I woke up earlier than necessary so I could watch the sunrise on the beach while setting up two fly rods: an 8 and a 12. It’s one thing when you have an entire stretch of trout to yourself. Having dibs on a strip of ocean is another thing entirely. There was no one but me to watch the sun rise above the palm trees and transform the surface of the quiet planes into a mood stone, transforming from black to blue, from violet to fiery orange. This solitude lasted perhaps 20 minutes before the distant sound of an outboard attached to an approaching panga broke the silence. I might have resented the interruption if the guy at the helm hadn’t been there to pick me up.
I waded 100 meters into the water to find him. “Pinball!”
“Colin!” answered. “Nice to see you again.”
Flipper and I first met in almost this exact spot a year ago when he guided me on my first tarpon outing on the fly. I landed three juvenile tarpon that day, but I would have done a lot better if I hadn’t shown up with those rusty casting skills. In the two weeks leading up to this trip, however, I once again woke up earlier than necessary and walked to a neighborhood park and ran through drills that replicated the kinds of moving target launches I now knew to expect.
I gave Flipper my rods, then climbed over the gunnel and into the panga. He inspected the clubs and smiled at the 12-weight, the big player. “Let’s go get some giants.” With that decided, he started the engine, jumped the boat on the plane and headed us towards the tarpon grounds.
Flipper, the author’s guide, made the panga go around and through a mangrove lagoon in search of tarpon. Colin Kearns
feel the heat
My dream of jumping a 100 pound tarpon would have to wait. We idled in the open migratory waters, looking for rolling silver kings, but saw none. After about an hour, Flipper suggested we switch to plan B. “Let’s go get some babies,” he said. I put away the 12-weight and caught the 8, while Flipper cruised into the shallower, mangrove-lined lagoons where the young tarpon hide.
I wish I could say that all the practice I’d put in paid off, that I made one perfect presentation after another, pulling juvie after juvie out of the mangroves, but that’s not how things went. This time, at least, my casting wasn’t to blame. In fact, I barely managed to deliver. The tarpon were nowhere to be found, and the ones we saw were not aggressive at all. He could land a fly well within his attack zone, and they wouldn’t die.
“The water is too hot,” said Flipper. “The fish don’t want to move.”
The funny thing was that despite the slowness of the fishing, the time flew by, and not because I was having fun (although I wasn’t bored at all), but because I felt that my chances were slipping away. In the last couple of years, I have become obsessed with tarpon fishing. I think about it constantly. The problem is, I live in New York City, which seems like a galaxy far away from the nearest tarpon shots. Targeting these fish isn’t as simple as driving to the nearest spring creek. So as Flipper shuttled the skiff from one fishless spot to another—as the precious hours, minutes, and seconds I had left with him as my guide ticked away—the idea not only of going home was surprising, but also of not knowing when the next time. I would be here it would be, it was almost heartbreaking.
“Wow, fish,” I said to myself in the bow.
Down to the wire
I looked at my watch: at best I had 45 minutes before we had to turn back. He had obviously given up hope on a giant launch. The same goes for a day of non-stop action fighting minors. I just wanted one. I didn’t even need to land the fish. If only he could hear a strike and he would go home happy.
The author releases his tarpon. Colin Kearns
Flipper turned a corner. In front of me was this ultra-narrow alley of water between mangrove patches, and at the end was a pod of four tarpon. My first cast was too short. My second was good enough to turn heads. “Strip,” said Flipper. “Strip, strip… Stripstripstirp! Together!”
The hooked tarpon darted into the mangroves, and the fight seemed over before it began. Flipper frantically put the skiff into an open stretch, but it seemed impossible that I could get the fish free without breaking my leader. But for the first time all day, luck was on our side: I pulled the tarpon out of the mangroves and into the opening. Then, the real fight took place.
The fish jumped, turned, charged and jumped some more. Lagoon tarpon might be “babies” compared to the giants in the open ocean, but you should see the scramble they can put on an 8-weight.
Flipper caught the fish over the side of the boat and then handed it to me for a few quick photos. When I lowered the tarpon back into the water, I was almost thankful for the warmer than usual temperature, because it meant I needed to hold and revive the fish for longer. I had come a long way and fished hard on this tarpon, and I was in no rush to let it go.
Best of 2022 is a series of stories from the editors about their favorite moments of the year spent on the field or in the stream.