Of Tarpon and Men.
Last time there were no tarpon off the beaches. As far as I knew.
“There, in Agosto sometime” Andres had said, pointing out at the fringe of white breakers pounding the reef. The water’s big and blue out there. If that’s where the tarpon are, I thought, then they might as well not exist at all.
Motoring down the beach the first morning of this trip, he pointed at a little cove where the mangroves came right to the water’s edge, and above the topped out whine of the outboard I heard “Sometime tarpon… maybe.”
I just looked at Bear and shrugged. I didn’t have enough Spanish to satisfy my curiosity, but knowing what little I do about Andres, I know he doesn’t waste words. Tarpon were there, maybe. And he was thinking about them. I figured that when the what is tarpon, the why doesn’t really matter.
Just before lunch, Bear and I switched again. As I was sitting down, Andres took a gulp of water from his bottle, spun the cap, sized me up for a second and then said quietly, “Maybe try tarpon, later, ok? Out there.” He pointed back out toward the beach.
“What line?” He pointed at my ten weight.
“Line?” I must’ve looked confused because he balled up his fists and made a pulling apart motion with them.
“Oh, how strong of line?”
“Forty pound… um like twenty kilo?”
He winced a little and shook his head. “Maybe ok, maybe break. Strong, strong fish amigo.” He pulled the imaginary line between his fists again.
Andres can find tarpon just as well as permit. On the way back down the beach he cut the panga hard to the left just before we came to the mangrove cove, and turned us sideways into the wind with his mangrove push pole.
“Tarpon here amigo. Maybe we will see.” He makes a motion like a dolphin jumping with his hand.
I jump up front, and stare blankly at the dirty water. It’s hot, the end of a long day, I’d had a beer out of the cooler on the run from the flats back out here. I’m satisfied. My eyes start to glaze over. Which is why at first I didn’t trust them telling me that they just saw the head, dorsal, and tail of a tarpon rise and fall back into the water forty feet in front of the boat – if my ears hadn’t heard the greasy slosh, and there wasn’t a big quivering swirl of water in the chop where it had disappeared. I react half a beat late, but manage to slap a cast out in the direction my subconscious tells me the fish had been headed.
The fish had porpoised just ahead of the boat so Andres hadn’t seen it.
“You see fish!?” He yells as I start to strip.
I still don’t think I would’ve been able to say yes for sure if my line wasn’t already tight and surging away from me. But since it was I figured I definitely had seen a fish, or otherwise I’d made a damn good guess.
At first, the fish stays down, shaking its head. Andres yells to strip again, so I clamp the line down in my fist, point the rod at the fish, and pull till all the stretch is gone and I feel like I could let go of the rod and it would shoot forward and spear the fish through the brain.
It makes one, two, and then three jumps boat side, making a clackity-click sound as it shakes its head, spraying saltwater. There’s a sense of patience to it, as if I were being put through the first paces of a regular exercise. After the third jump, it decides it wants to go out to the reef with the white breakers and blue water. So there it goes, first clearing the line off the deck, then off my reel, splitting its time between swimming and flying but never seeming to slow down.
Andres wants more drag so I spin the dial on the reel. Feeling the brakes, the fish pauses for a moment as if it had just walked into a spider web. Then like on an old episode of Spanish fly, it’s airborne again, too far away to be real even if I was still connected to it.
I lean back, bending at the knees, looking at the sky, wondering if my bones might all give way at once. I’d slump to the floor like a tossed duffle bag.
I make the long retrieval of shame, watching the tippet flick and bounce its way over the choppy water, carefree, a puppy’s tail before it realizes you found out it shit on the carpet.
Andres bends over and scoops the line out of the water as it passes his end of the boat. He makes an “Isssst” sound like he’d just touched a hot stove, shakes his head, and then shows me the badly frayed tip.
“Forty pound amigo! No good I think.”
I just shake my head. I’m out of breath somehow and words seem like a lot of work. He cracks into a big, wide smile. “Muy fuerte amigo!”
Sometimes I wrestle with the concept of hooking fish and fighting them for fun. It’s not that I expect catch and release fishing to be somehow more free from hypocrisy and selfishness as any other human endeavor – how could it be, and why should it be? Sport involving other living things is as endemic to human culture as sex for fun, and overeating. I’m not considering quitting any of that to make some sort of statement about our place in this world. Walking back down a beach, rowing out at the bottom of a float, or consumed by the rhythm of a skiff running over afternoon chop, I wonder if the playing field was level, did I do the best I could to demonstrate respect for something that doesn’t have the intelligence or physical ability to ensure those things for itself? As I stepped off the front deck of the panga, I knew I’d been wrong all along.
That fish had the capability to defend itself and it had shown me what all the other fish wish they could – that it didn’t want to be fucked with. It showed me up close, then subsequently at quickly lengthening distances until it was over. Playground rules, like I’d pushed it, but instead of pushing back it threw my bike over a fence and down a ravine into a creek. How could I have been so self-assured about maintaining a level playing field, if I’d been the one doing all the leveling? No, I knew then there was no level. Nothing fair. There was this moment, the next, and more after that if I was lucky. Each with a scale balanced across the top, my stack of rocks at one end, and a random collection from the world’s stash at the other. In that moment, when my line came so tight that it broke and recoiled half the distance to the boat, I just hadn’t brought enough rocks.
Shit that’ll make you feel small.
Of Tarpon and Wimmens.