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Stu Apte: “A Passion For Tarpon”

by Andy Mill
Andy Mill, an accomplished tarpon fisherman in his own right, interviews legendary saltwater fly fisherman and guide Stu Apte about a life spent pursuing tarpon in the Florida Keys.
Stu Apte

Joe Brooks’ new world record tarpon on a fly after a two-hour fight. Photo Stu Apte

Andy Mill: I have been around and have caught a few fish but it is a real honor and privilege to be here with you, Stu.

Stu Apte: Well, thank you. You are very humble, my friend, and there is nothing wrong with that, but you are the tarpon angler right now. There’s nobody else but you. None of the others can carry your jockstrap when it comes to fly fishing for tarpon. I mean that. How old are you?

Mill: Fifty-four.

Apte: So I am 20 odd years older, and I was born at the right time, although I wish I had been born 10 years before so I could have gone to World War II. As an advanced cadet in the Navy, I flew an F6F Grumman Hellcat, one of the great airplanes of the war. That airplane shot down more Japanese airplanes than all of the rest of the Allied airplanes combined and had a 19-to-1 kill ratio. That was a great airplane. I wish I had been there flying it. Anyway, you are here now—that is what is important—and this is a whole new, more difficult era for tarpon fishing. Tarpon are smart; they live a long time. I do not know how they communicate but they have leaders—you and I have seen it—that direct the school. If you cast to that leader and she turns away because she has been there and done that carrying the rest of the school away from your fly. We both have experienced that. Back in the old days it didn’t make any difference. The leaders ate well because they had never been hooked. And they had probably never been harassed. I remember one time, back in the late 1950s, running over a school of fish back behind Bahia Honda in shallow water just off the flats. I ran right over the top of the school. I had a 40-horsepower motor, shut it down, grabbed a spinning rod with a Bill Smith lure, which was a fly-like lure, cast right to that school and the fish ate it right away. Nowadays if you came close to the school with an outboard, you can forget them—that school is gone for the next hour or two!

Mill: Who was the greatest influence on you as an angler?

Apte: Nobody in my family ever fished at all. My dad was a gambler. The horses cost him a business, but even after that he was away from the horses he played cards. He was a good person, but not an outdoors person… When I was 12 years old my next-door neighbor was a retired Texas Ranger. He was the racing secretary at Tropical Park and he used to take me fishing to the 10,000 Islands. He gave me my first plug-casting outfit, which was a split-bamboo custom-made rod, five and a half feet, with a Shakespeare Superior reel. He taught me how to use it. Bud and his wife used to do a lot of duck hunting on Lake Okeechobee. He wanted to take me but my mother would not let me go—too dangerous. Mom’s Worry [Stu would later name his boat Mom’s Worry].

Mill: What was it like for you growing up in Miami during the 1940s?

Apte: I was in my teens then. But you know to go farther back than that, to 1935, when I was five years old and my brother was ten, we would walk about three blocks from where the street car ran from where we lived out in the northwest to downtown Miami behind what was Red Cross and Burdines on Southeast First Street and look around for a transfer. We wanted to go to the county causeway and the transfer cost a penny. We did not have pennies to spare, so we would find transfers and we would take the streetcar then from there, downtown, to the county crossway where we’d get off. We had our hand lines. We did not have any money for bait, so we would walk up and down the sidewalk looking for pieces of fish or little pieces of shrimp or whatever. We had a hook and a nut from a bolt nut as our sinker and if we got lucky on a fairly soft tide we would catch some grunts and things like that. That is the only fishing my brother ever did. Miami was a very, very safe place back then.

Mill: Was it pretty small?

Apte: Oh, yeah. I am going to guess probably 10,000 population, maybe 20,000 at the most. My dad and his brothers had a fruit and vegetable company called Apte Brothers Wholesale Produce. My parents came down from New York to Miami in 1926 just in time for the hurricane of 1926. Dad had been a motorcycle messenger in World War I. Why? He had never been on a motorcycle in his life, but he had been a cab driver in New York City. So they made him as a motorcycle messenger.

Mill: What were the Keys like when you first came here?

Apte: My next-door neighbor, the retired Texas Ranger, had a place right where the Cross Key Canal goes through Adams Cut, right there on the bay side. He called it El Retiro Lodge. He had a little sign there—it was just his own place, not a lodge—but I would spend a month or six weeks during the summer, if my grades had been good enough in school so I would not have to go to summer school. I can remember walking along the area there with a five-prong gig, and spearing crawfish just to twist the tail off and take chunks of the meat and use for snapper bait. Big snappers. I can remember being on his floating dock with a plug and a bait-casting outfit. On one cast you’d catch a trout, the next cast a redfish, the next cast a jack. Fishing was good. That’s how the Keys used to be. I was coming down before I went into the Navy. My high school buddy, Bill Lewis, was the reason I went into the Navy. We were both going to do that and he chickened out. He became a nuclear physicist and did very well. Everything in my life has been blessed—even when I got laid off from Pan Am in 1957 and I decided to be a fishing guide.

I remember one time, back in the late 1950s, running over a school of fish back behind Bahia Honda in shallow water just off the flats. I ran right over the top of the school. I had a 40-horsepower motor, shut it down, grabbed a spinning rod with a Bill Smith lure, which was a fly-like lure, cast right to that school and the fish ate it right away.

Mill: What made you decide that?

Apte: Fishing has always been my love. I mean everything I have done in life has been because of fishing. I will never forget Earl Roman, who used to be the Outdoor Editor of the Miami Herald. He taught a course on fishing at the University of Miami. Homer Rhode, Jr. and I were his two assistant instructors. It was a four-hour course once a week. It has been a blessed life for me. I have been in the right place at the right time. Lucky—you have to be lucky to make the decisions that you make. How did I become a fishing guide instead of going to work for another airline? I was wooed by United Airlines, American Airlines, TWA and Continental Airlines when I was getting off active duty. My last six months on active duty I was instructing instruments in the fleet… So, how the airlines find all this stuff out I do not know, but I had letters and telegrams from every major airline when I was getting out.

Mill: But that’s quite a dramatic change in altitude!

Apte: Well, yeah. My dad was just amazed. He said, “Are you going to go to work for United or Eastern or American?” I said: “No, Dad, I am going to do something that I always wanted to do. I am going to get my captain’s license and I am going to be a backcountry bonefish guide in the Keys.” You should have heard him laughing. It was almost hysterical. He said, “And who do you think is going to pay you to take them fishing?” I said, “Dad, I don’t know, but I am going to go find out.” If you have an itch you have to scratch.

Mill: For me, as an angler, I really admire professional flats guides. They have to read the water, tides, fish, and know where fishing is going to be good—before it actually happens. And for me, I almost feel like it’s easier to be a great angler than it is to be a great guide, because as an angler the fish are in front of you. Somebody has done all the advance work for you.

Apte: It is a combination. You know our oldest guide in Islamorada, Dick Williams? A grand old man. He owned the property where the TIB Bank is in Islamorada. He is in his 80s and still guiding. He is a great backwater bonefisherman and a great person. I’ve probably caught 20 tarpon over 150 pounds on fly in the boat all by myself. I was an advocate of using electric trolling motors, using them properly to do this. You know what they called the trench between Sandy Key and Man-Of-War Key? One day I was out there by myself. Dick had a client with him. This was back in the early 1980s. His client was live-baiting in the trench. I hooked up with a tarpon that was 160, 165, caught it, lip gaffed it myself, took the fly out, held it up for a better look, turned it loose—and he saw all of this. That night my phone rang. He said, “Stu, I have never seen anything like that in my life.” I said, “What are you talking about Dick?” He went on and on about it. I said: “Well, that’s what I do. I have been doing that all along.” I know that I have caught close to 40 tarpon over 150 pounds on fly. I would guess around 20 of those was by myself in the boat. If it is near 150 I don’t count that.

Mill: How is it different from catching one with a guide?

Apte: It’s more difficult.

Mill: Typically what do you have to do? What is your mindset?

Apte: You have to know how to fight the fish. You really do. You are not getting any help from anybody else in the boat.

Mill: Your boat is not being motored over or poled over to the fish.

I had a death grip on this eight-foot wooden handle with my right hand. My left hand was on the gunnel of the boat. The fish was towing the boat sideways until we hit one little strip—the last strip of shallow water on the ocean side of Loggerhead Bank, before the deep water, out to sea, where the fish was heading.

Apte: No, but I use the electrics. You saw me sit down and fight the fish when we did that TV show together. That is where I learned to do that because on the bow of my boat, at that time I had a Maverick, the first Kevlar skiff made. I had these little on-off kicker switches for my electrics. I could hit the right one turning it off and the boat would turn to the right. I would turn it back on and I would go with the fish. I only had it on high speed so if I needed to use it I went toward the fish to pick up line. I would get near the fish, turn it off, and I would really pressure the fish.

Mill: Do you remember the transition from when it was enough to simply get the fly to the fish and they ate it to having to read and feed the fish?

Apte: That is a good question.

Mill: Because I believe that to be successful today, you need to read the fish and you have to pick which fish you throw to and feed it.

Apte: Well, you know, I do think that some of these fish have a short memory at times. So if you find them in the back country before anybody else has harassed that fish this year or the past number of months, chances are they are going to eat. The migrating fish on the ocean are not primary eaters.

Mill: They are travelers.

Apte: That’s right. They are travelers. They have spawning in mind or whatever it is that they are going to go do. It has always been that way. Back in the 1950s and ’60s I don’t think I ever remember fishing the ocean until I had an airplane. I was a one-third partner with a Piper Tri-pacer airplane. I located some fish off the big white sandy area on the north side of Long Key. I also located a bunch of fish off of Lower Matecumbe the same way, by airplane. Nobody had fished those fish. So I trailed my boat up the Keys, went out there, fished and caught them. They had not been harassed or even touched. Nowadays they’d run a gauntlet. Whether they are coming down from Miami or coming from below Key West on their way back up later on—they have been thrown at with everything there is. They have been run over by numerous boats with big engines. My first encounter with a tarpon, a big tarpon, and I just finished writing about it in my memoir (Of Wind and Tide). I was staying at Popeye’s on Conch Key.

Mill: What year was that?

Apte: 1955. Actually, it was January 1956 because I had just gotten out of the Navy in December 1955 and went to work for Pan Am the following February and this was in between. I had tried to go to work for Eastern Airlines. I had everything signed, sealed, delivered, and I met their chief pilot who gave me an interview. I tore up my contract, threw it across the table to him, and told him where he could stuff it.

Mill: What was your first eye-opener with big tarpon?

Apte: Jerry Kirk, who was a Coral Gables fireman, and I were staying on Conch Key at a place called Popeye’s. It was very inexpensive. They had cubicles and I had my original Mom’s Worry boat. It was powered by a pair of Gale 25-horsepower outboard motors. Have you ever heard of a Gale outboard? That was a less expensive outboard in the Outboard Marine Corporation. They were an offshoot of Evinrude before it was Evinrude and Johnson Outboard. But anyway, we were at Arsnicker Key and it was a beautiful day with a very light breeze. We did not have electric trolling motors back then, and we were just drifting with the light breeze. I saw these big logs between Arsnicker and the First Point of Nine-Mile Bank, lying over that light-colored bottom. All of a sudden I started thinking, how did these big logs get way out here?

I can remember being on his floating dock with a plug and a bait-casting outfit. On one cast you’d catch a trout, the next cast a redfish, the next cast a jack. Fishing was good. That’s how the Keys used to be.

Mill: You literally thought they were logs?

Apte: Yeah. I did. I thought they were big trees probably deposited there from a previous hurricane.

Mill: What were you looking for?

Apte: Tarpon.

Mill: You came down from Miami?

Apte: Exactly. I had been away in the Navy for four years and the last time I fished tarpon was off of Virginia Beach, and along the coast of Virginia and North Carolina. Anyway, these logs started to move and I cast a Leaping Lena—do you know that plug?

Mill: No.

Apte: It was a wooden plug made in Miami, turned on a lathe in some guy’s garage. And it was great for walking the dog. It was called the Leaping Lena and it lived up to its name. A tarpon just exploded on it. I mean, if there was anybody on the First Point they could have heard it, probably on the Second Point too, the way that fish clobbered it, and I hooked it. It weighed more than 150 pounds. We stayed with it for three hours. I was fishing with a spinning rod and eight-pound line. We had two gaffs in the boat, one of them about five feet long; that was the longest one. The other was a short one. Jerry gaffed it the first time under its jaw and the fish went wild snatching the gaff out of his hand hitting him in the head, knocking him to his knees when it came up and jumped. I still had him hooked up so we fought him for a few more hours. It got dark. It took us out into the Conchie Channel in the dark.

Mill: Oh, my gosh!

Apte: I carried a searchlight in my emergency kit, which we got out. I did not even know that the mosquitos were so bad, but they were. This was January but it was a beautiful, summer-like evening. I finessed the fish to the boat for the last time and instead of having the light on the fish, which would have spooked it, we shined it off to the side. When Jerry put the gaff in its mouth the second time, this great big fish quickly snatched it out of his hand shaking violently again—this time breaking off. I was not unhappy about it. And neither was Jerry. They were just building the marina at Flamingo. You could see big flood lights and hear the generator over there so we idled from where we were in Conchie Channel, swatting mosquitoes…

Mill: Wow.

Apte: We motored by Murray Key over to the marina and pulled in with the help of my searchlight, and this watchman comes over and says: “What are you doing here? This is no trespassing.” We told him what our problem was and asked could we spend the night here and maybe borrow some gas in the morning? He said: “Oh, these mosquitoes will kill you. Come on in to the watchman’s shack—it’s air conditioned.” So we spent the night in there, got 10 gallons of gas in the morning, and ran back to Conch Key. That was my first encounter with a really big tarpon.

Mill: Was that the beginning of your passion?

Apte: Oh, no. I think I caught the passion before that, before I went into the Navy.

Mill: Do you remember a certain point when Stu Apte became a dedicated tarpon fisherman?

Apte: Yeah. I think it was actually in the late 1950s when I was guiding. I went down to Little Torch Key and I lived there in a trailer park, in a one-room shack that had a sink and a toilet without a cover seat on it and a squeaky bed. The rent cost me $20 a week. That is why I stayed.

Mill: But do you remember one specific experience?

Apte: When by chance I encountered tarpon early in the year, I would call George Hommell and he would come down with his client and with Jack Brothers, who was his protégé, and Don Gurgiolo who also ran an offshore boat. I remember we had a four-boat booking. George had the people, he had the following and so I would call him to get a booking. Back then we got $55 a day for our guiding in the lower Florida Keys and up in Islamorada it was $45 a day. They would trailer their boats down. It was my encountering these tarpon at that time which really lit my fire.

Mill: What excites you about this fish?

Apte: If you do everything halfway right they eat. They are big and strong, they are aerial, and they are beautiful. They are a great adversary. What makes you so passionate?

Mill: I love these fish because they are willing to communicate with you. You can talk to these fish. These fish want to be caught. They have a body language—that’s very obvious to me. When they are interested and when they are not interested. It is like you get the fly in the right spot, you do not do anything until they see the fly. You see the fish, you read the fish, you make your move. Then they make their move. And depending on their move you make the next move. That is what drives me to be out there, day in and day out: to communicate. Once they start talking with you, then you get the bite, and there is no better bite in the game than a tarpon with that big bucket mouth.

Apte: Well, the bite is what lights me up but you are right about communicating with them. Sometimes they look at the fly and turn away, but you can still get that same fish to eat if you do the right thing. And what is the right thing? Every individual circumstance is different. When it comes to this fishing there is no black and white. It is all gray. The only absolutes have to do with rigging, before you ever get out there.

Tarpon are smart; they live a long time. I do not know how they communicate but they have leaders—you and I have seen it—that direct the school. If you cast to that leader and she turns away because she has been there and done that carrying the rest of the school away from your fly.

Mill: Right.

Apte: I remember just a couple of years ago back in Whitewater. We were up a river, just a little spot. It was crystal-clear water, only about three-and-a-half feet deep with a beautiful white sand bottom. There were two big tarpon lying there. My guide said, “Nobody has ever gotten these fish to eat. These fish live here.” I got the fish to eat twice. It ate the fly and missed it. I picked up and cast again. He ate it a second time and I hooked him. He said he had never seen that before. That is communicating. It’s knowing where the fly should be and getting the right angle on the fish. You could put it in the right place, but not have the correct angle retrieving the fly away from the fish… I was out with Captain Steve Thomas a few years ago, in another place, just off Islamorada, Steve was poling me. We took turns. I cast to a fish, a big fish, 130-plus, and he refused the fly and took off. It was easy to recognize that fish because he had a great big silver scale missing from its back. We got another shot at him farther down the same bank, about 40 minutes later and Steve said, “I would not even bother casting.” And I said, “Watch this.” I had the correct angle now. I did not have it with the earlier cast. I put it in there and the fish just garbaged it. I mean, just garbaged the fly. Same fly, same—everything except a different angle.

Mill: You have set records for a variety of fish across the board. Would you say that your favorite species is tarpon?

Apte: Oh, absolutely. You know, I have fished every continent except Antarctica and have been asked many times, “Out of all the places you fished, what is your favorite and what is your favorite fish?” My answer has always been: “If I had to make a decision—thank God I don’t—to fish for one fish the rest of my life and that is the only fish I can fish for and only one place, it would be fly fishing for big tarpon on the flats of the Florida Keys. I like trout fishing; I like all kinds of fishing. I do it all. I love it all.

Mill: What is your greatest tarpon memory?

Apte: It is not a fond memory.

Mill: The episode with Ralph Delph?

Apte: Yes. That was a pretty memorable day. Ralph is a fishing guide in Key West. His clients hold more world records than any other guide or captain in the world. He has caught more than 200 records for his clients. I talked him into being a guide. He was a structural engineer in Miami, and a neighbor of mine, Lefty Kreh was also a neighbor of mine when I lived in the Village of Kendale in Miami back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ralph was just not a happy camper being in the office. He loved to fish. We started fishing together. One time we had the guy who was senior editor of Outdoor Life Magazine down off Sunshine Key. He wanted to catch a tarpon and the fish were pouring through. We would anchor the boat and the fish would come by. We never pulled anchor. We would fight the fish from the boat, period. Sometimes we would have doubles on and it was a matter of who could fight hardest. A lot of that had to do with the individual fish.

Mill: Of course.

Apte: We did a lot of that. You learn about fighting tarpon and what loses tarpon. Fish do not break off—you break them off. Most people say, “Oh that fish broke me off.” No, you broke that fish off! When you have a jerk on each end of the line the fish breaks off.

Mill: Tell us the story.

Apte: It was 1982, something like that. We caught two world records the same day, both on 12-pound test. The fish in the morning weighed 162¾ pounds and the fish in the afternoon 164 pounds—but I swear the scale was wrong on that fish. You can see in both of the pictures, that fish was 170-something pounds. Yeah, we were up in Homosassa and I am trying to remember if it was one of those times we were taking turns poling each other around, or I went up there just trying to kick ass. Billy Pate had knocked off my record of 154 pounds by one pound on 12-pound-test tippet. And that upset me, so I decided to go up there the following year and recapture that record and did it twice in one day, not by a pound, but instead of 155, 162¾ and 164 pounds. Anyway, that morning we were the first boat out running in the dark, out of the hotel there, Riverside Meadows, which I liked to do. We got to the black rock and it was still dark. The water was black and slick. It was a calm, beautiful morning. And we staked out. We could hear tarpon rolling and gurgling all over the place. As it started getting dawn—you know, when you can just barely see a little bit?—I saw some fish gurgling about 75 feet away and I dropped the fly near them and stripped. I hooked up to what was obviously a good-sized fish. We got him to the boat in about 22 minutes and Ralph put a release gaff in his lower jaw. We brought it in, taped it, and said, “We have to bring this one in.” We were running back in the river and passed the first boat heading out. It was Steve Huff.

Mill: And you already had a fish.

Apte: We already had the first record. And Steve said that evening at Riverside, “I could not imagine why you were going back in—it was just getting light.” Anyway, we went back out and during the rest of the day Ralph caught a couple of fish and I caught a couple of nice fish, and he was poling me again in the afternoon when I got the second fish. That one took 26 minutes because it was in deeper water and it was just one of those tougher fish.

Mill: How do you feel about records and killing fish? The game has changed because of conservation, and to kill a tarpon today you need a tag. It is not really a harvestable fish for food consumption. How do you feel about fishing for world records and the sensitivity that continues to develop?

Apte: Sensitivity toward the resource is very important; we need that. But I think it is partially an error by some people to belittle records. I think that records of all species of game fish—especially the line-class records—are like the Guinness Book of World Records. I think it is important to have records. I think it is important to have something to shoot for. Now, rather than kill a fish that is a near record and then just throw it back in the water—that is not nice. We both know people have done it. It happens. When you catch a fish that you know might be a record, I think you should bring it in. I don’t anymore.

Sometimes they look at the fly and turn away, but you can still get that same fish to eat if you do the right thing. And what is the right thing? Every individual circumstance is different. When it comes to this fishing there is no black and white.

Mill: If you were to catch a 210 tomorrow would you kill it?

Apte: No.

Mill: Why?

Apte: For one thing, I don’t have a tag. And I have never owned a tag. If I got one that was over 230 pounds like I had on a 12-pound tippet that took Ralph out of the boat twice; each time he gaffed it… yeah, I would kill that one because that would end the search for the biggest fish and save the life of numerous other tarpon.

Mill: Is that the largest tarpon you’ve ever hooked?

Apte: It is. Ralph and I were going to Homosassa. We had it set up with somebody who was going to film a show up there. We got there the day before the film crew, got set up, and got a phone call from them that they were not able to make it. Something happened with their sound man. So we went fishing anyway and we were fishing north of the normal area. Steve Huff’s was the only other boat out there. Ralph polled me up to this daisy chain of fish, all big fish, but one was obviously really big. I dropped the fly into the center of the doughnut and waited for Madame Big to come around. As I started to strip the fly, a young “upstart” 140-odd-pounder grabbed the fly and I would not set up on him. He felt something strange and spit it out. The chain naturally broke up and moved off about 75 to 100 yards, then chained up again circling in the opposite direction. Ralph poled me over to them and I dropped the fly in the middle of the doughnut again. I always used a 12- or 14-foot leader so I would not put the fly line across the fish, just the leader. It was a nice calm day. I waited for her to come around again and this time she was not going to let somebody else take that away from her. She just garbaged it. I set the hook and right from the get-go she came out like a Polaris missile. It was eight feet long. That was the only jump it made during the fight. Ralph, who prides himself on having to harangue his clients to pull on fish, kept telling me during the fight: “Take it easy, Stu, take it easy. That’s only 12-pound-test.” (Back then it was 12-pound class, it wasn’t the 13½-test that six kilograms is, you know. It was 12-class leader. The line had to break under 12 to qualify as 12-pound class.) So we had the engine running, staying with the fish and I am staying within basically 30 feet of the fish in about seven or eight feet of water and really pulling on her. After about 35 minutes, every time it would come up to roll, I would stick my rod tip, that much of the rod, under the water pulling down on it, making her fight to come up and get air. After a number of times, I had it programmed and I said: “Ralph, she has been coming up every three minutes to take air. Next time, can you lie the boat right alongside? You stay inside the cockpit and stick it while I hold it up.” It worked slick as a whistle, 48 minutes into the fight. He had his gaff in the boat—that was a bad thing. His was an aluminum-handle gaff with just a regular store-bought medium-size bite on the hook. I had one that I made myself. It had a barb on it and it was for big tuna, you know, a big offshore gaff that I made on a fiberglass handle. I mean, it was for anything that swims. I told him to use it. He said: “No, I have gotten a lot of fish with my gaff. I’ll use mine.” You do not argue with Ralph. You let him do his thing. So I had the fish right alongside the boat and it started to come up and roll and this time I am holding it up instead of holding it down, and it stayed up and wallowed. Ralph reached out and stuck it across the back. Then big Ralph was out of the boat. The fish snatched him right out of the boat over the gunnel. Ralph grabbed hold of the gunnel with one hand, hands me the gaff with the other hand with the fish on it, and now I have the rod in one hand, the gaff in the other. While he is getting back in the boat the fish rips off the gaff. The fish was that wide across the back and the gaff only had a bite about like that [gesture] and so you just get a piece of the meat. Anyway, we go after the fish again. About 15 to 18 minutes later, we had the fish near the boat again. Same thing. Same program. Ralph does it exactly the same way and uses his gaff. I said, “Come on, use…” “No.” He used his gaff. The fish took him out of the boat a second time. He said later he kind-of went with it because he did not want the gaff to rip out again. Anyway, the fish swims off with him holding on, for about 50 yards and he is wrapped around that fish. He is trying to hold it with his legs and arms. I did not know at the time but he was trying to hold the gaff into the fish, and the fish comes up on a head shaker with him wrapped around it. He said he felt like a flea on an elephant. That was his quote. Can you imagine if they had been filming this?

Mill: Unbelievable. You have to know Ralph Delph to appreciate this and understand what is happening here because Ralph is the man. I mean, nobody beats Ralph.

Apte: We were in about seven or eight feet of water and he looked like he was really in trouble as he was rolling around with that fish—all wrapped around it. We were in his boat. I tried to cut the engine because I had a great big release gaff, I mean a big release gaff. I was going to run over there and hook that fish up under the jaw and we would have her. As I get up to Ralph and the fish, I put the boat into reverse to slow it down, then putting it into what I thought was neutral. His throttle was weird. I ran up to the bow of the boat to hook that fish up under the jaw because Ralph was foundering with the fish on top. I could tell pretty quickly that I was still in forward gear so I ran back threw it in a hard reverse, turned the key off this time, and I ran back up there but I had him bore-sighted and he had to let go of the fish with one arm to fend off the stem of the boat. It rolled him and the fish under. The fish got off the gaff and swam away. I had run over my fly line during that time. Ralph got back in the boat and he was covered with fish slime—I mean covered. Tarpon slime is something else. We did not talk about that fish the rest of the day. I poled him. He caught a fish, about 120 pounds. And that night at dinner we still did not talk about that fish. We were staying at Riverside Villas. I had a deal there. The next day we fished together. The film crew showed up and we told them about it and they had another problem and had to leave. They never did any filming. That night at dinner, at this little seafood restaurant in Homosassa that we liked, Ralph, for the first time looking across the table at me said, “Stu, you have seen a lot of big tarpon—what do you think that fish really weighed?” I said, “Ralph, I’ll tell you what…” I took a paper napkin and tore it in half. I said, “You write down what you think it weighed, and I’ll write down what I think it weighed so we don’t influence each other.” He wrote down 230 with a plus sign. I wrote down 230 plus. It was on a 12-pound-class tippet. That is my most memorable fish.

Mill: Of all your fish, any species?

Apte: I think so.

Then big Ralph was out of the boat. The fish snatched him right out of the boat over the gunnel. Ralph grabbed hold of the gunnel with one hand, hands me the gaff with the other hand with the fish on it, and now I have the rod in one hand, the gaff in the other. While he is getting back in the boat the fish rips off the gaff.

Mill: The one that got away.

Apte: Yeah.

Mill: Which is typical. You know, for most of us, I think the one that got away is the one we can’t forget.

Apte: Hal Chittum was my guide when I broke the record twice in one day on six-pound- class. The record on fly: 82½ pounds. And on bait-casting or spinning tackle six-pound-class with an artificial. That was 107½ pounds. You know that 82½-pounder is the longest still standing tarpon record. Did you know that?

Mill: I know.

Mill: Where does that sit in your memory bank?

Apte: It was something that we planned to do the night before. I love it when a plan comes together. We tied up six-pound-class leaders. We rigged up a couple bait-casting reels, loading them with six-pound-class line. We had to tape over the other line on the bait-casting reels because I did not want to fill these reels with all six-pound-class line but you cannot attach it. It has to be blocked off and then tied onto the arbor… not attached to any other line. We caught that first fish early in the morning in Sandy Key Basin. The first fish I cast to ate the fly but it threw it. I looked at the leader and everything seemed okay. We could see more fish coming. I went ahead and dropped the fly in front of the next one, the fish ate, and I came tight with it. I mean you could not really “set the hook,” but I came tight. I was fishing a 7-weight rod and that fish never jumped. It took one hour and one minute. It left Sandy Key Basin and went into Conchie Channel where the water depth was seven to 15 feet deep which certainly made the fight more difficult. With smoothness and strong concentration I finally finessed it to the surface to be gaffed. When Hal planted the gaff, it almost took him out of the boat.

Mill: That was your six-pound record on fly?

Atpe: Yes. We took it into Flamingo and did all the things you have to do for the record—weights, pictures, measurements, and so on. We went back out there in Sandy Key Basin again. Now I had the casting rod with a plastic worm rigged as a Texas rig, an orange plastic worm. Steve Huff’s was the only other boat in the basin. The tide was now going out. He said, “Hey, Stu, what are you doing without a fly rod?” Hal said, “He already broke the fly-rod record. Steve thought it was Tom Evans’s record at 180 pounds. I could see Steve’s face go long thinking, I just broke that record, which he has been holding for a couple of years. I said, “No, no, no Steve. It was only on six-pound.”

Mill: Only on six!

Apte: We see this school coming and I cast in front of the lead fish and worked the plastic worm. She followed it, and turned off, and followed it. Until finally, on the same cast, she ate. That took 31 minutes I think to get her to the boat and we never left the basin. I was angling editor of Sea and Rudder Magazine at the time, doing a column. I wrote “Wake up IGFA.” It was 1970. Because of the way they had the regulations set you don’t really have to fight the fish on the six-pound-class as you did with the fly. You were allowed 15 feet of double line and 15 feet of leaders. No, I did not run up and grab it. But with the advantage of the double line and a couple turns on my reel I could apply more pressure. We were in four feet of water. And when I had a bit of that 30-pound wound on the reel, I could really pressure that fish.

Mill: Stu, how would you best describe yourself as an angler? A lot of people talk about you as a legend in your abilities.

Apte: I was a fighter pilot. I was a boxer. All of that comes into play in being an aggressive angler and fighting fish. You hurt but so what? You have to bring it to a closure and you have to learn techniques. You have to know about your adversaries. Same thing when you are flying airplanes in combat. Same thing when you are in the ring.

Mill: What was your greatest asset as a tarpon angler?

Apte: The want, the desire—and I no longer have that desire.

Mill: Some anglers are great fish fighters, others are great fish feeders. Is there any particular skill you felt you were much better at?

Apte: I don’t know. You know, there is an awful lot of luck involved in fishing—a lot of luck. Starting with having the opportunity, the shot at the right fish, a fish that’s ready to eat, and simply having the hook slide in the right place when you strip set. There is just a lot of luck involved.

Mill: Maybe, but the harder I worked the luckier I seemed to get!

Apte: Ralph Delph once made a statement about me that I am the most unlucky angler he has ever fished with. He flat out said that I have had to work very hard to achieve everything that I have done. I never felt that way. I did not feel that I was lucky. I guess I am a worker.

Mill: You stayed at it.

Apte: Yes.

Mill: Let’s go back. We were talking about the old days and how tarpon fishing is different today—the transition between just showing the fish the fly and they would bite it, versus having to stealthily read the fish and feed the fish. Do you remember that transition?

Apte: It took place during the late 1970s and the early ’80s. Now it is a different game altogether.

I was a fighter pilot. I was a boxer. All of that comes into play in being an aggressive angler and fighting fish. You hurt but so what? You have to bring it to a closure and you have to learn techniques. You have to know about your adversaries. Same thing when you are flying airplanes in combat. Same thing when you are in the ring.

Mill: Do you remember when you became aware of the fish’s body language?

Apte: I think right from the get-go. I was a bonefisherman before I was a tarpon fisherman. You watch body language as much as anything with the bonefish when you feed one. Of course, tarpon are so much larger that their body language is even more noticeable.

Mill: So you came to the Florida Keys during the 1950s to catch bonefish?

Apte: Well, I was born in Miami, and I had already caught a bunch of bonefish back in the 1940s. I had joined what was called the Century Club. It was informal: You had to have caught 100 bonefish on fly while wading. I had joined the Century Club by 1949, by the time I was 19 years old.

Mill: Do you think you learned any of your tarpon skills from bonefishing?

Apte: I learned my tarpon skills from fishing tarpon. I am a fisherman first—I am a fly fisherman second. Given my options, I want to fly fish. But I am not going to stay at the dock because of the weather. I am going to fish!

Mill: What do you think you have contributed to fishing?

Apte: I keep hearing that I have made contributions, but I do not know what they are. Honestly.

Mill: You designed innovative tackle.

Apte: But I did not do it for the industry—I did it for me.

Mill: What was your favorite innovation that changed the sport?

Apte: My favorite innovation that changed the sport? I made some innovations that could have changed the sport if it had not been for the objections of a few people. I designed a rod for Fenwick back 1967 that I called the “insert” rod. Their blanks back then were called Grizzly blanks: very thin wall, great casting, but not very good fighting tools. This was a rod that you could cast an 8- or 9-weight line with but it did not have much power. So I said, “Why don’t we get another fiberglass dowel that would go right up through the center of the first section of that rod—the first half of it?” Now the rod would have some fighting power. My 151-pounder that knocked out Joe Brooks’s 148½- pound record in 1967 was caught with that rod. One of the anglers who spent a lot of money hiring guides in Islamorada knew that I was trying to beat that record. He wrote a letter and mailed out 10,000 copies trying to get the fish disqualified, because I used an insert and I was not fishing fairly. It was all a bunch of bullshit. The fish was accepted, but thereafter you were not allowed to change the configuration of the rod after hooking the fish. That innovation would have helped bonefish and tarpon anglers immensely. But it was effectively outlawed. I thought it would have been great.

Mill: What about fishing with noted anglers—Joe Brooks or Ted Williams. Was there an angler who impressed you and from whom you learned?

Apte: I learned a lot from Joe Brooks. Joe was like a second father from the time I was 16 years old. He was the manager of the Metropolitan Miami Fishing Tournament when I caught my first Met record on fly. I was 16 years old. It was on my first fly-fishing outfit. That is when Joe and I first met—during the big presentation. We started fishing together and started wading the flats on upper Key Largo here out of Garden Cove. A lot of people do not know things about Joe that I know. Joe was originally from Virginia. Joe had been a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. He was a professional light heavyweight boxer. He was also an alcoholic. He went down the tubes until he met Mary. She pulled him up by his bootstraps and he started writing. Fishing was his love. Joe introduced me to trout fishing in Montana in 1962. I had been married in December 1961 and we went out there on a belated honeymoon. Joe had been calling me every summer for the past eight or nine years from Montana, saying, “Stu you have to come out here and go trout fishing with me—you will love it.” He said: “Once you get here it will not cost you anything. You will stay with Mary and me.” I said, “If I travel that far to cast a fly, the fish is not going to be some piddle trout.” He said, “Stu, you just don’t understand.” And he was right. I went out there and I put down every fish in every pool in Nelson Spring Creek. Brooks had the patience of Job. He said: “Stu, you don’t have to double haul. You do not have to throw it hard. Just…” That is the way I starting doing things. Joe was just fantastic to me. I used to do other things with him. I was his guide in 1961 when he caught the 148½-pound tarpon that set the record. Then the following year we did that full hour with ABC’s Wide World of Sports where Jimmie Albright and I were the two main guides. They had six other guides handling the camera boat and sound crew. By a flip of a coin Jimmie fished Al McClane; I fished Joe Brooks. And Jimmie was not happy about that. He had never fished with Al before. He had with Joe. As a matter of fact he guided Joe to the first tailing bonefish that was ever taken on purpose fly fishing.

Mill: How did Brooks catch his big record fish?

Apte: It was by a stroke of fate that Joe caught that fish, that 148½-pounder. He had an endorsement deal with Orvis, and back then was fishing a 9½-foot impregnated bamboo for GAF—roughly a 9- or 10-weight. I happened to step on his rod in the boat that day and broke about a foot off the tip. This was a 15½-foot fiberglass boat with a 40-horsepower engine. I had my own rod in the boat, a fiberglass rod made by Spin Master. It was rigged with 11½ inches of 80-pound bite tippet after the 12-pound-class tippet. His rod was rigged “fly light.” No bite-tippet protection.

There is an awful lot of luck involved in fishing—a lot of luck. Starting with having the opportunity, the shot at the right fish, a fish that’s ready to eat, and simply having the hook slide in the right place when you strip set.

Mill: Why?

Apte: There were classifications back then called fly light and fly heavy. In fly light the lightest part of your leader was tied directly to your fly; with fly heavy you were allowed up to 12 inches of heavier shock or bite tippet between your lightest section of leader and the fly.

Mill: I can’t imagine catching a huge tarpon with the fly tied directly to 12-pound-test tippet. You would have to get that fly…

Apte: In exactly the right place. So he was using my rod when he caught that record fish. He used an experimental reel made by the Lionel Train Company, which I donated to the IGFA. Brooks had this cameraman along, a still-camera person, Johnny Johnson, a great guy. He would shoot 4 x 4 all the time and black and whites. He was in the boat and he actually handled the tiller on my 40 horse while I went up on the bow of the boat. I had Joe move off the bow as I got on the bow with the gaff and I did not even have a place to put my toes. I snatched it across the tarpon’s back and Joe said I looked like a pole vaulter going through the air. I landed a dozen feet from the boat.

Mill: Did you arch your toes properly when you entered the water?

Apte: No. It actually ruptured me because I had a strangulated hernia in the Navy when I ejected out of the Panther jet. It actually gave me a recurrence. Then I got back in the boat. The gaff came out of the fish. The fish was still hooked up. We got after it again. About 15 to 20 minutes later we repeated the performance. I had Joe move off the bow as I got up there. This time when I reached I stuck the fish. I leaned back quickly and held him for a while, and then it walked me out of the boat the second time. I had a death grip on this eight-foot wooden handle with my right hand. My left hand was on the gunnel of the boat. The fish was towing the boat sideways until we hit one little strip—the last strip of shallow water on the ocean side of Loggerhead Bank, before the deep water, out to sea, where the fish was heading. I got my feet down and hollered to Joe to hand me my release gaff. He had his hands on the big gaff. I kept one hand on it and I’m putting the other gaff under the jaw of this magnificent fish. Johnny now has the camera and is shooting pictures. He has a picture of me just after I got the second gaff in it. I looked up at Joe and I yelled, “Yee haw!” I knew we had a world record.

Mill: I remember that photograph.

Apte: I have a lot of teeth showing.

Mill: Stu, is there one thing that you could tell new tarpon anglers to help them, one thing that would really be able to take them to a level of success?

Apte: Well, I could probably come up with several things that are required—not just one thing. I would have to sit down and think about it, though. Presentation, where the fly is, the angle at which the fly is going away from the fish, the speed that you work the fly depending on where the fish is, the relative motion of where the fish is compared to where the boat is and the depth—many things. These are all things that as an ex-fighter pilot I do not have to think about because of relative motion. I lived by relative motions. So I guess I had an advantage because of that.

Mill: With everything you have accomplished in fishing, and now not being physically able to experience the sport with the intensity you once did, do you still enjoy it as much? Jack Nicklaus is no longer able to go and win on the PGA Tour.

Apte: I just got a nice note from Jack, incidentally, thanking me for a fly that I sent to him for his project with the Boy Scouts. I still love this sport and I still love getting out there. But I do not have the stamina for spending long days standing up day after day. My balance is not good anymore. I have macular degeneration of my left eye right down the center so my depth perception is bad. When I make the presentation to a fish now I do not cast where I think I should—I cast where I think it has to be. And that is terrible. I used to have 20/10 vision, near and far. Ted Williams and I had the same vision. He had the advantage in height on me, but I most often would see fish before he did. We did a lot of fishing together.

I learned my tarpon skills from fishing tarpon. I am a fisherman first—I am a fly fisherman second. Given my options, I want to fly fish. But I am not going to stay at the dock because of the weather. I am going to fish!

Mill: When did you first meet him?

Apte: I met Ted Williams at the Tamiami Trail in 1948. I was not a baseball fan—I had no idea who he was, except he was a big dude and he was throwing a damn nice line. He was a student of anything he tried: golf, tennis, fishing, and obviously baseball. I have a long, interesting chapter about Ted in my book.

Mill: How would you like to best be remembered?

Apte: As a nice guy. I like to help people. I try to help people. I do seminars to help people get better. My wife Jeannine will tell you that I will be at a seminar… She likes to tell the story about the grand opening of the Bass Pro Shop in Fort Lauderdale when two little kids came over to me. I was doing something with a golf pro, giving a casting demonstration with him. And these two little kids came over with pieces of scrap paper and wanted my autograph. I said, “Just wait five minutes, wait right here.” I went back to where I left my briefcase and got some 8 x 10 pictures I had and autographed a picture to each of them. I mean these kids were turned on like you wouldn’t believe. I remembered how it was with me. Never in my life have I felt that I am deserving of how people perceive me. Maybe I have an inferiority complex… maybe that explains the need I always felt, striving to do better. Ted Williams also had an inferiority complex, believe it or not. So we both related to that—we discussed it. He invited me to fish the Miramichi for Atlantic salmon with him. I pooh-poohed it and after I had been salmon fishing in Europe and in Iceland. A number of years later he was talking about this stretch on the Miramichi, and I said, “When the hell are you going to invite me again, Ted?” And he said, “Never in your fucking life! You had your chance, Bush.” And he meant it. We were like that. I spent every Thanksgiving for a number of years at his place, through three wives. You just had to respect him for the way he was.

Mill: How was he on the water here in the Keys?

Apte: Oh, excellent. He was the one who taught me to pole a boat. In my guest book from back in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when he signed it, he wrote, “To one of my best students.” Ted used to pole me around. Then when he would want to fish he would say, “Okay, now you pole me.” I would get up there and the fish would be over there and I would pole in the opposite direction—on purpose. I was trying to get him. And the sky would get purple. We poled the boat from the bow back then. He’d jump back to the bow: “Give me that push pole. Look at that, bush, one hand, just like in the majors…”

Mill: I play golf with Carl Yastrzemski and he talks about Ted Williams, the way he called everybody “bush.”

Apte: For bush league. I have some great pictures of Yaz and me together during the New England’s Sportsmen’s Show in Boston. I used to do that up there for the Dupont Company. I was the only fishing consultant they ever had back then. I did the show with Ted, Yastrzemski and Ken Harrelson, who once led the American League in runs batted in.

Mill: Are there any words of wisdom you can give me and the next generation of anglers who are passionate about this sport and these fish?

Apte: You just have to stay at it. I can tell that with you it is not just a passing fancy anymore than downhill skiing was. I mean, you go at this kind of fishing the way you learned how to ski.

Mill: And you as a fighter pilot.

Apte: Yeah.

Mill: Looking at your RV in the driveway out there, it says, FISHING LEGEND, STU APTE. Looking back at the wonderful life that you’ve had, I guess you know the epitome of life is chasing dreams.

Apte: When I was 12 and 13 years old I used to read Philip Wylie’s books on fishing and I still have a bunch of them. I used to daydream, if ever one time I could get out on a charter boat, one time to do one of those things. It was beyond my true thought of being able to ever do it. Going with Pan Am gave me the opportunity to fish every continent. I have been blessed.

Copyright © 2010 Andy Mill. Excerpted from A Passion for Tarpon with permission of Wild River Press.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Andy Mill is a former Olympic skier and member of the U. S. Ski Team, creator of Andy Mill’s Sportman’s Journal for the Outdoor Life Network, an accomplished tarpon fisherman, and the author of the much-acclaimed book, A Passion for Tarpon (Wild River Press, 2010).
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  • Anonymous

    Stu Apte was not only a Naval Officer and a gentleman but he is believer in self reliance and perseverance. He is successful because he applies these two traits in his business, his fishing, and his ability to help others. I have fished with him several times and it is a great experience. You get a million dollars of fishing instruction and knowledge for free! He needs to write a book on how to think like a fishermen. Few of us do! He is like a older brother who has watches out for the rest of the family. God bless Stu.

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