Toothy critters in the salt
Special to the Summit Daily
“Let me get this straight. It’s the height of tarpon season and you want to fish for sharks?”
Our guide, Brandon Sharp, sounded a bit incredulous.
You see, in the Florida Keys you can catch sharks any time of year. But late April into the heat of summer is when the big tarpon migrate through the crystal clear waters of the backcountry. Anglers from around the globe come to the Keys in hopes of catching a trophy tarpon on a fly, and they pay guides handsomely to put them on those fish.
I’ve caught tarpon before, both on a fly rod and on heavy tackle — an experience worth every penny the guides charged — but never a shark. When that came up as an option for our two-day trip to Big Pine Key, I said “hell yes, let’s catch a shark.”
Early summer weather in South Florida is actually predictable, but only in that it’s unpredictable. It’s not if it will rain or if the wind will blow, but how much and how hard.
Five days before I was to meet my younger brother Steve, a physician from Virginia, in the Florida Keys, Brandon called and said we might want to reschedule.
A tropical front was approaching. The forecast was for rain and wind, lots of it.
The trip had been on the calendar since February. Steve is my only brother who fishes, and our time together on water have been the best of times, sharing a river dory, hiking a canyon in hopes of landing a first cutthroat, landing a 28-pound salmon. We only get to see one another a couple of times a year. We’d never fished saltwater together.
We told Brandon we’d see him in a couple days. The worse-case scenario would be to find ourselves in a Key West bar hoping to have Ernest Hemingway’s spirit descend upon us.
We had tarpon and permit fish in mind when we booked the trip — fish that require a more dependable weather forecast — so the foul weather forecast led to the talk of options and eventually to sharks.
As it turned out the weather wasn’t a complete deterrent. It rained, but not enough to force us off the water.
Some fly fishing purists will be revolted by what follows, but if one can do a long enough “chuck-and-duck” cast with a stinky day-old pin fish impaled on a hook, a shark will readily eat it. And if you can’t make the cast with a fly rod, it’s a cinch on light spinning tackle.
With either, a 4-foot black tip shark is a handful. A 4 1/2-foot bull shark much more so. The biggest shark that ate we didn’t see, but whatever it was and however big it was it ate Steve’s offering on a long cast into green water and took off in the general direction of Cuba shredding a 40-pound wire tippet in less time than it took to pen this sentence.
Brandon may have started out thinking tarpon but warmed to the idea of shark in a hurry.
Actually, what he warmed to was the flexibility of letting the conditions determine the day. Not all clients are as flexible or understanding.
“A lot of people are so set on catching a tarpon that that’s what they want to do no matter what,” he said.
For many, the tarpon is the Holy Grail. When the conditions are right — a light breeze on a sun-baked flat that lights up the water — there are few fishing experiences to rival it. But it’s not what the guide or fisherman want but what Mother Nature allows.
Brandon is a Missouri boy who discovered how good the hunting and fishing is in Colorado and migrated west more than decade ago. He made a decent living as a fishing and big game guide in Summit County, but mostly in North Park and around Steamboat Springs and Craig, with a couple stints in Alaska.
It was seven years ago he first fished Florida, and while he still has his hand in deer and elk trips in Colorado, he’s fallen hard for saltwater fishing.
“First time I hooked a tarpon, my God …” Brandon’s voice trails off for a moment, the memory of the big fishing pulling on the line halting any other thought.
He’d long seen tarpon as the ultimate fly rod fish, the pinnacle. He watched videos, read magazine stories and dreamed.
“When I actually jumped my first tarpon, which was entirely luck — a blind cast on a sink tip line in eight feet of water — it was better than I’d built up in 20 years of dreaming of it,” he said.
It jumped just once.
“A 100-plus pound fish standing on its tail, rattling its gills 40 feet from me and then it spit the fly right at me. I knew I needed more of that. I was addicted.”
He spent successive seasons learning the lessons that come only with being on the water almost daily from January through June. He hoarded his Colorado big game and trout guiding money, found work as he could and “lived lean.”
“If I came down here and had a job it would really cut into the fishing time,” he said.
In the third year he started inviting friends, poling them along the backcountry on the used flats boat he’d bought and showing them how to spot fish, cast, do a strip and then hang on.
Brandon then earned a captain’s license and built a client list that relies on the knowledge he has gained from thousands of days on the water. His business has turned the corner and he’s become a respected Key’s guide, a limited-member fraternity.
While it’s not all about distance casting, in saltwater one has to have mastered the double-haul cast and be able to push a fly line farther than on the average big-river trout stream and often with a steady 12 to 15 mph wind blowing in their faces.
“Anybody can cast with the wind at their back, but you have cast where the fish are, not the way the wind blows,” he said.
When my brother fishes a fly rod in saltwater, his mantra, repeated as he pulls the line back in hopes of a fish grabbing the fly, is “strip set, strip set, strip set…”
A strip set is simply when you feel the pull of the fish on the fly (most saltwater fish don’t “bite” the fly but literally suck it in by flushing water through their mouths and out the gills), you pull hard on the line but don’t lift the rod. Instead, when you feel the hook in the fish’s mouth, strip hard again and then pull the rod back keeping it low to the water.
On the flats even if the water is choppy from the wind it’s nearly always sight fishing. If everything works perfectly there’s no better than a 50-50 chance the fish will take the fly, as in sometimes they eat and sometimes they don’t.
And if you’re the kind of client who truly doesn’t understand that nothing in tarpon fishing comes easy, then regardless of what the guide does — and good guides go to great lengths to accommodate clients — the day won’t be a success.
Sharks and ‘Cudas
With gusting winds, rain and clouds we opted for the easy fishing.
The first shark brought to hand was a 4-foot black tip.
It was moving toward us across the flat. A cast ahead of the shark put the pin fish in its path. Seconds later the shark lazily picked up the bait and turned away. As it did I set the hook.
The fish pulled line from the reel at a worrisome pace. A reel holds only so much line. I clamped down, trusting the drag and began pumping the rod to gain back line. The shark came close twice, only to make another blistering run. But each was shorter than the last and in minutes the fish was ready to land.
Once to the side of the boat, a small shark is serious business. Largely cartilage and internal organs, a shark can nearly bend itself 180 degrees. It took two attempts but we finally got the choreography right.
By early afternoon a storm was nearly on us. That meant a change of plan.
Powered by a 90-horsepower Evinrude, the 17-foot Dolphin skiff streaked across the water. We headed to a different flat, one mile out of the storm’s path and one where Brandon knew we’d find barracuda trading one water-bound toothy critter for another. Where a shark has rows of teeth a barracuda has a hinged lower jaw that interlocks with the upper. Both are studded with canine-like incisors.
While there are some who can strip a fly fast enough to trigger a strike from a barracuda, I’m not among them. But cranking the reel handle of a light spinning rod speeds the lure to where the barracuda hungrily races after it. Unlike a shark, there is nothing lazy about a barracuda.
Where sharks bear down and dig deep, only occasionally breaking the surface, a barracuda repeatedly cartwheels from the water even as it screams across the flat, pulling line from the reel at a staggering speed.
But they tire quickly for a saltwater fish and the 3- to 4-foot fish we were landing turned largely docile once at hand.
After a string of three big fish in a row, I was ready to just sit in the boat and watch my brother stalk barracuda. Eventually the storm chased us from the water, but not until we’d sit together in the boat telling tales, mostly of fishing and hunting but also of family and friends.
While I don’t entirely agree with the adage, “a bad day on the water is better than a good day at the office,” there’s little doubt a good day on the water is better than most any day anywhere else. Even with the wind and rain, the two days fishing the flats northwest of Big Pine Key were among our best days.
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