Humbled by the Silver King

I should probably be writing about this year’s trout opener, but I couldn’t bring myself to write another post before wrapping up this long overdue one. I hope you’re up for reading, because it’s going to be lengthy.

It’s been almost 10 months since our family vacation to Florida last July. It was a trip largely planned around my daughter’s visit to Disney. We’d spend a few days on the Atlantic side, where my kids would enjoy the big waves and breeze of the ocean, followed by a week on the Gulf side, relaxing on the calmer white sandy beaches. Fishing wasn’t even a consideration at the time. I was clueless to saltwater fly fishing… I’d heard about it and seen pictures of it, but being a resident trout purist from Canada, it’s not really something I ever thought about pursuing.

That is, until about a week before our trip, when some last minute reading prompted me to throw my fly rod in the back of the truck, just in case. I also packed a tying vice and a small selection of tying material, again, just in case. What little research I did left me with images of Tarpon and Snook (along with a few other species) ingrained in my mind. Embarrassingly, the only thing I really knew about these species, was that they were often targeted by fly anglers. I was surprised to read that Tarpon were apparently plentiful on the Gulf, in the Tampa area (which was just south of where we would be staying near the end of our trip). In addition to that, our timing seemed to align with the tail end of Tarpon season.

To be honest, the thought of catching any fish on a fly rod in a great big ocean was overwhelming and seemed hopeless – at least without a lot more information than I had thus far found online. So a couple days before leaving and during the drive up (while my wife shared some of the driving), I started emailing some guides in the area, trying to get an idea of what I could expect or where I could start.

The drive through the scenic mountains of Virginia helped scratch my fishing itch.

I ended up having a conversation with a fly guide out of St. Petersburg: Captain Russ Shirley. He was a pretty open and honest guy. He gave me some ideas of what I might expect both going out on a day trip with him, as well as casting from the beaches near my resort. He had reservations about going for Tarpon, considering I’d never fished saltwater before, nor had I fished for anything even close to as  large as the Tarpon in the area (around 100 lbs!). He was also upfront with the fact that there was no guarantee of even seeing and/or casting to a Tarpon at this time of year, never mind hooking up with or landing one.

Fast forward a week and a half and I’m enjoying the hot sun and gulf beaches with my wife and kids. I ended up booking a half day with Captain Russ and we agreed to start off casting for smaller species with an 8 weight. If that went well, we would try my hand at Tarpon for a bit. I didn’t tell my guide, but I was seriously intimidated by the idea of casting an accurate tight loop double haul with a 12 weight rod for Tarpon! Sure, I thought I was a pretty good caster back home, with 2-6 weight rods for trout. But casting a 12 weight for 100 lb fish was something entirely different. I was half hoping that the first part of the day would convince my guide that I wasn’t up to the task, so I could spare myself the embarrassment and instead be content catching some Sea Trout, Redfish and other small(er) species.

Chilling in front of our resort on the white sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

Weather forecasts were spotty for most of the week and there was a tropical-storm-turning-hurricane threat to boot. The weather held off though and I was able to wet my line in the salt for the first time from the beaches in front of my resort. The evening before venturing out, I tied up a few simple flies on the kitchen table of our condo: some DT Specials, Deceivers and Crystal Schminnows.

Tying up a few flies at the condo.

My first day casting from shore was pleasant. I was out super early, which I thought would be best both from a fishing standpoint and also to avoid the beach goers. I walked slowly barefoot along the sand, searching for a spot to cast my fly. What I found though, was that I had absolutely no idea where to start. Everything looked the same. So eventually I stepped into the surf and began casting aimlessly out into the gulf, stripping my fly back with varying retrieves. I was sort of surprised at how little I could see… I was expecting crystal clear water, but I couldn’t see a single fish and found it difficult to even see my fly. Somehow, I still managed to land a couple fish that morning.

My very first fish caught in the salt, was barely a fish at all. It was a tiny mutant-like fish, apparently called a Lizardfish. I was almost scared to touch the ugly little thing.

An ugly little lizard fish – my first ever saltwater catch.

About half an hour later, I felt a real tug and ended up landing a second unfamiliar (at the time) fish, this one larger in size – both body and teeth. This time I landed a more respectable Spanish Mackerel. I’ve caught lots of Pike back home and they have teeth too… but the fact that the only two fish I’d caught so far had what looked like razor sharp teeth, was kinda freaking me out.

My first “real” saltwater fish: a Spanish Mackerel

It was still before 9 am and I thought… wow… I’m actually not bad at this. I must be doing something right. So I kept doing what I was doing: casting aimlessly out into the gulf and hoping something would eat my fly on the way back. After another ten minutes, I landed my last fish of the day. Another small unfamiliar fish, one that seemed refreshingly harmless compared to the last two.

Last fish of my first day in the salt… turns out, I probably should NOT have been holding this innocent looking creature like this.

Well, I could be wrong in identifying this fish – but I’m pretty sure it’s a leather jack. Turns out, I was dead wrong about this little guy being more innocent than the previous two fish. Apparently they have spines on top that are capable of producing an extremely painful sting. As one website describes it: “Many who’ve been stung report that the pain far exceeds a sting from a catfish or even a stingray“. Alright, now I’m really freaked out to touch anything I catch in the gulf…

I continued casting for a couple more hours without as much as another bite. I called it a day once the beach traffic picked up and figured the sun was too high in the sky. Given my overall lack of strategy and feeling of cluelessness, I was quite sure that my earlier catches were pure luck. I’d come out hoping to be sight fishing to Snook, but instead I was casting aimlessly with nothing but a wish. Still, I was happy and proud to have caught that Mackerel.

The next morning I met my guide at a marina in St. Petersburg. It was a perfect morning and as we left the docks and discussed the day to come, we were greeted by an Egret looking to hitch a ride.

Egret hitching a ride, on our way out into the Gulf.

Captain Russ wanted to know my goals for the day – which I responded were simply to learn a little and catch a couple fish. He ensured me that the catching part was going to happen and the learning part definitely happened as well! Our first stop in the gulf looked just like every other part of the gulf, that is until we were on top of it and I realized why so many fish would look for food and refuge there: a nice weed bed and some shallower water. On our way, I had discussed my successes and failures of the prior morning and he shared some useful knowledge and tips that might help me the next time I was out.

I was set up with a 8 weight rod, 12-15 lb tippet (from what I remember) and a Clouser in about size 2. We had some discussions about my prior fly fishing experience, and given his past guiding experience with trout anglers, he seemed slightly concerned about my abilities to cast a tight loop with a heavier rod at distance – which would be necessary if we were to try for Tarpon later. After a couple casts, he was surprisingly happy with my casting ability and declared that we would have no problems. He then instructed me where to cast and to begin stripping. Before I could get the fly back to the boat (on my first real cast), I hooked up with my first fish of the day: a small Sea Trout.

My first fish of the day, a small Sea Trout.

While not in any way related to the trout I’m used to catching, it somehow felt appropriate. I instantly felt some relief and with a shot of confidence, I was feeling good about the day ahead. Fortunately, AND unfortunately, this would actually be the last fish I landed. On my very next cast, which was only my second of the day, as I stripped the small clouser with confidence, the gulf water boiled and disappeared around my fly – almost as if it had been sucked down in some kind of vortex or whirlpool. It was a Tarpon… and a big ass Tarpon at that!! I hooked a damn 100 lb Tarpon on my second cast, with an 8 weight, 15 lb leader and size 2 clouser…

I wasn’t the only one surprised… my guide couldn’t believe it. He pulled up anchor, rushed behind the wheel and turned on the engine. He expected it would be a quick fight, as the gear I was using was wildly under powered (not to mention, he didn’t yet have a chance to brief me on how to fight or land a Tarpon). What was about to ensue was by far the most intense and exhausting fight that I’m sure I’ll ever experience.

The fight of my life was on… 100 lb tarpon on an 8 weight.

It didn’t take long for the sliver king to begin its acrobatics. Somehow, to both my guide’s and my own surprise, I survived the first leap with leader and rod intact. I can’t recall how many times the fish leaped after that, but in was in the realm of 10 to 12. And somehow, I kept the fish on for every one of those.

Crazy acrobatics… zoom in to see the insanity!

To make things even more interesting, after the first couple jumps, a second Tarpon began following the one on the end of my line. Every time my fish came up for air, its “friend” also came up for air beside it. It was very bizarre and exciting at the same time. My guide, in all the years he’s been doing this, said he’s never seen anything like it.

Late reacting to the jump, but still managing to hang on.

Quite literally, the fish dragged us around for over 2 hours. In retrospect, any normal Tarpon fight should not last anywhere near this long. However, I simply didn’t have the power to horse the beast to the boat. We got close a couple times, but it used its size and strength to keep its distance and I could do nothing to prevent it from continuing to come up for air – and to continue to find the energy to leap afterwards.

Still going strong, while dragging us around the gulf.

Another jump…

My forearms and hands were numb, I gulped back water for quick breaks to keep hydrated. But I didn’t care, I wanted nothing more than to land this fish.

Must be getting tired… I sure am.

Need… water…

Getting closer.

In kindness to me and seeing that the fish was still healthy, we tried our best to land the it, or at least to get a leader touch. Near the end of the fight, Captain Russ was on his knees at the front of the boat and mere inches away from grabbing the leader, when it turned for yet another run. At that point, I realized it was now or never and applied as much force as I could to try and turn it back around. Finally, the leader gave up and snapped.

Almost there.

Gone!

As sad as it was to lose the fish, I was more than ready to let it go. While getting to touch it would have been an added benefit, we got to see it up close and it was an experience I’ll never forget. If I’m ever to land one of these (as big) on an 8 weight again, I’ll most certainly just break it off. Hopefully though, if I land another, it will be on a 12 weight.

The next morning, with my arms still sore, I got up early again to stalk the beaches and hope to continue my success. Captain Russ had mentioned that sight fishing for Snook was easiest when the sun was high, since it would shine down into the water making the bottom (and fish on it) much more visible. He mentioned I may not even see the fish either, but that I’d be looking for subtle moving shadows.

Despite his advice, I still wanted to get out early and make the most of my time. Try as I might, I could not see anything early in the morning, other than a few schools of fish swimming close to the surface every once in a while. I managed to hook another small Jack species this way, which I think is a Blue runner. From what I read, this one actually was harmless for once.

Small Blue runner jack (I think)… only fish of the day.

Again, I headed in once the beach got busy. Which meant, I didn’t really get a chance to test out the “high sun” strategy. Later that day though, while at the beach swimming with my kids, I finally did manage to see a few fish – swimming surprisingly close to us. For some of them, I could make out the fish itself, but for others I was only alerted of them by their shadow – just as my guide had told me.

On our last day at the resort, I went out to give it a final try. As usual, early morning was slow and I couldn’t make anything out, so I had to resort to blind casting. Again, as the sun got higher, the beach got busier. However, this time I decided to stick it out and continued searching for whatever empty beach I could find between the sun bathers and swimmers. Instead of focusing on casting and fishing, I instead focused on trying to spot fish. I tried to focus on what I had read – a small ridge of sand very close to shore and another ridge a bit further back than that one.

I was fairly sure I was starting to see fish. As I walked along the shore, most of the time I thought I saw a shadow, it would quickly disappear as I walked closer to it. Eventually I found a strip of beach, about 100 feet wide almost directly across my from the resort, which was almost devoid of people. Aside from swimmers on both sides of this strip, and beach walkers strolling by, I was able to walk this section back and forth for a good hour or two during the busiest part of the day. With rod in hand and a DT Special tied on, I located my first shadow on this stretch, approached stealthily, crouched down and cast in front of it. A couple strips later, smash!

First Snook on the fly – and I finally figured out how to find and target them!

Snook on, landed and released! It was super rewarding and I felt like I may have finally figured it out. Over the next couple hours I was able to reproduce that success and spot and hook into several more. None were exceptionally large (for Snook, I guess), although they put up an excellent fight on my 8 weight.

One of several more Snook caught in the period of a couple hours of high sun.

Those couple hours were some of the most fun I’ve had fly fishing. It was very comparable for me to casting dry flies to big rising trout – which, let’s face it… is not exactly a regular opportunity, even if it’s what comes to mind first when we think of fly fishing. The weirdest part about it was being able to do it on a busy beach, full of tourists, sometimes with kids swimming and splashing only a few meters away.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have experienced so much luck and success my first time fly fishing saltwater, especially considering this was really just a Florida family vacation and fishing was not intended to be part of it. I owe my wife and kids much of the thanks, since they had to put up with me sneaking out those mornings and sometimes not coming back until almost lunch time!