June 04, 2022
Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham, and I were known in Key West as the “fat boys,” as in, “The fat boys are back in town,” loosely translated as, “The party is on.” Not that Key West needed our encouragement to throw a party. We merely added our weight, enthusiasm, and appetites to the mix. We weren’t particularly fat (certainly not by today’s standards), but we all cooked and ate well.
Through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Jim, Russell, and I rented a house in Key West for six weeks every year and parked my skiff at Garrison Bight. Every morning, no matter how distraught we felt from the previous night’s indulgences, if the weather was tolerable we fished, or attempted to fish. One morning—I have been told this but don’t remember—my Maverick skiff was spotted, by a couple of guides and their anglers, drifting inside Mule and Archer Keys with the fat boys—the poet, the painter, and me—sound asleep on its floor. The biblical hangover, forgivable, since it was a weekend.
Then there was the day we drank rum and Cokes on the flats beginning at ten in the morning. It so happened that one of us jumped a fish while another was indulging in a Cuba Libre to chase the fog that had settled after a long, sleepless night. A second fish was spotted at the next mixing of drinks, and from then on our luck increased each time one of us poured rum. Tarpon swam in range of the boat at every swallow, and since it was more fun than studying the tide charts, we persisted. It was magic, and by the time the bottle was empty, we were seeing fish everywhere. The memory of our run back to Key West across Northwest Channel that afternoon surfaces with surprising clarity forty years after the fact. Mercifully it recedes just as quickly back where it belongs.
Neither Jim nor Russell was handy with the pole, so I did the pushing. Poling gave me a perspective into the world of guides and their clients—the choices that lead anglers to tarpon, and the importance of pointing out the fish and setting up the skiff for them to make the cast. The water temperature, the tide, the water level, the contour of the flats, and the adjoining channels all tell a piece of the story of shallow-water tarpon, and I soon found the hunting of these big fish and the excitement they provoked in the boat to be as entertaining as the fishing.
For years, after a day on the water, I would tie knots and flies. Over time it would be hundreds of nail knots, clinch knots, blood knots, Albright knots, and the Bimini twists for which I used my big toes to open the loops of monofilament and set the knots spinning. My two friends, the artists, pretended not to understand how to tie tarpon leaders. As insurance against having to learn how it was done, they declared that they simply “couldn’t take criticism.” It was the perfect foil against any and all inconveniences.
I no longer wanted to waste bar time wrapping monofilament, so I made our shock tippets using two-weight leader wire twisted at both ends through a small swivel and the eye of the fly. The leaders took twenty seconds to make. Since we were interested in jumping fish, not in records, the leader wire version worked fine. In fact it probably worked better than monofilament, given that the wire dragged the fly down to the fish faster.
Back in the days when the calendar and geography worked, Tom McGuane, Jim, Russell, and I met and took advantage of the fact that we loved books and art and dogs and birds and fish and food and good-looking women. We fished and hunted and drank and cooked from one end of the country to the other for a quarter of a century, with Key West as a beacon of our sporting year. Now when we see each other, we remember what nonsense we used to get into and how even though we thought we did, we never got away with any of it.
What I remember best about those decades was the laughter. Every time our group was together, we laughed and laughed, often to the point of hurting. Head-splitting, belly-heaving silliness at all times of day and night, in the boat, at the bar, during dinners, in Key West, in Montana, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in France. Everywhere and anywhere, we laughed and laughed and laughed, and I miss it.
The other day I was at the open market in Tallahassee and one of the vendors I know answered my query about a plant he was selling.
“It is the calyx of the hibiscus flower. You make herbal tea with it.” Then he looked at me and added, “You obviously weren’t a hippy, back in the day, were you?”
Before I could shut my stupid mouth, I replied, “No, but I sure woke up next to a bunch of them!”
He looked surprised and then smiled, remembering.
One afternoon Jim, Russell, and I were fishing the flats north of Boca Grande. We had jumped four tarpon that day, three between Mule and Archer Keys, and one off the Seven Sisters, with more rolling toward us. We were staked out on a point of sand overlooking the channel that separated Boca Grande from the Marquesas.
A hundred yards to the north, inside the dark, narrow channel that split the flat in two, a school of tarpon was daisy chaining: a merry-go-round of hundred-pound fish following each other in a mock breeding ritual. Big, confident, ocean-going fish.
Under normal circumstances we would have been walking into the Chart Room, a nondescript bar we frequented every evening, but on this day the weather was beautiful and we knew the tides were right for fish to swim past Platform Point. Soon the bronze head of a tarpon rose out of the slick calm water and sighed. Like no other fish, when the oxygen content of the water is low, tarpon rise to the surface and breathe into modified swim bladders, producing a ghostly sound that flats fishermen hear in their sleep.
A school of five tarpon, backlit in the waning light, appeared for an instant offshore from us and then changed directions and, for reasons of their own, split into fingers of unease. Russell stood on the bow, a big, gentle, one-eyed man wearing a mustache and a great European nose that preferred one side of his face to the other. He was, like Woody, a product of the steelhead rivers of California. His high casting motion was not as well suited to the windy sweep of the flats as it was at heaving lead core fly lines into the bodies of rivers. But because he had spent decades with a rod in his hand, Russ instinctively knew where to put the fly and how to swim it.
Jim stood behind him, smoking a cigarette and volunteering advice. Also sporting one good eye and a mustache, Jim carried a rock-hard soccer ball stomach and a sharp sense of humor.
“What did that woman mean last night when she told us that all you wanted her to do was to yank on your gherkin?”
“Jeez, Jim,” Russ answered without looking back. “I’m trying to concentrate here.”
When the tarpon regrouped, they resumed their travels toward the skiff. Russell raised a high, open loop of fly line and, since there was no wind to interfere with the cast, the line unfolded and settled his fly quietly on the water in front of the approaching swell shaped by the school. Russell moved the fly once, a short pull in front of the lead tarpon. The fish raised its head out of the water and heaved forward. The fly vanished. An instant later the tarpon climbed out of the water, contorted and unbridled, exulting in its reach for freedom. The low light illuminated the platinum-colored flank of the hundred-pound fish and momentarily stamped its reflection on the surface of the water.
The tarpon ran from the skiff across the pale grass toward the channel where the school had been daisy chaining earlier. Turning south toward the Marquesas, the tarpon followed the canal out to the broad flat that spilled from its mouth, and once in the Boca Grande Channel it jumped again: a miniature pendant against a setting sky. Russell tightened the drag and broke the fish off.
It is the tarpon’s movements in and out of water that interest me. If the tide is right and the tarpon are running, I don’t see the point in fighting them when I could be casting at fresh fish. Seeing the tarpon underwater, judging where to cast the fly, managing the strike, and witnessing the first couple of jumps is where fly fishing for tarpon begins and ends for me. A fight is a fight, and when I was younger I fought dozens of tarpon. But now I leave the manhandling to others. For me the finesse of the sport ends a hundred yards from the boat.
In my day tarpon were killed for pleasure by men who loved competition. Tarpon tournaments fed egos. Later, once the awards ceremonies and the revelry ended, the tarpon lost their status as icons and were hauled to land dumps or dragged offshore as fodder for the sharks. Some anglers revel in the techniques of combat, just as others take pleasure in lifting weights. I like speed and focus, beauty and motion, and I believe that respect is owed to every heartbeat on the planet.
It took one hundred years of killing tarpon for no reason before things began to change. In this country those kill–tournament days are over; the law forbids it. Once again tarpon are icons, but of a different sort, and their mysterious migrations are being studied by instruments as magical as those that revealed to my computer the resemblance of my pond to a bird. Part of me wants to know where the tarpon I see each spring go for the rest of the year, the route of their migration and where they breed, but just as I would want the past history of a lover to remain a mystery, a larger part of me wants this fish that I love to retain the secrecy of its existence and simply show up once a year in places he and his ancestors have called on for millennium. In this age of revelations, mystery is a valuable commodity. Progress often takes away what it took a long time to create.
This story is an excerpt from On the Water: A Fishing Memoir by Guy de la Valdène (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).