The One That Got Away #2: Don’t Be a Slacker

Written by: Evan Jones

When a tarpon is running, slack-line management is job #1.
Image via The Jungle’s Edge by Capture Adventure Media

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series called “The One that Got Away,” in which anglers tell the story of the fish that haunt them in their dreams.

I moved to southwestern Florida in 2008 with visions of massive tarpon competing for my perfectly presented fly. But despite many concerted efforts to make that happen–often spending days at a time anchored up waiting on fish to show–it would be years before I would actually land an adult tarpon on a fly. In that one glorious moment, I was finally able to put all my previous failures behind me, some of which had been haunting me even on days I wasn’t out on the water getting skunked.

The worst one of all, the one that still stings all these years later, happened late in my second season while I was anchored near some rookie friends who were also struggling to get their first fish to the boat. We had been out most of the day already, so I was tired and frustrated and keenly aware that the season would soon be coming to yet another disappointing end. In the low light of the setting sun, I didn’t see the approaching group of tarpon until they were almost on top of me, so I made a haphazard cast right on the nose of the lead fish and promptly spooked all of them.

Just because you can see them doesn’t mean you can catch them.
Photo by Evan Jones

Good, I thought, they deserve a little discomfort, too. Fair is fair. So I bombed another cast after them, mostly out of spite. To my great surprise, the big lead fish suddenly spun a 180, charged my fly down in one powerful burst, and inhaled it without hesitation. I stared down in disbelief for way too long as the fish’s momentum carried her closer and closer to the boat, finally setting the hook when she was maybe 20 feet away. It stuck firm. I had finally done it: Fish On!

My friends roared in approval as the tarpon lifted her head out of the water, opened that bucket mouth, and shook it for all she was worth. The fly held firm. I was already basking in my accomplishment, reveling in the hero shots to come and imagining consoling my fishless friends when the fish spun around and took off toward the Gulf at breakneck speed. Anyone who knows anything about tarpon knows to “bow to the King,” so that’s exactly what I did on the next jump . . . but I wasn’t paying attention to my slack line, and it was just about to run out. As I bowed the rod, the last loop of slack came up and wrapped around the reel seat, instantly snapping my leader.

That slack line hanging from your reel can cause a lot of grief, if you don’t control it.
Photo by Evan Jones

In the eerie silence that followed, I stood there with my shoulders slumped, realizing that my fishless friends would now be the ones consoling me, which somehow made the whole thing even worse. I had to live with that shame hanging over my head for the next two seasons until I was finally able to put it all together, but rest assured that it was still worth every minute.

Lessons Learned

When a fast-moving fish is taking out slack line in a hurry, spread your arms out so that your line hand is farther away from your rod hand, which will lower the chances of a tangle. Try not to pinch the slack line as it moves, since slowing it down too abruptly can cause it to jump up and tangle. 

Evan Jones is the assistant editor of the Orvis Fly Fishing blog. He lives in Colorado.

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