Chapter 3 – Negative conditioning

 

            I had done a little bluewater fishing before I began to fish with Dave, both from my tarpon-fishing boat and on charter trips. I quit doing it from my boat on the day we came across a pretty healthy-sized blue marlin eating chicken dolphin in a patch of sargasso grass near the Cognac platform. It didn’t take but an instant to realize that should we ever hook something that big, the best thing for all concerned would be to lose it as soon as possible! We never caught anything out there in my boat but dolphin, anyway, and very few of them. But Dave, and a couple of charter captains who worked out of his marina, knew a little more than I did about what was going on out there. So it eventually occurred to me that with their assistance, some of the fish they were catching should be able to be caught with a fly rod – at least the smaller versions of the beasts.

            By that time I had acquired a fairly sizeable battery of fly rods – for those days, anyway. One of them – which I quickly learned to dislike intensely but which initially seemed to be ideal for the reds in the local marsh – was a first-generation graphite 10-weight. It was a real wimp, too, but since it was declared to be a 10-weight – at the time me believing everything that was stamped on fly rods – I figured it was stout enough for offshore work, especially after I had added a foregrip to it. And clearly realizing the reels I had been using for reds would be entirely inadequate for offshore purposes, I bought another which I hoped would be appropriate. Technique and flies, however, remained constants.

            On my initial offshore fly-fishing trip, we first found a school of small dolphin that were a lot of fun but not much of a test. That came a little later when some skipjack tuna appeared on the scene. The first one struck a big popper but somehow managed to miss the hook. The second removed the popper’s body while also managing to avoid the hook, but I stuck the third one – which took off like the proverbial striped ape and broke the tippet when the loose shooting line fouled around a cleat. So much for tuna fishing with a fly rod…

            Nevertheless, it began to accompany me on a few of my offshore trips, just in case.

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            Bill never did ask me to go on a second offshore fly-fishing trip with him, and it’s pretty obvious why. He and I had met at one of the meetings of the New Orleans chapter of the F.F.F. and hit it off right away, him being one of the most sorely-smitten of the bunch. He had actually caught a tarpon on a fly, too – over in Florida somewhere, so he had some idea of what was what when it came to fly fishing for beasts.

            I had made a tarpon-fishing trip with Dave’s sons Brandon and Brent a day or so before that meeting and had taken an 80-odd pounder on my heavy casting outfit. Conditions had been absolutely perfect, and the forecast was for them to continue. And as I was relating all the glorious details of the day to Bill just before the meeting began, I could see the gleam in his eyes getting brighter and brighter. We left the dock the next morning at daybreak.

            At first, West Delta was a little lumpy for Bill’s 17-footer, but by the time we beat our way out to where the fish had recently been congregating, it was smoothing off nicely. Throughout the first half of the morning a school would pop up here and there, but they were either moving too fast for Bill’s bow-mounted trolling motor to stay with them or they quickly sounded once we reached casting range. We spent most of the late morning running around looking, and a little after noon – with the water now greasy slick – we found a gang of happy ones along the western perimeter of Block 58.

            Initially they were blowing apart a big school of silversides – “rain minnows” hereabouts because the audible pitter-patter that they make on a reasonably calm surface sounds just like rainfall. A merry melee was in full swing when we reached it; tarpon were free-jumping, slashing through the bait, and wallowing lazily within it, taking huge numbers in each gulp. Bill shut down the outboard at a distance and moved in with the trolling motor, and almost immediately we were surrounded by tarpon – big and hungry tarpon – tarpon that were in an ideal setting for fly fishing and, by the way, on the surface in 60 feet of water.

            That little particular is typical of the Louisiana tarpon grounds, and it nagged at me incessantly when thoughts of fly fishing for them arose. I had caught enough hell from those I had taken on casting and trolling gear when they sounded in water that deep – or occasionally much deeper. Pumping them up with a fly rod – especially one like my wimpy 10-weight – did not seem like it would be much fun, and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to find out. Well, that thought arose again after I had made a few casts with it, so I stowed it, picked up the heavy casting rod that I had smuggled aboard, made one cast with it, and – as I should have expected from my experiences on my tarpon-fishing boat – caught a shark.

            The tarpon had begun to move by the time we rid ourselves of that problem, and my ugly jig was wrecked, so I took over the trolling motor duties from Bill – who at least had a 12-weight outfit – and we began our pursuit. For fully 15 minutes we followed them – or rather, we stayed among them, with Bill picking a fish, casting, stripping, nothing, changing the fly, casting, stripping, nothing…

            Now a dedicated Louisiana tarpon nut can stand only so much of any kind of foolishness that isn’t working when poons are present. And remember, I still had some serious doubts whether or not our tarpon – and they do tend to average on the large side – could be caught on a fly in water that deep; at the time no fish was known to have been taken thusly. So I abandoned the trolling motor to Bill, quickly replaced my wrecked jig with a fresh one, made a short cast at a smallish fish that had just surfaced right off the starboard quarter – and immediately hooked up with a monster!

            After three rapid-fire jumps – one at almost touching distance just off the outboard, one off the starboard beam, and the last awfully close to the bow, the fish took off – sounding. I then made my way to the bow’s casting platform and from there began a duel that lasted for more than 2 1/2 hours. During that time I consumed a gallon of water, a large bottle of Gatorade, and a diet Coke, and by the end of the conflict I was still almost dehydrated by that torrid August afternoon. The rod, with which I had tamed the recently-caught 80-pounder in a reasonably short time, had line-grooves cut into its foregrip. By the time Bill was able to reach over the side of the boat and touch the leader – the Louisiana way of counting coup with tarpon – the muscles in the top of my left arm were cramping horribly. It took three full days – and a lot of aspirin – for the pain to go away. The fish – somewhere around 180, we estimated – swam away apparently in much better shape than I was.

            That tarpon – my largest at the time – added a lot of negative conditioning to my already negative thoughts about fly fishing for them and other offshore beasties. The more I pondered it, the more I became convinced that fly fishing for tarpon, at least, was not realistic in our deep waters – for sure, catching one would be a lot more work than fun, should I ever manage to hook one in the first place. So while the wimpy 10-weight still went along on my offshore trips, thoughts of slaying a tarpon with it disappeared. There were other beasts in the ocean that should be a lot more catchable… and almost as big… like lemonfish…

(Photos by Bill Quennan)

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