Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tarpon Season

Don and Sally were fifteen minutes late.  I wasn’t annoyed by this, my anglers show up late all the time, but I found it kind of surprising since I knew how eager Don and his wife were for their trip.  We were going after tarpon this morning and the conditions were perfect.  We had a cloudless sky, no wind and a tide that just started rising a half hour earlier. 

It was the complete opposite of the morning we had just a month earlier.  Our first charter together happened right after a nasty March cold front with twenty knot winds and churned up flats that made sight casting almost impossible.  I fought a constant battle to keep the skiff in a decent casting position and Don still managed to land a nice legal-sized redfish on a fly early that morning.  Sally followed up with one of her own on spinning gear just before lunch. 

They were the first new clients I’d fished with in a long time and we were off to a good start.  They were also that perfect combination of skilled anglers who were easy to deal with on a tough day, so I was more than happy when Don started talking about booking a tarpon trip with me in early April. 

Over the next three weeks I fielded nearly a dozen phone calls and e-mails from Don about flies, fly lines, leaders, and hook sizes.  Believe it or not, I actually like getting calls at dinnertime from my clients asking me questions such as “Should I use rabbit fur or marabou in these Tarpon Toads I’m tying?”  I take that as a sign of a serious angler, and Don was definitely serious. 

That’s why I found his slight tardiness that morning kind of puzzling, but he and Sally were willing to drive all the up from Estero to fish with me again so I let it slide.  It was still a few minutes before 8AM when we finally motored away from the dock.  There was still plenty of morning left for us.

Matlacha Pass was flat calm and the run to Charlotte Harbor took no time at all.  The water up there was gin clear and 76 degrees, perfect conditions to find some big tarpon.  I aimed my Beavertail skiff west and we pressed on until the shoreline of Gasparilla came into view.  A few minutes later we were approaching the shallows of my favorite tarpon spot.  Just as I was reaching for the throttle I noticed the other boat coming from the west but aiming for the same bank.  He came off plane first and idled right up to the edge of the flat.  There was a lone angler driving the boat, a very expensive looking Hell’s Bay, and he immediately jumped up to the bow with a fly rod and started his trolling motor. 

Now I was annoyed.  Someone had beaten me to my spot by less than a minute and was in position to get the first shots at every tarpon running down the flat.  If Don and Sally had been on time we would have been well in front of this guy.  I grumbled a bit but there was nothing to be done about it.  I decided to just drop my Power Pole and let the other skiff move down the flat, silently praying that I wouldn’t witness him hook a tarpon right in front of us. 

I had Don step on the bow and make some practice casts until the Hell’s Bay was far enough away from me.  After several minutes I picked up the anchor and started poling my Beavertail across the three foot deep sandy bottom.  I kept an eye on the other boat but just a few minutes later the angler stepped off the deck and slowly motored off the flat without making a single cast.  I was glad to have the stretch of water to myself but was now worried that the other angler left because no tarpon were here. 

It was now after 9AM and the sun was hitting the water at a perfect angle.  I could see everything within 200 yards of us and a big tarpon would be as obvious as the nose on my face.  I could also see the top of the Boca Grande lighthouse straight to my west.  There would be hundreds, maybe thousands of tarpon pouring through the famous pass that morning.  There would also be dozens of big center console boats drifting and motoring through the mile wide cut slinging live bait and heavy jigs at the mass of fish rolling in the deep water off Gasparilla. 

Boca Grande Pass was only a few minutes away but it was the far side of the moon as far as I was concerned.  The full contact style of fishing they do out there is the polar opposite of the way I chase tarpon.  I would rather get one jump on a fly rod than muscle in a dozen fish out of the depths on big conventional reels.  But the way the flat seemed this morning, getting Don that one jump was looking doubtful.

I quietly cursed at myself over the next few minutes for not insisting we leave a half hour earlier, convinced we already missed our short window at a tarpon.  These fish are often a sunrise deal and it was now almost 9:30.  That’s when I saw the black spot in the water quickly moving towards us. 

I spun the boat with the push pole as fast as I could to give Don a downwind shot.  The fish didn’t like the sudden motion and made a quick left turn off the bright sand and into the darker grass, giving Don a lousy angle but I had him Hail Mary a cast straight off the bow to where I thought the tarpon might be heading.  The purple fly became invisible once it hit the dark water and our one shot looked finished.  I was just about to have Don try one more throw when the slack line from his rod tip snapped tight like a snare. 

We never saw the fish eat the fly but we all witnessed the aftermath.  Six feet and more than one hundred pounds of brilliant silver tarpon came rocketing from the surface just twenty feet from my bow.  The huge fish seemed to freeze for a moment in the air, completely out of the water and in that perfect mouth open, gills flared pose that every taxidermist loves.  From the poling platform at the back of my skiff I had a fantastic view of the sparkling tarpon and several bucket’s full of spray flying through the air, with Don locked on to his heavily bowed fly rod just below me.  It’s a sight I’ve witnessed countless times and still never get to see enough.

The tarpon smashed back into the water a heartbeat later and it was all done.  Without seeing the fish eat the fly, Don never had a chance to set the hook with the necessary violence that tarpon require.  Sally was poised between us with the camera ready to capture a second jump that wasn’t going to happen.  The fish disappeared as quickly as it arrived. 

It was our only hookup of the day.  We moved on to other flats and cast to dozens of other fish but none would play our game.  I wasn’t really disappointed.  It was early April and tarpon season was just beginning.  This time of year I often hook these fish through a combination of blind luck and being in the right place at the right time.  I thought about that as we ran home at lunchtime.  We were definitely in the right place that morning.  And we were there at the right time because Don and Sally were fifteen minutes late.