In the climactic moments of the new Yeti film 120 Days, guide David Mangum is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a tarpon. His guest has the giant-eyed fish near the boat, and with his bare hands, Mangum grabs the leader, tries to grab the lip of the fish with his other hand, and that’s when the fish jumps.
Fortunately for the fly-fishing world, aspirational filmmakers Travis Rummel and Ben Knight provide a slow-motion, over-the-shoulder look at this bare-knuckle fight, and the result is mesmerizing. Slow-motion is often overdone in fly-fishing films, but in this close and frantic sequence, there’s so much going on that you’ll want to hit replay repeatedly to watch the fly stuck in the lower lip, and the way the fly tail swings and throws a perfect curl of water framed by a cavernous mouth. The giant eye of the fish seems locked onto Mangum as it snakes side to side—half its 7-foot body length out of the water, and the other half thrashing against Mangum’s outstretched hands and tearing the leader through his fingers.
I have hooked many, many tarpon (and landed a few) but I have never been eye-to-eye with a tarpon raging at the gunwales, felt the spray from its head-shakes, and watched its gill filaments waving like sea-grass. That’s the point of 120 Days, to give regular folks and occasional saltwater fishermen an idea of what it’s like to be a Florida tarpon guide and focus all of your energy, passion, and talents on those four months of the year when you have a shot at catching tarpon on a fly. This is a guide’s view of the tarpon experience.
In 120 Days, Mangum says “I never wear gloves, I feel like it’s a little fight, you know, and you want to let him beat up on you a little bit. He deserves it.”
The filmmakers share this same bare-knuckle honesty and they don’t try to glamorize the fishing or sanitize their subjects Mangum or guide Brett Martina. They are both intensely serious about tarpon fishing. Mangum has used a para-sail to scout for tarpon, crashed, and injured himself in the process. He uses a skull for an anchor buoy to warn interlopers to “stay the f*ck away from me,” and to his clients, journalist Tom Bie says “I don’t think he’s overly a dick.” Which is to say, you better not trout set when a tarpon takes your fly.