Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham, and I were known in Key West as the “fat boys,” as in, “The fat boys are back in town,” loosely translated as, “The party is on.” Not that Key West needed our encouragement to throw a party. We merely added our weight, enthusiasm, and appetites to the mix. We weren’t particularly fat (certainly not by today’s standards), but we all cooked and ate well.
By 1974 Tom was often absent during the prime tarpon months, busy writing screenplays and making movies for Hollywood. Through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Jim, Russell, and I rented a house in Key West for six weeks every year and parked my skiff at Garrison Bight. Every morning, no matter how distraught we felt from the previous night’s indulgences, if the weather was tolerable we fished, or attempted to fish. One morning-I have been told this but don’t remember-my Maverick skiff was spotted, by a couple of guides and their anglers, drifting inside Mule and Archer Keys with the fat boys-the poet, the painter, and me-sound asleep on its floor. The biblical hangover, forgivable, since it was a weekend.
hen there was the day we drank rum and Cokes on the flats beginning at ten in the morning. It so happened that one of us jumped a fish while another was indulging in a Cuba Libre to chase the fog that had settled after a long, sleepless night. A second fish was spotted at the next mixing of drinks, and from then on our luck increased each time one of us poured rum. Tarpon swam in range of the boat at every swallow, and since it was more fun than studying the tide charts, we persisted. It was magic, and by the time the bottle was empty, we were seeing fish everywhere. The memory of our run back to Key West across Northwest Channel that afternoon surfaces with surprising clarity forty years after the fact. Mercifully it recedes just as quickly back where it belongs.
Neither Jim nor Russell was handy with the pole, so I did the pushing. Poling gave me a perspective into the world of guides and their clients-the choices that lead anglers to tarpon, and the importance of pointing out the fish and setting up the skiff for them to make the cast. The water temperature, the tide, the water level, the contour of the flats, and the adjoining channels all tell a piece of the story of shallow-water tarpon, and I soon found the hunting of these big fish and the excitement they provoked in the boat to be as entertaining as the fishing.
For years, after a day on the water, I would tie knots and flies. Over time it would be hundreds of nail knots, clinch knots, blood knots, Albright knots, and the Bimini twists for which I used my big toes to open the loops of monofilament and set the knots spinning. My two friends, the artists, pretended not to understand how to tie tarpon leaders. As insurance against having to learn how it was done, they declared that they simply “couldn’t take criticism.” It was the perfect foil against any and all inconveniences.
I no longer wanted to waste bar time wrapping monofilament, so I made our shock tippets using two-weight leader wire twisted at both ends through a small swivel and the eye of the fly. The leaders took twenty seconds to make. Since we were interested in jumping fish, not in records, the leader wire version worked fine. In fact it probably worked better than monofilament, given that the wire dragged the fly down to the fish faster.
Back in the days when the calendar and geography worked, Tom, Jim, Russell, and I met and took advantage of the fact that we loved books and art and dogs and birds and fish and food and good-looking women. We fished and hunted and drank and cooked from one end of the country to the other for a quarter of a century, with Key West as a beacon of our sporting year. Now when we see each other, we remember what nonsense we used to get into and how even though we thought we did, we never got away with any of it.
What I remember best about those decades was the laughter. Every time our group was together, we laughed and laughed, often to the point of hurting. Head-splitting, belly-heaving silliness at all times of day and night, in the boat, at the bar, during dinners, in Key West, in Montana, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in France. Everywhere and anywhere, we laughed and laughed and laughed, and I miss it.
The other day I was at the open market in Tallahassee and one of the vendors I know answered my query about a plant he was selling.
“It is the calyx of the hibiscus flower. You make herbal tea with it.” Then he looked at me and added, “You obviously weren’t a hippy, back in the day, were you?”
Before I could shut my stupid mouth, I replied, “No, but I sure woke up next to a bunch of them!”
He looked surprised and then smiled, remembering.
Excerpted from On the Water: A Fishing Memoir, by Guy de la Valdène (Lyons Press, 2015)