Written by: William G. Tapply
[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. He was far and away the best writer I have edited, and we developed a friendship around our shared angling and literary interests. He wrote books and articles on fishing and hunting, as well as great mystery novels that often featured fly-fishing. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I’ll post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]
About four feet of Mason leader material was looped around Andy’s bent knee. He kept fiddling with the Mason and frowning at the book he’d propped open on the table beside his bed.
I was sprawled on the other bed with a glass of Jack Daniels sitting on my chest. It was our first night on Ambergris Caye, our first night ever in Belize. That morning, we’d scraped frost off the windshield for our drive to Logan Airport in Boston. We’d flown in a big plane and then in a small plane, and then a motor boat took us through narrow jungle channels to the lodge on the white beach where we got our first-ever glimpse of a turquoise tarpon flat.
We drank Belikan beer and dined on deep-fried conch with vegetables that tasted like sweet potatoes. After dinner, we met our guide for the week, a round, middle-aged Belizian named Pancho. He had a gold tooth and a quick smile and a soft rumbling voice.
Andy asked him what we might expect for our upcoming week of tarpon fishing.
Pancho flashed his tooth. “Wind, mon. Mostly expect beeg wind.”
“Well, there’s always wind,” said Andy hopefully. “Right?”
“Not always,” said Pancho.
I watched Andy play with his monofilament for a while, then said, “What’re you making?”
“It’s fun,” said Andy. “I love knots.”
“So why this particular knot?”
“It goes between the leader and the shock tippet.”
“Is it necessary?”
“Lefty recommends it,” he said.
I knew you shouldn’t argue with Lefty. “Make one for me?”
“You really should learn how to make your own Bimini twist.”
“I know,” I said. “But I’m on vacation. I don’t want to think about all the things I really should do. Make me a tarpon leader and I’ll give you some of my Jack.”
Andy shrugged, and I knew what he was thinking because it had been his mantra ever since we booked our week in Belize six months earlier. Tarpon fishing is different from trout fishing. There’s no room for error. You gotta get it right the first time. You might get only one shot at one of these great fish, and you don’t want to blow it.
I’d read Lefty Kreh’s book. Truthfully, I barely skimmed the long sections about knots. Unlike Andy, I don’t find much romance in knots.
I mainly studied the photographs. There was one shot of Lefty unhooking a gigantic tarpon. It looked as if that fish could’ve taken Lefty’s head into its mouth. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hook a fish that big. I mean, I did, of course. But it was scary, too.
The Wind and War
Pancho was right: Wind. It howled all day and all night. It ripped the surface of the flats, churned up the marly bottom, turned the turquoise flats brown, and drove the tarpon into the deep water. “Meester Tarpon don’t like mud,” said Pancho.
Each day played out pretty much like the previous one. We hunted for bonefish in the morning on the incoming tide, and we caught a few. Not many. They were hard to spot under the gray sky and wind-riffled surface. Pancho theorized that gray skies made the bones even spookier than normal.
After lunch, Pancho poled along the drop-offs and channels while Andy and I took turns on the casting deck peering hard into the water. We saw very few tarpon. For one reason or another, we never got a shot.
Back at the lodge, the ten other anglers submitted similar reports. A few hard-earned bonefish. Few tarpon seen, none jumped.
At night, the wind shook coconuts off the trees. They crashed on the tin roof like howitzers exploding.
After four days of it, I had no more adrenaline left. My knees ached from rocking on Pancho’s casting deck. My head ached from eye strain. My spirit ached from diminished hope.
The afternoon of our fifth day was no different from the others. Pancho poled in the wind, and Andy and I took turns not casting from the deck. The first two days we’d swapped every hour. Then we made it every half an hour. Now fifteen minutes was plenty. When I was up there on the deck, I found myself daydreaming and looking forward to relaxing with a Belikan.
“We’ll stake out here for a while,” Pancho said. “Two channels comin’ together here. Tide’s right. Good place to see tarpon.”
He drove his pole into the mud bottom and tied it off with his stern line.
Andy looked at his watch. “Your turn.” He stepped down.
I sighed, picked up my 12-weight, climbed onto the deck, and went through the routine. I peeled line off the reel, made a long cast, and stripped it in, laying the coils carefully on the deck so they wouldn’t tangle when the tarpon made his first hard run. Ha, ha.
I left a long loop of line hanging out of the tip of my rod, checked the point of the hook against my thumbnail, and then held the fly between my thumb and forefinger. Locked and loaded.
I rocked and looked and daydreamed, and I was thinking it must be close to Andy’s turn when Pancho hissed, “Tarpon! Two o’clock!”
I looked. Gray, corrugated water reflected a roily gray sky.
“Where? I don’t see ’em.”
“Comin’ at us, mon. Three o’clock now. A hundred feet. Get ready. They comin’. Six. No. Seven of ’em. Beeg tarpon, mon. This is your shot.”
Okay, no pressure. Right.
Where the hell were the fish?
Then I saw them. Black shapes, bunched together, moving like a single organism. They were closer than I expected. In half a minute they’d pass right in front of me, barely fifty feet away.
I threw my tarpon fly away from my body, false-cast once, loaded the stiff 12-weight, double-hauled, and laid the fly out there about fifteen feet ahead of the lead fish.
“Yeah, good shot,” whispered Pancho. “Leave it . . . leave it . . . now streep. Yeah, keep streeping, mon. He sees it. He comin’ . . .”
I saw it all happen, and I can still see it now, almost twenty years later, a slow-motion movie in my head, the dark torpedo shape, the third one back in the school, veering toward me, speeding up, then suddenly turning–
“Hit heem!” yelled Pancho.
Strip strike, I told myself, and with my rod pointed at the fish I yanked back with my line hand.
“Again. Hit heem again.”
I struck again.
And that’s when my tarpon launched himself into the air, and none of the pictures or movies I’d ever seen had enabled me to fully imagine the power of that leap, or the size of the fish, or the sound of his gills rattling when he shook his head, or the crash his body made when he fell back to the water.
“Good job,” said Pancho. “He hooked good. Corner of his mouth, mon.”
“You bowed to him,” said Andy, and I thought I heard shock and amazement in his voice.
Where did that come from? Strip striking, bowing to a leaping tarpon? I never did that before.
The fish jumped three or four more times within fifty feet of our boat. I heard Andy’s camera clicking.
Then my tarpon took off across the flats. Not as fast as those bonefish we’d caught, but fast enough, and unstoppably powerful. I tucked the rod butt into my belly, held the tip high, and let the fish run against the drag of my reel.
Soon the backing appeared and the gray fly line disappeared in the distance.
Way out there on the flat the tarpon rolled.
“Gettin’ air,” observed Pancho.
He’d stopped running. When I tried to retrieve some line, the fish took off. More backing peeled away.
He stopped again. I began reeling, and at first I thought my fish was beat and I was reeling in the dead weight of an exhausted giant tarpon.
After a minute I realized that I was reeling in only the dead weight of a heavy fly line.
I sat down. Andy handed me a Belikan.
“Down and dirty, mon,” said Pancho. “Gotta turn his head, show Meester Tarpon who’s boss, get heem in fast. Your fly just wore a hole in his mouth. Too bad. That was a beeg fish.”
I looked at Andy. “I guess I must’ve skipped one of Lefty’s chapters,” I said. “It never occurred to me that I’d actually have to know how to fight a fish that big.”
He shrugged. “Live and learn. Next time you’ll know. It was fun, though, wasn’t it? I mean, seeing that fish suck in your fly, and then all those jumps?”
“It was the most fun I’ve had in my whole life,” I said. “It’s just . . . you know.”
“Guys who fish for tarpon a lot,” said Andy, “they just want to jump them. Find ’em, cast to ’em, hook ’em, get a couple jumps, and then shake ’em off, go find another one. That’s the fun of it.”
I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life trying to convince myself that letting that Belize tarpon get away because I didn’t know how to fight him didn’t matter.
But I can’t help it: It would’ve been even more fun if Andy could’ve taken a picture of me unhooking a tarpon with a mouth that could swallow my head.
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Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):