Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
And then time stopped. Everything suspended in place. And with it, a suspension of disbelief. Gravity didn’t exist, and light stopped traveling. For an instant, since there was no time, light could not travel, and so the image stayed frozen – but continued to exist, alive.
And because light did not travel, and could not disappear into space, everything was clear. No soft edges. No blurs of motion. Every detail crisp and clean. Magnified.
And for this moment, there was no sound. It was not an absence of sound, not a vacuum. The sound was still there, trapped by the light, caught in mid-stream, piling up behind an invisible veil of light. Palpable, pressure building, waiting to explode. But for a moment, sound, too, was still.
And then time starts again, rushing past in a shock wave, blasting through with the force of light and sound bursting through time. It’s always the sound that escapes first, somehow slips through cracks in the veil of light. Briefly in the distance, almost gray. Then explosively closer. Then crashing through like a sudden hurricane. The switch was turned, and time starts again.
In an explosion of sound and a shower of silver and white, the big tarpon crashes back into the water, that frozen moment of time disappearing through the hole in the water left by the crashing tarpon. Fly line hisses as it zips through the water. The reel spins, screaming, at the speed of light. The big tarpon greyhounds off the bow, ever farther away. Time is back on its own terms, dragging us behind. And so it goes.
This doesn’t happen always, only some fish, on some days. But when fishing for tarpon it happens frequently enough to cause addiction, to keep us coming back for more. Sometimes, soon after being hooked, a tarpon makes a first jump close to the boat. For most fish, it is the first spectacular jump of many, initiating a brief struggle between angler and beast. But a few special tarpon are able to make time stand still, for just a moment, as they suspend themselves in mid-air to survey the madness above the water; skiff, wide-eyed angler, outstretched rod, jumping fly line. When time stands still, you have to wonder who is looking at whom. My guess is that with 50 million years experience swimming the oceans, in these moments tarpon have the upper hand.
There’s really no way to know how long the moment lasts. It doesn’t really matter anyway, to those encased in that moment. An hour would feel the same as a minute, as a second, as a day. In reality, it’s probably only a few seconds to those not involved, but who really knows. What I have noticed is that if you’re not involved, you are blind to it, locked out of that moment. Yet another nod to the tarpon in control.
I remember my first big tarpon jumped on the fly. I remember the fly, the place, the time of day, and how long I had the tarpon on before it spit the hook. But even more vivid are images of tarpon since that time. Tarpon that were special, who stopped time. Each of these moments is etched in my memory. If I’m lucky, before I die, before the images grow fuzzy, someone will invent a device that will allow me to download and print these images for others to see.
These images aren’t really part of a story. How things got to the moment are pretty much immaterial. What happened after the moment is only peripheral. That’s the beauty of these moments, each one comes on its own, without notice, and then ceases. Sure, with some thought I can recall the general story around the fish, but usually not much in the way of details. The image of the moment, on the other hand, stays clear.
I’ve noticed that some people try to recreate these moments, but that’s foolish. It can’t be done. Each event that time stops is unique, unreplicable. And if you pursue these moments, they will elude you. It’s best to let them happen, experience them when they do, and stow them away.
These are a few moments etched in my mind, the ones that pop to the surface most often.
I am standing on the bow of the skiff, 12wt in my right hand, clear intermediate fly line in my left hand, a half-dozen coils of line at my feet. The rod is pointing toward 12 o’clock, fly line disappearing into the glassy water surface. I’m looking to the port side. Ten feet from the boat the fly line is angling up out of the water, fleeing toward the stern, water droplets framing it on all sides. A tarpon, perhaps 110 pounds, hangs vertically, head skyward, tail five feet above the water surface. The tarpon is sideways to the boat, its eye peering back. It is eye-to-eye with Doug, suspended motionless on the poling platform, white push pole trailing into the water off the starboard side. Doug’s feet are pointing forward, but his body is twisted left, facing the tarpon only 10 feet away. It is mid-morning with clear skies, but the light is not bright. It is somehow clear but subdued. The tarpon’s scales sparkle at the edges. It’s emerald-green back glows, injecting color into the water suspended in mid-air all around it. The yellow fly gleams in stark contrast to the shadow of the gaping maw.
I am standing alone on the deck of the skiff, between the center console and the bow’s casting deck, facing the bow. The wind is calm. The water surface is slick, but crossed with snakes of underwater streams carrying the tide seaward. To the left the streams boil all at once to the surface, then submerge. Small dimples mark the surface, revealing the locations of the paddle-like backfins of small crabs riding the tide seaward to spawn. Failing dusk light filters through a high ceiling of thin clouds, and bounces off thunderheads scraping the horizon, casting a burnt-orange glow. The white deck of the skiff glows a soft orange as it drifts stern-first with the tide. Most of the 12 weight fly line is stripped off the reel, and 70 feet of it is scattered across the deck around my feet. The rod points toward the bow, each guide catching the dusk light in sparkles of orange. The fly line is an extension of the rod, passing through a spot five feet above the bow, connected to a tarpon flying high enough to have wings. Suspended parallel to the water, it hovers eight feet in the air. I look up at the largest tarpon I have ever hooked, its large scales each a glimmer of the fading orange sun, the black pupil of its massive eye the center of an orange orb. The brown, tan, and purple crab fly drifts inches outside of the tarpon’s mouth. Already, the tarpon is free again.
The tarpon’s head rises out of the water, so its eyes and jaw are exposed, mouth open. The blue-over-white deceiver falls into the dark cavern of the tarpon’s mouth, accompanied by two yellow-billed sprat (sardines). A dark ball of sprat surround the tarpon, 20 feet on all sides, shimmering flecks of silver in the dark green mass of panic. The tarpon’s head is framed by a halo of clear water vacant of prey, and a crown of silver panic hovering above the surface. The yellow fly line lays across the water, undulating with the small waves bouncing off the beach, continues up the beach, and to the rod tip. Loose fly line drops off the reel and loops across my feet. I stand barefoot, in board shorts and t-shirt, only 40 feet away.
Time doesn’t stop for other fish. At least never for me, and not for anyone I’ve talked to. This doesn’t take away from what other fish have to offer. A big snook taking a fly in six inches of water on a sand flat, and going airborne is a fantastic memory, but time never stopped. And even permit, bonefish, redfish, and striped bass – they all have their strong attributes and I have some vivid memories of each. But none can make time stop. There is something magic about tarpon. I don’t know how they do it, but they can make time stop. I’m looking forward to the next time, but I promise I won’t try to force it.
When I was ready to put this piece on the web site, I began to go through my photos to pick out pictures to paste into the story. But as I tried to match photos with the story, it became evident that I couldn't. Not that some of the photos wouldn't have gone well with the story. It was that no photograph can really do justice to those moments when time stops, no matter how good a photo, no matter how close to the description a photo might be. These moments can't be captured by a camera.
The Fisherman's Coast approach focuses on how coastal gamefish interact with their habitats and prey. The more you know about the gamefish you pursue with a fly rod, the more often you'll be in the right place at the right time with the right fly making the right presentation. It's about catching more fish.
Our sister site Tribal Bonefish is all about conservation through responsible fishing. Tribal Bonefish shows you how to become a better steward of our coasts to protect our fisheries today, and ensure future generations get a chance to experience these fisheries.