The Silver King & I
For us commoners, the leaping pageantry of tarpon is almost enough
I fish all the time when I’m home, so when I get a chance to go on vacation, I make sure I get in plenty of fishing.
Anxiety quivered through my body as the fourth and last day of a frustrating June tarpon fishing vacation drew to a close. The 10th tarpon that I had thrown to in the last few hours a muscular, five-and-a-half-footer that probably weighed 110 pounds had just fled in full panic at the first glimpse of my three-inch, mottled-brown shrimp fly.
That it was my best cast of the trip gave the scenario an extra edge of despair. I had laid the fly quietly, well ahead of the fish, and gently swum it into the extreme range of its vision as it closed upon us. Then the fish freaked.
Dispirited, I glanced back at our guide. If anything, Wylie was even more distraught than me or my angling partner, George Yu. After six straight hours of serial rejections that were capping the last of four exasperating days, all any of us could do was shrug, change the fly and get ready for the next shot.
Four days ago we had all been full of hope and anticipation. Now, scanning the skinny blue water of Alligator Reef, just offshore and halfway down the Florida Panhandle in the Gulf of Mexico, we prayed for a miracle.
Getting Our Feet Wet
Tarpon are a large, migratory fish that frequent the southern coastal states, particularly Florida. Commonly reaching lengths of six feet, it has a proclivity for high, wild leaps and screaming runs when hooked on light tackle. Widely and reverently referred to as the silver king, tarpon is arguably the most exciting of all the inshore sport fish to take on a fly rod.
The first tarpon of our first morning caught us flat footed. George had just stepped up on the casting deck and was clearing his line when three big ones unexpectedly emerged from the cover of a nearby weed patch and swept toward our just-anchored skiff.
“Three tarpon, three o’clock, right on top of us,” Wylie had hissed. “Cast George: Quick, quick.”
With no time to acquire a target, George fired a guessing, reflexive cast that settled nowhere near where these guys were going. Then, as sometimes happens, all three tarpon inexplicably turned the 90 degrees necessary to intersect his presentation.
But the small purple-and-black feathered fly was sinking too slowly for the deeply swimming fish to see. No matter. As the tarpon passed and the fly settled in their wake, one turned back and ate it. Fish on.
George, not an amateur, hit it with a hard strip strike as soon as he felt the resistance. Unfortunately the fish had felt him first and lunged up out of the water in a fierce head shake at the same time my friend was going for the hook set. The line came very tight from both ends at just the wrong moment; the leader popped. Fish off.
Catching a big tarpon is a precarious undertaking. The odds of landing one of these powerful fish are so against the angler, that just jumping one is occasion to celebrate. We were all grinning and congratulating each other. The trip was off to a great start.
The next day the tarpon disappeared. Wylie Watt, our experienced, enthusiastic and hard-working guide, fretted and poled us silently, hour upon hour searching for fish. To no avail.
We strategized, rationalized, moralized and prattled theories, consulting everyone we could find. Fishermen are familiar with this, and also its resultant product: Nothing. Finally on the last day of our trip, the tarpon decided to appear once more.
They came cruising off of the dark weed beds crossing the clear sand patches in singles, in pairs and in pods of up to 10 fish, every one over 100 pounds. It didn’t matter though, for whatever they had been up to the last few days there was one thing they weren’t up to now: eating. These guys all had serious lockjaw, something else for which tarpon are famous.
Eventually, despite all of our efforts and many opportunities, the day ended as it started: Full rejection. There were going to be no tarpon caught this trip. Our guide was somber; we were resigned. It happens. We all did our best, no regrets.
Later that week, back in Annapolis, as I cleaned and stored my fly-fishing gear, Sigrid Trumpy, a friend of my wife’s was visiting. She politely inquired as to how I had enjoyed my trip. I described to her all of the wonderful people we had met, the beauty of the unspoiled area and the uniqueness of the marine life.
Fish Are Biting
What can I say: The fishing and crabbing is great everywhere in the Chesapeake. Hurry up and get some.
Then she asked the dreaded question: “Did you catch any fish?”
“No,” I said. “We didn’t catch anything.”
Looking at me with the eyes of generations bred to the water she said casually, “But you fish all the time, don’t you? You’re used to that.”
Trying to suppress an embarrassed grin, I chuckled. “Yes, I’m used to that.”