May

23

Tarpon in the keysI was fly-fishing in the Florida Keys last week for tarpon. I have spent much time on trout streams and rivers, wading, stalking, casting, but fishing for tarpon is a much different experience. For one these fish are massive in size. Standing at the bow of a flats boat I can see one approach from 100 feet away. They don’t even look like fish, rather like some huge underwater dragons, 4 feet in length and 100 pounds or more. The gear is all magnified to account for this, bigger rods, reels and flies, but even so I wonder if my trout experience will really help me here. But I am up for the challenge.

I practice long slow casts with the 11 weight rod I bring along. Like a golf swing it is counter intuitive and all timing, very little strength. With a back cast the line loads behind, reaching its full length and I can feel its weight, then a forward cast extending the line out in front in the same way. Slow and methodical and waiting for the line to fully load, then releasing. If done properly I can throw the line and fly 50 or 60 feet very accurately, even into a wind. In practice it goes so well.

But when the pressure is on and a fish approaches, it is different. To start your heart and breathing begin to race and this starts to affect everything else. All those practice casts are a memory. It is a dynamic between speeding up and slowing down. If rushed, a cast will not load and the line will fall short and slack far from the intended fish. But, the approach of a fish is so quick. Our guide has spotted one 70 feet away. I see it, a giant dark shadow approaching in the green blue water ahead. I have maybe 10 seconds to deliver the fly, before he is too close, will see the boat, and run. My instinct is to speed everything up, but this will ruin the cast. I take a deep breath and mentally try to slow down, fighting the instinct rush. This is not easy. Slow and Snap is my mantra. Slow in the casting, but with a deliberate snap ending that sends the fly to its target. It seems to work this time and I get the fly to him in time. The dragon takes note, but moves on undeceived. Over the course of the day I get maybe a dozen “shots”, each one different in some way and never what I had planned for.

So many things have to go right even to hook a tarpon. A fishing guide has at least five elements to contend with, tides, other anglers, wind, light, current. The angler adds some, casting skill, seeing the fish in time, delivering the fly not where the fish is, but where he thinks he will be seconds later. The fish adds variables, is he feeding, will he see the fly and follow, is he in a school or alone. Putting these together I realize it is a rather low probability event to hook such a fish on a fly. And on this trip, although we catch many smaller species like sea trout, snook and redfish, we don’t succeed in hooking a tarpon.

But so much of fishing is in the trying. And just finding and casting too a tarpon is a thrill. It is also a time for enjoying nature and spending time with friends sharing a bond. I can see why anglers for decades have been coming here and we will be back soon. And on the boat ride back to the marina it allows time for long fluid thoughts and a view to where the horizon meets the sea.


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