Monday, May 22, 2006

The Last Fish

The last day! Yesterday the relevance of today crept into the old cranium. Other than missing my family there isn’t a trip long enough that will keep me from begrudgingly approaching last day. In my younger more carefree days I use to have the luxury of having entire months off. I don’t ever recall tiring of such long fly fishing stints nor not having some angst regarding that last day. I’ve always approached the final days of any trip with regret, yet upon departing always thankful for the opportunity to fly fish and do so in such extraordinary places.

So as I wake this morning there is some pause for reflection and a little anxiety about expectations on this day. If you have ever fished for tarpon, steelhead or a number of other migratory fishes you know what I’m talking about, for there are no givens when chasing such mysterious fishes. With each chance encounter it could be your last or for that matter your only. I rise today with hopes of getting at least one more tarpon, yet given past experience I know how the reality of the day may unfold.

On this last day of pursuing piscatorial giants our tireless Captain changes our routine. We do so as well. Upon our request he pulls up to Sandy’s for some café con leche. On this island their Cuban coffee is famous along with their grilled egg sandwiches and Cuban Mixes. Sandy’s is one of those gathering places where people of all ethnicities blend seamlessly around good food and good people. It’s a simple sidewalk eatery that offers uniqueness and personality. Qualities that are getting difficult to find in this country any more.

I order three coffees with an extra shot and two lumps. That first sip goes down like creamy honey. The extra shot helps get the predawn cob webs out. I’ve tried to replicate this drink at home, but I just can’t create that island ambiance or the gatherings at Sandy’s that adds to the flavor of every sweet cup. It’s a potent mix that blends well with the Key’s climate and will go nicely with our run to Marquesas.

Catching the Weather Channel before leaving it looks like we are in for a chance of rain, cooler temperatures and a slight increase to the wind for today’s forecast. Looking to the heavens there are far fewer stars to be seen at this early hour and the island palms have a little more sway to them than the day before. Nothing really substantial, but enough of a shift to warrant venturing off to explore new waters.

At the City Marina we run into one of our mates, George Haley. It seems his guide has slept in. Something not terribly uncommon this time of year, but unsettling regardless. Considering he’s only getting a half-day, George is pretty complacent about his unfortunate situation. The past three mornings he and his Captain have fished the Marquesas. To get there at dawn they leave somewhat earlier than we do. On this day like the others he’s been ready since a little after five. Given the anxiety of last day, George hides his true emotions well.

Like a fallen comrade we reluctantly leave him behind. From the dock he wishes us well as we quietly idle into the still waters of the bay. It’s about a 40 minute run in John’s Dolphin, but others make it in far less, that is if the seas through Boca Grande Channel permit such expeditious travel. Several years back, running under a blanket of darkness we stuffed a wave in the infamous channel. This is no place to sink a skiff. Not that any place is, but here were oceans meet rather large silent carnivores lay in wait knowing that migratory tarpon and those that fish for them will pass this way. These days I’m more interested in getting there at a more leisurely pace.

Today’s crossing is relatively calm and uneventful. It’s not often this way Winds are about 15 knots, a little more east than south yet tolerable. There’s a sense of adventure and excitement about returning to these waters. Our last visit was two years ago and also on a last day. Our entire group for the most part that year had yet to catch a tarpon. Some had been here for a week and had yet to jump a fish. I remember George asking me the night before if our Captain carried life jackets. I never thought to ask: blind faith.

On that fateful last day two years back our crossing was relatively calm as well. Before entering the Boca Grande Channel we donned our raincoats in anticipation of the customary drenching we have often taken in many such passing in the past. Fortunately tides and winds were such that we endured only a minor dousing.

Pulling into the Marquesas Southeast channel we were alone. As the day unfolds, we discover that we are the only boat here, a rarity that I’ve experienced in the Marquesas only once before. Our first flat produces big fat goose eggs; so do the second and the third. Although the winds have tapered off, by early afternoon we had yet to see a tarpon or much of anything else for that matter. We slide up onto the south corner of the Marquesas for the second time that day. Our first minutes were much like the rest of that day, void of life and very quiet. John puts us on the clock when a few bull sharks came out to greet us, followed by several rays, and before long a small string of tarpon. My first cast in wonderment produces and eat. Before we leave, Kenny and I had both landed a number of 40-50lb tarpon and each had several more on. When we arrived back at our B&B the dour expressions on our groups face told the tale of another trying day. We did our best to hold back our jubilation. All I can say is no one offered to buy us dinner that night.

Since Ken started out the previous morning, I’m the first one up. After a stint on the bow I’m not really feeling the Mo Jo. Eventually I surrender the deck to my partner hoping to change our fortunes. Off to the north, storm clouds, as predicted, form. Three waterspouts drop from the fronts edge, one violently blending the waters surface where it meets the sea. Coincidentally that’s when the mornings first string of happy tarpon come rolling by. As the wall of water and wind approaches Ken gets an eat and all hell breaking loose.

As the tarpon catapults across the dark seas, the first line of heavy squalls hits us hard. The only boat within eyeshot of us is already hunkered down in their cockpit sheltered in their yellow slickers. By the time Kenny get his lady under control the sheets of rain and wind have transformed our peaceful surrounding into a wet surreal blur. Thunder (what’s wrong with this picture) reverberates atop the Marquesas. It’s our last day, so the battle goes on. Under a darkened sky now absent of rain we get several leader touches with the ninety-pound tarpon, but the shock wears through before we can do more.

By the time the sun sheds light again on these emerald waters, almost everyone has left this wilderness atoll. Given the nature of the day, Ken allows me amble time to end the trip with a tarpon of my own. Moving over to the south side I get a good eat, but didn’t see it because of the poor light. The few early strings grow less frequents here as we patiently wait. There’s another boat where John would rather be, that parts just a short time after we arrive. Behind him we’ve eyed a ball of big lazily rollers. He either doesn’t see them, or ideas of heading home occupy his mind. John begins a long pole to intercept this group that we’ve watched for thirty minutes or more. They’re daisy chaining when we arrive, yet before my first cast can be delivered the chain begins to break and they start to wander on. We follow in pursuit for some time.

I literally get a f…ing ton of shots at this ignorant string of fish. They lead us from flat to flat and channel to channel. I change flies, change leaders, cast in front of them, on them, behind them, strip the fly fast, don’t strip it at all, swing it like a soft hackle, all to no avail. They continue to roll and frolic all the while. Eventually we all get frustrated and leave.

With our frustration, our Captain wanted to take a little diversion from the reluctant tarpon. At this juncture we are the only remaining skiff left in the Marquesa’s. For the next hour or so we do a little exploring, plodding the tannin waters of the mangrove edges for a fish John’s never caught here before. For now, I’m reluctant to divulge our quarry fearing my friend will strike me from his calendar for next year’s season. Although we didn’t catch anything, the side show was worth the diversion.

Eventually we head back to the northeast corner of this beautiful atoll. As John takes the poling platform one last time, all is silent, to silent. For a time, not a single fish shows. Then that magic word we love to hear “tarpon”. “You got em. Point with your rod tip. Ya that’s them. Come on ladies, nice and happy now. Come on”. We all know this will be our last opportunity, especially me. Spotting a roller it’s obvious their happy, for it’s slow and easy with no real purpose in their movement. We do the same as we approach, slow and easy. For me, in afternoon dwindling light, I have a difficult time discerning heads from tail. John’s uncommon patience and skill puts mw right where I need to be to get the shot and an eat.

I have yet to yipp a fish this week and now is not the time to do so. As one of the ladies slips from the school to take the fly, I let her turn before coming tight. They don’t always cooperate in this way, but fortunately this time the tarpon does. Mayhem disrupts the quiet silence off the northeast corner of the Marquesas as eighty pounds of chrome irrupts from the shallow depths. I absorb all that unfold before me; the jumps, the powerful runs, the beauty of this marine wilderness, knowing this is last day.

Our tug of war becomes a war of wills, the limiting factor being the thin mono class tippet. For the longest time we’re just twelve to fourteen feet away, yet given my progress it seem so much further. In these clear emerald waters I can see every movement of every scale on the beautiful animals body. Several times the leader knots annoyingly nock as they clear the guides. That’s as close as we’ll get. Eventually the leader breaks in an effort to lift her from the bottom. As she silently disappears into the depths, John comment “there was a lot left in that fish”. My arm aches and I’m sweating as a big smile comes across my face. Thanks to our Captains efforts and Ken’s patience I leave the Marquesas on a note that not all last days end upon.

John digs for a cold jolt of caffeine, Ken and I water for the ride. Our run home should be quick. Although it’s still a fair trek to this island atoll, the time running home will give us a moment to reflect on our brief stay in the Key’s and this last day.

It’s late as we skim across the rippled surface of the inland lakes past Boca Grande, Man, and Woman Key. We’re the only boat left at this late juncture. Ahead for the first time in a while, the sky line of Key West is just beginning to show. Life is good!

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