Chapter 7 – The Tarpon

(Note: The tale herein has been related earlier in another part of this site. However, it is especially relevant to the series of events that led through the wilderness, so I felt that it was appropriate to repeat it here.  And while I just might be a bit partial to it, I’ve been told it’s a pretty good story. Hope you enjoy it – again.)

April teases the Delta. One might think that fishable days would be at least a little more numerous than they were a month earlier, but there are still ripping northers, and the southerlies kick up between them, often for weeks at a time. Normally – for offshore purposes anyway – spur-of-the-moment trips remain the best way to fish.

Dave phoned me around eight on that uncharacteristically serene spring morning. He and Debbie had caught some serious flack the night before at the monthly meeting of the New Orleans Tarpon Club – something about having lost their “expertise”, since they had caught very few fish the year before. That, in great part, was because of the boat they had bought to replace the Topaz, and it didn’t take long for them realize that the big new diesel engine they had dropped into it put out the wrong vibes. So late in the season they swapped it for a gas motor and caught a good one – which was, not so incidentally, the last fish of the year. Now they were hot to show the doubters that their expertise was indeed not lost by catching the new season’s first fish. Did I want to be a part of it? We set the first trolling spread at 10:40, and at 11 jumped off the first fish. That one doesn’t count…

As usual, the 12-weight – rigged and ready – was resting in its case beneath a gunwale. I wasn’t about to interfere with their efforts, though by then I was willing – anxious even – to try my hand at fly fishing for the great silver beasts. All of the earlier negative conditioning had been erased by the quick capture of the Chandeleur bull and the confidence I was gaining in the 12-weight outfit. But not today. Still, the time was nearing for the first lemonfish to appear in West Delta, and if we came across some of them – and no tarpon – I surely didn’t want to miss the opportunity. We troll for four hours without another strike.

Three o’clock. The sea is gut slick and gray, mirroring a thick overcast. There is no horizon; there is no activity – neither bait nor broaching fish – to break the catatonic monotony that has set into the three of us.

Debbie sees something off to port – some kind of fish moving directly towards us just beneath the water’s surface. It seems unhurried, purposeful, its wake straight and true to course. Occasionally its dorsal fin and the tip of its tail gently breaks the glassy surface. No ray, it must be a cobia – my cobia.

I ascend the bow’s casting platform, strip some line off the reel, and set the drag as Dave kills the engine. The fish never wavers from its depth – or its heading: straight at our port quarter. Through the surface glare we still can’t tell what it is, but at about 50 feet I let fly, and the big streamer lands just ahead of it. Two strips and the fish sees it, surges ahead in a great swirl, and errs a bit in deflection. But as its momentum carries it alongside the boat and downward, its broad green back and long dorsal whip are plainly visible: tarpon!

Now the once-barren Gulf is alive with them. They come in singles and small schools, their fins and tiny waves marking their presence. Their courses are steadfast and methodical – a single mysterious heading, barely brushing the surface in 50 feet of water.

Debbie takes the helm as Dave and I swap places. My fly, while suitable for lemonfish, leaves a lot to be desired when tarpon are involved. I replace it with one that I once tied while wishfully thinking, never daring to imagine the reality of the present moment.

Debbie positions the boat so that the tarpon approach from port. Dave lines the first school and spooks them, but he shortly hooks up in another. Forgotten trolling lines are cleared and rods secured. The fish gives us six jumps, then the hook pulls. The year’s first fish is proving to be difficult.

I am on the bow again. As a pair approach, I think of sight-casting to redfish that are patrolling a grass shoreline – except these are not redfish, this is not the marsh. They are moving directly towards me. I drop the fly some 10 feet short of them, let them come to it, and begin to strip. One bolts ahead, takes, and I hammer him. But as he surges away and upwards, the loose shooting line fouls on the bow-cleat, and let me avow that you cannot clear such a mess with a 100-odd pound tarpon pulling on the end of it! Then the hook straightens. Murphy’s Law…

Dave gets near-missed twice while I re-rig, then lightly sticks another that sheds the hook on its first jump. Another makes three passes at his ugly jig – the last one right at the boat! I have never seen them act this way – such direct purpose, and such aggression – and I have seen a lot of tarpon.

A small school is about to cross the bow. I lead them just enough, one hits, I hit back, and it vaults skyward – and falls back onto the leader, breaking it. I am beginning to get weak knees. I have never had a realistic opportunity to catch a tarpon on a fly before this afternoon – there are so many variables that involve catching these fish even with conventional gear in our waters, and most of those are unfavorable for fly fishing. Now everything is perfect – beyond belief. I may never have a better chance.

While I again re-rig, Dave is short-struck in two schools. The pattern is becoming almost surrealistic: here come some more, choose the school, move the boat ahead of them, kill the engine, wait until they are in position, cast. Invariably there is either a near-miss, a short strike, or a solid take.

I have two near-misses in a row, then a short strike in another school. Six chances for a fly-caught tarpon within an hour. How can I even dare to hope for another – but the parade continues.

A pair approach, their course exactly the same as that of countless others, their wakes small, slow, straight, and true, quartering towards me from the left. I wait; I can feel my knees shaking. I need a cold one badly – I need to get rid of one worse. There is no way I would have ever believed this had I not seen it for myself. Keep coming, fish – keep coming…

I dump the first cast almost on top of them, but they don’t spook. I let them pass, pick it up, and cast once more. This one is on target, and the lead fish takes immediately – and this time Mr. Murphy wasn’t looking.

Five spectacular jumps and 20 minutes later, with Dave having touched the leader just above the fish, we shook it loose at boatside. Somewhere around 90, they said. I didn’t think it was quite that big, but they’ve seen a lot more tarpon than I have. And a little later Dave got his.

After the excitement we all celebrated with a cold one. A light breeze had picked up by then, gently ruffling the water, but we could still see fish here and there, moving across the surface of West Delta just like giant redfish cruising along the edges of the grass, each knowing exactly where it was going and never varying from that course – never broaching, never sounding – all leaving only tiny, insignificant-looking waves in their paths.

The next morning Dave and I made another run, had one strike while trolling, caught it, and never saw another fish. That afternoon a screaming norther blew through: residual winter. Awfully early to be tarpon fishing in West Delta…

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So I caught Louisiana’s first tarpon of the 1994 season, and I did it with a fly rod. The fish was also only the second known to have been taken from our waters in that fashion – and the first by a resident. And although I was not a member of the New Orleans Tarpon Club, I received some sincere recognition from them along with a very nice award for the accomplishment at one of their later meetings. What more can be said…

Well, I was a very happy puppy about it all – and awfully fortunate. For sure, I had learned my leader-knots by then, and Bob’s lesson had become well ingrained; late in the fight and with the fish on the surface, I had actually rolled it over – twice! But for all that, one must first get a strike, and in times of normal tarpon behavior in the waters surrounding the lower Delta – when they are hard-rolling, running, or simply not showing on the surface, holding near bottom in water of great depth for these fish, that isn’t easy.

Then too, it’s awfully hard to cast a fly from the cockpit of a sportfisherman with seven to nine trolling lines in train, even tougher from the bow in three-foot seas. Pure luck won’t get the job done, but a whole lot of it will sure help!

And I had an abundance of it, being in the right place at the right time and on a flat-calm Gulf where we could see and work the fish easily – and cast to them without having to keep one hand on a grab-rail to prevent being knocked overboard by a big, cresting swell. And those fish were staying on the surface where they were easily fly fishable – and there were so many of them…

But there was one other thing – or rather, the lack of it – that weighed so heavily in the capture of that fish. It is an adversity that is no longer present in places where fly fishing for beasts has become chic, yet it is one which arises – and, I guess, understandably so – in areas, like Louisiana, where that sport is still being pioneered. It is the lack of willingness of the crew – or, particularly, the skipper – to allow it to be done.

Dave eagerly allowed me to continue further into the wilderness of fly fishing for tarpon off the Louisiana coast after losing two of them, and that was at least as important in the capture of that grand fish as the great fortune of being there in such perfect – and so rare – conditions, my growing experience and confidence, and Bob’s lesson. I have no doubt that without any one of those factors, all of the others would have been for nothing. But they had all come together. I had faced the great silver beast and conquered it. Now, with 12-weight in hand, I was 10 feet tall, bullet-proof, and invisible. Invincible!

Now, let ’em come…

One Response to Chapter 7 – The Tarpon

  1. Kyle M says:

    Congrat.s!!!

    Too cool!