Fly fishing is about gaining and sharing knowledge. To learn to cast or to learn a beat of a river though personally rewarding, is only complete when that knowledge is shared. The successes that we have gained are heightened to its fullest extent when that success is mirrored. Even when we teach others, our thirst for knowledge whether it be technique, species or location keeps us sharp like the needle of this sport that is stuck in our arms.
Cass had been wanting to go camping all summer, and our schedules finally permitted us the opportunity over Labor Day weekend to spend a few days along the banks of the beloved Savage. Making the camping experience as comfortable as possible was the focus as was trying to get Cass on some of my wild and native aquatic acquaintances across the street from our camp. I rigged up a rod, but the purpose was getting Cass a chance at these fair creatures. It may have been a little sadistic to have her try to catch these wiley, educated and spooky fish, but, if she would be able to pull together her skills and my coaching to be rewarded with a jewel of a fish, the accomplishment would be rewarding for her and I.
We set-up beneath the old dam and Cass was getting a good drift through the few seams that run down the break in the old breastworks. The fish began to rise and I changed up the stonefly nymph on her line for a mayfly emerger. First cast and a rainbow comes up for a look and a swat, no take. Change flies to a caddis, a brown does the same. For the next hour, I was cycling through my rod and hers tying on different flies and getting looks, swats, bumps, follows, misses and even quick takes and throws before the hook could take purchase. It’s heart breaking to see this happen, but she did everything right and her casting and presentation were getting better and better with each cast, but this is why we keep coming back. If every look was a landed fish, the Savage wouldn’t hold as special a place in Bug Chucker’s Inc’s collective heart.
After lunch and a nap through the heat of the afternoon, I took Cass upstream from the morning’s beat and found some more rising fish. No, I was not so evil to take her to 7x, though I did have to make a few casts. Cass was casting to several actively rising fish, and the late summer bouillabaisse of insect life in and around the river at that time should have lead to success. My heart broke as she did everything possible to catch a fish but fell short. Again, the fish offered at every fly presented, but the low moonshine clear water enabled the sophisticated trouts to elevate their level of pickiness and blank us. It was rewarding to see Cass advance as an angler, her casting became more precise, line control was advancing and her ability to read the water was surprising, but rewards in fishing come at surprising times and when it is determined we are most ready and appreciative.
The next day, after we broke camp we headed to the Yough for a quick fly dunk as the weather was getting ready to turn. Cass made a few casts with a bugger through a deep cut to no avail. I managed a smallie and two suckers, so not complete skunkage. The important thing was that the near success is a stronger drug in this sport than an over abundance. Seeing those fish come up from the bottom of the river to strike at the fly is as big of an adrenaline rush as their is, Cass got to have this. She’ll have that rush and then have it accompanied with the climax and reflief that occurs after the take, the fight and fish in hand, soon enough.
Five days later I’m boarding a plane to Miami…
I’m flying down with a buddy from work, meeting up with a vendor who invited us down to Key West to fish in the Redbone S.L.A.M celebrity/pro am tournament . A long running tournament series benefiting Cystic Fibrosis research and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. First off, check out http://www.redbone.org. The founder Gary Ellis and his daughter Nicole are true inspirations and in the 20 plus years the tournament series has been around, the good done is immeasurable.
Oh Key West:
He kept inhaling deeply, surprised after his long absence at the familiarity of Key West night air, the particular humidity, the scent of more flowers than occur in nature, salt water, and faint indications of humanity: tobacco, perfume, automotive exhaust. It was a perennial aroma occasionally subsumed by a single smell, new house paint or Sunday- morning vomit. All in all, it made his heart ache.
Key West seemed a most appealing landfall. Old-timers used to tell him that before the aqueduct and plentiful fresh water, the place was a kind of gooney-bird island, not much greenery and plenty of exposed cap rock and coral. Now it was as lush as Hawaii, an easier sell. (Tom McGuane)
Yeah, we did up Duval street after meeting the guides at the opening banquet. As touristy as the place is, the off season shows its truer colors and McGuane’s description is very accurate even today. After being unable to get a drink at Hogs Breath we head down to Captain Tony’s. There’s Buffet’s song, and stories of Poppa there, but there is an honest to god grit and truest of dive bar vibes floating in the tropic air. Maybe its the ghosts but it’s a place that oozes character yet unpretentious and welcoming thanks to Mom and her constant checking to make sure we had drinks while Shane got pummeled at pool 10 times in a row.
Then holy crap, the fishing!
We get to the Hurricane Hole marina at a quarter past 6, in time for coffee, donuts and some bacon to slug down just before the blessing of the fleet and a laying of the wreath for the Big Man. Yes, Clarence Clemens was a major supporter of the Redbone tourney series and often would provide entertainment.
Chris and I teamed up with Captain Sean on his action craft and headed out to the gulf side mangrove banks to look for some tarpon rolling in the post dawn light and out going tide. The engine shuts off and Sean climbs up on the poling platform, the hunt begins. I grab the Thomas and Thomas and perch up on the bow. Chris isn’t a fly fisherman and stands ready with the spinning rod and an old Bagley Fingermullet at the ready. Sean spots a few rollers about a 100 yards a way and starts poling over. Suddenly, a tarpon rolls about 80 feet off of our 10 o’clock and Chris tries to fire the plug, but the bail closes right after the release and the old Bagley lands in the mangroves.
Shortly after Sean gets Chris back going with a live shrimp, another tarpon rolls 60 feet off our 11, I make a few false casts, the DL Goddard tied fly drops in front of the swimming dinosaur. I feel the take, and the strip set I had been practicing in my head sinks the point of the hook into the fishes fiestaware mouth. Tarpon really don’t like it when flies get stuck in their mouths. This guy, my first ever tarpon hooked, goes nuts. Immediately he jumps, then runs, making the old Penn International Fly Reel sing the most gorgeous song. The fish jumps three more times and makes a few more run. After about fifteen minutes of this, the tarpon begins to settle down a bit and I just about get the leader to the rod tip. The maybe 25lb fish swim towards the back of the boat, makes a quick lurch, and then, as quickly as it had all started, the weight that once was bending the 9wt down into its grip was gone. The violent jumps and head shakes had opened up the hole where the fly was stuck, the fish simply got the right leverage and pulled himself free. I hand Sean the rod so he can check the point of the hook, I’m shaking, that was the best 15 minutes of my angling life.
We move along looking for more rollers, but the poons were giving us the fin so we move over to the bonefish flats. This was where, Chris decided he needed to make himself a Bacardi and diet. He had left the rum out in the 90+ degree heat so the first few sips were a little rough. Up on the bow he goes with a shrimp on his hook dangling in the water as Sean pushes us up the flat. Suddenly a bonefish appears at 12 o’clock about 80 feet out moving towards us. Chris sees him (the only bonefish or tarpon Chris actually sees all weekend) and fires the shrimp out there. The bone sees an easy shrimp cocktail and chows down. Chris stuck him good. The silvery torpedo makes a run toward Cuba. Five minutes later, the only fish boated that weekend is on the measuring board, pictures taken, and released. The Barcardi was “magic” rum.
We spend the rest of the day effectively doing everything wrong, and in particular, doing the opposite of what Sean was telling us today. We were throwing without seeing the fish first, and I made the massive error of flocking shooting a school of tarpon laid up against the mangroves. Sean told me to pick one fish out and cast to it. I thought I did, but I was so focused on the one fish, I didn’t see the other five of them to the fish’s right, so when the heavy fly line hit the water, about a dozen 20-40lb tarpon took off to Marathon.
The next day, the winds were up, closing my casting range significantly, but we saw plenty of fish. I got a few chances at bone fish but no takes. We saw several permit and Chris made a few attempts but couldn’t quite get the bait in the fish’s path, we weren’t blessed with any tailing fish. Nonetheless, we had a great time on the boat, in gorgeous weather, in a tremendous place and learned a lot.
Flats fishing is the single most humbling form of fishing there is. The learning curve is tremendous, and the rewards are few and far between. Sean was a patient and entertaining teacher. An old school keys guide that has worked with Gary on the Rebone tourneys since they began. Sean came up with the likes of Jose Wejebe and earned his masters in tarpon from none other than Stu Apte. There’s a picture of Sean and a great story about Sean, Stu and Gen Schwartzkopf in Stu’s memoir, “Of Winds and Tides.”
Sunday ends with an awards banquet. The winner won last year and has over 30 years of experience in fishing the Keys. Sean was emphatic in saying that one fish on the boat that weekend was good. Half a dozen boats never landed a fish, one of them was Shane and Brent’s boat. We tied on a good one at dinner and afterwards at the hotel’s patio bar. I had a Barbencourt Rum with Gary and learned about life and fishing from a man who used to guide Ted Williams and was a king pin among the old South Florida and Keys guides. Sean seemed genuinely impressed with how I handled the Tarpon and invited me to come back, said I can trade fishing tackle for time on the boat. Deal!
I will say, hooking and fighting that tarpon has haunted me for the past 18 days. I need to land one, and then another, and then a monster, and then I’ll have to move to where they are because that addiction will become too much, I’m ok with that.