A revisit of the location that was so enjoyable two weeks ago was in order. Tides generally repeat themselves every two weeks around here, but that is only true in a very general sense as there are so many variables in play. In this case, however, tides and conditions were pretty close.
What was very different on this last trip was that travelling to the hotspot was by boat instead of by canoe. What a major difference that made! Once again, getting there by boat seemed to almost make the journey insignificant. Once on plane, the boat covered the water in minutes for a trip that took hours by canoe. And while that may seem like a good thing, in one way it significantly reduces the enjoyment of the journey. It might seem hokey, but to me much of what I value in most endeavors is as much, or more, about the journey than it is about reaching the goal.
When travelling by canoe, I feel like I experience every inch of the route. However, I am not actually an avid paddler any more. These days, most times I take a canoe I am propelled by my trusty 2 HP Honda outboard. It is such a marvelously reliable piece of equipment! Even though it will run faster, I usually just set it slightly above idle and allow it to effortlessly move the canoe through the water. It hums along rather quietly, but efficiently, and actually moves the canoe quite a bit faster than by paddle. And it is simply relentless.
When travelling in this mode the waters along the route reveal their secrets. The topography of the bottom is easily observed. Critters on the shore are obvious, as are many of those underwater. Often, if travelling solo I don’t even have to steer by hand. I can make modifications to my route by simply shifting my weight. So many of the better locations I fish these days were discovered when I stumbled upon them in this manner.
By boat, my concentration seems to be mostly focused on keeping my hat from flying off and the destination. No route information or enjoyment is obtained, it is all about anticipating how long it will be before we get there.
On this last trip, we got there so quickly our timing was wrong. We were actually too early. The water height and the direction of the current were completely wrong. There were some tarpon showing though, so we set to it. After a while our enthusiasm waned and we began to take turns and short breaks from casting. It is important to always keep a fly in the water. But, as the sun rose and the day warmed, even the most ardent angler begins to wonder. So, eventually, we made the famous mistake of leaving fish to find fish.
And, while our goal was primarily to find more large tarpon, a change of scenery and a break from fruitless casting were also solid motives. Besides, we fully intended to return to the original location later in the tide if we did not find larger tarpon elsewhere. The fact that there were some locations in between that almost guaranteed action from lesser species was equally inviting.
We did not find tarpon anywhere else, but we did kill some time tormenting ladyfish, small snook and snapper. When we tired of that, we returned to location zero and began anew.
Once again, tarpon were present but scattered. Playing a hunch, I positioned the boat in a different place that seemed to suggest a pattern. I had made a few casts, each a bit longer, pulling a little more line off the reel between casts. When I was reaching about my max distance I had a “bump” on the retrieve. If a golden flash, and some impressive swirls accompany the bump, you can pretty much be sure it was a tarpon. For some reason they do not always take the fly. Since I had not stripped the fly very far, I kept it moving. Another bump, then another… then another. Each time there were flashes and swirls. At that point I started chiding the fish, “Come on, you know you want it”, etc..
When the leader was almost in the rod tip, finally, the line came tight and I was on to a tarpon.
Hooking that fish was such a reward. Not only was it compensation for the day’s effort, but there were so many memories of past experiences and failures tied to it. One of the most gratifying was how I managed to not set the hook. If you strike at that first bump, or second, or third… in this case I think it wasn’t until number 5 when the line came tight… you will simply take the fly away from an already less than enthusiastic fish. In fact, and I seem to be alone in this belief, I always try not to set the hook with the rod. I believe that coming tight and holding the line until leader breakage is immanent is actually the best way to bury the hook point into a tarpon.
It worked this time. But, remember that long cast and how the take did not happen until near the boat? Well, all that stripped line was at my feet, and this new line that I am testing has a disappointing propensity to retain coil memory. So, of course, the slack knotted. Luckily the fish did not immediately make a long run, and more importantly, my partner recognized the situation and quickly came to my aid and worked out the knot while I fought the fish by line and hand.
Once the knot was cleared I quickly got the fish on the reel, not because it ran, but rather because I could spin the reel with quick glancing blows to the rim. There is an advantage to “self winding” reels if you know how to make use of them.
The second image that came immediately to mind was a lesson from a mentor years ago. I call him a mentor even though he was only a few years older than me, but he was a master at catching what we call “landlocked” tarpon. When I met him he was just spanking these smaller freshwater tarpon, and he was using a 9’ 4wt Orvis flyrod that he built himself. At that time I was rather proud of my 8wt Fenwick glass rod that I too had made, but his rod seemed utterly impossible for the task. Yet his results said different.
And his tactics were just as unusual. We would locate schools of these fish early in the mornings by glassing the calm surface of large canals built to drain the Everglades. When their orientation was determined we cast flies in front of the slow moving schools and hoped for the best. Most times the cast spooked the fish, but sometimes they would kick forward to investigate the fly. What he did that was so different is that he would immediately stop stripping the fly! There would be boils and swirls, and most of us mortals would be stripping like crazy trying to entice the fish, yet he just let is sit!
He later let me in on his secret, and one time I actually saw visual evidence that suggested his theory was correct. As if his results were not proof enough. His belief was, as above, you never set the hook until you feel the fish. And, he believed, and I saw it with my own two eyes, that most times, the fish that eats the fly is not the first one to look at it. The first fish would charge the fly, and schoolmates would follow, but the first (or second, etc.) tarpon might veer off at the last moment due to suspicion of something not being right. The swirls created by the fish that turn off would set the fly to tumbling… and a late follower would think the fly was either missed by the lead fish or left-overs.
Now, do I think the tarpon I caught on this recent trip was the same one that tried to eat the fly multiple times? Or was it a follower that made the big mistake?
Who can say?
Such are the wonderful unknowable things that make tarpon fishing so damn much fun.