Key West, Florida - “I've got a fish at two o'clock. Seventy feet. Coming fast. See him?”
Fishing guide Bill Houze spoke with quiet urgency from atop the platform suspended four feet above the stern of the 17-foot skiff.
“I see him,” said my friend Mike Traugott, scanning the horizon from his position on the bow, his nine-foot fly rod poised for a cast.
Beneath the riffled surface, a five-foot-long tarpon, a relic from the age of the dinosaurs, swam three feet beneath the surface on a diagonal course that would bring the 80-pound fish just off the bow.
“Start casting when I tell you,” Bill whispered, digging the foot of his 24-foot push pole into the mud at the bottom to propel the skiff forward, gondolier style, into deeper water off Florida's Marquesas Keys, 20 miles west of Key West.
“Now!”Mike lifted up the fly rod, then swept it back and forward in a repeated series of precisely executed motions, part of the art of the fly cast.
Mike abruptly stopped his rod at the end of its forward arc. The three-inch yellow fox fur fly dropped straight down and directly ahead of the oncoming fish.
“Strip! Strip! Strip!” Bill directed Mike to start. “He's on it!”
The sea parted 25 feet off the bow. The bright silver fish rocketed out of the water and fell back with a cratering splash. A heartbeat later, the water erupted again. The frantic fish catapulted clear of the surface, its massive gill plates flaring, and somersaulted head over tail before crashing awkwardly back into the water.
Two more jumps and the fish abruptly quit its air show and bolted away from the skiff, spinning 200 feet of line off the reel in a few adrenaline-pumping seconds.
Twenty minutes later, the tug of war ended. The beaten tarpon, its silver, mirrorlike scales glinting in the sun, lay by the skiff. Bill grabbed the leader and reached to dislodge the fly. The 10-foot fluorocarbon strand at the end of his fly line snapped.
“Good job,” Bill said. The giant fish swam off to rejoin uncounted tens of thousands of its kind on their annual spawning migration.
Each year in the spring and early summer, tens of thousands of anglers come to Key West and elsewhere in the Keys, drawn by this giant, acrobatic fish. Together, these visitors pump an estimated $25 -million into the Keys economy.
Key West and, to a lesser extent, Islamorada in the Middle Keys, are the epicenters of the sport. The Florida state record for tarpons, a 243-pound behemoth, was caught in Key West in 1975 - and on lighter 20-pound test line, as opposed to the 30-to-80 pound line most fishermen use in their quests. These days, a fish weighing more than 120 pounds is toast-worthy at the Green Parrot, off Duval Street, as well as in anglers' other favourite Key West bars.
Ernest Hemingway chased tarpons out of Key West. So did Zane Grey. Theodore Roosevelt and Ted Williams were tarpon anglers. A photo of former president George H.W. Bush in Andy Mill's book “A Passion for Tarpon” shows the 41st president holding a giant tarpon in his lap, a giddy little-boy smile on his face.
Tarpons can be caught with spinning, conventional or fly tackle. In the bad old days, some anglers even harpooned them. Happily, the sport has evolved. Today, catching a 100-pound plus tarpon on a delicate graphite fly rod weighing less than three ounces is, for many, fishing's ultimate moment.
“It represents the pinnacle of the sport,” said Nathaniel Linville, a transplanted Connecticut native who owns the Angling Company fly shop in Key West and holds two shark world records. “They are big. They eat tiny flies. They go crazy when you hook them. From the second that fish opens his mouth to the moment you grab him and take your fly out, any number of things can go wrong.
“That difficulty is what is really compelling about the whole game. They are hard all the way to the end.”
Perhaps the most popular way to fish for tarpons in the Keys is with a guide in a small skiff. The light, shallow-draft boats can float in inches of water - perfect for fishing the shallows where the tarpons feed. The guides push the skiff across the “flats,” as these shallow areas are called, using an 18- to 22-foot fibreglass, graphite or carbon-fibre stick that looks like something a pole vaulter might use.
It's really a combination of fishing and hunting. The guide poles the skiff from a small platform suspended over the stern. From this vantage point, he can spot fish moving more than 100 yards away, through water shallow enough to stand in. The angler stands on a raised platform in the bow. When tarpons are spotted pushing across the flats, the guide quietly poles the skiff into position for the angler to ambush the fish. It's physically punishing work, one reason a fly fishing guide runs between $500 and $700 a day. (This isn't poor folks' sport, which is why most recreational anglers fish with a buddy and split the cost.)
The best guides and anglers work as a team. The guide is the quarterback. Veteran flats guide Will Benson takes it a step further. He admonishes his anglers to listen, not think: “Do what I tell you. I'll tell you where the fish are, when to cast and how far. Then do it.”
That's sometimes hard to do.
“There, just past the buoy. A single laid-up fish. Facing us.”
From atop the poling platform, guide Bryan “Bear” Holeman, a 300-pound sun-baked mountain of a man who played defensive end for the University of Tulsa's football team, deftly spun the flats skiff 90 degrees to point me toward the 60-pound fish that lay inches from the surface. We were fishing off Islamorada, on a vast shallow bank known as the Swash.
“Start casting” Holeman said. The fish now hung motionless a short 40-foot cast away, just inches beneath the surface.
The fly dropped, all right. Instead of landing gently in front of the fish, the tiny fly splashed directly on its head. A few coils of line flopped on its nickel-silver back.
The startled fish moved in an explosion, seeming at once to thrash in place while remaining perfectly horizontal, sending water straight up like a World War II depth charge. One splashy kick of its broad tail sent it exiting left.
“That fish levitated!” my fishing companion Byron Bailey, a neurosurgeon from Charleston, said with a laugh. “It actually looked suspended in the air with no water around it.”
From the poling platform, Bear chuckled.
Megalops atlanticus inhabits the warm tropical and semitropical waters of the Atlantic. They range from throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to part way down the coast of Brazil to the southern Chesapeake Bay in the late summer.
Tarpons are primitive fish. Their ancestors first appeared 125 million years in the Cretaceous era. “They are pretty adaptable to changing conditions,” said Aaron Adams, director of science and conservation for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust research and conservation organisation.
Tarpons can breathe air at the surface, an adaptation that allows the juveniles to live in oxygen-starved stagnant slews, coastal marshes and mangrove swamps where they are safe from most predators.
The fish is built for a fight and can grow to nearly 300 pounds, though a fish more than 150 pounds will send the angling Twitterverse abuzz. Tarpons are heavily muscled; their giant forked tail is built for speed and generates the thrust necessary to propel the fish completely out of the water. Reflective scales the size of a silver dollar on a 50-pound tarpon cloak the fish in glittering armour.
Tarpons also have exceptional eyesight -”probably better eyesight than humans,” Adams said.
Beginning in March but peaking in May, June and July, the fish assemble in pre-spawning aggregations. The full and new moons are the cue for these schools to head 100 miles or more offshore to spawn in deep water. (Large numbers of smaller resident tarpons can be found in the Keys throughout the year.) Adams doesn't just study tarpons. He fishes for them - obsessively.
“It's an addiction,” he said. “The first stage is sleep deprivation. You get up before dawn to fish before work, go to work” - tarpon addicts call this “dawn patrol” - “then, after work, you go fishing again.”
Next, he said, is unemployment: “You say, 'Screw the job, I'm just going to keep fishing.' “
Finally, divorce: “It's tarpon season again and your spouse says you haven't been home for three months this season and changes the locks on the doors.”
Where does he stand on this slippery slope?
“I'm still employed and I'm still married. So I must not be fishing enough.”
Steve Trippe stood on the casting platform on the bow of the skiff and flipped a penny into the blue-green water. “To the tarpon gods.”
It was mid-April and the start of the last day of a three-day tarpon tournament organised for the past 10 years by Trippe for his friends and top Key West guides. It's officially called the Trippe Invitational Tarpon Series but is better known by its risque acronym.
The low-key competition embraces the new ethos of saltwater fly fishing. The rules are designed to keep the fish healthy; a splashy 10-minute battle followed by a quick release at the boat is the ideal. Short of that, no fish can be fought for longer than 30 minutes. Points also are awarded for how often the fish jumps and to anglers who use a section of lighter line in their leader, making break-offs more likely but also allowing the angler to snap the line and free the fish if a shark threatens a struggling tarpon.
Guide Will Benson threaded his Hell's Bay flats skiff through narrow, twisting mangrove creeks to legendary Loggerhead Basin in the Lower Keys and an area the guides call “the Coliseum.”
“This is the varsity playing field,” Benson said.
The tarpons were ready to play.
“I've got five, six fish coming fast right to left,” Benson said.
Steve placed the olive-coloured fly in front of the oncoming fish and expertly stripped in the line to maneuver the fly in front of the oncoming tarpon.
A 70-pound one was on the fly - and in the air - in a heartbeat.
In the next frantic minutes, the tarpon exhausted its entire repertoire of aerial tricks - cartwheels, head-shakes and a broad jump that sent the fish hurtling 20 feet from where it exited the water to where it splashed down. Then it took the fight down deep.
Steve played the fish with an expert's hand. When it swam right or left, he held his rod low and pulled it back in the opposite direction of the tarpon's track to keep maximum pressure on the tiring fish.
In less than 10 minutes, the fish was next to the boat. The end of Steve's 12-foot leader touched the tip of his fly rod.
“Caught fish,” Steve said.
But the tarpon was not done yet. It made one last 20-foot burst. Then a final jump.
The leader snapped.
The magnificent fish was free. Annoyed, but unharmed.
“Perfect,” Steve said.
If you go...
Where to stay
Ocean Key Resort & Spa
0 Duval St.
A short walk to Mallory Square or the throbbing heart of Duval Street. Rooms start from $239 (about R3 300) a night in the summer season to $699 in the winter, but check online for specials.
The Mermaid & the Alligator
729 Truman Ave.
800-773-1894 or 305-294-1894
A refurbished 1904 Queen Anne Victorian mansion four blocks off Duval. Rooms start at $218 in the summer season, $328 in the winter.
1117 Duval St.
A meticulously maintained and modestly priced bed & breakfast on the quiet southern end of Duval Street. The Rum Bar occupies the front of the building. Rooms start from $139 in the summer season to $229 in the winter.
Where to eat
700 Waddell Ave.
Ask for a table on the deck and enjoy the spectacular view of the ocean. Dinner entrees range from $33 to $40.
Nine One Five
915 Duval St.
Try the Soul Mama Seafood Soup, a mix of shrimp, grouper and clams in a fragrant Thai green curry broth. Entrees range from $20 to $45.
632 Olivia St.
Considered by many locals to be the best fish restaurant in Key West. Try the meatloaf if you're sick of fish. Entrees range from $18 to $34. Closed Tuesdays.
1026 White St.
This takeout sandwich shop is a Key West institution. Open 24 hours. Entrees cost less than $10.
What to do
Tarpons are available year-round in the Keys. Trips can be arranged through the Angling Company (305-292-6306, anglingcompany.com) or the Saltwater Angler (305-294-3248, saltwaterangler.com). While some guides cater exclusively to fly fishers, most welcome anglers who would rather use spinning tackle. If a 17-foot skiff isn't your idea of a sweet ride, larger bay boats are available. A full day of guided fly-fishing runs about $600 to $700, while a trip on a larger boat will cost more.
What to bring
Anglers don't need their own equipment. The guide typically furnishes all fishing tackle. “Bring a hat, polarised sunglasses, a good attitude - and a willingness to fail. Understand that this is not easy. But even a novice can achieve success,” advises premiere fly guide Bill Houze.