Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sometimes You Get Lucky

Morning arrives at the same time around the world every day, but in Key West during tarpon season they seem to dawn a little earlier. No more so than for tarpon guides. It's hard work and as appealing as it may seem to some youthful souls, it's definitely a vocation not suited for everyone.

It's May in the Lower Keys, historically peak tarpon season. So far this year’s variable weather patterns have compounded the challenging circumstances one faces when pursuing these fish. The reality of fly-fishing for these prehistoric piscatorial swimmers perched on the bow of a small skiff, with a rather small fly, under often tumultuous conditions, is you’re setting yourself up to fail. Once you get over this fact, you’ll realize there are few experience in fly-fishing that rival this game.

As we begin our second day the winds have died from yesterday. More importantly the waters surrounding Key West have warmed some. It’s cooler than normal, but given climate change what’s normal anymore. Religiously we monitor the weather, but have paid little attention to the water temperatures in the past. This year different. Leaving the dock John takes his first reading. It's improved, but still several degrees from where he would like to see it.

Idling from the marina, skies are clear, winds are calm, and again there’s a slight chill to the air. We head to Tower Flat, hopefully for some dawn rollers. In the past we've had great success on this flat. Given yesterdays gauntlet of guides oceanside we're taking a bit of a gamble hopefully in exchange for some tarpon that have yet to encounter the masses. As we pull onto the flat, we're alone, except for a few cruising Brown Pelicans and the ever present Cormorants.

John’s willing to take a chance now and then, a quality of many he posses that I respect and enjoy. He’s not afraid to change and break his daily routine. Nothing like rolling the dice once in a while! Any ardent gambler knows you can’t throw 7’s if you don’t let them tumble now and again. In the past his hunches have led to some of our most memorable and successful days. As we begin this day, we’re hoping to add to those recollections.

Ken and I rotate morning shifts and I’ve the satisfaction of occupying the bow on this beautiful morning. The oceans relatively calm and we’ve all seen it far worse. There have been times when staying upright was challenging. Enduring such circumstances makes one appreciative of these more pleasant circumstances. Tower Flat’s shallow waters shimmer before us. Its dimpled dark surface stands out from the oceans surrounding chop. Even Ken and I can easily deduce its boundaries.

First light on a tarpon flat before suns penetrating rays offer a window into their world is exhilarating. Cuban caffeine laced with raw sugar heightens the morning’s intensity. There’s always an electrical aspect to this game, yet at this hour it always seems to go up a notch or two.

John has us on a clock after we’ve seen nothing. It’s an expression he uses when he’s lost confidence in our location. We’ve all been relatively quiet in anticipation when a single word breaks mornings silence; “Tarpon”! It’s a magical word spoken with a slight edge. At the back of the flat the sun catches the backs of several rollers as a school lazily moves onto the edge of the flat. Cautiously we move towards them.

Not having the advantage of visible light adds a level of vigilance that dissipates later in the day. Time passes slowly as we maneuver into position not knowing exactly where the school lies. Several others roll slow and easy before one at the head of the school pops up within casting range. A hint of purple now is visible, the only thing I’ve to go on as the school slides toward our position. My first cast moves through the school affecting no interest. Another lazy roller reflects the suns yellow rays. I try to relax, and slow down before making another cast. John’s in the process of guiding me yet a third cast. Mid sentence “ keep stripping” ends the notion, “you’re in ‘em, strip”. I can feel my pulse and notice I’ve stopped breathing.

We fish for tarpon to watch them eat the fly. After that, the chaos than ensues shatters gossamers of monofilament, splinters rods, and leaves your whole body shaking. But, it’s the eat that sets this fish apart from many game fish. The combined experience is one of the most exhilarating in fly-fishing.

Out of dawns blackness an explosive flash of light the magically materializes. It’s all I can do to keep from habitually lifting my rod, a trout fishing habit that’s cursed me on numerous occasions. A brief moment of emptiness passes before the line becomes taught. It seems like and eternity. The 80lb fish erupts from the flat, crashing back to the security of the oceans dark waters. Mornings silence is shattered as fly line rapidly leaves the reel. Four more times the tarpon catapults itself above the dark surface of the flat. Four times I bow.

John and Ken are mocking my silence as I concentrate on the bolt of electricity I’m tethered to by a thin wisp of monofilament. John stakes out the skiff and prepares to land the fish. At this early hour my day is complete having landed a tarpon, knowing that I’ve gone weeks without so much as a sniff from one of these amazing animals Quietly I watch the tarpon disappear, replaying that which just occurred before reveling in my good fortunes, Captain John remarks that this tarpon is his years inaugural Tower Flat fish. That puts the season in perspective.

Although we had a number of opportunities throughout the remainder of the day, neither of us touched another fish. We had our chances, but for the most part many of these tarpon have been around for a while and given their lingering presence they want nothing to do with our offering.

Eventually our day comes to and end. They all end much too soon. Running across the backcountry late in the day we begin the long run optimistically hopeful for the days that still lay ahead. Given our day’s success and the weather that’s predicted for the remainder of our stay, we’re all enthusiastic.


JayMorr said...

Absolutely awesome Steve. Thanks for sharing your experience!


Murdock said...


Great telling of a great story!

Snake said...

I am ready!

prigstad said...

Nice story Steve. I need to talk to you about booking a trip down there.