Failure to launch

Failure to launch

Gary Meyer | Tuesday, 5 March 2019

This past weekend I headed back out into the mangrove backcountry to be snubbed, once again, by a handful of large, beautiful snook. After the previous trip, I was sure that I had, this time, the right combination of location, tide, and flies.

I launched my canoe, pre-dawn, into a very low but still rapidly falling tide. I knew I would have very skinny water throughout the morning, which would make the fish all that much easier to see. My little 2 HP Honda four-stroke outboard, clamped to the side of my canoe, purred hypnotically as I slowly made my way through fog-laden rivers and creeks. Even in the best of conditions, my canoe does not move very fast, and on this morning, fighting the strong ebbing tide, it moved even slower. No matter, I spent the time rigging rods and tying on my new creations from the vise. Besides, I was in no hurry. I would be in the best fishing areas almost too soon. The good sight fishing would not be until the mid-morning sun was high enough to help the visibility. So, I putted along and marveled at how easily the small motor pushed the canoe at better than a brisk walking speed. It may not be fast, but it is comfortably relentless.

When I arrived at the lake well after sunrise there was not a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky. About a quarter mile from where I wanted to start fishing I stalled the motor and lifted it from the water. I would paddle the rest of the way. Except for the sounds of a few far-off birds, and the occasional jumping mullet, there was total silence. The lake was mirror smooth. The silence was broken only when water dripped from my lifted paddle, so I let it drain and stowed it across the gunwales. And I just sat there. It was such a departure from the rat race that is south Florida and I wanted to somehow make it indelible in my mind. And yet, despite the long peaceful ride and the minimal effort it took to paddle the canoe, I realized my heart was racing!


The first area was full of fish: Longnose garfish, Mayan Cichlids and kindergarten age snook. The gar lay motionless on the bottom, the Cichlids hung near the mangrove roots, and the tiny snook were simply everywhere. But larger snook were nowhere to be found. Likely, the water was too shallow, calm, and clear for their liking.


So I headed on and switched tactics. A breeze was beginning to build and the wide waters were becoming difficult to sight fish. It was time to stalk the small ponds. Large snook seem to stake out individual ponds, where they mill about with the schools of mullet and Mojarra. Presumably, they snack whenever they feel like it. Usually, there is one snook per pond, sometimes there may be a few, but that is uncommon. The ponds are connected by mangrove creeks and usually, the snook will be near to where a creek meets the pond. If the snook is near where you enter the pond it is a lost cause, but if it likes another inlet, then at least you have a chance. Unfortunately, it is commonly impossible to fly cast due to the small pond size and the tall mangrove trees that rim them So, forgive me, but I also bring a stout spinning rod. It seldom works since lures make too much noise at entry, but there is at least a chance, and that is better than no chance at all.


It was there that I found the snook, and it was also where they refused me. Most simply ran away as soon as the cast landed, others would freeze and then slowly back away from the fly. Some of the fish I spotted were tarpon. Many of them seemed to be just as uninterested but a few at least followed the fly for a short while before swimming off. One, however, followed the fly for a good while, then ate.


The fly I was using is called a Seaducer. It is somewhat like a Wooly Bugger but with different proportions. The tail is longer and stiffer while the head of Palmered hackle is shorter and denser. If tied correctly, the fly will sink very slowly and maintain a horizontal attitude. I like it because it can be manipulated very slowly and sometimes you can tease a fish into eating it. That is just what happened with the one tarpon that showed interest. After a bit of cat and mouse, the fish eventually opened its mouth and inhaled the fly.


What happened next was simply amazing. The fish immediately rocketed about twenty feet and went completely airborne, performing a perfect double back flip in the air. It then seemed to bounce off the surface of the water multiple times doing an assortment of flips and cartwheels too confusing to describe. All of the acrobatics following the initial jump were simply showing off since my leader parted when that first run put a belly in the flyline and the fish first launched into the air.


Throughout the day I caught numerous Cichlids and kindergarten snook, but my main quarry, the larger snook and tarpon, never came to hand. However, the sensations of that early morning stillness, and the complete chaos of that tarpon fight, brief that it was, have stayed with me to this time. And they will live on every time I read my notes.


So I guess, at least according to Henry David Thoreau, I am not like many fishermen, for I do know that it is not (only) the fish that I seek.