Fishing With The Greats: Stu Apte

January 22, 2011 By: Jim Chapralis

Stu ApteI THOUGHT Stu Apte was the biggest B.S.er in fishing. Back in the 1950s, I read about this cat who claimed that he was landing big sailfish — over 100 pounds— in Panama on 16-pound, plug-casting tackle. 16-pound line, mind you! Heck, we midwestern anglers were breaking 20-pound lines on muskies that weighed 20 pounds or less. Then later, he landed a 95-pound sail on four-pound test line. What was he doing? Tranquilizing these fish with some kind of a dart?

He was even catching sailfish on a fly rod! Imagine that! I read that he landed a 136-pound Pacific sail on a fly rod using a 12-pound tippet. Then there were all those tarpon, giant tarpon, more than 100 pounds that he landed on a fly rod. Okay, okay, we fishermen exaggerate a little, but Apte was getting carried away. What gall! Who was this guy anyway and how did he expect to get away with such nonsense?

I later discovered that these feats were true, and soon other anglers were landing billfish on flies because Apte, and other experts, starting with Dr. Webster Robinson, paved the way by liberally sharing their hard-earned knowledge and techniques.

If I were to pick one person as the world’s best all-round angler in the history of fishing it would be Stu Apte in his prime. That’s quite a statement, I know, but remember, I said all-round. There are many superb anglers in the world today, but my balance swings toward Apte. There are more experienced Atlantic salmon fishermen than Stu, and certainly more successful permit anglers, or superior bass fishermen and better casters than he is, but I’m talking about all-round. Stu is just as proficient with a plug-casting rod or spinning tackle as he is with a fly rod. A number of famous anglers come to mind, but several lack the “big fish” experience and world record results that Stu has achieved throughout the years, while others fish only with a fly rod. Again, the keyword is “all-round.”

If there is a chink in Apte’s substantial armor, it might be big-game fishing with the heavy conventional tackle. But wait! In the early 1970s, Stu went to Australia to film black marlin fishing. He was a guest of Mike Levitt, a highly talented big-game fisherman. Stu obtained marvelous footage and even shot a magazine cover of a leaping giant black marlin for Sports Afield.

“Hey, Stu,” Mike said, “we’ve all caught lots of big marlin and you’ve been filming. Why don’t you take a turn in the chair?”

Stu put away his cameras. He hooked a huge black marlin and fought it to the best of his ability. In 18 minutes the fish was tuckered out at boat-side! A record time. The next day, the black marlin weighed 996 pounds, and the fish probably lost at least 100 pounds in the tropical heat. Surely, it was more than 1,100 pounds when he landed it! And, remember he landed it in 18 minutes!

Stu was a Pan Am pilot for most of his working life, and since Pan Am flew to many great fishing countries, he used the opportunity to fish distant waters for a long list of game fish; he bid on certain flights to take advantage of favorable tides or moon phases. When Pan Am furloughed him for several years, Apte became a legendary Florida Keys’ guide.

He developed quite a following as a guide. Among his most prestigious guests were President Harry Truman and Bess, his wife.

“One day we were out quite a distance from land,” Stu relates, “and Bess had a problem. She had to ‘tinkle.’ I explained that we could go to a place that had a washroom but we would lose about an hour each way. Or, the President and I could stand on the deck, look the other way, clap our hands and sing “Are the Stars Out Tonight,” while Bess used a large pot on board specifically for that purpose. She opted for the latter. What a great sport!”

Stu wasn’t exactly popular with some of the other established guides, because he was the new kid on the block and because he insisted on giving his clients more than their money’s worth. He was among the first to leave the dock in the morning and the last to come in. At night he rigged and worked on tackle if necessary. If weather conditions for success were impossible, he would postpone his parties (“No use going out for a boat ride”).

Stu was fortunate to have several things come his way. For example, he was lucky to meet Joe Brooks, easily one of the best fly rodders of all time, and among the first anglers to fly fish seriously for marine species. They became close friends. Stu guided Joe often, and together they discovered and fine tuned many new techniques applicable to saltwater fishing. They were even featured in ABC’s Wide World of Sports in a fishing contest against A. J. McClane, who was guided by Jimmie Albright. Stu and Joe won the tournament.

“Joe got me interested in trout fishing,” Stu remembers. “At first, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would take the time to catch trout that are usually measured in inches, when one could fish for big, powerful saltwater fish. But Joe insisted. I reluctantly agreed to try it and we fished in Montana. Wow! I loved it! In fact, I loved it so much that later I bought a home in Montana for summer trout fishing, and I even considered buying a house in New Zealand!”

Apte did it all. He was featured often in the long-running, fabulous The American Sportsman, ABC’s national outdoor TV series. (Two separate shows included basketball’s great John Havlicek and NFL’s all-time best linebacker Dick Butkus: “They were very ‘coachable’ . . . could have been great anglers.”) Today, he frequently hosts or is featured on various TV outdoor shows.

He lists guiding Kay Brodney to a 137½-pound tarpon on a fly as one of his biggest thrills. This was back in the mid-60s when few lady anglers fished for tarpon with a fly rod and even fewer guides would consider guiding a woman.

Stu Apte has had many detractors through the years. Some insisted that he was selfish, conceited, arrogant, egotistical, whatever.

The Stu Apte I know and fished with was quite different. First, he was and is willing to share any information with anyone. I caught my first sailfish on a fly rod in Panama on my very first cast to a sail, but the credit goes to Stu. Prior to my trip, he spent hours on the phone explaining the procedures to me, over and over again, everything from tying knots, to the importance of sharp hooks, where to cast, how to tease up the fish. Everything. Back in the early 1970s, this information was not readily available like it is today. At that time, probably only a dozen anglers had landed billfish on a fly rod, and usually expert fishermen were reluctant to share their hard-earned secrets. Stu invested a great deal of time, researching, testing and reporting his results.

One year he borrowed a $100,000 knot-testing machine from the Du Pont company to test different knots. He invested many hours in research, shared his results liberally, and today many knot recipes are a result of his experimentation.

Conceited? I’d call it confidence. You’ve watched Michael Jordan in the closing moments of a close basketball game? If the Chicago Bulls were losing, M.J. wanted the ball. Right? Call it confidence, call it arrogance, call it whatever you want, but these super stars know how to get it done, have tremendous faith in their abilities, and may not even acknowledge any personal limitationsâ??if they have anyâ??even to themselves.

One day at Club Pacifico de Panama I was in a very irritable mood, mostly because I was trying to give up smoking and my back was aching because of an earlier fall.

I hooked and was fighting a sailfish on a fly rod.

“I’m going to break it off, my back is killing me . . . ” I told Stu as I tried to break that tippet with a few sharp jabs.

YOU WHAT?” Apte was horrified. “Look. You have to play with those little hurts. No pain, no gain! I can’t believe what you said!”

Little hurts? My painful back was telling me how nice it would be to sit down and sip a Coke, so whenever Stu wasn’t looking, I would try to break that 15-pound tippet. No dice! I could not pressure the fish, so the fight went on and on.

“I think your sailfish is feeding again. You’ve had him on so long it’s hungry again,” he quipped.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Eventually, I landed that sail. I turned on him. “Okay, Mr. Apte. Your turn! And I’m going to time you.” Remember, I was giving up smoking and was cranky.

He hooked a sail, and in the next few minutes I was treated to an exhibition of fish-fighting technique that I’ve never seen before or since. Apte danced from the stern to the bow with the grace of dancer Igor Yuskevitch, changed rod directions as adroitly as Wayne Gretzky wielded a hockey stick and countered every rush or sudden maneuver with the adroitness of Dominguin, Spain’s famous matador. He knew exactly how much pressure his tackle would withstand. There was that competitive, fierce stare in Stu’s eyes, much like when Michael Jordan sank that final basket, the dagger against Utah Jazz for the NBA championship, or when Tiger Woods needs a few almost superhuman final shots to win a close tournament.

All the time, Stu was in total control. It was a wild, wild sailfish and it leaped crazily all around the boat because of Stu’s relentless prodding. It was one of the fiercest sailfish battles I’ve ever witnessed.

Stu landed that fish in an amazing seven minutes. The fish was totally tuckered out.

“Easy fish!” I countered.

“Yeah, easy fish!” He laughed. We both did.

WE WERE IN ICELAND. One of the fellow guests, whom we had never met before, was having problems fly casting. Stu realized that the man’s fly line was much too light for his rod. Without hesitation, Stu stripped off his brand-new fly line and exchanged it for the other man’s.

“Try it now!” The angler was casting much better and was soon hooking salmon. Stu altered his casting stroke and timing now to compensate for the lighter line.

On another Icelandic river we fished for brown trout near a small village. Soon a group of perhaps a dozen young boys and girls congregated to watch Stu fish. Despite the language problem, Stu showed each child how to fly cast (they had to use both hands) and his goal was for every youngster to catch one trout.

They all did, except for one boy who was having trouble casting and missed the few rises he had. Now it was getting late. All the other kids departed for their homes and supper. Stu and I should have returned to the lodge long ago, but Stu stayed there, helping, instructing and encouraging the young lad. Never mind that there was a language problem. The brown trout were now off their feed, probably because of all the disturbance, but finally the young boy hooked and landed a trout.

Wow, was he happy! Were we happy!

I wonder how many of Stu’s critics would have done the same thing?

“You know. It was very important to me that this kid landed a fish. It may seem like a small thing, but experiences like that could influence his life down the road,” Stu said, as we headed for the lodge and settled for cold leftovers instead of a sumptuous feast.

I’m sure there were some incidents and some hurts in Stu’s youth that later served as a catalyst for his drive to succeed and to be the best, but I didn’t ask him. Some things should remain private.

On this Icelandic trip we hit the Atlantic salmon fishing just right. It was so good that we began to experiment with different flies (including tarpon streamers and bonefish patterns) and different methods. Stu hooked a particularly “hot” salmon that tore downstream with tremendous speed. It quickly cleaned out most of his backing, so Stu had only two options, let the fish break the tippet or follow it. Of course he chose the latter. He ran after that fish in the boulder-strewn stream, while Jon Jonsson, one of the lodge owners, and I watched. And cheered. Stu zigged and zagged down the stream like an NFL running back heading for the end zone.

“This is a very slippery section, lots of moss-covered rocks. I don’t think he’ll get that salmon . . . he’ll fall in,” Jon said, but soon we both marveled at Apte’s agility.

He caught up to the fish, tailed it and then released it.

We were amazed. Stu tried to carefully pick his way back to his original spot but fell in the river. His waders were now filled with icy-cold water, and the air temperature was on the coolish side. He could have returned to the nearby lodge, (only 15 minutes away) for some warm, dry duds, as we still had a couple hours’ fishing time, but he insisted on fishing. Didn’t miss a cast. Or a fish!

We ended the trip with an informal contest. Standing on one rock, we were allowed five casts. He hooked and landed four. I think I landed three in the five casts. It was that kind of a trip.

There are two Stu Aptes.

One is very carefree, who can break out in a song, and be all smiles and laughs. Fun to be with.

There is also the other, the serious Apte, the one with that competitive glint in his eyes. He barks out commands to a guide or fishing partner with the unquestionable self-assurance of a general in battle. The latter shows up at a tournament, during the production of a TV film or when there’s a real shot for a world record that could help a camp, an area or a country. That’s when he is all business. The guide better not mess up. Stay out of his way. Follow his instructions. But, then, don’t we all have two sides? Isn’t a high-powered CEO different in his office than when he is playing with his kids in the backyard? I like to observe and learn from both Aptes.

Stu is meticulous. No one prepares his tackle more precisely. He ties knots carefully and tests them; if he is dissatisfied with a knot, he reties it. Hooks must be super sharp. Rods? Once when we were fishing in Montana, I borrowed one of his fly rods. On a back cast, a No. 16 dry fly clicked against the fly rod. He took the rod and examined it carefully. Thankfully, there were no nicks in the finish of the rod tip (which I learned could cause a graphite rod to break under heavy pressure). He handed it back to me with a don’t-do-it-again look.

Stu Apte’s angling philosophy demands the best quality tackle rigged to the best of his ability so that he can pressure a fish to the gear’s max or near max when necessary. When he is serious about his fishing, he makes every cast, every presentation, every retrieve as though there is a world record fish ready to hit his lure or fly. He admits it’s hard to keep up the intensity, but that’s what he tries to do when he is in that “zone.”

He knows how to pressure a fish. In some circles, he is criticized for working or fighting a fish too hard. He counters: “Look, if I’m going to lose a fish, because it’s poorly hooked, I want to lose it early in the fight and save the time. It’s easier on the fish. It’s easier on me. The longer you fight a fish, the longer there is a chance for something to go wrong or for the hook to pull out. I like to land a fish fast, revive it and release it. Thus, the fish has a better possibility for survival.”

I enjoy and learn from both Aptes.