tarpon?” I asked.


I pulled the 11-weight from the rack, aluminum guides clacking PVC in hopeful rhythm. As I stripped line from the reel, Rob said, “Permit.”