February 15, 2022
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
“Get your rod!” I yelled as I struggled to pull the pole from the bottom. The tarpon cornered a school of mullet in the bend of a 10-foot-deep channel, about 200 feet from us. When I cut the distance to around 100 feet, I pointed with the pushpole and said, “Do you see that big green patch over there?”
“You mean that green bottom?”
“That’s not bottom; that’s a bunch of big tarpon. I’m going to pole you a little closer. Get ready.”
It was 1966 and I was working as a commercial pilot and living in southwest Miami after five years of making my living as a backcountry fishing guide and living on Little Torch Key in the lower Florida Keys. Lefty Kreh had recently become manager of the Metropolitan Miami Fishing Tournament, moving from his home state of Maryland to South Florida about a block-and-a-half from my house.
We spent many hours tying flies, rigging tackle, and discussing techniques and I promised Lefty that I would take him down to my old tarpon haunts the first time we had a good weather forecast for the prime moon tides in April, when the tarpon started showing up in large migration numbers.
I made sure we started this short course for giant tarpon at my house the day before we went fishing, working on the proper knots, and the best way to rig equipment. I emphatically told Lefty that no detail can be overlooked, that every piece of equipment used to battle the large powerful fish must be checked and in first-rate condition.
Our first morning, at what Lefty called an “unholy hour” of three o’clock, we left Miami for a three-hour drive to Little Torch Key where I kept my boat. At Torch Key the winds were gusting and roiling the normally clear water. Fishing would require extreme concentration to see tarpon. After an hour or more of intense scanning Lefty said that his eyeballs felt “like they were sticking out a foot in front of my face” trying to spot fish.
I spotted tarpon about 70 feet away, and yelled, “Over to the left, 70 feet, 9 o’clock, quick cast to them!”
“Where?” Lefty exclaimed.
“Dammit, quick, cast where I’m pointing,” I yelled, as I pointed with the pushpole.
Lefty made a false cast and shot the heavy fly 70 feet almost before the words were out of my mouth. The wind, blowing 15 knots, pushed the heavy streamer three feet to the left. The fly hit the water and the bottom blew up as three large black-green tarpon boiled and scattered.
Recalling that first encounter with tarpon, Lefty says I groaned in anguish and ranted at him like a preacher at a revival meeting. He hung his head in despair, and said he was looking for a silver fish, not realizing that under most conditions the dark green backs of tarpon look almost black. Then he glanced back at me and muttered, “This short course can be rough on inexperienced tarpon fishermen.”
In the gusting wind I laboriously poled us across three more flats, finding a few tarpon but never getting close enough for Lefty to make a cast.
We two had two hours to kill before the tide got right again, so Lefty poled me over a large shallow grass flat where I had been finding bonefish during that tide phase.
Suddenly he said, “Hey Stu! Isn’t that a fish at 11 o’clock, 60 feet?” A permit swam swiftly toward the boat as we drifted downwind toward it. I just had time to roll the fly out of my fingers, shoot a little line on my backcast, and drop the bonefish fly two feet in front of its face. I quickly stripped line to work the fly ahead of the rapidly advancing boat, my heart in my mouth as the large permit followed the fly almost to my rod tip before it swirled away. I turned to Lefty and said, “I have cast to hundreds of them, and have yet to get one to take a fly.”
We had been up since 2 A.M. The sun was hot, and we were beat, so I shoved the pushpole into the soft bottom and harnessed the boat to it with a dock line and we stretched out on the boat seats and took a nap.
Lefty awoke first and caught two small sharks on a fly. I later awoke to the sound of a school of mullet being scattered by a bunch of feeding tarpon.
Lefty watched the fish intently as I silently moved him closer. “Let me know when you pick out individual shapes of fish,” I said.
“My God they’re tarpon!” Lefty yelled.
“Cast up-current, to the head of the school,” I replied. “Hurry, they’re starting to slowly move away.”
Lefty drove the fly 80 feet, allowing for the left-hand crosswind, and let it fall 12 feet in front of the fish, which were slowly moving into the current toward his fly, as it sank to their depth.
I held my breath as he began foot-long slow strips, moving the fly with the current with the rod butt nestled in his belly. I could see the fly pass two giant fish, both more than six feet long. The fly went by one giant fish after another, until it seemed as though the fly had passed through the whole school.
I was starting to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I noticed a long black shape swing away from the school, angling towards the fly. The tarpon slowly gained on the fly, and when it was only 15 feet from the boat, it moved up with a swish of its tail, opened its huge mouth and sucked the fly down into what looked like a black hole.
Lefty waited for the mouth to close, and as the tarpon began to turn away, he struck repeatedly, deeply embedding the hook.
And then all hell broke loose.
The fish leapt straight up—more than five feet above the water, showering us both with spray. I hoped that despite the intense excitement of the moment Lefty would remember what we talked about the night before: Forget the fish, make sure the line feeds smoothly through the guides.
The fish made two wild greyhounding jumps going directly away from us, screaming 75 yards of backing off the reel. Lefty did a magnificent job of “bowing” by extending his arm and the rod toward the fish each time it jumped, preventing the fish from falling on the line, and more importantly helping to soften the shock and strain on the tippet. (I had explained to Lefty that a 100-pound tarpon in the air weighs 100 pounds, but the same 100-pound tarpon in the water weighs about only 10 or 15 pounds because of its displacement in the water.)
After a 30-minute fight, Lefty had the tarpon near the boat and every time it swam to the left, he pulled the rod down and to his right; when it swam to the right, he pulled down and to the left. Each time I could see the fish yielding a bit more until it gasped at the boat side and Lefty gasped for air. His first tarpon weighed over 100 pounds.
During the 40-odd years that have passed, Lefty has taught thousands of people how to become better fly fishers, and he’s caught countless other tarpon and other gamefish all around the globe. I haven’t spent nearly as many days fishing with him as I would like, but I cherish that day that he took his first big tarpon on a fly. And I hope that the day was as exciting and fulfilling for him as it was for me.
Stu Apte is one of the great innovators in flats fishing for tarpon, bonefish, and permit. A Korean War vet, and retired pilot for Pan American Airlines, he tells his life story in his self-published autobiography Of Wind and Tides, available at amazon.com and other outlets.