Woody Sexton and I sat next to each other in the stern of his wooden, sixteen-foot Nova Scotia skiff, waiting for the cloud that shaded the morning sun to pass. A soft grey mantle rested on the flat and there seemed little point in poling, so we waited—engine idling, the bow troubling the surface of the water—for the sun to escape and expose the flats surrounding Coupon Bight.
It was June 8, 1969.
We had been fishing for fifty-five days in a row and the skiff felt tight as a glove. The daily repetitions of launching and running, of poling and looking, had elevated the smallest, most idiotic hint of humor to the level of high comedy. I followed the last leg of a mosquito’s journey from the mangrove shoreline of Big Pine Key to the skiff and watched it sink its stylet into Woody’s neck.
“Goddamn bloodsucking son of a bitch,” he said, jumping up. The skiff tipped to starboard. He took a shot with his hat, missed, and rambled on about malaria, dengue, yellow fever, encephalitis, and other insect-related diseases. Woody used words like C.pipiens quinquefasciatus for a house mosquito and Lymphogranuloma inguinale instead of VD. His forearms were knotted like a sailor’s; his face, a reasonable façsimile of the Western landscapes he hunted each fall.
Endowed with a critical mind and a near-perfect memory, Woody Sexton (1922–1998) graduated in 1943 with a degree from Humboldt State University. With diploma in hand, he went into the U.S. Navy, and though he did not see action in World War II, he did witness the hubristic nature of his species at close quarters. Woody might have been a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, but instead, after being released from his duties, he made his way from San Diego to the redwood forests of the northwest and became a lumberman. For a decade he lived in a world defined by fulcrums and angles, exposed to the raw, often dangerous, physicality of his profession. Far from the confines of civilization, he burgeoned into a “master lumberman,” skilled in the art of felling trees bearing the circumferences of school busses to an exact place in space, a designated piece of ground where other—less skilled—men could get to the wood quickly and dress it for sale. In his off hours Woody read books.
We had both celebrated birthdays in May. I had turned twenty-five, Woody, forty-seven, a fact that did not please him; I was too young to care. To retain a semblance of the physical strength he had developed during his years in the woods, Woody kept in shape by completing 200 push-ups and 200 sit-ups every morning. He would then twirl a forty-five-pound cement block tied to a rope around his body like a hammer thrower for fifteen minutes before we met for breakfast. One afternoon, after pushing his skiff for six hours, I watched him squat behind an unsuspecting guide who weighed upwards of 300 pounds. Woody wrapped his arms around the man’s knees and picked him straight up off the ground. He grinned like Popeye the sailor.
When the tides were wrong or the fish elsewhere, we talked about river systems, ocean currents, books by Roderick Haig-Brown, migrations, bird hunting, and tools of all kinds, from bait-casting reels to Woody’s navy-grey skiff. Quick and light over the water, she was a dream to pole, which more than made up for the fact that, because of her round chine, she was wet and tippy. The skiff had been built in Islamorada, Florida, from a cold-molded wood hull manufactured by the Chestnut Canoe Co. in Nova Scotia. From inside her confines we had jumped 150 tarpon since the beginning of the fishing season in April.
Outside the skiff, the water was syrupy and dark. Light fanned towards us in harmony with the cloud struggling from under the sun. The mosquito headed for shore. My guide, whose friendship I’d grow to cherish, shoved the fishing cap back on his short, white hair and sat down. All at once sunlight spilled over the flat and Woody relaxed his grip on the tiller. Hot, humid air enveloped us—a rallying call for tarpon to migrate from the comfort of deep, offshore water to the shallow flats that buttress the shorelines of the southern United States.
Woody allowed the skiff to lose momentum. We took turns sitting and standing, both of us watching from different angles for disturbances on the surface, for shapes inside shadows, for distortions in the slow, oily rhythm of the tide, motion of any kind: for rings, for daisy-tails, for the surge of water that shepherds the broad heads of shallow-swimming pelagic fish.
Woody raised the forty-horsepower engine manually, unleashed the push pole from under the bungee cords that bound it to the chocks, and moved to the bow. He maneuvered us into the sandier, shallower water of the northeast end of the bight, where on full-moon tides schools of smaller tarpon painted coin-colored shadows on its white sandy bottom. The big fish favored the deeper water to the southwest, where they slept like fat old men inches above the turtle grass. I pulled fly line off the reel. The skiff rose and fell with each stroke of the pole.
Woody poled with the same focus he devoted to bird hunting. “I miss the smell of mountains,” he had said two weeks earlier, meaning that his season in Florida was coming to an end. He was now dreaming of anadromous fish and mountain-climbing birds. In a week, maybe two at the most, he’d fill the cab of the Ford pickup truck with his spartan possessions and drive to Northern California. There, he would look for housing in a small, out-of-the-way town with a good library. In the fall, he’d relocate to Idaho and fish for steelhead on the Clearwater River. Later, when the aspen brightened the foothills and the mountaintops displayed the first signs of snow, he would carry a shotgun high under the clouds and chase elegantly feathered birds, imported long ago from Europe and Asia.
Woody worked as a flats guide in the Florida Keys for five months a year in order to spend the following seven in the wilds. His yearly income in 1969 was $8,000.
“I watched the entire side of a mountain run uphill,” he said one day as he poled the face of Loggerhead. He was referring to an October morning in 1964 when he pushed 2,000 chukar partridge into flight off a mountaintop south of Orofino, Idaho. Another time, he described a foggy morning on the Bryan Pool of the Eel River and of landing five steelhead on a Polar Shrimp fly, each fish weighing between twelve and eighteen pounds: bright, powerful sea-run rainbows, accommodating hosts to the sea lice they ferried to shore.
Woody came to the Keys in 1959 from those rivers of California—the Mad, the Eel, the Trinity, the Klamath, the Smith—where he and other young men of his generation braved cold, chest-deep water for the chance to hook silver colored fish fresh out of the ocean. Men who hurled 600-grain lead-core shooting-heads into deep, heavy water from dawn to dusk. Men who were seen by other anglers as monoliths, fixtures in the rivers they fished.
Warm weather, shallow water, and the reports of tarpon by the thousands drew Woody and his peers south, much as gold had drawn their forefathers west. Once these river anglers adapted to the wind and the converging vectors of fish and boat, the mechanics of casting a fly while standing on top of the water—as opposed to in it—became second nature.
“In those days, during a spring tide, we expected to see two, three, maybe four hundred fish in Coupon Bight,” Woody said. “Now, with the boat traffic and the commercial real estate development, we’re lucky to see thirty.”
He cupped the palm of his right hand around his sunglasses and scanned the water from under the bill of his hat. “That first year my partner, Jim Adams, and I used Fisher blanks and Jimmy Green fly rods.” He added, “Our reels were made by Young and Hardy. At night we hung from bridges and floated flies on tides that flowed like rivers. A twelve-foot aluminum boat powered by a seven-horsepower engine drove us to the flats. We poled with a borrowed curtain rod. All we knew about tarpon was that they ate flies. We applied ourselves to that premise and cast at their faces. It made for good adventure.”
As someone who spent the better part of his life on the edges of civilization, Woody took issue with those he viewed as degrading the natural world. “Politicians and lawyers are ticks,” he’d finalize.
My sporting life before meeting him had been European in attitude, an ethos that translates loosely into, “Kill everything that moves.” My new fishing friend and mentor was more interested in the health of his surroundings than in the ambitions of men. In time, he taught me to respect the playgrounds we played in.
Since his first trip to the Florida Keys in 1959, Woody had met all the great and not so great anglers, boat builders, and rod and reel makers of the era. Apte, Brooks, McNally, Wolf, Hommel, Captain Mac, and dozens more befriended Woody, whose acumen was appreciably more developed than theirs. Later, when a younger generation of men, such as Drake and Huff, moved to the Keys to fish, they too delighted in his company. Steve Huff, who carries the mantle of best “pound for pound” guide ever, scattered Woody’s ashes over the waters of Loggerhead Key a few years ago—a good and fitting resting place for a special man.
“Fish!” Woody pointed to a disturbance 100 yards down light. He wedged the pole against his hip and spun the stern of the skiff toward the commotion. In the distance, the water chortled as if pressed over boulders. Moments later, early light fell on the chiseled heads of fish the color of bronze.
“Ten, maybe fifteen tarpon. Coming at us!”
The orange and yellow fly, tied to be fished in dark water, was wet in my hand, slick as a worm. One by one the tarpon surfaced—some with purpose, others playful—all causing the sea to part, each roll imposing levels of apprehension on the rest of the school. I rocked my right wrist back and forth, back and forth, forcing the belly of the line to roll and pull against the fly.
The closer the fish swam into range, the more the notion of time faded. I heard the rub of Woody’s hands against the push pole and felt the skiff yaw to the left, inviting my back cast. The fly landed a leader’s length ahead of the lead fish. A mouth rose, cavernous, out of the water and closed. I raised the rod, ran out of striking room, and watched the fly sail gracefully through the air. It fell in a melancholic tangle on the surface of the water next to the engine.
“Shit! Shit and shit,” I yelled as I watched huge puckers of creamy water rise from the floor of the flat.
“Shit” I said again. Woody smiled and said nothing.
I poled and Woody fished. His regular fee was sixty bucks a day. He charged me thirty, we shared the fishing, I brought the lunch. That was our deal.
Some days we trailered the skiff and chased bonefish and permit below Key West. But Big Pine Key, Summerland, Cudjoe, the Seven Mile Bridge (during the palolo worm hatch), Monster Point, and the Eccentrics, where tarpon would swim out of the deep channels, looking like thick black eels, were the settings Woody was most comfortable fishing.
Every morning, with a notion of sunlight angling off the blacktop into the windshield, I would drive from Key West to Summerland Key and meet him at the Chat and Chew Restaurant. After breakfast, which often consisted of a foot-long hotdog, I’d follow him up to Big Pine Key where he kept his skiff.
In the afternoons the drive was tougher, the sun brighter, my eyes tired from probing through layers of seawater, overloaded from the incongruity of watching big fish fly across the sky.
Willie Mae, my wife’s housekeeper, would greet me with a drink on the doorstep of the conch house on Duval Street we rented each spring. The children ran up from the street and hugged my legs. Willie Mae was a large and reassuring woman with shiny black skin. She wore a permanent smile and had a gift for making memorable chicken sandwiches. If I wanted sympathy regarding the hardships of my sporting life, it was to her I would turn.
Woody had the high casting motion of a deep-river wader. On the back cast, his right hand hugged his ear before rising straight up to the sky. His double-haul was concise and powerful. He was at his best when he saw fish late and made the throw purely from instinct; his forté, the short cast. A long string of rolling tarpon noodling up to the boat from a distance created an intellectual conundrum, much like a shooter questioning how far to lead a duck crossing the backdrop of a bluebird sky. Woody liked to snap his casts just like I liked to shoot a gun—quickly.
I poled the north side of Coupon Bight, the sun warm on my shoulders. The turtle grass seven feet below the hull chased the tide. Shallow coral heads scattered under the bow, adding to the difficulty of poling. For the sake of silence—the clang of a pole’s hardwood foot hitting rock shatters the nerves of large, sleeping fish—I could not drive the pole with the speed I would have liked. Instead, I had to catch it before it reached the bottom and ease it the rest of the way into the grass. My hands hydroplaned on a permanent film of water.
The power strokes ended at my knees.
Two tarpon swam parallel to the boat, a foot under the surface. Woody made a quick half-moon cast behind his right shoulder and drove the rod toward the fish. The fly turned over a few feet ahead of the closest tarpon, a fat eighty-pound female, followed by a smaller, leaner male. Both fish rose to the fly in a confusion of bodies. A large round scale spun luminous to the bottom. The smaller of the two fish knifed cleanly out of water close to the boat.
“I never struck him,” Woody exclaimed.
A third fish, deep and more difficult to see, inched towards us on the bottom of the bight, sixty feet from the skiff. Woody retrieved the fly and made the cast. This time, when he stripped, something slow and confident rose from the grass, settled behind the fly, opened its mouth, and ate it.
The size of the fish in relation to the fly and the boat didn’t fit the proportions of the tarpon we were accustomed to; the largess of its mass and purpose of motion was unsettling. The fish turned from the boat and Woody’s white Shakespeare fly rod bowed. Moments later, the ocean came alive as a tarpon as broad as the wing of a plane cartwheeled through the surface and into the sky—a silverfish with golden eyes rising, shedding light, bending the scales of our imagination. At the apex of its jump, pinned by gravity, the tarpon seemed to hesitate for an instant before tumbling like an anvil back to the sea. Yards of white water rose into the air.
The fly rod in Woody’s hand looked small, ludicrous. He turned, his eyes round under his sunglasses. He asked, “What do you think, 200 pounds?” His lips were stretched tight against his teeth. I dropped the engine and pulled the ripcord.
We motored after the tarpon, guided by the tip of Woody’s rod, as again and again this dancer of a fish sailed through the warm humid air dripping with light and power. Except for a handful of blue and black marlin, some sharks, a whale once, I had never seen a fish of that size before.
And so it went: eleven times the tarpon hurdled through the glasslike surface of Coupon Bight, eleven jumps into a foreign medium, eleven back-breaking falls. The fish dragged us to the entrance of the bight and stopped. Woody reeled. Sweat stained the middle of his back. To keep the slack out of the line, I worked at outguessing the fish’s moves. Woody reeled the backing onto the reel. The angle of the fly line steepened. Beads of water fell in long thin strands into the bight. The giant rolled and jumped partially out of water one final time. It shook its gill plates in exhausted fashion and when it fell, it fell slowly and laid on its side like a timbered log, benumbed, the tips of its fins quivering.
We instinctively knew that our only chance to land the tarpon was to get a gaff into it quickly, that if the fish regained its senses, the twelve-pound-test leader would almost certainly lose the ensuing fight. I idled the skiff as close as I dared and, unwilling to disturb the fish’s stupor, cut the engine. Woody reeled the tarpon closer to the skiff. It looked twelve feet long. I reached for the gaff we kept tethered to the gunnels. It wasn’t there.
“Woody! We left the damn thing at the dock!”
We had both killed tarpon before, mostly for other anglers, and hadn’t liked it. We had agreed a few weeks earlier never to kill another one. A tarpon is too much like a St. Bernard, a generous fish with a huge heart and a gift for jumping, a fish with a past, a fish with a soul, and who, except for a fool, would deliberately kill a soul?
But the truth was that neither of us had ever imagined that a trophy, fifty pounds heavier than the world record, would one day lay within arm’s reach of our boat. I rummaged in the bow and found the lip gaff.
“When I get it in its mouth, we’ll pull him in,” I said reaching over the side. The tarpon dropped out of sight as did the tip of Woody’s rod. Slowly, carefully, he raised it out of the water. The fish moved. The odds were against us. Even with a gaff hold in its mouth, the tarpon would turn the skiff over when we tried to pull it in. However, we would try, not for the killing, maybe not even for the glory, but because it was an integral part of the game we were playing.
I leaned over, my right arm completely underwater. The gaff glanced off the bony side of the tarpon’s head. A broad, dark rimmed tail swiped at my arm and kicked the fish back to the bottom. Woody cajoled it slowly to the surface. This time, though, the tarpon—perhaps waking from a dream—sensed an unholy presence and resisted. Woody applied a little more pressure and the rod weathervaned in his hands.
The fish was off.
The big tarpon canted this way and that on its way to the bottom, righting itself just above the turtle grass. We watched its broad dark back melt into the shadow and dreamily, majestically swim out of our lives. On one hand, I despaired at how close my friend had come to angling immortality. On the other, I felt an odd sense of relief.
Twenty years later, Woody told me that he still dreamed about the fish that somersaulted across Coupon Bight, that he could still feel its power and majesty in his hands. I now know that the feeling of relief I felt that morning was spawned by envy.
There was nothing to say and nothing left of the day. We sat in silence, reliving the moment that had shaped the longest and shortest ten minutes of our fishing lives.
The wings of a cormorant ticked the surface of the water. A Navy jet howled across the sky, and the wake of a distant streamer passed under the hull of Woody’s skiff. In the distance I could hear the manic voice of a flats guide berating his client.
A school of tarpon rolled into range. We did not stand up.