I've had a fair number of my friends ask me about the trip I was lucky enough to get invited on down to the Florida Keys last month and I figured it was time to share some pictures and stories with you all about the trip that ruined my fishing life...
First off, for those of you who know me, I've never been fishing in the Saltwater before, I'm an outdoors kid born and raised in Bozeman, Montana who's been chasing trout and freshwater species his whole life, not a bad way to grow up and I'm not complaining, just stating the facts. I've known for some time that if I ever went Saltwater fishing I would be an absolute wreck of a human being trying anything and everything to get back down there again. I'd always heard that it was a streamer fisherman's mecca with sight fishing to dozens of species of fish in clear water conditions with nice weather and plenty of sunshine - which is quite the concept because I associate good streamer fishing with cloudy overcast days, not bright sunny days. But casting flies at 10-200lb fish in flip flop sandals and board shorts didn't sound like too bad of a deal to me.
So day 1 we fly into Key West hop off the plane, check into our digs and then string up the rods and watch our guides tie some fancy knots with some stuff that reminds me of cable, not leader material. I could hardly wait to get on the water, who cares about humidity and heat, I'm here to fish I was thinking to myself. I was just plain antsy to get in the boat and head out to do some fishing.
The first lesson I learned was that a 12 weight rod with a 2-3 inch long fly is a little bit different than a 9 or 10 weight rod with an 8 inch long coneheaded monstrosity, it was a helluva lot easier to cast! When our guide figured out that I could double haul and put it in a 2ftx2ft box at 90ft he was all smiles, unfortunately what we'd find out later was that just because you can cast doesn't mean you can hook the fish...
The second lesson I learned was that sighting the fish is key, it doesn't matter how far you can cast if you can't spot the fish right away, so I blew a number of opportunities the first day and everyday after just not being able to spot the fish. Fly retrieval on the worm flies that we were fishing for Tarpon was also unlike anything I'd done because the retrieval is in a straight line with consistently non-stop stripping motion that doesn't make the fly jerk, but rather glides through the water like it were on a track. That to me was really weird and I told our guide that he shouldn't try that in Montana because the results would suck.
The first evening we got no follows on anything until we put on our guide Gordon's worm pattern, much different than any worm patterns I've seen in freshwater for sure. Once the fly was switched up we had a few Tarpon look, but no takers. I'm convinced they could smell the rookie Montanan rednecks in the boat. Still I knew after the first few hours on the water that I was going to be hooked, figuratively and literally. Seeing those 80lb+ animals just slicing through the water like ghosts and then disappearing as quickly as they came into sight was crazy, Tarpon are a cool animal.
The next few days were really a blur, the second day we targeted Tarpon all day long on Sunshine point, and just seeing the Tarpon swimming around was incredible. Now what happened next can only be described as some of the purest frustration I have experienced in my life because I'd told myself for the days leading up to the trip that I wasn't going to try and trout set a Saltwater fish... Well guess what, you apparently can take the kid out of Montana but you can't take the Montana out of the kid, and when I had a Tarpon eat my fly 5 feet from the boat and my guide screamed \"Set!!!!\" I lifted up on the rod and jerked the fly right out of the fishes mouth. What followed out of my mouth isn't fit for any audience of any age, let's just say it would have made Danny Devito wince.
Here's the PG version *edited for time and language* of my buddy Jesse whacking a Tarpon - you can't really see it in the video, but there were approximately 500 Tarpon swimming by in a big long train eating... We stuck one and lost it!
In my defense I told my guide that I'd been ingrained since 3 or 4 years old to lift up on the fly rod whenever my dad or anyone else yelled \"Set\" at me in the boat. I told our guide \"You're going to have to find a different word to yell at me, set isn't going to get us results Trevor.\" We came to an agreement that \"Strip!!\" was going to be the safety word for this trip. The next fish that shot in from the group following my fly I strip set and the fish turned right out of the hookset as he veered away from the boat, I was bummed... 2 opportunities that second day and I blew them both. Me 0 - Tarpon 2
The third day I was a little pissed, here we were in Florida and I'd yet to catch a damn fish, and all I'd heard from our guides was how good of a caster and fisherman I was. Now I'm not an ego driven person when it comes to catching fish, because after all the ability to catch fish puts you right up there with an orangutan on the evolutionary scale of things, not too impressive as far as I'm concerned, but, I wanted to drive a hook into something on my trip, I couldn't go home without at least hooking a few fish. So we told our guide that we wanted to go put a bend in the rod. It was determined that we would chum up some sharks and pitch some gear at them - I'm an admittedly terrible spin fisherman, I haven't done it much since my early teenage years when I would have rivaled Bill Dance. After 20-30 minutes of me throwing the spin rod anywhere from 70 feet over the head of the fish or 2 feet off the boat our guide handed me back a fly rod and told me to save everyone the trouble and just stick to tossing around flies, sounds good to me I thought.
Later on the afternoon of the third day we were posted up on a sandbar waiting on some fish to push up the deep channel to the outside of the boat chumming for sharks. Seeing the fish cruise from about 300yds out up the sandflat pushing water the entire way was one of the neatest experiences I've ever witnessed on the water. After casting unsuccessfully at nearly a half dozen sharks, we smeared some eggs on the orange piece of feathered garbage on the end of my line and dangled it in front of the face of a large shark until he couldn't resist the dance any longer. What ensued next can only be described as chaos... Unbenknownst to me I had hooked into a 100lb+ Lemon Shark and my fly was tied onto 250lb steel braided nylon coated wire, I wasn't going to be able to put too much pressure on this fish and pop it off, this fish was going to have to come to the boat. The problem, I had hooked the fish on a 9wt. After about 10 minutes of the fish running me into my backing repeatedly I decided that I'd ask what the hell I was supposed to do now. The response from my guide who was having a ball with the whole ordeal, \"You've got a bend in your rod now don't you.\" Well said Trevor, well said.
No glory shots ensued, because with a pissed off fish at over 5 feet long I wasn't getting into the water with a fresh chum line with any shark regardless, and we weren't bringing the fish into the boat. We did manage a few blurry shots and some decent pictures of me sweating like a pig at auction through the battle, and one nice picture of a big shark fin out of the water as my rod is completely taco'd. The rest of the day I relaxed and pitched at a few more sharks for fun but to no avail. The only other highlight was when we were cruising some back country shoreline looking for permit and we happened to spot one crashing crabs up in the shallows making quite the ruckus. I planted a cast within a foot of the fish's head, but on the first strip I stuck a piece of sea rock and couldn't get my fly back, Permit Shot #1 Blown.
Roughly 15 minutes after the first fly debacle we came up on what our guide described to me as \"two giant f'ing pie plates in the water\" and he repeatedly asked me if I could see the fish. My reply, nope all I see is two sharks in the water, well I can tell you that when these two giant Permit turned sideways, I saw them. Like two giant hubcaps on a big rig, they sliced through the water and gave me the fin, Permit Shots #2 & #3 Blown. Oh well, there's always more sharks to hook and rays to try and snag I thought to myself.
The 4th day rolled around and we set out to catch nothing but Tarpon, it was time to hook one of these majestic beasts, and I was going to do it or I wasn't going to leave for home. The conditions for us were less than ideal, the wind was blowing at a consistent clip putting lots of chop on the water, the overcast skies made spotting the fish tough and on top of that the water was stained, or at least that's what they were telling us rednecks. After nursing a Key West morning flu and watching my buddy take shots at about 12 different schools of Tarpon rolling by, I decided I'd better stomach it and take a shot myself. The first pod that rolled by as I was standing on the casting deck looked happy and were skimming the surface feeding or at least that's what it looked like. I made 3 casts and had 3 fish follow and one even looked as if he was going to eat the fly when my guide yelled at me to recast. I obliged and pulled the fly right out of the mouth of a Tarpon about to eat 10 feet off the bow of the boat. Bummer. I handed off the rod and continued my nap on the boat for another hour or so until I decided to take another shot at the Silver. The next shot I had was at a small group of about 10 fish, I threw the fly out ahead of the pack and stripped nice and slow and even, mostly because I was tired and hungover, I saw the fish come up and crest the surface and suck down my worm and I strip set as hard as I could into it's face.
The sum total of all of my fishing experiences in my life up and to this point hadn't prepared me for what happened next. The only previous life experience I could draw from was the one time as a kid I thought it might be fun while casting at my dad's flyshop to hook a car with a fly and see what would happen to the reel - that was an incredible experience for the 20 seconds as the line sizzled off the reel before the reel gave up and the line snapped. That was pretty much exactly what happened when I stuck that Tarpon in the face, things came unglued. I would later learn that apparently when you jam them in the face as hard as you can, they jump and run trying to get away from you - my knuckle was sore for a week afterwards, but it was all worth it. Watching the Tarpon jump up into the air no more than 50 feet in front of my face was a feeling and a mental image I won't soon forget. So what if he shook the hook on the second jump, I was satisfied.
The rest of the day was spent mentally trying to shake what had just happened and concentrate on hooking another fish. Unfortunately most of the rest of the day was uneventful and included lots of single and double Tarpon swimming around and not eating. At this point I considered my trip successful, I'd put a silver beast on the end of a rod and felt the sizzle of an 80lb animal on a fly reel. But the fifth day was going to be a blast.
Our final day on the flats in Key West was met with a late morning breakfast and a trip back out to look for Tarpon first thing. I had grown bored of waiting on fish to show up. There wasn't enough beer in the cooler for another day of marginal waiting around as far as I was concerned, especially since I wasn't going to be heading back down to Key West anytime soon. So my buddy and I told our guide Kiel that we wanted to head back into the back country and take some shots at some fish in the shallower mangroves. Kiel was excited and took us back to a few of his favorite spots, but warned us that normally he would have been up at the crack of dawn to fish these spots, not 1'o'clock in the afternoon.
The next few hours were my favorite of the trip - we were sight fishing sharks, rays, snapper, needlefish, barracuda, and baby tarpon in 2 ft deep crystal clear water. The catching wasn't fantastic as it was nearly 100 degrees outside with no wind and lots of weary fish in shallow water. But we lacked in catching we made up for in beers and 70ft casts at approaching sharks - check this video out, that's a little bull shark chasing down a fly for the better part of 50 ft.
It was at this point that I knew my freshwater cherry had been popped and I'd have to find my way back to the Keys again sometime, even if it meant selling all my personal belongings and packing my wife and daughter in a suitcase and driving.
Yes, I'll be back at some point I know it, until then, I'll have to go drop a boat on the Yellowstone when it clears...
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