Tarpon Moon

We parked the truck, shouldered our packs, and headed over the hill for the 20 minute hike to the beach. It was to be just an overnight trip so our packs were light; mostly fishing tackle, with a blanket each and gear for cooking dinner - if we were able to catch dinner. We had planned this trip a number of times, but someone had cancelled on each of the previous attempts. I think each of us had been guilty of a last minute cancellation. This time all three of us had made it.

The parking spot was a small pull-off at the end of a paved road that overlooked a steep hill, and the Caribbean below. The path led directly to the left over a small hill, and then switch-backed down a hillside into a valley that opened up on a sand beach. The terrain is rocky and brown, covered by dry scrub, acacia bushes, and cactus. Inhospitable land that abuts a white sand beach and Caribbean water a dozen shades of blue. The rock is often loose – locally called rotten-rock because of it is constantly crumbling. After heavy rains, groups of rocks, sometimes large rocks, can be heard tumbling down hillsides. Care must be taken when hiking the steep areas, especially in areas with acacia and cactus, both of which have spines sharp enough to cause severe pain – acacia thorns by their length and strength, and cactus spines by their shear numbers. Once on flat land on the valley floor, the path leads right, a berm covered in manchineel and seagrape, and onto the beach.

Most people stop almost right away, the beach is so inviting. In the tradition of St. Croix, someone even built a beach shanty so they could camp on the beach in comfort. But we bypassed this beach, walking another half mile to the left, around a small rocky point, to a small crescent-shaped cove of white sand that we knew we’d have all to ourselves.

*****

It was the first night of a full moon in July. We planned to spend the fading hours of sunlight casting flies for whatever fish we might be able to catch. Once dusk arrived, we planned to throw out some bait for any large snapper that might cruise the cove. Large mutton snapper often cruised the shallow seagrass lagoons at night in search of a meal during full moon. That was our design on dinner, fresh snapper.

As we were unloading our packs at the chosen spot on the beach, herring of 6 inches or so erupted from the water just off the beach. The small eruption turned into waves of fish. Then small tarpon, 10 pounds or so, showed themselves. They rolled and splashed through the thick schools of herring, preceded each time by waves of flashing silver. All but the fly fishing gear was quickly forgotten. A brief discussion of the best fly for the moment, then the air was filled with the sound of line being stripped from reels and flyline whipping through the still evening air.

Some time within the first minute of casting someone had a fish on. A quick run, a strong jump, and the fly lay on the water surface as the small tarpon porpoised into open water. As dusk slowly covered the cove, the action became more intense - the herring pressed ever closer to the sand shoreline. The waves of fleeing bait were more and more frantic. The tarpon slashed through the bait as if this was their last meal. Then there were more tarpon, and bigger, too.

Most of the action was within easy reach of a cast from shore. We had many fish hooked and lost, only to have the fly grabbed again, almost as soon as it fell from the first tarpon's mouth. Since the fish were so close when they took the fly, many leaders were snapped – just not enough line beyond the rod tip to cushion the shock of a leaping tarpon.

I thought about backing up the beach a bit to get some distance between me and the fish, but decided against it. It was better to be in the middle of all of that: the feel of the baitfish bouncing against my legs as they searched for cover from the slashing tarpon; the sound of the boiling water as the tarpon engulfed a mouthful of prey again and again; the explosions of tarpon vaulting from the water as they chased down their prey; and the power of a tarpon at point blank range when it felt the bite of the hook, vaulting away in acrobatic leaps and rattling gill plates, then the deepwater pull from far off the beach.

Dusk gave way to darkness, and I could barely make out the fly as it fell to the water at the end of a cast. After action that lasted just a bit over and hour and a half the tarpon suddenly stopped feeding and disappeared. Still, I continued to cast until I could no longer see the fly before I gave up and retreated to camp. I knew the fishing was over long before I stopped casting, but let myself down slowly from the frantic pace of the tarpon blitz.

*****

We set up camp, readied the small stove, and waited for the moon to rise. We sat on the beach, gazed at the stars, passed around the flask, and talked about whatever came to mind. And, of course, we talked about those fish. How this one jumped, how that one headed for open water and never stopped. We wondered if the fish would return in the morning. We fell silent and listened to the surf on the reef that protected our cove, to the smaller waves that made it to shore, to the tree frogs as they stirred with the darkness, and to the sounds of a tropical night.

Once the moon brightened the cove, we baited two lines, stuck the poles in the still warm sand, and waited. It didn't take long before one rod showed signs of a fish. Then the other. Within 30 minutes we had enough fish for dinner and breakfast. As fast as they came in the fish were cleaned and thrown on the hot skillet. We used no plates because we had carried none. We just passed around the skillet until one fish was gone, and then cooked another. A flask followed the skillet around the circle. What we did not eat we wrapped and buried in the sand to save for breakfast.

The moon was high in the sky, bright enough to read by. No stars could compete with this full tarpon moon. If you have experienced a tropical moon, you will know what I mean. There is no other full moon like it. The white water of the small waves breaking over the reef 100 yards away glowed, almost fluorescent in the moonlight. The soft sound of the rolling surf echoed around the cove, broken only by the occasional rush of a wave up the beach. Not a soul on the beach but three friends on a fishing trip.