Chapter 5 – Bob’s Lesson


            It appeared like a wraith through the cloud of clam-shell dust on that still, sweltering August afternoon – a white pick-up pulling a white 16-foot Maverick. Who is this stranger, for surely he was, since back then virtually no one in Louisiana fished from Florida flats-boats.

            Dave and I were partaking in an occasional cold one, wishing we were fishing. He had recently sold his Topaz – a tarpon-catching boat if there ever was one – and was now mainly limited to the use of Brandon’s boat when his son didn’t have a charter trip. That day he did – life’s tough, especially on such a fine afternoon to be out in West Delta trolling ugly jigs for tarpon. Anyway, with such a strange craft entering our world, we simply had to go check it out.

            Bob actually was from Florida. He was a fly-fishing guide down there – mostly for tarpon, and he had never even seen Louisiana until quite recently. His wife had just taken a good job in New Orleans, and since his fishing season in the Keys and then up around Homosassa had ended for the year, he had driven over to re-join her for the off-months. The Maverick was brought along to see if all he’d been hearing about Louisiana’s saltwater fishing – conventional fishing, mind you – was as good as it was blown up to be, and he intended to do some speculative fly fishing. And since he mentioned he had no idea of where to go to do so, I unselfishly offered him my assistance. We left the next morning at daybreak, our destination West Delta and the tarpon grounds.

            We greeted the ocean in a haze with visibility limited to only a mile or so. There was not a hint of a breeze, and the Gulf was flat with only the tiniest of swells. A few miles out we picked up Brandon’s boat and followed him across the color change to the spot where he and his charter of the previous day had found some tarpon. As he throttled down to begin trolling, Bob stopped about a half-mile behind him.

            I have no idea why. There was a little scattered bait flicking about here and there, but nothing to indicate the presence of something to cast a fly at. And Bob did not have a depth recorder aboard. Nevertheless, as he was scratching around putting his 12-weight outfit together, a tarpon rolled right beside the boat!

            Here was a great opportunity for me to learn something. The previous September I had gone out with some other Florida folks who were well-versed in dealing with beasties – Billy Pate, Lee Baker, and Phil O’Bannon among them, but while I was along they didn’t catch anything but a small little tunny. Therefore I hadn’t picked up many helpful hints – well, except maybe to add a couple of drops of super glue to my knots. That lesson turned out to be a lot more important than I realized at the time, but I was still disappointed I didn’t see a big fish hooked and how they handled it. Maybe today…

            Bob’s boat wasn’t equipped with a trolling motor, so when a school of fish popped up a few minutes later, we had to position ourselves ahead of them with the outboard, then kill it and wait for them to approach. That worked once, but the two casts that he was able to get into them before they passed were for naught. Tarpon don’t especially like outboard-motor noise, and even if it doesn’t spook them outright, it seems to get their guard up. Anyway, after wasting a couple of hours at that, we decided to run around and see if we could find something we could actually catch.

            Jackfish fit into that category quite nicely – at least they do when one is trolling for tarpon and doesn’t especially want to catch them. It wasn’t long before Bob spotted some birds dipping over a school of rain minnows on which – we shortly discovered – a pack of jacks were doing their thing. He gave me the first shot, I took it, and was immediately hooked up.

            If one has fly fished extensively for the bread and butter types – bass, trout, redfish, and the like – he probably has some acquired conditioning that will affect what he does after he has hooked his first “big” fish. Then, once the hurdle of clearing loose shooting line has been cleared, he has some time to think. That can be bad. Fear of screwing up comes to mind – inexperience, and he wants that fish badly! What should he do, what shouldn’t he do. He may become intimidated by the fish and by being so, baby it. I was, and I did – for fully 50 minutes!

            I thought I was doing well, too – at least I didn’t think I was doing badly. But I had no idea I was almost coddling that fish. Once I got the fly line back onto the reel, I palmed the spool and pumped, and when the fish would make another short run I’d let it go – and once more Bob would say “Put some pressure on him, Pete”. And I would again mutter “I am” – or so I thought.

            The jack was just under 20 pounds. A short time later Bob hooked one a bit larger and had it at the boat in less than 10 minutes – with the same type of tackle and strength of leader as I had been using!

            I was amazed at the amount of pressure he put on that fish. In fact, I was astounded that the rod didn’t explode as he pumped it toward the boat. His drag setting, too, was much more than I would have ever considered setting mine – almost twice as much I discovered later with a set of scales.

            That little lesson in fish-fighting techniques with fly tackle was likely the most important I had ever received. Of course, within my world where no one else was fly fishing offshore, lessons of any type were virtually non-existent. It was pure enlightenment – but it was not my rod! What if applying the lesson would cause mine to break?

            During a phone chat that afternoon, my friends at the rod-manufacturer’s office assured me that if the rod was not damaged and I was fishing 20-pound class, I probably couldn’t break it without trying. So I familiarized myself with a drag-setting of around four pounds – pulling line straight off the reel through an un-bent rod – and the next morning Bob and I sortied again.

            And if one ventures out onto West Delta often enough in a 16-foot Maverick, sooner or later one will assuredly get his butt soundly kicked!

            It wasn’t too bad at first, and we found a gang of bull redfish, jacks, and a few tarpon hell-bent on wiping out a school of rain minnows in about the same place as we had the previous day. But the breeze was building, and our all-too-fast dead-boat drifts through the fish created too much slack line to get solid hook-sets – on the tarpon, anyway. Bob missed two of the great silver beasts on consecutive casts. Of course, he had no trouble whatsoever sticking the jackfish. Then the squall hit, and it was a long, bumpy, and wet 10 miles back to the pass.

            We didn’t fish offshore together again. I drove him up to a pretty little creek north of Lake Pontchartrain where I escape from time to time for a change of pace, and he did seem to really enjoy that. He worked at a boat dealership during the following winter, and we kept in touch over the phone before he headed back to Florida and the spring tarpon season. I haven’t heard from him since, but I’ll always be grateful for having met him – and for the lesson he taught me. (To Be Continued)

Part 2

            Brandon’s charter was a no-show that early-September morning. The tarpon had reached their seasonal peak by then, and there had been some serious poon-bouncing going on in West Delta for several weeks. The boat was ready, and he and his mate Bobby were ready to do some fishing of their own. My phone rang at seven – did I want to come along? An hour later we cleared the mouth of Red Pass – and found the entire world ahead of us as black as midnight! Radar, though, showed the squall to be only some seven miles across, and it was not putting out any lightning, so we donned slickers and plowed through it. And as we cleared its far edge – and regained visibility a little further than the bow-light, we almost collided with a big bunch of bull redfish tearing through a school of rain minnows that they had driven to the surface!

            It was quite a sight: about a half-acre, I’d guess, of fish so thick the water was red – except where it was white with froth. At any instant 20 to 30 fish would surge through the minnows, their backs, shoulders, eyes, and even open mouths clearly visible above the surface – a fly-fishing no-brainer if there ever was one!

            My first cast with an orange and yellow tarpon fly got a 20-pounder – which we released after a 15-minute tussle with the drag set and the rod worked “according to Bob”. Then Brandon and Bobby – who had never caught a big fish on fly – each caught and released one about the same size and within roughly the same time-range. The “lesson” was becoming well learned! Somewhat sadly, though, the fish – each and all a potential state record on fly – had to be released because possession of them in Federal waters was prohibited.

            And as a little lagniappe, if you ever come across a situation like that and proceed to fish it, be prepared to have your fly line shredded by hooked fish dragging it across the backs of others!

            In any case, that was the beginning of what became one of my most memorable days offshore. Much of it, I am not especially sad to say, did not pertain to fly fishing and involved two tarpon. Both were tagged, revived, and released – one estimated at around 120 and on a casting rod, the other “taped” at 190 and on a trolling rod. Both, incidentally – over 300-pounds-worth of tarpon – were taken within a single hour! Okay, so much for gloating – now back to business.

            The fish were staying up and staying put for a change, giving us quite a few good casting shots throughout much of the day. We’d position the boat ahead of what seemed to be their path, kill the engine, and cast to them as they passed. And I must confess that thoughts of tossing a fly at them did arise. But negative conditioning prevailed; besides, I had already caught two, and my hosts were having a bit of trouble keeping their fish attached to their hooks – surely didn’t want to be a fish-hog. So they fished, and I manned the helm, and as we drifted along beside a school of slow-rolling tarpon, a pair of lemonfish appeared right off the starboard beam!

            Now here was an entirely different matter, and it took only seconds for me to un-limber the fly rod – it being kept in a case that holds the entire outfit strung up with fly attached and ready to go. Brandon was pumping his ugly jig in front of them in an attempt to arouse their interest – or maybe to alter it from their curiosity about the hull to thoughts of eating something. Whatever, I stripped out some 10 feet of line, lobbed the fly – a survivor of the bull red melee – at them, and began a slow strip.

            The largest of the pair immediately swung towards it and surged ahead. It was a good fish, and the buck fever quickly built as I was certain I would shortly be hooked up. But 10 feet of fly line does not allow a very long retrieve, and when the leader knot passed through the rod’s tip-top guide, I had to quit “stripping” and start “twitching” – and the fish stopped like it had hit a wall! And no further manipulations of the fly – tendered at a distance less than the length of my rod – inspired the fish to even look at it again!

            I made a couple of more offshore trips that year. Brandon got a 26-pound jack on my 12-weight, though we had to add a little, uh, “enticement” to the big streamer in order to get the fish’s attention. Oh all right, we stuck a dead croaker onto the fly’s hook – the jacks were being uncharacteristically selective that day. Later I had a long-range shot at a cobia which I missed, and that was it in the fly-fishing department for that year.

            The following winter was comparably mild, but it was very windy. There was little fishing time for seemingly weeks on end, but that meant there was lots of time for thinking – and for tying flies – and for soaking up occasional cold ones with Dave while we both cussed the wind.

            Actually the thinking part frequently came when I was tying flies and had a fairly good attitude about it. When I didn’t but felt I had to augment my supply anyway, I’d put on a Jimmy Buffett tape and try not to think about anything while I tied – well, maybe I’d occasionally wish I had a big rum and tonic on my tying desk instead of a cup of coffee. Anyway, one afternoon I had a reasonably good attitude as the northern gale whistled through the stark and barren branches of the backyard hackberries, and as I tied my flies, it suddenly dawned on me that in order to maintain the proper motivation in a lemonfish – keep it interested in the fly instead of the condition of the hull’s bottom paint – perhaps, if at all possible, I should cast to it at a little greater distance.

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