"Ocean Fish"

May 30, 2004 By: Marshall Cutchin

When I arrived at the ramp yesterday George Anderson already had the boat in the water. There was no place to park — a harbinger of the situation on the water — and we had to shuttle the trailer back to a campground a mile distant. We spent the morning on the fast circuit, chasing rolling tarpon up the beach, then south across the boats tangling the passes and down the islands and back into some laid up tarpon spots in nondescript corners of the basins.
By noon we were throwing at spooky redfish and snook many miles from the Gulf.
At 1:30 we tied up behind Tom McGuane’s house and took a hot walk into the center of the island, where George proceeded to offer the local fly outfitter various types of advice, including how large his discount on flies should be (we were low on Enrico Puglisis).
Tom walked in and saved us by offering a ride back to his air-conditioned bungalow, and while George took a nap Tom and I talked about great fly fishers, great fly fishing books, and how the great Bill Schaadt used to sometimes attached his leaders to his butt section: with square knots. “Bill used to put only an egg sinker on his leader,” Tom said, “and after making a long cast out over the water, he felt every steelhead as the leader bumped along downstream.”
After rousing George with cappuccino (normally excessive, but George had a sinus infection), we loaded Tom’s gear onto the skiff and roared back to attack the “ocean fish” (“These are ‘gulf’ fish, George — you’ve been fishing in the Keys too long.”)
The tarpon were pooling out of the pass onto the beaches, trying despite the Memorial Day weekend boaters to maintain their composure. The several pro guides in the area were already there, as were several open fishermen and cadres of bait fishermen with live bait glistening in the air like spear heads.
“What did we do to deserve this?” Tom asked.
We were in them immediately, George on his knees with the trolling motor, Tom standing behind him and I on the back casting platform, dropping large flies into daisy-chaining schools of 50 and more fish. The fish were mostly happy and rolling high and easy. Dark blotches of fish inked the water around the other boats, then melted and reformed. After a couple of follows, Tom had an eat and the fish ran off 75 yards before popping his tippet. Gear malfunction. “I fish only with gear given to me by friends,” Tom noted, “so this is not my fault!” Perhaps this is why Tom offered to give me back a reel I had given him a few years ago. “There’s a very specific reason I gave you that reel,” I replied. “Because it needed to be fished and I knew you would fish it.” Plus, I was thinking, this might lead me to have to offer to return all the cool stuff Tom had given me, including the sweetest of trout rods I will ever own, a custom-wrapped 7-weight from an old Winston blank that made me sleep through night like I was dead every time I used it.
The fishing never improved. As the sun dropped, the wind did as well. The fish seemed content to spin in their circles and drift just out of range. We were all as happy as we could be.
Finally Tom was conscripted to run the electric while George fished. “I suddenly feel like I’ve been demoted to the low-paid worker on the lawn service team.” George, who combined with Tom had hooked and jumped obscene numbers of tarpon over the past two weeks, didn’t get bit.
Running back north up the beach Tom and George conferred on strategy while I contented myself to bounce off the cooler like someone plucked from the stands at rodeo and tied to a horse. George kicked the throttle over and made a large looping reconnaisance of the beach. “He drives this thing like he stole it,” Tom yelled at me.
We shut down finally in the pass and watched the night charter boats bob like christmas trees — all red port and white anchor lights — filling the portion of the horizon between the islands. “It is somehow beautiful,” Tom said.
When the skiff sat down in the canal in the dark, Tom and George began to muse about their successes this season and at the peculiarities of guides they had fished with. Somehow it didn’t sound like a “You Should Have Been Here Yesterday” story, but more like “You Ought to Be Here Tomorrow.” It occurred to me that although I hadn’t fish muched this year it was enough that my friends had, as long as I got to hear the telling. Handing over Tom’s gear in the dark, George said “if I’m not here by 4:45, go without me.”
“What did we do to deserve this?” Tom said.