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.
RICH IS FROM NEW HAMPSHIRE. Despite his being five years my junior, we could pass for the same age, his face and hands sun-worn. Like a lot of guides I’ve met, Rich was a high school athlete (baseball). He is short and compact, and it’s easy to imagine him calling out directions to teammates from his position at shortstop.
Rich poles us to deeper water so he can lower the outboard and make a move. I tell him how I’d spent hours at my tying bench, mimicking famous tarpon patterns: the Cockroach, the White Lightning, the Tarpon Toad, and later, invented my own.
For the 358 days a year I am not in Islamorada, I am a voracious consumer of all things tarpon. I read and reread Thomas McGuane’s Longest Silence collection, study the history of fly fishing for tarpon in the Keys, devour less-literary how-to books by guides who’ve spent their lives chasing tarpon. One off-season, I hired a fly-casting instructor for multiple sessions. In winter, I pretend I’m on the bow of a skiff and cast to sticks placed in the snow around me. Often, while lying in bed awaiting sleep, I visualize making the perfect cast to an oncoming tarpon. The fish eats my fly every time.
At our second stop, we find no fish. Rich jabs the pushpole into the bottom, ropes it off to a cleat on the stern, and we break for lunch. I tell him the story of my first (and only) solo attempt to navigate the backcountry by boat the year before. I was tired of refusals from migratory oceanside tarpon, and it was common knowledge that backcountry fish were more inclined to eat a well-placed fly. I figured an onboard GPS system and waterproof map were all I’d need to navigate the backcountry’s winding channels and skinny-water flats.
“This story is not going to end well, is it?” Rich asks, scanning the water as he eats.
I tell him that after several miles I noticed two skiffs on the horizon and, assuming they knew what they were doing, continued in their direction. As I approached, two anglers in the closest skiff started waving their arms. Then I heard yelling. The lead skiff idled toward me, and the man at the wheel—a guide, I assumed—brought his boat parallel to mine.
The tarpon bulldogs into a deep channel and heads toward the ocean. I can’t turn it. My forearms ache. Rich tells me to apply more pressure, “Or that fish will pull us around until she dies.”
“Look,” he’d said, trying to maintain composure, “You just drove right over the spot where tarpon come through. As long as your boat is here, they’ll spook before they get to us. Just idle back behind that second boat and stake up. We take turns. That’s the way it works.” The other man, seated with his fly rod resting on his knees, glared at me.
Rich laughs. “You were that guy,” he says. “That asshole I’d yell at.”
I tell Rich how I decided, in that moment of embarrassment, to stay out of the backcountry. Ignorant to local etiquette—each tarpon spot having its own distinct protocol—I’d pissed off two guide boats and disturbed the fishing for their paying customers. When I idled in the direction from which I’d arrived, my prop wash churned up mud and turtle grass. I heard yelling again but didn’t turn to face it. On the run home, I crossed a bank so shallow, I had to lift the motor and use the pushpole—not as easy as it looks—to find deeper water. I decided then that hiring a tarpon fly fishing guide would be worth the investment.
Rich carries an air of confidence uncommon in most 20-somethings; it borders on arrogance. His parents owned a canal-side vacation home in Islamorada, where he spent his summers as a kid. Their neighbor was the legendary tarpon angler Stu Apte. Rich learned the finer points of fly fishing for tarpon from Stu, the angler’s equivalent of learning the cello from Yo-Yo Ma. When he tells me stories of fishing with Stu as a child, I try to conceal my envy—I’ve read Stu’s books and tied the flies named for him.
For the past several years, Rich has stayed at his family’s Islamorada home from February through early June, prime tarpon season. In June, sensing the end of the migration, Rich returns to New Hampshire to help with the family business. “We deal with diamonds,” he tells me.
Despite our dissimilar upbringing and my sense that our personalities could not be more different, I feel, when I’m on the casting platform, that Rich and I are teammates. He’s encouraging and does not yell or berate. He works hard to cover water and find fish. Plus, Rich has something I want—valuable knowledge of the backcountry landscape, tides, forage, and tendencies of the tarpon that live there. He doesn’t care whether the fish we find are yearround residents or part of the great migration that sweeps north each spring. A tarpon is a tarpon. What matters is the stealthy approach, the accuracy of the cast, and selling the fly to a fish that might be twice our age.
Rich runs the skiff past a snowy egret standing in a few inches of water. We slow to an idle where a narrow channel splits two small grass flats. The spot looks no different from the dozens we’ve passed. The channel is aquamarine and streaked with silt flushing on the tide. Rich kills the motor, then climbs the poling platform.
“I don’t take many people here,” he says. I can’t tell if he means it or if this is just guide-speak to make me feel important. He continues: “That channel there is twenty feet deep. Kind of comes out of nowhere, doesn’t it? I found this spot by accident while I was permit fishing. Lots of sharks in that channel—you wouldn’t want to fall in. There’s usually tarpon here, too.”
He poles for about 30 seconds, then: “Okay, Ryan, just saw a fish roll, sixty feet, dead ahead. Make the cast when you’re ready.”
The sun’s glare is so intense, I can’t see much of anything. Even behind polarized lenses, my eyes water, but I make the cast.
“Okay, now strip it slowwwww,” Rich says. “Good. Just like that.”
I slide the fly once more, and my line comes tight. I strip-set and bury the rod butt into my right hip. The loose line resting on my feet jumps up, and I clear it of all obstructions. The tarpon somersaults, crashes, runs—my fingers burn with the friction of fleeing fly line. I’m already into the backing. A football field away, the tarpon jumps again.
Rich hollers from the deck, “That’s how we do it!” He turns the bow to face the channel, then shoves the pushpole into the bottom. It feels like the scene from a movie I’m watching. “Now you have to catch it!” he says.
The tarpon is medium-size, maybe 60 pounds, a perfect fly rod fish. Still, I’m conditioned to anticipate the worst: I imagine the leader will break and suffering the familiar disappointment of slack line. Rich, staying far calmer than I am, gives instructions. I gain all my backing and, once the fly line is back on my reel, apply maximum pressure. My line slices through the channel as the tarpon maneuvers against my pulling.
“Don’t be afraid to really haul on that fish,” Rich says. “Pull back against the direction it wants to go in.”
The tarpon appears near the surface, 20 feet away, its back blue-green iridescence. Then it tips on its side, angling away from me, its tail-kicks labored. With my fly rod pointed into the water, I pull against the fish’s path, the leader paralleling the tarpon’s lateral line. Startled by the line’s contact, the tarpon surges and jumps one last time. I point the rod tip to the jump, imparting slack to save my leader. When the tarpon splashes, I pull back even harder, turning the fish over on itself. Rich kneels at the gunwale. A few moments later, he has the leader in his gloved hand, and after a brief struggle, the tarpon is secure. Rich grips my first tarpon on a fly by its lower jaw.
He removes the fly and starts reviving the fish. I take a few photographs with my cell phone. The tarpon’s enormous side scales are silver prisms to the sunlight. He works to get water flowing over its gills, so that it can swim away quickly in case there are sharks nearby. The tarpon regains strength, contorting its body and kicking its tail. Rich releases his grip. The fish rights itself and swims out of sight.
Fighting off tears, I pat Rich on the back. He snips the leader and hands me the mangled fly. I imagine back home I’ll keep the fly somewhere safe, somewhere visible. “Congratulations, man,” he says, smiling. “Now let’s go catch a big tarpon.”
AS WE RUN TO THE NEXT SPOT, closer toward the dock in Islamorada, it begins to set in that I’ve finally accomplished my goal. The accomplishment—still surreal in its newness—feels more like a rite of passage, like the opening up of a lifelong passion, than it does a relief. Landing one on a fly confirmed that I was capable, and the help of a guide of Rich’s pedigree—spotting and calling out fish as they approached, doing the hard work of positioning the boat for the best cast, keeping me in the game and keeping my confidence high—made the difference.
Rich slows the skiff off plane, then begins to pole again. Up on the casting platform, I think of all the people I’ll call once I’m off the water, to tell about this day.
My very next cast, a hundred-pound tarpon inhales a fresh version of the same fly, leaps four times in succession before my leader slips. Rich is apologetic, says that the nail knot shouldn’t slip like that, but I couldn’t care less. Unlike the blind cast that resulted in my first tarpon on a fly, this fish was highly visible with the sun behind us. Before my cast, Rich spotted the fish, asked me if I saw “the floating battleship at two o’clock.” The tarpon ate my fly with its head out of the water, like a brook trout sipping a dry fly from the surface of a mountain pond.
On our ride back to the dock, Rich slows the skiff near Shell Key. In the distance, traffic streams over the bridges toward Key West. I’m sun-dazed and thirsty, but I don’t want the day to end.
“Before we quit, I want to check one last spot,” Rich says. “They’ll either be here or they won’t.”
He’s not up on the platform long before: “Holy hell, Ryan. There’s a mass of tarpon, just floating up near the surface. Get ready!”
Up ahead I see the dark, swirling ball of big tarpon. My first two casts are tentative and land short. Rich urges me to land the fly in the group. The southeasterly wind is pushing the skiff past the school quickly. I’ll have one more shot.
I land the fly, strip it once, then a flash of silver amongst the school, and again my line is tight. A giant boil of water as the fish—and the group around it— startles. The largest tarpon I’ve ever seen propels itself into the air, head shaking so violently, my fly line dances. The fish charges to deeper water. My reel screams. All I can do is hang on. Rich leaps down from his platform. “That’s a monster!” he shouts. Quickly he clips in the pushpole and fires up the engine.
The tarpon bulldogs into a deep channel and heads toward the ocean. I can’t turn it. My forearms ache. Rich tells me to apply more pressure, “Or that fish will pull us around until she dies.” My fly rod flexes beyond recognition; I wait for it to shatter. Rich maneuvers the boat around crab pots and channel markers. We pass a pair of old-timers soaking bait from an ancient Grady White. They look at us with confusion as their hands visor the sun. We’re getting closer to the bridges that divide bay from open ocean. The tarpon surges and peels more line.
“If I was fighting that fish, I’d whoop its ass in twenty minutes,” Rich says from behind the wheel. I try to ignore him. The tarpon turns left and leaves the channel. I haven’t gained much line.
“Pull harder,” he urges. “She’s in shallow water now. She has nowhere to go.”
Fifty-five minutes in, the leader parts, my line slackens, and the huge tarpon slinks over white sand. In exaltation, I watch her dark back until she disappears.
“What do you think she weighed?” I ask Rich as he stows the fly rod in the gunnel. “One-twenty,” he says, “easy.”
AT THE DOCK, I settle up with Rich. He’s earned it. I give him a few homespun tarpon flies in appreciation, though I know he’ll never use them. I tell him how important the day has been for me, how good it feels to finally land a tarpon on fly. We shake hands and talk about plans for next spring.
From my rental car I see Rich, still by the boat launch, standing with another, older guide, gesturing to him. The older guide is attentive and smiling. It occurs to me that Rich is telling him about our tarpon. It is satisfying to watch.
On my drive to dinner that evening, I cross the bridge over Indian Key Channel, aware it’s the same spot my dad landed our first tarpon on that full-moon night 10 years ago. I ease off the pedal. To my left, the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Key, and a beached and abandoned sailboat, sits tilted on an oceanside flat. To my right, turquoise water rushes toward the backcountry. I imagine the unlucky crabs and shrimps and baitfish flushing back there on the tide. I imagine what awaits them.
Three skiffs are anchored near the bridge. The sun is behind the skiffs, immense and low in the sky. Tarpon baits in the water, the guides and their clients are silhouettes anxiously waiting for a bite.
Ryan Brod is a Maine guide, filmmaker, and freelance writer who lives on Casco Bay in Portland, Maine. His writing desk is covered with tarpon flies.