The place I had envisioned reaching in my canoe would be almost an afterthought in his skiff. If we did not find tarpon there, it would be as simple as crossing it off the list and speeding on to the next spot. And, that is essentially what we did. After a brief run we were at my spot. Well, actually we were not quite on top of it, but we were within easy observation range via binoculars. After just a few minutes drifting in the current, while I glassed the area, we were able to confirm that tarpon were not showing. I am not sure how many anglers make use of binoculars but they are an invaluable tool! Tarpon do not always show themselves, but when they are showing you know for a fact where your chances are higher.
From there we sped off to the first location on TA’s (Tarpon Addict’s) spot list of usual suspects. Skimming along the morning surface of a calm Florida Bay took so little time I hardly had a chance to scarf down a quickie breakfast. But, we found no tarpon there either. Although little time had ticked off the clock, we had run more than an hour down the tides. The particular area is usually much better with currents to hold tarpon in place, much like trout hold to lies on a stream. We had run too far into the tide and the water there was ebbing to slack low.
Realizing that, we again got on plane and ran to a nearby location that, as strange as it sounds, was significantly earlier in the outgoing tide. This whole concept of utilizing tides is intriguing, complicated, and downright essential for being a competent angler in these parts, and I rush to admit that I only possess a layman’s understanding. And, around the ‘glades, things are actually quite straightforward. If you venture just a bit south into the Florida Keys things get downright incomprehensible. It takes years of daily on-the-water study to get a handle on the voodoo of Key’s tides. If you ever get a chance to fish down there, do yourself a favor and pick a local guide long in the teeth.
So, finally, at this third location we began to see signs of tarpon. It is not always that easy. We stationed the boat and began casting flies, swinging them in the current not unlike swinging streamers in a trout stream, only bigger. After a while some patterns began to show, and it appeared that we might be on the wrong side of the river. After a period without any interest in our flies we decided to reposition. So, I pulled the anchor, TA started the motor and we idled across. When I lowered the anchor, TA attempted to lightly back to boat to tighten the scope, at which point he stated, rather nonchalantly, that he could not shift the motor into reverse. He did not seem overly concerned, so I grabbed my flyrod and began casting again.
Uncharacteristically, TA sat at the helm with a puzzled look on his face, then, instead of joining me, he pulled out some food and continued to sit, ponder, and eat. In short order I put a nice poon in the air. Not a monster, but respectable. I never had a chance to set the hook. The fish took flight almost immediately and the fly went sailing free. We both got the full visual experience of mirrored silver in panicked flight. And yet, TA still sat, and I knew things were not good.
Instead of casting further, we decided to see if the motor would somehow go into forward gear, and of course, it would not do that either. The situation was as surprising as it was concerning. TA is retired and he spends the bulk of his time either fishing, cleaning his immaculate boat, or further customizing it. To say his boat is well maintained is an understatement. And it is not like he is a duffer. He was a gifted tradesman and for a while a commercial fisherman. He also lived on a sailboat for years. He knows boats and which end of a screwdriver is which.
So, off came the cowling and some troubleshooting began. The problem was isolated to the shift cable, and eventually, after the requisite curses and concerns, TA was able to manually shift the motor into forward via a rope. And after that, we triumphantly headed immediately back to the dock. Had the motor not worked we were looking at about 20 miles of poling to get back. What seemed like a molehill of a ride would have been a mountain of a hard sweaty work. Although the day was still young, we were both very happy to ride back early instead of laboring back late.
On the drive out of the park I could not help but replay the number of occasions a boat malfunction had come close to abandoning me in the wilderness. I easily counted half a dozen times when some freak event threatened to make an otherwise enjoyable trip downright uncomfortable. No matter how prepared you are for the possibilities, no one can anticipate all the things that could potentially go wrong.
The speed and comfort of modern fishing boats is like a Siren song that pulls you further and further from the dock. On this day we were, in relative terms, hardly “out there” at all. We were fishing in a location that most boat anglers run well beyond before they even consider stopping to fish.
One nice thing about a canoe is that you can almost always fall back on simple paddling to return to the launch. That is, as long as you live by the simple rule that, if you do use a motor, you never travel further than you are willing to paddle back.