November 20, 2020
By Robert O'Harrow, Jr.
In the early 2000s, during the middle years of my preoccupation with fly fishing, I began reading essays by Jim Harrison, who wrote about the joys of fly rods, food, fine wines, and general overindulgence.
My home water at the time was the Rapidan River, a mountain stream in Virginia filled with brook trout. The Rapidan fish were gorgeous and worthy, but undeniably small. So I was entranced by Harrison’s efforts to catch giant tarpon on tiny flies on the flats near Key West.
“You are fly-fishing in the shallow water that is fifty miles wide, and casting only to visible fish,” Harrison wrote. “You are utterly immersed in the act and dare not let a single extraneous thought enter or you’ll miss the fish.”
I remember thinking: It could be me in that boat with those guys. Except for the fact that I had two kids, work, and piles of bills. I’ve yet to catch a tarpon, but the allure has never waned.
Now comes Monte Burke and his lively book, Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession and the Hunt for the World-Record Tarpon, to fire up the old fantasy of landing a big one.
Judging from his account, I could also pursue a record tarpon if I were wealthy, had an athlete’s endurance, and the temperament of . . . Let’s just say that some of the folks he writes about are sunblasted nuts.
You have to be a little crazy to pursue tarpon, a prehistoric-looking goliath with large silver scales, a fish that can grow to 8 feet and turn somersaults in midair when hooked. Fly fishers call them “silver kings.” Even their scientific name, Megalops, sounds like a bit character in a Godzilla movie.
At the center of Burke’s tale is Tom Evans, a former semi-pro football player who got rich on Wall Street. Besides money, Evans had issues. Among them, his dad had treated him poorly as a boy. That’s apparently part of the reason he turned to fishing.
Evans loved Atlantic salmon. But by the mid-1960s they were fading from the rivers he haunted in Canada. East Coast stripers were fun, but easy. Trout were too small. Evans needed another target. He found it on a trip to the Florida Keys in 1968.
“On his last day of fishing, Evans hooked his first tarpon, feeling that sudden, heavy pull,” Burke writes. “The fish broke him off after a jump. But it had caught him. He’d found his purpose.”
Over and over, we hear about the awe and apprehension anglers felt during their first hook-up. The poet Richard Brautigan, one of Harrison’s pals, said the experience induced “immediate unreality.”
Never mind the encounters often ended with shredded lines or busted rod, or became hours-long fights that ground anglers down to exhausted lumps. One gets the impression that was the part Evans loved best—to have the tar knocked out of him while battling a silver king.
Evans, in his lifetime, has spent 1,500 days just on the tarpon-rich water at Homosassa, Florida. That’s where he caught the first of seven world-record fish in May 1977, a 177-pounder, and where he would return annually to ply the vast flats known as Oklahoma. He has missed just two seasons in 43 years.
“If I really think about it, it’s crazy. I come down here and fish, and every six or seven years, I get a victory,” Evans tells Burke. “The rest of the time, I’ve gotten my ass kicked.”
Hype about Homosassa led to a remarkable derby each May that for six years running drew the world’s best fishermen. Since then, alas, the number of tarpon has plummeted.
“It was something, a period of time, a gathering, that had never happened before in the world of fly fishing and will never happen again, a collision of the top anglers and the top species of fish,” Burke writes.
Among those who got caught up in tarpon fever was the famed Lefty Kreh, who showed up in Homosassa when the tarpon bounty was something of a secret. Burke describes him as a “carnival barker.” Readers also meet Stu Apte, the “Muhammad Ali of the tarpon world,” Billy Pate Jr., a genius angler and self-promoter, and baseball legend Ted Williams.
Harrison, McGuane, Russell Chatham, and other artists, writers, sportsmen, and fishing fanatics also make appearances.
The inept Harrison once hooked a tarpon with a bad cast aimed at another fish, and then panicked. “‘Jim was terrified,’” says McGuane. ‘His knees started buckling and he actually sat down in the middle of the boat and said he couldn’t go through with it. I told him I was going to beat the shit out of him if he didn’t.’”
Guides also get their due in this book. They can be a cranky lot, sometimes berating clients who falter under pressure or attacking competitors who refuse to follow their unwritten rules. Some of them —along with plenty of their clients—were fueled by cocaine, alcohol, or both.
Steve Huff, who guided Evans, was a laconic captain from Miami, now regarded as one of the best ever. He was obsessive about the preparation crucial to landing a silver king. Despite their differences in wealth and temperament, the men forged a close working relationship (until an eventual split).
Burke writes: “They were acutely aware that any one mistake during the day—a noisy, errant plunk of the push pole used by Huff to move the boat, a blown cast of the fly or missed hook-set by Evans—could be ruinous.”
Burke is a veteran book author and magazine writer, and it shows. He knows how to spin a lively yarn. Lords of the Fly has an unorthodox structure that moves back and forth in time and is chockablock full of jazzy interludes. Navigating his story can be choppy, perhaps akin to speeding over tarpon flats full-speed during an afternoon storm. It’s worth the ride, though, as Burke documents the essential nuttiness of the quest for tarpon, and the people and events that are now enshrined as part of our fly-fishing history and heritage.