Life in the express lane

“Everybody’s got a plan until I hit ’em in the mouth.”
— Mike Tyson

“THIS IS GONNA HAPPEN FAST, OKAY?” I say to my angler, whose lips have curled into a half-smile. “The line is gonna burn your hand if you do it right.” He continues to search my face as I explain the violent hook-set, looking at me as if he’s just been made accessory to a crime. I rock back against the poling platform and drain my coffee, sweat already tacking my shirt to my back.

The tarpon bite is why I guide. Not because “I get to work outside,” and not because “I love all saltwater fish equally,” and certainly not for the financial stability that guiding provides. I’m not there for the pull, or the jumps, or the moment I get to grab a fish’s face. I’m there for the eat.

My below-average looks made me a poor candidate for Hollywood, and a trust fund isn’t in the cards, so hiring a guide for 120 days a year was out of the question. The only way for me to get front row access to the greatest split-second in flyfishing was to be on the pushpole, helping others get close enough to take their shot.

Many first-time experiences shape us throughout our lives— the first kiss, the first hangover, the first time seeing Tombstone. For anglers who have never watched a tarpon garbage-can a fly, it can be a life-altering experience. As my guiding career advances, an increasing number of return clients means I meet fewer first-timers each year. This past season I only had two—a pair of slow-moving, mop-headed sons of an existing client. They had no idea what they’d signed up for.

Most tarpon first-timers generally go through a three-step thought process: 1) “I’ve caught fish.” 2) “Tarpon are fish.” 3) “How different can they be?”

New tarpon anglers can come from any corner of society, but most I’ve met share similar traits. Anywhere from their late twenties to their mid-sixties, they have fished their way up some prescribed angling ladder, the tarpon being saved as some sort of grand finale. Many are at the pinnacle of their careers and are difficult to ruffle. Yet they approach the sport with a child’s curiosity, casting ego aside in order to follow my directions past the edge of their abilities. Because I can help them accomplish what they’ve traveled miles to do.

Uncertain smudges in the distance become clearer as they wag across a shallow bar or sand spot. The bow is then turned, giving the angler a clean shot for the cast. As line is stripped tight, one of the now-certain smudges rises only a foot, separates from the others, and is no longer a smudge at all. Her edges are now clean: fins, eyes, and even scales come into focus. She double-taps her tail, sliding forward toward the fly, seemingly stretching to better inspect it. As we inch the fly forward to avoid her overtaking it, she decides she’s seen enough and closes the gap with a final stroke of her tail. While her eyes remain crossed and fixated on the fly, her lower jaw opens to inhale it. She turns to rejoin the other smudges, and seems surprised as the hook gains purchase in her upper jaw. She shakes her head, trying to break free of the sting. The line comes tight at the same instant she decides to go airborne. Arcing her head toward her tail, she shudders, her gills clackclacking as she returns to the water. Then the fly line recoils away from her and toward us, and she’s gone.

My angler looks immediately at the rod in his hands, as if it might be to blame for what just happened—like how a shortstop looks at his glove after a grounder goes through his legs. He then turns and looks at me, sweat on his face and hands shaking, unable to yet form words. He rubs his thumb and forefinger and emits a barely audible “What just happened?” as he follows her with his eyes.

“How’s your hand?” I ask, while taking the rod away from him and replacing it with a beer. “It stings,” he says. “But it’s a good sting.”

I let him know that it will heal and scab. Sometime during the next week, the scab will come loose while he’s at his desk or on a conference call in traffic. He’ll paw at it, wishing he were still here.

“There’ll be others,” I say, as I re-tie his shock tippet. “But there will never be another first.” 

[Capt. PRESTON SUTTER spends his seasons guiding along the Gulf Coast for Shallow Water Expeditions.]