Monday, May 21, 2007

That's ok, Well find another!

At 6am I’m numbly feeling my way to Dam Good Foods for breakfast and to retrieve our day’s lunch. Signs of the day’s emergence are just beginning to show. Harbor flags that adorn the tall ships masts, era of a century gone by, move softly in the pre-dawn breeze. Although it’s still cool for this time of year, the air temperature is perceptibly warmer. These are things one notices when strolling through Key West in preparation for a day on the flats.

The forecast has us starting a little earlier on this third day. Light variable winds from the west have precipitated this favorable change. I’m sure will begin our morning where we started the previous day. In anticipation, John’s already put the skiff in. We make the short trip to City Marina, restock our water and quickly are underway.

Departing we notice a cumulus bank of dark clouds building on the eastern horizon. Nothing threatening but, a condition that will produce some minor inconveniences later in our day. The Gulf’s smooth as John brings the Dolphin up on plane. Calm enough to continue sipping my coffee. Although at thirty plus miles an hour I wouldn’t call the act of finishing the last of ones coffee sipping. I’ve been known on numerous occasions to wear most of the contents of my morning Java in a feeble attempt to ingest the last dregs. Today, I’ll arrive unscathed.

Ken’s up first this morning with hopes of replicating yesterday’s fortunes. To the east the sky now glows of burnt orange, a color enhanced by Florida’s widespread wildfires. It’s beautiful until you realize the significance of the situation. Pulling onto Tower Flat somewhat earlier than the previous day it takes a little longer for the first and only school of tarpon to show; again their backs reflect gold from the freshly risen sun. “Tarpon”, that magical word that transforms all thoughts to a solitary focus pierces mornings still air. Our game begins.

The eat materializes much as it did the day before, the difference, Ken’s fly never finds its mark. His instinctive reaction to the explosive take not serving his best interest. As trout fisherman we’ve all done it; the habits of our upbringings ingrained over decades are difficult practices to break. The school vanishes as if a figment of our imagination. Disappointment hangs in the air yet the fleeting opportunity instills some confidence and optimism. Before departing John exhorts, “that’s ok, we’ll find another”. A phrase over the duration of the trip we’ll hear often.

Although the back country has been fairly void of laid up fish, the warming waters hopefully will have lured a few weary tarpon into their protected basins for a brief pardon from their journey. This vast labyrinth of mangrove islands bordering the Gulf is one of our favorite areas. If our fortunes should continue to prevail we’ll find a laid up tarpon or two. To our disappointment such was not the case. Other than the abundant birds and the occasional Hawksbill or Loggerhead Turtle, the backcountry was regrettably empty. Begrudgingly we move to the Atlantic to join the rest of the tarpon fishing community.

Its late morning since leaving Tower Flat. In that time we haven’t had another shot. Out of nowhere a small string of blue backs moves onto the small isolated flat we’ve just poled up on. My tarpon partner of nine years is again up and almost immediately gets an eat, yet as before his line continues without perceptible interruption, the disillusionment from lost opportunities more noticeable this time. Silently we watch the pod of large tarpon swim past knowing there was nothing Ken could have done to have changed the outcome. We linger for sometime afterwards, but the flat goes uncomfortably quiet: “that’s ok, we’ll find another.”

If you choose to fish with a fly for tarpon, at some point you are simply bound to fail, sometimes with grace more times than not wretchedly. Regardless of ones abilities or experience it’s going to happen. Never was this more apparent than my next opportunity.

My day for the most part has been a combination of poor presentations and fleeting opportunities. Since my partners eat, we’ve again moved. After several failed shots at close range, John finds a nice string; “tarpon”. At twelve o’clock a small group of tarpon enters our field of vision, slow and happy. The shots at a slight angle, yet near perfect with ample time to determine speed and distance. After several false casts I lay a cast down. Perched high overhead John instructs me to move the fly as the group nears. His vantage point and focus prevents him from noticing my frantic attempts at locating the line. The string moves silently out of range before I regain control. “That’s ok, well find another”. Not exactly the outcome I was hoping for.

I’m humbled by my ineptness knowing that this may have been the best opportunity of the day. One never knows. Although we’re still seeing fish, we’ve all tired of these dour fish that have showed little if any interest in our flies. The best either of us can muster after several hours of playing this game is a perceptible lick, nothing more. Such an insulting gesture! Surveying the horizons it doesn’t take much of an imagination to know why. We’re third in line, and there were two more boats behind us.

It’s late in the day and most guides are heading in when we finally leave the Atlantic for one last opportunity. As we move onto our last flat, two Tomcats shatter the Key’s silence, their presence a brief and irritating reminder of a loathsome war. John takes the poling platform while Ken strips out line. We fished here earlier in the day and found just a few laid up fish. At this late juncture we’re just hoping for a Hail Mary.

John quickly positions his skiff before immediately spotting a tarpon, then another and yet another; “oh my God, there’s a shit load of tarpon here. They’re fucking everywhere”. Even at my low vantage point I can make out several laid up fish. With patience, John maneuvers the skiff from one to another; the first several tarpon rejecting the offerings much like we’ve endured throughout most of our day. Close and off the bow an ambling pair swings towards us. Laying the fly down the lead fish immediately shows interest and settles just inches behind the fly, yet only apparently to scrutinize the tie. After what we’ve been through the gesture is agonizing. John does his best to encourage the fish; “come on!” After letting the fly sit, Ken again moves the fly, instantaneously the tarpon accelerates, eats but misses the fly. The lost opportunity now has both tarpon frantically in search of the fly. Upon locating it, the lead tarpon again dives on the fly. Ken’s line immediately comes tight.

From thirty feet the tarpon explodes showering the flat then shattering the basins numbing silence. In late afternoons soft light the shows even more impressive. In seconds a hundred yards of backing and fly line disappears from the reel. Anxious Ken looks back at our Captain to see if he’s going to take up the chase. He reassures my partner that his Gulfstream has plenty of backing. We ended up not needing much more. In a brief struggle to regain control the line suddenly goes lim[. Upon inspection, the sixty pound shock tippet had worn through. That’s tarpon fishing.

My partner somewhat dejectedly steps down to replace his fly. In the interim I take the bow. I’m immediately confronted by several uncooperative fish. At this late hour I know my opportunities are dwindling. High up on the flat John finds three tarpon leisurely mingling. Silently we move towards them. Eventually running out of real estate, they’ve no choice but to turn. We’re in perfect position.

Measuring a cast to intercept their path, none of the trio seems to notice as the fly lands to their side and slightly ahead of their path. Unaware of our presence they’re barely moving. I do my best to match the speed of the fly with their lethargic pace. At thirty feet the second fish tilts up and slides in behind the chartreuse fly, yet agonizingly it doesn’t take. All’s deathly quiet. At twenty-five feet the fly hovers inches from the tarpons mouth. I accelerate the strip, the cat and the string, the tarpon rapidly accelerates taking the fly not wavering from its path. I feel nothing in my futile efforts to catch up with the fishes lunge. Eventually the boat spooks it, the trio departs leaving their footprints on the waters surface and gathering mud where their powerful tails propelled them from harms way. I exhale disappointed and audible sigh escaping from holding my breath.

I watched the trio disappear into the flats mirrored waters knowing that was my last chance. To be teased in such an objectionable manner was exhilarating, but so unfulfilled. I reel in. My hand runs across the shock tippet to find it’s rough confirming the failure of the fleeting encounter.

As we leave the flat we crack a Red Stripe for the long run home, the sun now dull in the smoky western horizon, each of us to our thoughts after this long day. Upon joining the rest of our crew well learn our day was far more productive than most. A hint of optimism returns for our last day however, the reality of failed opportunities not lost on the reality of fly-fishing for tarpon. Circumstances you’ll grow to appreciate only with time.

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