On The Fly Saltwater
By Bob Rich
Photos by Jimmy Jacobs
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Bob Rich’s novel Looking Through Water. William McKay is a harried New York businessman and novice fly caster who visits his father Leo in the Florida Keys. Once there he discovers his dad has entered them in a father-son bonefish and tarpon tournament with their guide Cole. It is day two and they are looking for tarpon. The action provides all the thrill and excitement of the fishing, along with the heart-break of making a mistake at the end.
As Cole climbed the tower, Leo sat on the cooler and insisted that William get back on the bow. “I’ve got a good feeling,” he said.
William went back to practice casting while Cole scanned the water. Thirty minutes into his vigil, he
shouted out, “Two tarpon coming at 11 o’clock!”
William struggled to retrieve his line, some of which had become tangled in his feet.
“Come on, kid, straighten out that mess;’ Leo said. “Where are they, Cole?”
“One’s already gone, but the other is laid up at 10 o’clock about 50 feet out. Leo, hurry that guy up for Christ’s sake. This fish is going to bolt.”
Finally, William got his line untangled.
Leo said, “Cast now,” – he pointed toward 9 o’clock – “right there.”
William closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled. As he started his casting motion, he began to sing “Unforgettable” under his breath.
“What the hell’s he doing?” Cole asked.
“I think he’s singing,” Leo said.
Ignoring them both, William had his line forming a perfect loop in the air. Staying with the rhythm of his song, he cast his line to exactly where his father had pointed and watched the large yellow fly drop safely in the water.
“Oh my God!” Cole said.
His fly sank right in front of a six-foot tarpon suspended about three feet below the surface. Its large silver scales gleamed like radiant armor in the refracted sunlight. William thought he saw its eyes scanning for movement in the water.
“Start stripping line in, but not too fast,” Leo said.
Still singing, William began to strip line. He could see the big tarpon look right at his fly. Then, suddenly, like a silver torpedo, the tarpon’s body surged forward. Opening its large, gaping lower jaw like a bucket, it inhaled the fly.
William’s rod jerked in his hands as the tarpon exploded vertically out of the water and thrashed the air 20 feet away from the skiff.
“Lower your rod tip!” Cole shouted. “Lower your rod tip!”
William did so as the big fish crashed back into the water.
“Whenever he jumps, lower the tip,” his father said.
“I thought I was supposed to keep it tight?”
“You are,” Leo said, “but not when he jumps. He’s too big; he’ll break you off in the air. You point the rod tip down to give him some slack till he’s back in the water. It’s called bowing to the king.”
The tarpon surged and jumped again. William lowered the rod tip and his father said, “Good.”
The tarpon started to run, taking back line as it went. William noticed that everyone in the nearby skiffs were paying attention.
As line flew off the reel, he asked, “What do I do now?”
“Nothing,” his father said, “just keep the rod tip up to keep some pressure on him. He’s still green and you can’t stop him. We’ll go after him.”
Cole pulled up the push pole, jumped off the tower, and stowed the pole on the gunnel. Then he started the engine, put it in gear, and began following the tarpon as the knobs on William’s reel spun and line continued to fly off.
“Get ready to reel as fast as you can,” Cole said. “We’re going to give you some slack as we catch up with him.”
All of a sudden William’s reel stopped turning. “He’s not running anymore,” he said.
Cole and Leo looked at each other and in unison said, “Reel, reel, reel.”
“Feel anything yet, any pressure?” Leo asked.
“Nothing yet,” he said, still reeling frantically
Cole turned off the engine and climbed back on the tower to see what was going on.
“He’s charging right at us,” Cole yelled. “Keep reeling! Catch up to him! Faster! He’s almost here. Leo, grab the camera. I may get a chance to touch the leader, qualifying it as a catch.”
Then it got frantic. With Cole and Leo scurrying around the boat, William reeled in line as quickly as he could. When the line grew tight, he lifted the rod.
Looking into the water, he saw the big fish streaming right at them. At the last moment, the tarpon exploded out of the water and smashed into the bow of the boat. The impact caused William to lose his balance, and he fell overboard. Bobbing to the surface, he could see Cole grabbing the leader and his father taking a picture of the dazed fish as it lay momentarily by the side of the boat.
“That’s an official catch and release!” Cole shouted.
The dazed fish came to and surged away from the boat again. Feeling pressure on the rod in his hands, William yelled, “He’s still on, he’s still on!”
Several of the anglers and guides in the nearby skiffs, let out a great cheer.
“Atta boy,” Leo said, “you’re doing good. Keep on lifting up and reeling down.”
“We got the catch,” Cole said, “break him off.”
“No way,” William said, “I want to land this fish.”
Suddenly, the dark dorsal fin of a bull shark sliced the surface of the water off the bow and swam right past William in hot pursuit of the tarpon, which had revived and was now pulling out more line.
Cole said. “That must have been what turned him around.”
Leo leaned over the side of the boat toward William.
“Give me your hand, let it go.”
William said. “I’m gonna land this fish!”
“Give me your hand right now!”
William turned his back to the boat to face the fleeing fish and felt four strong hands grabbing him out of the water, tossing him onto the gunnel near the stern
of the skiff.
“Get your feet inside this boat!” Leo said. William scrambled to his feet, still holding the rod. He felt the fish begin to rise and watched as his tarpon jumped high in the air, its silver scales flashing. But this time it didn’t matter that William bowed to the fish. As its magnificent, elegant body hit the water, it was torn in half by the jaws of the bull shark.
“No!”William shouted. Blood erupted and clouded the brilliant water as the huge bull shark seized and shook the tarpon’s thrashing remains.
William dropped the rod in the boat and pushed past Cole to grab his push pole. He saw the dark eyes of the shark as it finished off the tarpon. It seemed to look at William.
William shouted. “That was my fish!” He started stabbing at the shark with the sharp end of the pole. He kept on stabbing him until it was gone, leaving only a pool of red blood in the water.
He stood, panting and soaked to the bone. Cole and Leo and the men on the other boats were silent, all eyes on William.
“What’s the matter?” William asked, breaking the silence.
“Nothing,” Cole said. “Nothing at all. Good catch, I guess. We got our tarpon.”