The silver king blues
Matt Harris travelled to Florida with high hopes of catching a truly enormous tarpon. But in fishing, the best laid plans can often go awry.
Pulling out of Miami airport, I felt the warm tropical air flood into the hire car. I turned on the radio, and Eddie Cochran's classic Summertime Blues came blasting out of the speakers. The sun was sinking lazily in the rear-view mirror as I cruised downtown, the great glass edifices soaring around me, and I felt like the king of the world. After two wretched trips to Scotland that had been utterly ruined by the weather, surely my luck MUST change. I had a whole week ahead of me, fishing with two of the best fly fishermen on earth and targeting the ultimate fly rod fish… the silver king… Megalops atlanticus… the one and only tarpon.
Last year, I was commissioned to shoot a series of fly fishing images in Canada with legendary angler, Andy Mill. We were fishing for steelhead, but Andy couldn't stop talking about the giant tarpon that migrate up through the Florida Keys every spring. Monsters that regularly weigh in the 100-150lb range, with one astonishing fish of over 200lb having been caught on fly.
Andy Mill is THE MAN on tarpon – he has recorded no fewer than five victories in the prestigious Tarpon Gold Cup, and his book A Passion for Tarpon is the undisputed bible for tarpon fly fishers. His enthusiasm for Megalops is infectious, and I learnt more about tarpon fishing on those few early morning truck-rides in British Columbia than I have in a dozen years fishing for their smaller cousins in Cuba. I was left in no doubt that I had to try for them. When Andy promised to take me out fishing, I all but bit his hand off.
A good friend, Jake Jordan, is another absolute tarpon legend and a man who has fished the Keys for nearly 50 years. When I mentioned that I'd be fishing with Andy, Jake told me I'd better come out with him too. It couldn't get any better.
Weary with jetlag, I checked into my hotel and hit the hay, my head full of optimism and huge, cartwheeling tarpon. I had new moon spring tides, the flats should be awash with fish, and I had the fly fishing equivalent of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus taking me out on the water, one-to-one.
What could possibly go wrong?
A day later, just as the sun started winking over the Caribbean Sea, I was out on the water with Andy Mill.
Andy is a great teacher – he is full of encouragement and constructive advice. He showed me some of the super stealthy casts he uses to present the fly, and how to use subtle movements of the rod-tip, and an ultra-slow, smooth draw to keep the tiny, marabou-tailed ‘toad fly' tantalizingly alive. I'd read Andy's book from cover to cover, but to see the master in action was a real education, and I felt privileged to be out on a bluebird day with arguably the greatest tarpon fisher who has ever lived.
I bombarded my mentor with a million questions, and then, just as the sun was starting to climb into the wide blue Florida sky, Andy wheeled the skiff round to the left and murmured “here we go, eleven o' clock.”
There they were: two vast tarpon. Huge – far bigger than anything I've ever seen in all my years of fishing in Cuba – and right there, 50 yards from the boat and lazing in the early-morning sun.
Andy counselled me to put the fly three yards above the lead fish so that the fly could sink to the fish's level in the water column. I felt a mixture of pride and relief when I dropped the fly gently into the right spot. “Perfect” whispered Andy. As I watched the fly sink into to the fish's line of vision, I gave it the ‘bump and slide' as instructed. The toad fly is a perfect piece of fly design; as soon as I wiggled the rod-tip, the fly seemed to hover right in the fishes eye-line, and its chartreuse marabou tail was clearly visible, wriggling its seductive little lambada. The lead fish seemed almost imperceptibly to bristle, before ambling gently up to the fly. I felt my heart thump as this impossible leviathan appeared to consider the tiny morsel before sipping it in as delicately as a trout might sip down an emerging olive.
I set the hook, and the silence was shattered. The giant creature felt the steel and seemed to combust into an explosion of silver scales and a million sparkling sapphires of spray. Utterly astonishing. The monstrous fish was suddenly vaulting way, way up into the blue-black sky, and my mind's eye preserved that sight for all time: a giant blur of chrome-plated muscle and rage, gyrating insanely in the tropical sunshine.
And then, abruptly – disaster. The fly shot back towards me. The huge fish – 125 pounds and more – crashed back into the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea and was gone.
Andy was upbeat, telling me I'd done everything right and congratulating me on doing the hard part – making the fish eat the fly. Tarpon often ‘spit the hook' but when I pulled the fly back, I was horrified to see that the hook – a normally bullet-proof Gamakatsu SL12 – had opened out.
“We'll find another” Andy assured me. He did everything he could, poling the skiff heroically in the increasingly high wind and we had several more tension-filled, adrenaline-packed shots at some huge fish, but they simply wouldn't eat the fly.
As the sun set into the west, I thanked Andy for a truly great day. And as the lights lit up Highway One, I headed north, to hook up with Jake Jordan at Marathon. Andy told me he just knew I'd have a blast with Jake – “You'll catch a few of those big fatties for sure” he grinned.
I believed it. Catching tarpon with Jake is almost a given. Jake ALWAYS catches tarpon.
Jake does things differently. While Andy sight-fishes through the day in the classic style, and enjoys the fabulous spectacle of a fish of 100lb and up eating his fly and clambering into the sky, Jake recognizes that tarpon actually do most of their feeding at night. He launches his boat under the stars, and while the visual thrills are relatively limited, his catch-rate is astonishing – he regularly hooks up with a dozen or more of these giant fish in a short session, and all but guarantees action.
I pulled up at Jake's place around ten in the evening, rearing to get out on the water despite having fished all day, but my pal was sanguine.
“Take a nap and we'll get up at midnight, just when the tide starts to run out”, advised Jake. I did as I was told and awoke two hours later feeling refreshed, but just as I sat up, a big bolt of lightning lit up the room in a classic horror movie cliché.
I could hear the wind tearing at the palms and the rain raking the roof, and I didn't need Jake to tell me that we weren't going fishing.
Over breakfast, Jake confirmed that this was the first night he'd lost to the weather this season.
As I cursed my luck yet again, Jake told me not to look so glum – “We'll get out tonight for sure” he promised.
I enjoyed a wet, windy day spent touring the keys, eating shrimp, drinking cold beer and listening to Jake's classic yarns. My favourite featured ‘Old Mo', the 22-foot hammerhead shark that has lived under the Seven Mile Bridge for as long as anyone can remember. This legendary creature has survived any number of assaults including being shot point-blank in the head with six mercury-tipped hollow-point bullets by a disgruntled guide, fed up with losing trophy tarpon to this marauding nightmare of a fish. “Old Mo isn't alone down there either,” grinned Jake. “He has a bunch of 12-foot bull shark ‘groupies' for company.”
I made a mental note not to fall in.
As we launched the boat that night under a canopy of twinkling starlight, the wind was clearly stiffening, but Jake was confident that we'd be OK. I had barely put the fly in the water, when Jake decided we needed to be nearer the bridge. He started up the engine, put the boat into gear, and…nothing happened! We pulled up the engine, and realized to our horror that the propeller had fallen off!
This is the first time that this has EVER happened to Jake.
We threw the anchor over and then waited for Seatow - a maritime version of the AA - to come and get us off the water, but were soon embroiled in a litigious American nightmare. Seatow's nearest representative - at Marathon - was all set up to get us, but was then told by central office that we were technically not on his patch, despite the fact that he was around four miles away. Instead we had to wait for another operative based at Big Pine Key, over an hour away. When we finally got hold of him, nearly two hours later, he told us he wasn't coming because he thought it was too dangerous – which it plainly wasn't. Great! We then radioed the Coastguard, who said that they weren't allowed to come and get us, because it wasn't dangerous enough! Straight out of Catch 22! The coastguard said that if they DID come out, Seatow would sue them for lost business (as they have done before), and that we should call them back if it DID get dangerous! Another two hours later, it was blowing around 30mph and starting to rain. There was also now a tornado warning, and, as the little boat rocked violently on the increasingly boisterous sea, I asked Jake what exactly DOES constitute dangerous? Unwanted images of Old Mo and his pack of chums were starting to feature regularly in my fevered imagination.
Eventually, at around 5am, with the rain coming down hard and lightning heading our way, the Coastguard relented. Even then, they were not allowed to tow the boat in, and we had to leave it abandoned on the high seas where it could be claimed as salvage by anyone brave or mad enough to go out on the water.
Jake called his buddy, legendary Keys guide Lenny Moffo, and we then went back out in Lenny's boat to pick it up. As the youngster of the group, I volunteered to leap from one boat to the other in a high sea in 35mph winds and we then towed the boat back without power or steering, through the barnacle-encrusted, shark-infested Seven Mile Bridge and into dock.
Somehow, despite it being Sunday, when all the stores in the Keys are closed, we hunted down a prop, and after fitting it, we then went out that night - and caught… NOTHING!
Needless to say, this is the first time that this has happened to Jake this year.
Jake apologized profusely for our bad luck, but he had to fly north the following day. I wished my pal well, and found that I might just have one last chance – I drove back up to Miami to nightfish with a pal of mine, Rich Walker and his buddy Jansy, who guides the local waters.
Government Cut, off of Miami's South Beach, had been stiff with big tarpon for the last few nights, but, predictably enough, the wind got up and we couldn't find them. Then, around 11pm, we finally located some feeding fish. Squinting into the gloom, I saw a fish nail something on the surface, made a good long cast and felt the classic, savage take of a tarpon. I set the hook hard and felt resistance. “YESSSSS!!!” I roared – I really HAD pulled it out of the fire! I was going to go home with a big Floridian tarpon to my name after all. The line came up bowstring tight, and a tarpon took to the air, lit up against the neon of the Miami night.
“What is THAT?” I spluttered. The fish was tiny. TINY! At around 20lb, it was around 80lb short of what I had come over 4,000 miles to catch. “MegaFLOPS atlanticus” I groaned. As I wrestled the beautiful little fish unceremoniously to the boat, I realized that my pals were grinning at me and as Jansy lifted the baby tarpon aboard, they both spontaneously exploded with laughter. Rich passed me an ice-cold beer from the cooler and clapped me on the back. I shot him a rueful grin, remembering all the high hopes I'd felt as I drove out of the airport seven long days before with the rock and roll blaring. And as Eddie Cochran might have told me, there just ain't no cure for the silver king blues.