“I see him,” said my friend Mike Traugott, scanning the horizon from his position on the bow, his nine-foot fly rod poised for a cast.
Beneath the riffled surface, a five-foot-long tarpon, a relic from the age of the dinosaurs, swam three feet beneath the surface on a diagonal course that would bring the 80-pound fish just off the bow.
“Start casting when I tell you,” Bill whispered, digging the foot of his 24-foot push pole into the mud at the bottom to propel the skiff forward, gondolier style, into deeper water off Florida’s Marquesas Keys, 20 miles west of Key West.
Mike lifted up the fly rod, then swept it back and forward in a repeated series of precisely executed motions, part of the art of the fly cast.
Mike abruptly stopped his rod at the end of its forward arc. The three-inch yellow fox fur fly dropped straight down and directly ahead of the oncoming fish.
“Strip! Strip! Strip!” Bill directed Mike to start. “He’s on it!”
The sea parted 25 feet off the bow. The bright silver fish rocketed out of the water and fell back with a cratering splash. A heartbeat later, the water erupted again. The frantic fish catapulted clear of the surface, its massive gill plates flaring, and somersaulted head over tail before crashing awkwardly back into the water.
Two more jumps and the fish abruptly quit its air show and bolted away from the skiff, spinning 200 feet of line off the reel in a few adrenaline-pumping seconds.
Twenty minutes later, the tug of war ended. The beaten tarpon, its silver, mirrorlike scales glinting in the sun, lay by the skiff. Bill grabbed the leader and reached to dislodge the fly. The 10-foot fluorocarbon strand at the end of his fly line snapped.
“Good job,” Bill said. The giant fish swam off to rejoin uncounted tens of thousands of its kind on their annual spawning migration.
The fishing economy
Each year in the spring and early summer, tens of thousands of anglers come to Key West and elsewhere in the Keys, drawn by this giant, acrobatic fish. Together, these visitors pump an estimated $25 million into the Keys economy.
Key West and, to a lesser extent, Islamorada in the Middle Keys, are the epicenters of the sport. The Florida state record for tarpons, a 243-pound behemoth, was caught in Key West in 1975 — and on lighter 20-pound test line, as opposed to the 30-to-80 pound line most fishermen use in their quests. These days, a fish weighing more than 120 pounds is toast-worthy at the Green Parrot, off Duval Street, as well as in anglers’ other favorite Key West bars.
Ernest Hemingway chased tarpons out of Key West. So did Zane Grey. Theodore Roosevelt and Ted Williams were tarpon anglers. A photo of former president George H.W. Bush in Andy Mill’s book “A Passion for Tarpon” shows the 41st president holding a giant tarpon in his lap, a giddy little-boy smile on his face. Read more...Share