Ten-Year Tarpon

Achieving a dream and finding it’s not enough.

[by Ryan Brod]

I’M IN THE BACKCOUNTRY OF FLORIDA BAY, somewhere between Islamorada and Flamingo, gripping the cork handle of a Hardy fly rod. Pinched between my left thumb and pointer finger is a custom-tied tarpon fly with lime-green eyes and chicken-feather tail. The Hell’s Bay skiff under my bare feet drafts seven inches and costs more than most SUVs. From my vantage point on the casting platform, I can’t see Rich— my sandy-haired, 25-year-old guide—but I know he’s back there. Every few seconds, I hear the muffled crunch of his pushpole biting through the turtle grass. The skiff glides over shallow-water flats as adroitly as a water snake.

The fish is swimming directly toward our bow. I imagine this is what an incoming torpedo might look like.

Silhouettes of small mangrove islands complicate the horizon. In the foreground, a cormorant rests atop a wooden channel marker, wings spread, facing the sunrise. The bay’s surface is a mirror; it will be a few hours before the sun is high enough for optimal sight fishing.

It’s the middle of March, and I’m pale from a long Maine winter. Ever susceptible to sunburn, I’ve taken sun protection to the extreme: Beige Patagonia sun pants, long-sleeve sun shirt, bonefish pattern breathable sun mask snugly over my mouth and nose and hat. I resemble an overdressed tropical bank robber.

I’ve been looking forward to this day with the kind of anticipation that makes sleep difficult. Events of the past 24 hours—digging my car out from under a Maine snowstorm, cramming into the middle seat of a 737, mind-numbing inertia of traffic jams on Route 1 South—seem worth their hassle. It also seems reasonable that I’m paying Rich, an accomplished angler and up-and-coming tarpon guide, what amounts to one month’s rent for his services. I’m here to finally land a tarpon with a fly rod.

The sun, higher now, begins to light up the flats. The contrast of cloudless blue sky against light green water is stunning—I’ve grown accustomed to muted, monochrome whites and grays of the New England winter. We’re in a spot Rich calls Pelican Lake, a wide basin with soft turtle-grass bottom where early-season tarpon congregate. There are small mangrove islands in all directions, and the air is a mix of tidal smells: salt, sulfur, and something sweeter I can’t identify. Rich is surprised we’re the only boat around.

He calls out from his poling platform above the white Suzuki outboard: “Okay, Ryan. There’s a big single coming in, ten o’clock.”

“I don’t see it.”

“Look farther out,” Rich says. “It’s pushing a wake. Trust me, you’ll see it.”

A hundred feet away, the tarpon’s wake is the vertex of an intimidating V. The fish is swimming directly toward our bow. I imagine this is what an incoming torpedo might look like.

“I see it now, Rich.”

“Wait for it to get closer,” he says, his voice lower now. “Remember, they’re spooky when it’s this calm. No unnecessary movements. I’ll tell you when to cast.”

The big tarpon—a female, recognizable due to its immense size—flicks its powerful tail against the dropping tide. Rich gives the command to cast, and I land the fly four feet ahead of the tarpon. With my left hand, I strip line, bringing the pattern to life. The tarpon takes notice of the fly, which I’m trying to sell as a fleeing shrimp or pinfish or crab.

“Come on, eat it,” Rich whispers. “She’s gonna eat it.”

I keep stripping and anticipate the strike. The fish follows for several feet, its mouth inches behind my fly. Thirty feet from the boat, the tarpon flushes wildly. My fly boils to the surface in the tarpon’s tail-wash.

“What the hell?” Rich says. He lets out a loud, irritated sigh. “Everything looked perfect. Something must have spooked her. You’d better check that fly.”

The fly’s tail feathers are not fouled, and the 60-pound fluorocarbon leader is clean. Rich continues poling for a few minutes, then says, “That was a big girl right there. Hundred pounds, easy.”

Over the next hour, my poor casting spooks dozens of approaching tarpon. The fish arrive in pairs, strings, and swimming wedges. The hyperclear water doesn’t help; it offers visual confirmation of the tarpon’s various reactions to my fly, ranging from mildly perturbed to downright fearful. It’s as though my fly is tarpon repellent. I’m rattled. Pelican Lake has eaten me up.

“You’ve gotta let it go, man. I can tell you’re flustered,” Rich says after I’ve blown yet another shot. “They can tell you’re flustered. Just forget about it. You’ll get plenty more shots today.”

MY PASSION FOR TARPON FISHING, and my dream-turned-obsession of landing one with a fly rod, had been set in motion 10 years earlier, when my father treated me to an unexpected college graduation present: he said he’d take me fishing anywhere in the United States, for any species I wanted to catch. Without much hesitation, I chose tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys. I had been introduced to tarpon by Saturday-morning outdoor television—The Walker’s Cay Chronicles and Spanish Fly—and it was easy for a young Maine angler, accustomed to wild but tiny brook trout, to become seduced by the tarpon’s size and power.

On that trip, our first morning in Islamorada, my father and I watched a tarpon rocket out of Florida Bay, the first we’d ever seen in person. It looked too big, too powerful to be real. After the fish fell back to the water, and the angler fighting it from the stern of a guide’s boat hollered with excitement, I made two observations. First: the saltwater spinning gear my father and I had prepared for this, our first Keys tarpon trip, was too flimsy to catch something like that. Second: we had no idea what we were doing. These realizations did not stop us from trying.

We fished from a leaky rental boat. We used dead mullet—the bait that locals recommended—in deep channels near the Overseas Highway. The heat was oppressive, the sun inescapable. We reminded each other to hydrate every hour. Guide skiffs whizzed by our anchored clunker, amplifying our feeling that they were on to something we didn’t yet understand. The few tarpon we did see were swimming fast and showed no interest in eating our offerings.

On the afternoon of day four, 30 minutes before the rental boat was due back, a fish took one of our baits and pulled out a hundred yards of line without jumping. I fought it for 15 minutes, at which point my fantasy of landing a tarpon was deflated by the brown, tadpole-like shape of a docile nurse shark, its body undulating like an eel. I cut the line.

The next spring, we returned to Islamorada, having booked a local guide named Bruce. When we met Bruce at the dock, he was carrying two oversize spinning rods in one hand and a package of frozen mullet in the other. He was potbellied, wore his hair in a ponytail, and walked with a limp. My dad told him, as we loaded into his center console, that we’d had no luck with mullet the previous spring. Dad explained to Bruce that we were both fishing guides back in Maine and wanted desperately to learn how to catch tarpon.

“Okay,” Bruce said. “You really want to catch a tarpon?  Meet me back here at seven p.m.”

That evening we drifted live crabs on an incoming tide. After a quiet first hour, about when the doubt crept in, Dad, from the front of Bruce’s boat, muttered under his breath and lifted his rod. A massive, headshaking tarpon, airborne for a brief moment at the end of his line and making a sound—a distinct rattling of gills and cartilage. Dad never set the hook, and the fish was gone, but the sound that tarpon made has stayed with me.

A few seconds later, another tarpon ate my crab, swam to the boat, hurdled the upraised outboard, peeling line at an alarming rate. Then slack. When I reeled in, the reinforced 8/0 J-hook (a size commonly used for marlin) was straightened. I was transfixed by the tarpon’s agility and power.

“That wasn’t even a big one,” Bruce had said. We jumped eight tarpon that night, Dad landing our first—a 70-pounder—under a full moon.

I regret pulling that first tarpon from the water, draping it across our knees for a photograph. A fish that heavy isn’t designed to be lifted out of the water by its head, and doing so risks a potentially fatal separation of vertebrae. I regret removing a palmsized scale as a souvenir, too, but I needed proof. After snapping the photo, Bruce shifted the boat from forward to neutral and back while I held the tired tarpon boatside by its lower jaw. The warm salt water rushed through its bucket mouth and over its gills. I could feel it strengthen. When I released my grip, the tarpon swam away under its own power.

Back at the dock, we thanked Bruce emphatically. He told us to come back and fish with him again, though we never did. He had taught us that tarpon feed best at night, and that live crabs are effective and easy to fish. We’d learned enough from him to tarpon-fish on our own.

Driving back to the hotel at midnight, exhilarated, I set a new goal: catch a tarpon on a fly rod.