120 days; that window of opportunity that tarpon guides and anglers live for every year from April-July as tarpon begin their migration throughout the Florida coastlines, breaking many hearts along the way. It’s an addiction like no other, but there truly is nothing that matches the sheer beauty and strength of these prehistoric fish. They keep us up at night, but we’re pretty sure we’re not the only ones.
I can personally attest to the heartache of the chase, as it took me a number of years to finally accomplish the feat of landing a full-size tarpon on fly. Many years of crisscrossing the state of Florida, from Apalachicola to Crystal River, and Boca Grande to the pristine oceanside flats of Islamorada in the Florida Keys. It was a game I’d play every summer, and every “loss” just added that much more desperation to the next year ahead.
Two years ago, something very interesting happened. Our world shut down with the onset of COVID and I found myself in South FL with not much to do while we waited for whatever may come next with this unknown pandemic. This just happened to be right as tarpon season began, and wildly enough the state of Florida decided to shut down all entry into the Florida Keys unless you were a resident. What this meant was in the heart of tarpon season nobody would be traveling in for their yearly stab at landing a silver king. Nobody besides locals would be able to chase these fish. And they did exactly that. My good friends made it sound like it was a page out of the old days; happy fish and only your friends around. Talk about the feeling of jealousy, sitting at home just a couple hours north and not being able to relish in this experience. As they finally opened the literal gates of the Keys, we rounded up a group of great buddies and Tarpon Camp was finally happening.
We found fish. A lot of fish. We cast our arms off for days. We jumped a couple. I hooked one and almost immediately popped off. But we landed none. And therefore, another summer would end without my goal being met. And all we heard the whole trip was, “you should have been here last month.”
Fast forward to 2021 and I got the last-minute call I was waiting for.
“Keys next week?”
“See you there”
Pulling into Islamorada is one of those things that will just never get old. That welcome sign is one that will be burned into my mind forever. And equally one of my least favorite things to see in my rear view. But this summer something just felt different. That typical pressure I always found looming over myself wasn’t there. Life had been so busy this just felt like a true vacation more than anything, and a much-needed escape.
Photo credit: Dylan Schmitz
On day 1 we spent most of our time outrunning a storm I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, and the afternoon figuring out where we would fish the next day. Day 2, it was game on. Clear blue skies, barely a breeze, and sunshine. How often does that happen when you want it? We all know the answer to that one. As we set up on our spot, the fish began to show up, but only one here or there. Not the iconic school of 50 fish in a string that you see coming from a mile away. Were the conditions too good? But we were patient and stayed true to the plan, and sure enough as the tide pushed on, the fish did too. I was on the bow and here was my shot. String after string I cast, putting the fly in the perfect spot over and over again. A follow here and there but no eats. And then it finally happened. A second cast to the third fish in a string was all it took. She broke off the string, chased my tiny red fly, and inhaled it, all just a few feet from my feet. After a 30-minute fight and a few awesome jumps, we leadered the fish and all of those years of chasing a dream finally came to fruition.
Photo credit: Dylan Schmitz
The end goal of our pursuits is what we want, but the hunt is truly what we live for. It’s what keeps us up at night and keeps us coming back for more year after year. And we’d have it no other way.
In case you’re wondering, this current summer falls into the “loss” category.