April 04, 2023
By Lynn Burkhead, OSG Senior Editor
Guy de la Valdene, who co-directed the 1973 film Tarpon, died last week at the age of 79 according to several social media reports.
The Twitter account of the Key West Literary Seminar reported the news on March 31: "Farewell to Guy de la Valdene. His 1973 film Tarpon is better than legendary because it actually exists. Take a look, raise a glass, and cast a line for Guy."
John “Jackie” Hutwagner, proprietor of Hannahatchee Kennels in Georgia, confirmed in a Facebook post on March 31, 2023: "I wanted to share this sad news with any that may have known Guy,” read Hutwanger’s message. “I got a phone call today from Daniel that Guy de la Valdene has passed away today from complications with Parkinson's. He was a special man and a great friend of Epagneul Bretons and for many years provided his beautiful property for us to have EB field trials. Author, fisherman and bird hunter. Daniel said Guy plans no arrangements and simple plans to be cremated and his ashes spread along with his wife's and dogs on an island in a lake on his property.”
While the film faded from memory for a number of years, it resurfaced in recent years, including a YouTube version of the 53-minute long tribute to the yesteryears of tarpon fishing in Key West. The video–also available on DVD from providers like Amazon–has received new life and become a cult classic.
That place in the sport’s lore came in part because of de la Valdene’s participation in a fabled group of writers and fly anglers who annually took up residence in the Florida Keys during tarpon season in the 1970s and into the 1980s.
Along with other celebrated members of the group–known to some as The Sporting Club–de la Valdene lived with, hung out with, fly fished with, and enjoyed a generally good time with notable writers and celebrities like late author Jim Harrison, late artist and author Russell Chatham, and noted novelist Thomas McGuane, author of perhaps the finest fly fishing essays book of all-time, The Longest Silence.
de la Valdene did a little writing himself, including several books on hunting and fishing. In July of 2017, Fly Fisherman ran an excerpt of his final book in 2015, entitled On the Water: A Fishing Memoir.
"Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham, and I were known in Key West as the ‘fat boys,’ as in, ‘The fat boys are back in town,’ loosely translated as, ‘The party is on,’” wrote de la Valdene about a time quite different from today. "Not that Key West needed our encouragement to throw a party. We merely added our weight, enthusiasm, and appetites to the mix. We weren’t particularly fat (certainly not by today’s standards), but we all cooked and ate well.
"Through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Jim, Russell, and I rented a house in Key West for six weeks every year and parked my skiff at Garrison Bight. Every morning, no matter how distraught we felt from the previous night’s indulgences, if the weather was tolerable we fished, or attempted to fish."
A few years later, de la Valdene purchased a farm near Tallahassee, Fla., where he was able to indulge in another central passion of his life–upland bird hunting, particularly for bobwhite quail. But despite the mellowing brought on by the passage of time and family, de la Valdene remembered fondly his years in Key West and the story of tarpon and those who obsessively fly fished for them every spring and early summer.
"Poling gave me a perspective into the world of guides and their clients–the choices that lead anglers to tarpon, and the importance of pointing out the fish and setting up the skiff for them to make the cast," he noted in the book excerpt published here last summer. "The water temperature, the tide, the water level, the contour of the flats, and the adjoining channels all tell a piece of the story of shallow-water tarpon, and I soon found the hunting of these big fish and the excitement they provoked in the boat to be as entertaining as the fishing."
In the early 1970s, that helped bring about the documentary that tried to capture the essence of Key West and its legendary tarpon fishing. Combining the words and skills of legendary anglers like Gil Drake, Woody Sexton, and Steve Huff, along with writers like Richard Brautigan, Harrison, and McGuane–and original music from Jimmy Buffett–the film attempted to capture the raw energy, grace, and beauty of saltwater fly fishing that few outside of the Conch Republic knew anything about.
McGuane tried to capture some of that same glimpse into Key West’s culture and the tarpon fishery lying beyond Mile Marker 0 with his widely acclaimed novel, 92 in the Shade. First published in 1973, the novel–which eventually became a motion picture–is set in Key West and tells the tale of a guide seeking a place of solace in a turbulent time and place.
If McGuane captured all of that in the pages of print–and his novel won a National Book Award for Fiction–then de la Valdene's film achieved the same through cameras and film.
Many think that Tarpon hit the target then and now, including Tom Brokaw, the former NBC Nightly News anchor and one-time host of the Outdoor Channel television series, Buccaneers and Bones.
"Tarpon is a timeless and beautifully executed film about life, sport, and culture,” said Brokaw. “You'll be moved, amused, outraged, and, most of all, entertained."
That's what de la Valdene attempted to do with his film, and to some extent later on with his writing too, which saw a significant shift towards the world of upland bird hunting, a part of his youthful upbringing on the European side of the Atlantic.
de la Valdene was born in New York City on May 8, 1944. But only five years after World War II ended, de la Valdene wrote in the Prologue to On the Water that he found himself on an ocean liner with his sister, headed to Cherbourg, France and to the Normandy estate that his parents owned. In the shadow of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s costly D-Day invasion that helped liberate Europe and hasten the end of WW II, de la Valdene spent his youth in a more pastoral French countryside, exploring the wilds and waters around him just outside the castle estate that was his boyhood home.
And despite the wealth of his family and the unique upbringing in France, those same themes would carry on throughout his life.
"Proximity to water has always been a part of my life," he noted in On the Water, also adding that while the French countryside spurred his love of fishing, his adult life would find him fishing the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and later on, the Pacific Ocean.
"Now, as an older man with an aversion to crowded airports, a freshwater pond once again gathers my attention," wrote de la Valdene in 2015.
"In 1990 I bought a farm in northern Florida that showcases red clay hills, live oak trees, and loblolly pines. There are doves in the fall, bobwhite quail in the winter, and turkeys in the spring. Sixty miles to the south there are redfish and flounder on the grass flats, sea trout and tarpon on the reef, and oysters on the beds. From the ten-acre spit of unproductive water that came with the property, I fashioned a twenty-seven-acre body of prime bass fishing habitat. Its proximity to my house rekindles a number of childhood memories."
With a propensity for fly rods, side-by-side shotguns, and bird dogs, de la Valdene spent the remainder of his years improving his property for wildlife, observing the natural world around him while coming to grips with the death of his daughter Valerie in the Galapagos Islands in 2014. The death was officially ruled a suicide, but her father and friends thought otherwise regarding the loss of the 48-year old world class diver and photographer.
In his twilight years, from a small cabin on his Dogwood Farms, de la Valdene wrote that his interest in fishing had become a little less serious. As he figured out the moods and musings of a man in the winter of his life, he wrote the occasional book, including his fishing memoir in 2015; the well-received Making Game: An Essay on Woodcock in 1990; For a Handful of Feathers on bobwhite quail hunting in 1997; and The Fragrance of Grass on hunting Hungarian partridge in 2011.
And as friends like Harrison and Chatham passed on, de la Valdene came to grips with his own mortality. Fishing became in some respects a lens through which he contemplated life and his place in the world.
"I choose to spend the final years of my life next to one pond among a thousand other ponds in northern Florida, a simple body of water without aspirations other than to reflect the stars and remind me of all the fresh- and saltwater destinations that have shaped my life,” wrote de la Valdene.
And without a doubt, many of the anglers who have ever read the fishing and hunting volumes of de la Valdene’s works, or the pages of Fly Fisherman magazine, can fully understand such sentiment.
Lynn Burkhead is a senior digital editor with Outdoor Sportsman Group.