Interview: Guy de la Valdene
MC: WHAT WAS THE UNIQUE chemistry or alignment of the stars that brought everyone together in Key West in the early ’70s?
GDLV: What I might do, just because it’s easier for me, is to go back even a little bit even further than that. My story is very closely tied, first, to Gil Drake, and then of course McGuane, Harrison, Chatham, and Buffett, that whole group. My first fishing experiences actually started with Gil Drake. We went to school together in the late ’50s when his father opened up Deep Water Cay, which is the bonefish lodge situated at the east end of Grand Bahama, in 1957. Gil and I went to a great school called Graham-Eckes School for Young Gentlemen in Palm Beach, Florida. The reason that it was great was that there were 70 girls and 45 boys. And the girls were very pretty.
MC: And if you don’t mind going back even a little bit further, you were born in France …?
GDLV: No, I was born in New York City after the war, in 1944. My father had been in the war and came over to the United States, and worked with the American navy and developed the first miniature submarines for the U.S. Navy. The very first miniature submarines were invented by the Italians, early during the War, and when my dad came over here after being shot down … I mean, this story could go on forever.
Gil and I went to a great school called Graham-Eckes School for Young Gentlemen in Palm Beach, Florida. The reason that it was great was that there were 70 girls and 45 boys. And the girls were very pretty.MC: He was a pilot?
GDLV: He was a pilot. An ace in the First World War, shot down in the Second World War, and spent seven or eight months in a French hospital outside of Paris.
MC: …fighting for the French …
GDLV: …fighting for the French. He got out of the hospital in 1942, escaped, and worked his way down to Gibraltar. When he reached Gibraltar, kind of dodging the Germans, who were already in France by then, he and a bunch of guys commandeered a submarine, a German submarine, and drove the damn thing to England, you know, took over the whole crew, dumped the Kraut assholes, and drove the thing over to England. So now he’s in Great Britain, and he and Charles de Gaulle do not get along — the two of them had a conflict of egos. My dad, with the help of another admiral, came to the United States as a colonel in the Air Force, but of course there are no such thing as colonels in the American navy, so he was likely the only colonel in the American navy. But he came over here to work on miniature submarines, which he did.
MC: Was he an engineer by training?
GDLV: He was an engineer by training, exactly, an inventor and engineer. The first time they tested his submarine was in Lake Okeechobee, of all places. Why there I don’t know, but he said “The next thing you know I was 15 or 20 feet under the water of Lake Okeechobee with zero visibility.” At nights I suppose he drove back into Palm Beach. This was late 1942 or ’43 probably, and there he met my mother. I came rolling out in ’44 in New York City. I didn’t go to France until I was six years old — that would have been 1950. Then I went to boarding school when I was seven or eight years old and got promptly booted out of every one I was put in.
MC: That was in Normandy?
GDLV: Normandy first, and then Switzerland — a couple of places there, one of them kind of a fancy place called Le Rosé, where all the rich kids went. Finally there was a nice teacher who told my parents “Look, he’s never going to pass his French baccalaureate — you need to get him to America, where the academics are simpler.” Which they did, and it was good, and I was probably 12 or 13 years old when I got to the famous Graham-Eckes School for Young Gentlemen and met Gilbert Drake. Gil and I somehow or another struck up a friendship and in 1958 — when I would have been 14, I guess, and he would have been 17 — he invited me over to Deep Water Cay. And there was nothing there. And I mean, there was nothing. We slept on a 32-foot Nova Scotia called the ‘Magic,’ and we helped every summer thereafter. I kept going back in the springs and the winters and helped build the docks and other things and also, of course, went fishing, and went diving — and did a lot of it.
MC: Had bonefishing at that time gotten to the point where you had “destination” fishermen.
GDLV: Yeah. Deep Water Cay was certainly for destination fishermen, and for bonefish — that was the deal. Field & Stream fishing editor Al McClane was there a lot. Of course, he was a very close friend of Gil Drake Sr.. But when I was 13, 14, maybe even 16, there were few paying guests, because Big Gil [Sr.] had to build a dock, he had to put the lodge up. Early on there was little bungalow that housed four anglers, so it was four people, then eight, then 12 …. It was a very slow process. But within about three years they could handle 6 or 8 boats or something like that, which would mean fourteen people. Joe Brooks and then Tom McNally — a really nice, guy — and all those guys would come over to fish and enjoy Gil’s dad company over martinis at night.
The fishing was good for bonefish, but in those days it was all shrimp and spinning rods. There was very little fly fishing. Al McClane did. I don’t even think Gil’s father or Gil did — or me for sure — for a long time. The dudes would come down — all Gil Drake’s friends, all from the east coast —and I can remember them well, in their khaki outfits: khaki shorts, khaki shirts, everything was khaki. And all were kind of stodgy but very nice, all very sweet people.
MC: And they were using native guides from the get-go?
GDLV: Right out of McLean’s Town. Including the famous David Pinder, whose sons you might or might not have fished with when you were there a couple of weeks ago. There were some great guides at Deep Water Key, but the most famous one in those days — until he quit guiding, and that would have been maybe 30 years later — was David Pinder.
And so as kids Gil and I fished, and we fished a lot. But our fishing was potpourri fishing. He would work, and I would help a little, and then about five o’clock in the evening we would pitch everything into a 14-foot Mitchell. We would pitch in the plug rod and we’d pitch in a spinning rod, we’d pitch in the diving gear — we’d throw all that shit in there — and go. We really never had an idea what we were going to do from one day to the next or really from one hour to the next. Gil was already an excellent all-around fisherman by then. He was 18 and I think was just starting at the University of Miami and just fishing his ass off up and down Tamiami Trail with guys like Norman Duncan, little John Emery, you know, that early fly fishing group. Sometime in the early ’60s Gil picked up fly fishing, and then he became very good very quickly at it and taught me how to fly fish. That would have been ’64 or something, when I was around 20 or so.
MC: In saltwater?
GDLV: All in saltwater. Very little freshwater. Even nowadays I do very little freshwater fly fishing. It was a lot of bonefish, barracudas, sharks and whatnot, and we would do stuff that nowadays is very common: we’d pitch pilchards overboard on an outgoing tide, and things would come up and we’d catch fish, like muttons, on fly. And it was all very intense, like young people do things. We fished hard, every day, or we dove hard, in the blue holes and at night, and chummed sharks and chummed more sharks.
MC: Most of that was on Grand Bahama?
GDLV: Ninety percent of that was at Deep Water Cay. Gil also had a house in Palm Beach, where I lived, and had gotten married. Now we are jumping to about ’65 or so, when I was 21 and got married. My wife became close friends with Gil’s wife, Linda Drake, who as you know became a flats guide later on. And then we all ended up spending lots of time over at Deep Water Cay. I then bought a house over there, the Booker house, which was the first house up from the lodge, and again I would make my pathetic attempts at helping Gil fix the engines, or maybe helping with the offshore fishing. I did a little bit of guiding, but not very much. Most of the bonefishing was handled by the local guides. Later Gil Drake Sr., who was a great friend of mine — also much older of course — turned over the island to Gil and Linda, and they managed that place for a long time. As I said I would probably spend seventy days a year there, for quite a few years.
It was at Deep Water Key, while Gil was managing, that I met Stu Apte. I met him in ’66, and Stu said “Well why don’t you hire me next year and I’ll take you tarpon fishing.” I fished only one year with Stu — 1967 — and we started very early, in March, and we did it all: Loggerhead, the Eccentrics, Monster Point, and all these places, in very rough weather. And I was a terrible, just aterrible tarpon fisherman. I’d get so nervous I’d pull the fly out of the damn fish’s mouth over and over and over again, which was not something you wanted to do with Stu on the pole, because he would howl at the top of his lungs. He didn’t frighten me physically but he would just get crazy, you know?
MC: Now Stu had been fishing for tarpon for a while, at this point, hadn’t he? I know he had been seriously pursuing billfish in Central America.
GDLV: Oh yes. He had been fishing for tarpon in the very early ’60s. He was a very good guide for tarpon then.
MC: Out of the lower Keys, right?
GDLV: Out of the lower Keys. Mostly out of Big Pine Key. That was where a lot of that fishing was going on. But I actually went down, on my dime, with him and Bernice to billfish in Panama later on that summer.
Then I met Woody Sexton, and I asked Woody if he could take me out the following year. But he was reticent because he didn’t want to step on another guides’ toes, so I don’t believe that Woody fished me in ’68. I think I fished with somebody else, but I fished with so many guides in those early days that I can’t remember the years or whom I fished with. I know I fished with Cal Cochran, and Harry Snow Jr., and a couple, three more guys down there and didn’t really get with Woody until 1969, I believe. And then he and I fished ’69, ’70, ’71, at first as a straight guide-client thing. Which was a big deal, you know — 60 bucks a day!
Then in 1969 Woody drove me over one day to Summerlin Key or somewhere on Cudjoe: “There is someone I want you to meet,” he said. “He’s a little bit older than you, and I think you’d enjoy his company and vice versa.” I met Tom [McGuane] that afternoon, and Becky, who’d just had little Thomas maybe six or eight months before. We had a cup of coffee — literally a cup of coffee.
MC: They had a house there?
GDLV: Tom had rented a house. He was, I believe, coming down from Michigan for three or four months of the year, and he was writing. The way we actually got to be friendly was that he was finishing the first article he ever wrote for Sports Illustrated, which was “The Longest Silence,” that wonderful permit article that even now is really quite extraordinary. And oddly enough I wasn’t — I’m not — a writer, but I had actually written…
MC: Did you say you are not a writer?
GDLV: Well, I wasn’t much of one and I still am not. But you don’t say that you are a writer in the same breath with Tom. I’ll tell you what I am: I’m a rich guy that writes a book every ten years to try to justify his existence. McGuane and Jim Harrison are real serious writers.
But what happened was that in 1969, after the tarpon season, I had written this horrible article for Field & Stream about catching sailfish on a fly rod — which I was already doing then, and so was Gilbert. We’d already been down to Costa Rica, and caught a whole bunch of them on fly. I had also done a lot of sailfishing on fly off of Palm Beach in the winter time. And the article was so badly written that Al [McClane] said, “Guy, look, I can’t publish the thing but I have an idea: what I’m going to do is turn your article into a question-and-answer thing.” Which he did. So McGuane read that, and I read his beautiful piece in SI, and I wrote him a note, and he wrote me back a note in which he added, “By the way, would you like to come fish in Montana in October?” And that’s how our friendship developed.
I had all the time in the world because I wasn’t doing jack, except fishing and hunting. Tom moved permanently to Anne Street in Key West in 1970, and then I would start coming down for tarpon, and we started fishing together.
In fact we fished a lot because we were at one point going to do a book together. He was going to write it, and I was going to take the stills. And a couple of times we had these snits: I would say “Well, you never wrote the f-#@!*-ing thing.” And he would say, “Well your pictures were so God-awful that they didn’t inspire me.” What I would do is I would take these poor fish, these bonefish, and I would take a piece of monofilament and pin their noses to the bottom and take pictures. It was just awful. Anyway, we never got any of that done, but we did fish a lot together. Tom and I fished early on for permit, too. Goddamn permit — he and I never caught one together, ever. It was amazing. We didn’t have the right flies and didn’t know what we were doing back then.
By this time Jim [Harrison] and Russell Chatham had begun coming down in the spring.
MC: And they had known Tom from Montana.
GDLV: They had known Tom a long time. Jim and Tom had gone to Michigan State together, and then Tom met Russell Chatham in California. Tom, as I told you the other day, was definitely the fulcrum for this whole situation. Tom was Jim’s friend, and became my friend, and Chatham’s friend, and the three of us came down basically to visit him. I always had a boat, and Tom had a boat, and we would not necessarily always fish together, but we kind of worked the fishing out.
I was fishing a lot with Woody through those years, too, and Woody and I became very close friends. One day he said “Can we just fish to fish? You know, if you give me $30 a day, we’ll just fish — you fish, I fish, you fish, I fish.” So that’s what I did, in ’70 or ’71. We were on the water together something like 60 or 70 days in a row and from him I learned everything there was to know about poling, which he was extraordinarily good at. And between his knowledge and the other guides I had hired, I got to know the Keys really well.
After I went on to fish with Tom and those guys, I didn’t need a guide any more, although Woody and I continued to get out on the water together some. I just settled down, mostly outside of Key West, and would go up to Big Pine a bit, but there was more space below Key West. At the time there were just the Montgomery brothers, Gene and Bob, fishing down there. [Bill] Curtis would come down from Miami every so often. Stu would come down every so often and roar around the flats and make a pain in the ass of himself. But there were, as you say, very few people. There were the do-it-yourselfers — who would have been Tom and me, Norman Duncan on weekends, little John, before he got sick and died — but in all there were very few people fishing. I think Gil came down in ’72, with his wife Linda, and moved into Key West and started to guide the following year. It took him about a year or year-and-a-half to learn the flats, then he moved his Deep Water Key clientele over to fish tarpon and permit, and of course he’s been there ever since.
MC: I often wish I could set my time travel machine back to the 1890s, when my great- great-grandfather was mayor. I would get in a boat and row up into one of those lower Keys basins and look around. I wonder what I would have seen.
GDLV: Well Woody told me that he came down in 1950 with a guy called Adams from north California. They just drove down. They had heard about tarpon and one of the first places they went to — they were staying, again, around the Big Pine area in some crummy crab hole — and they went into Coupon Bight. The first time Woody went in, he said, “I promise you, there was between a thousand and fifteen hundred fish in that basin.” He said it was just solid: as far as you could see there were tarpon rolling and you couldn’t go 15 or 20 feet without spooking a fish. And he said that in those days when the tarpon were migrating, the sightings were as high as 700-800 fish a day, in 1950-51. They would fish out of this little rowboat. That’s all they had, this aluminum rowboat, and these big old gooney rods that they would use up in the rivers in northern California, and they jumped the shit out of fish.
MC: “Tarpon” came along 20 years later, but I don’t imagine the fishing had changed much.
GDLV: Well back to the movie and what happened in 1973. My now brother-in-law, Christian Odasso, who was truly one of the great documentary film makers in Europe, had worked with a man called Francois Reichenbach. Reichenbach was considered at the time to be the number one documentary film maker in all of Europe. These guys come and go but he was as good as they get. Christian, who had apprenticed with him, was three or four years older than me, so he would have been 34 when “Tarpon” was shot, but he had been in the movie business since his early twenties. So he’d had 14 years of movie making where he’d been everything, from gofer to grip to sound to camera, to directing photography and producing. He had an office in Paris and was the consummate filmmaker, one of the very best, with a superb eye. And when we took him out fishing a few times — when he saw the visuals at Key West, and then he saw the fish jump — he said “We should make a movie.”
MC: Did you invite him down with the idea that he might make a movie?
GDLV: No, not at all. He was my sister’s boyfriend — they later got married and have been married all these years — but they had been together and I just invited them both down because we were good friends. He went out on the water and that summer just came up with the idea. He said, “You know, this is just too beautiful.”
MC: That was which summer?
GDLV: ’73. Then we started to get it all together, and it got very complicated because Christian spoke very little English and he insisted on having a French camera crew come all the way from France to shoot this thing, which made it expensive — although not nearly as expensive as it would be nowadays. He rented some equipment out of Miami, but most everything was brought over from Paris. And he brought with him a very good cameraman, a really good sound man, and an assistant. Christian did either the first or second camera. So there was a crew of three plus Christian, who did a lot of the filming and directed the whole thing. And then of course we had to get an extra boat, so Dink Bruce — I don’t know if you know who the famous Dink Bruce is…
MC: Sure, his dad worked for Hemingway.
GDLV: … the Dinker organized that. We kind of got everything organized, and in March they all came down and there was some reasonable fishing. All the pretty stuff with Harrison and the sunset was shot in March. I may have told you this, but on that day there were hundreds and hundreds of fish in Pearl Basin, and it was flat goddamn calm and they were finning all over the place and we could not get Jim to hook a fish! It was like, “God, Jesus, Jim, please!” Here we’ve got the sun, the big orange sun, and a thousand fish, just imagine…. But anyway, the fish were tough and it didn’t happen.
So the crew stayed about three weeks, and they shot most of the Key West footage. A lot of the on-island stuff was shot in March, because the second time they came was in either late May or early June and that was really all day, all night, on the water. Ninety percent of everything that was shot in Key West — the little train, the hippies and all that — was already in the can, and so now we were just worried that we weren’t going to find fish. But of course we did. And we had a really great time. We fished and filmed real hard. We had a house on White Street and you had three or four French guys in there, and myself. And there was no serious naughtiness in those days yet. That came later. Well, there was a little bit — what am I talking about. But nothing really outrageous, I think, because we were so damned tired. But we did have fabulous French meals every night and a lot of wine, and then the next morning we’d be up at 6:30, filming all day.
Then everybody left. We all went back to France and my brother-in-law got everything developed and into a very good editing house, which is called Antegor. It was fun because at Antegor Cousteau was editing a movie, Orson Welles was editing a movie, and one other French guy whose name I can’t remember but was very well known. So we were all there together and spent two-and-a-half months editing this thing. I had lunch with Cousteau a couple of times and met Welles in the studio. In fact Christian, my brother-in-law, had shot a movie called
“F for Fake” which was Orson Welles’s last major film. Christian was his director of photography on that. So it was just a lot of fun. We were young, and Paris was Paris— and there was food and wine and the editing of our movie.
Jim Harrison came over, kind of on a lark, and he did a bit of sound-over, but it was more to have some fun. And of course “The Buffett” came over, with Jane, and they stayed with us and looked at the rushes, and when the movie was finished in August or September Jimmy and I went up to Nashville, and he wrote the music for “Tarpon,” which took him less than a day. Then we laid the sound to the film and it was done.
So all of a sudden in September we had this finished product — exactly the same thing that you see now — and with literally nowhere to go with it. Tom had shot “92 in the Shade” that same summer, and when I went down to the keys in October he was within a week or two of wrapping it. We showed “Tarpon” to the gang — we knew so many people in Key West. And it was great fun. We had a ball.
But then of course, what do you do with this thing? And so I spent the next year, year-and-a-half of my life putting on a goddamn suit and tie and trying to peddle the film in New York. And I got to meet all the presidents of every single one of the networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — wound up in their offices, you know. And they had absolutely no interest in it at all. Zero.
MC: What do you attribute that to?
GDLV: I don’t know. One, the long-hair hippy thing was not what the people wearing suits in New York were interested in seeing. Fishing out of a little boat, was just, you know, odd. They all said “Oh, what a lovely movie,” “What pretty pictures,” and so forth. But as far as purchasing it or anything like that there was not even the beginning of an interest.
I did get hired by CBS — there was a guy called Bob Wussler who hired me for a couple of jobs that never happened. We were supposed to do one called “The Great Race,” which they are actually doing now. I wrote it, and Jim Harrison and I went up to Canada and we were going to get this whole goddamned thing done and then, as usual, the money never came and I basically told everybody to go $#@!% themselves and never went back. I did shoot two or three movies on my own for Stren and Mercury engines, and stuff like that. I shot one over at Deep Water Cay — actually it was a double movie: a flats movie and an offshore movie all at once. It was great fun, but it was all paying super cheap — I mean $25,000 for a 30-minute movie. And then we made another movie with my brother-in-law for PBS Miami, following Buffet on his 52-foot Cheoy Lee. We went down to the Dry Tortugas and shot it. It was the prettiest movie in the world and PBS in Miami probably still has the damn thing.
MC: What was the subject?
GDLV: Buffett. This was probably ’76, a couple of years after “Tarpon.” Christian and Jimmy had become good friends. It was all very cheap. We didn’t have the crew from France, we just had two cameras and I brought my skiff down there, so we had a skiff and we had another boat that we stayed on and we just shot Jimmy in the Cheoy Lee and of course everybody was smoking dope. I don’t think that made the editing.
MC: Were you fishing?
GDLV: Not really. It was more about the music, and him strumming the guitar in the cabin, something like that. They actually aired the show in Miami in the late ’70s two or three times.
MC: When you connected with Jimmy in the early 70s did you know him as a local singer or did you just run into him?
GDLV: What happened with Jimmy was that he came down, I think on a spring vacation, with Jerry Jeff Walker —Jerry Jeff Walker before he became “Mr. Bo Jangles” man.
MC: “Viva Terlingua.”
GDLV: Yes, exactly. And Jimmy knew nobody. The two of those guys came down on a spring vacation. When Jerry Jeff went back to Austin or wherever he lived Jimmy stayed on and met Tom McGuane at a bar or some place. They became good friends and Tom rented him his back room and Jimmy stayed there about a year. Jimmy became part of the group. But he didn’t fish at all in those days — zero.
During all those years there were a lot of people coming and going. Hunter Thompson was down there an awful lot in the late ’70s. And of course Jimmy by then had his place. He was married to Janie, and by that then it was ahuge bloody party scene in Key West. When Harrison and Chatham and myself would come down, for anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks, from May until the first week or so in June, it was fishing … there was some fishing … but there was also a lot of partying.
MC: And you said that Bill Schaadt had been down there as well.
GDLV: Bill Schaadt had been down there early, early on. He drove down from northern California maybe the second or third time that Russell Chatham visited, which would have put it before the tarpon movie. I think Russie was down there in 1970-71, and so that could have been ’72-73. I didn’t know Bill very well. He was a very, very serious angler. I was never a serious angler. I mean I liked to fish, but that was his life. I believe he did a lot of billboard painting, that was his profession, but his life was fishing.
MC: Didn’t you used to see him dredging the harbor while you guys were partying at the Pier House?
GDLV: Absolutely. He had some sort of a funny little rowboat and while we were all having some drinks you’d see him out there, at night, just dredging, and jumping the shit out of tarpon. Like a lot of them. Every 8 or 10 minutes Kaboom!, something would happen. He was just a magnificent fly caster. I’m sure there are people nowadays who are as good or better, and probably hundreds of them, but in our days, Bill Schaadt wassomething. He was just beyond anything that we could think of. He didn’t give a shit, he would cast these lead heads, just get the fly down to the bottom of the ocean and dredge, you know. He caught the hell out of fish.
MC: Does it surprise you, in looking back, thirty years later, at what came out of that collection of people? Maybe you have other examples of how this has happened in your life, but very few people can look back and say “These guys and I just happened to end up here and two of them became highly esteemed writers and another one became a billionaire musician and another’s landscapes are collected by art critics all over the world … that’s pretty remarkable.”
GDLV: It is remarkable. And I’m sure we all think about it. I certainly do. And as I said, we need to go back to Tom. Tom brought that whole group together, and then he brought that whole group together one more time in Livingston, Montana. Jim didn’t live in Montana then, but he does now — he moved there about seven or eight years ago. But Chatham followed Tom to Livingston, and Richard Brautigan followed him there, and my wife and I, or just I, would go out there at least once or twice a year. That was just our little nucleus, our particular group. Tom was a magnet to a lot of other people as well.
MC: Didn’t Brautigan have a ranch somewhere on Pine Creek?
GDLV: It was not a ranch, it was a house with about twenty acres of land and it was very nice. I stayed there a lot. Jim stayed there a lot. There was at times friction between Tom and Richard. They liked each other a great deal, but they both had pretty strong egos — it was the ‘who could be the center of attention’ type of thing. You know Tom went through a period in his life when he was drinking. And when people really have a problem, you kind of shy away.
For about six or seven years after years after Tom made “92 in the Shade” in ’74, he didn’t fish much. He went from fishing a lot — fishing in Michigan before meeting me, fishing very, very hard for years — to getting into the movie life. And he became famous. We didn’t see much of him for about five or six years because he just wasn’t in Key West that often. Then we both got divorced. I remarried my wife a few years later, and he remarried once before he found Laurie, Jimmy’s sister, and married her.
MC: Brautigan is quite a mystery to most of today’s fly fishers. His appearance in the movie looks almost accidental. In fact the only footage of Brautigan ever taken — other than some brief appearance in a film from Haight-Ashbury days — is in “Tarpon.”
GDLV: The story of how Richard ended up in the film is actually quite entertaining. As I mentioned earlier, Jim and I both spent a lot of time at his house in Paradise Valley and both of us became very close to Richard — I think Richard ended up dedicating one of his books to us in friendship. So when “Tarpon” was going to be made, in ’73, I was staying at Richard’s house that summer. I said, “You know, why don’t you come down to Key West next year? We’re going to make a movie.” And he said, “Well I don’t like movies.” And I said, “Well, that’s OK. Come anyway.” And he said, “Well, I don’t want to be in your movie. You know that. I really mean that.” And I said, “Just come, Richard, it’s going to be a lot of fun.” And he said, “Well let me think about it.” That was typical Richard.
In about January, when we were getting ready to shoot, we talked on the phone and he said, “Well, I’ve never been down to Key West. I’d like to see it, and all the writers are down there,” including the playwrights who were still living at the time, and he said, “I’d like to come down, but I’m telling you I’m not going to be in your movie.” I said, “That’s fine. I simply don’t give a shit. Just come down and have a good time. We’ll be there for a couple or three weeks in March.”
So he came down, and I knew Richard so well by then that I knew what he expected me to say, which was “Come on, Richard, be in my movie.” But I didn’t say anything. At all. And we all just went about our business and had parties at night and I took Richard out on the boat a few times — not fishing so much as just showing him the lower Keys. And he finally said, “You know, if you want me in your movie — because I am who I am, you know — I’m going to have to jump a tarpon.” That was Richard. He teased a lot.
But as you may know, what Richard loved to do was catch tiny fish on the littlest rods, on the smallest creeks he could find. And he would creep along, all 6’4″ of him, under the brush, and cast into six inches of water and catch these miniature fish, tiny brookies and stuff. He just adored it. So I knew there was just no way in hell that he was going to be able to pick up a tarpon rod and catch a tarpon. So I said, “Well how about if I cast and hook the fish for you and hand you the rod?” And he said, “That’ll do.”
So one day, we left early in the morning and went into Pearl Basin on the right tide and we staked there — the two camera boats and myself with Richard. Half an hour or so went by and I saw a school of fish coming in through a cut, maybe four or five fish. And so off we went, and I poled from the beginning of that basin all the way to the ship channel, which must have been half a mile, poling my ass off, and Richard was in the front of the boat just beaming with delight, thinking this is hilarious, the funniest thing he’s ever seen. Right at the end of the basin, where it made a little U, I was able to cut the fish off and stop the boat. I grabbed the rod, cast the fly, got about a 70- or 80-pounder to eat, pulled on the darn thing and handed the rod to Richard even before the fish jumped. And then that thing came out of the water and just went nuts, just jumped and jumped and jumped. And when it broke off, Richard just stood there, for once in his life absolutely and totally speechless; he could not say a word. That’s night he gave us the interview with him lying in the hammock.
It’s really a cute story because Richard never, ever allowed his picture to be taken. So that was it for Richard. He never went out again, because he knew he couldn’t catch one of those things by himself. He stayed on the island and partied. Hard.
But to answer your earlier question, it is remarkable about the four guys. I mean Chatham hasn’t reached financially what he should have reached, but I know Russell will be remembered as a great, great American landscapist.
MC: With Russell I think it is just a matter of recognition, don’t you think?
GDLV: I think so. And then Harrison is just an exquisite poet. But he couldn’t have made any money writing just poetry, and so he produced some great novels and novellas. It is a great group of characters, a fabulous group of characters
MC: From the moment I first saw “Tarpon” I thought to myself, “No one is ever going to do anything like this again.” We all have had this sort of impending — as the movie says as well — this impending sense that it was all going to be gone before we really knew how good it was.
GDLV: Right, right.
MC: And fortunately that hasn’t happened, and the idea that something could take birth in Key West in 1974 and in some ways be even more compelling now than it was then — it’s just a remarkable thing. I think it had something to do with the people involved but I think it had something to do with the intent. Whether that was accidental or not I don’t know.
GDLV: No, that part of the movie was pretty well thought out. It was what the French call cinéma vérité, which was a big thing in Europe at that time, so there was a lot of off-the-cuff shooting, but we didn’t just leave in the morning saying “Oh, let’s go see if we can jump a fish.” There was always a plan, which included releasing the fish.
MC: It’s also remarkable that at that time you demonstrated how a tarpon should be treated when it was caught.
GDLV: Well we felt pretty strongly about that. Both Gil and I had killed tarpon before, for the sake of taking pictures, and we never wanted to it again. And neither did Woody. Because there was a lot of killing of tarpon going on back in the early ’70s. I’m pretty sure most of the tournaments up in Islamorada were kill tournaments. Even way back then we had all jumped enough fish and seen enough fish in the air that we really didn’t see the point. And I’m not blowing anybody’s horn, it’s just that it didn’t make any sense.
Now to be really honest, back then, in the ’70s, had I hooked a 200-pound fish, or a 180-pound fish — I did carry a big gaff in the boat — yeah, I probably would have had somebody kill it for me. And I would have felt like shit afterwards, but I probably would have done it. In fact, I think I may have told you, Woody Sexton and I, back in ’72-73, were in Coupon Bight, and he hooked an absolutely enormous fish. Woody was very modest about size but this was a 200-pounder. I mean it was the biggest goddamn thing either one of us had seen come out of the water and it jumped seven times and it rolled over. We had actually forgotten to put the kill gaff on board that day and all I had was a lip gaff. I tried to lip-gaff the fish, and of course in those days we were using a 12-pound tippet, and it broke. Even for the movie we used 14-pound test, which was in hindsight kind of stupid. We should have just used 30-pound. And you know if I could have killed that fish for Woody, I would have done so in a heartbeat. But, as the years went on, of course, killing tarpon became more and more absurd.
At the time of making of the movie, we didn’t carry a gaff on board. It would have been inconceivable, to kill a fish for the movie. Neither I, nor Gil, nor Christian would have had it. It wasn’t a big deal; it was just something we weren’t going to do.
MC: The film also included a very stark message.
GDLV: It did. That was my brother-in-law’s doing. And that was the only thing I think should be slightly cut in the movie, the offshore fishing with the tourists. I actually had nothing to do with it. As you know from guiding, you do this forty, fifty, sixty days in a row and you’re just spent. So I went out one night and just got howling drunk and said “Boys, I’m not going to see you until 2 o’clock or 3 or maybe even 5.” Meanwhile Christian and the sound guy said, “We’re gonna go offshore.” Christian is the one, I know, who as a serious cinematographer knew what was going to happen on the head boat. He could see the contrast between that and what he was seeing on the flats — what we were doing catching and releasing fish. So they went on board and shot this sequence. Really, other than the actual fishing stuff, that movie is really all to Christian Odasso’s credit. He was a complete professional filmmaker, and what he could see, what he envisioned, would sometimes drive me absolutely f-$#@!-ing crazy, “No, no, no. We’ve gotta wait for this shot,” he’d say. I’d say “Come on, come on, come on.” He’d say “We gotta wait for the shot.” Then he would say, “Now I have the shot, I need the cut. You can’t go away until I get the cut. The cut has to be this way. The movement of the action has to allow the editor to cut the film correctly.” And so I learned in six or seven weeks a tremendous amount — everything I know, basically.
All the underwater work was done by Gil Drake. Gil and I had been taking pictures underwater since the mid-’50s at Deep Water Key. And the other day actually I found some pictures that I took of Gil with a Nikonos 1 way back in 1959 when he was a really young kid.
So I bought a 16-millimeter Bolex — the one you crank up — with an underwater case, and when we went to France after filming “Tarpon” I left it with Gil. Come about the end of July he sent a couple of reels over — 200-footers or 400-footers, I can’t remember — and much to our delight he had captured the tarpon underwater, the little funny horseshoe crab marching around, and all that stuff. He and Linda would catch and film tarpon underwater. Often when you see a fish released it’s actually Linda’s hand holding its jaw.
So everybody kind of worked toward one goal but in every which direction, and it all came kind of nicely together. I have two regrets. One was that Christian was pushing very hard to do more interviews with Tom and Jim and Richard. Richard would not do them. Tom and Jim I’m sure would have, but I didn’t want to impose on them. We were very close friends, and I said “No, we’re not going to do it.” It’s just a pain in the ass, as you know from being around filming. You’ve got to set it up, you’ve got to get everything just right, the lighting, the sound …. It’s just a goddamn awful pain in the ass. And we were having too much fun to do interviews. I was very wrong.
Photographically the one thing we really should have done was rented a helicopter. Had we had a helicopter in those days — just for a day, and if we had been lucky — I can’t tell you the pictures we would have taken with those cameramen. The slow-motion shit, would have been something. And still, to this day, if I had all the money in the world, I would love to shoot another tarpon movie — and I could shoot eighty percent of it out of a helicopter from about five hundred yards away, like what they do in that beautiful series “Planet Earth,” if you think about all that footage following coyotes across the tundra with a steady-cam from 500 yards away. Just think what you could do with tarpon. It would be unbelievable.
MC: You did have a plane at one point.
GDLV: We had a plane. It required great timing, because I was supposed to leave very early in the morning and get to the Marquesas. I knew there were a lot of fish there and the plane was coming over at 9:15. My thing was to get in position. And maybe you can’t actually tell, but I was jumping a fish when the plane went over.
MC: Yes, you can see the whole thing. That’s one of the wonderful results of the re-mastering, is that you can actually see that, and you couldn’t see it in the bootleg.
GDLV: So anyway, it was a great time. And what made it really great was that we were thirty years old, and we had lots to drink, and there were lots of pretty girls and armfuls of fish.
MC: I’m sure you’ve seen some of the result of the modern fascination with video and film and fishing.
GDLV: You know, I’ve only seen one or two and I’m not really in the position to say anything about any of them. I think there were two tarpon films made in the last couple of years. But I didn’t finish watching them.
MC: What do you think is missing?
GDLV: You know, probably the only thing that “Tarpon” had, and it’s been criticized for it, was a lot of film shot without fish in it. Some people who are hardcore anglers say, “What is all this crap about Key West and who cares about these goddamn hippies and the sunset and these guys that aren’t even fishing.” Because Tom doesn’t fish, Harrison doesn’t fish, Richard doesn’t fish. But then, on the flip side of the coin, some have said, “Jeez, you’ve got too much fishing. Why didn’t you shoot more of the Keys, do more interviews with these guys? It’s so interesting.” Well I think the blend is what it is. With hindsight I would love to change a few things, but it is what we made and I stand by it. What I did see, with the two or three recent movies that I have watched or when I flick on the TV, is not-very-interesting visuals and conversations that are always using the same words, the same descriptions of the fish. They use these funny acronyms and odd phrases, you know. And to me, that’s not human. It doesn’t sound human to me, but it apparently it sounds human to everybody else because a lot of people watch those fishing shows and they love them, you know?
MC: As a well-respected producer said to me recently, there doesn’t seem to be astory in lot of new productions. There’s no beginning, middle and end. They pick up the fish, smile, put them back in the water, mimic what they’ve heard someone else say. It’s mostly rinse-and-repeat.
GDLV: Right. But I don’t want to have anyone take what I am saying as pejorative. I’ve really seen very little of the newer work. Once in a while I’ll flip on the bass thing, just because I am deeply amused by these guys. But I’m an idiot when it comes to this stuff. I don’t read Field & Stream or the other hook and bullet magazines anymore, and I don’t read the how-to articles. I’d just rather read something else. But I’m sure I could learn some good stuff. For example, as you said just the other day, and it’s true: What you do, and how you cast and hook, feed and fight tarpon nowadays is very different. Sandy Moret can tell you, because Sandy is from my generation. [Tommy] Robinson, when he fished with him a few years ago said: “What the hell are you doing? You’re hitting a fish like Valdene.” And Sandy replied, “Well, we grew up at the same time, and that’s how you hit fish.” Of course now you tighten up on the line and you let the fish swim away and then tighten up some more — I mean, I couldn’t do that for a thousand dollars!
I think I told you just the other day I had a huge tarpon, probably the biggest fish I had ever hooked in my life. And it was BAM, BAM, BAM! And of course the fish swims away and then dropped the fly and Tommy screams “Jesus, there you go again!”
MC: So you don’t think wistfully about the days of fiberglass rods and wire leaders?
GDLV: No, but you know the wire leader thing is hilarious. The only reason I used it was because neither Chatham nor Harrison were going to sit around and tie Bimini Twists and Albrights. I mean they hated it. And what was I going to do? Instead of going partying was I going to sit there and tie these goddamn things all night long? So I figured it out: No. 2 leader wire and a small swivel, I could tie about 15 of those in ten minutes! And they worked great.
But we were always keen to pick up on what everyone was doing with innovations. While we never talked about how many fish we caught or how big they were back then — it was kind of like talking about politics, we did talk about rods, and flies and skiffs, especially. Stuff like “How do we get a skiff that rides well and poles well and can get in six inches of water?” That was an all-consuming question. In those early days you couldn’t have that.Â There was the Fibercraft in the beginning. Those boats were great platforms, but they would just beat the living bejeezus out of you when running in any kind of rough water. I remember Tom had one with the steering up front and in my entire life I’ve never been beaten up so badly. So the talk was all about the boats we could turn into fishing skiffs — the Roberts, the Nova Scotia, for example.
Of course reels were a big challenge back then. Stan Bogdan made reels but of course they weighed 17 pounds or something — you could use them as an anchor for your skiff. I remember talking him into building me a reel, which had holes in it, as they do now. It couldn’t really hold enough backing, but it was a marvelous reel that would be worth a fortune now. I traded it for a .22-calibre revolver or something absurd like that. And of course there was Captain Mac [Bob McChristian] and all of his reels. He and I would get in these arguments, because I didn’t like his first reels, which were anti-reverse. He was stubborn as a mule, and it took him years before he made the direct-drive models. But other than that he was a wonderful character and even when we argued we were really trying to improve the sport.
But to get quickly back to the skiffs: I don’t remember how I heard about Wally Cole, who was the original builder of the Maverick skiffs. But we heard about this guy up in Miami building these 250cc race boats. I had also heard that he had built one or two boats with the idea that his son could use them to go flats fishing. McGuane and I drove up to his store in ’71 and met Wally, who was a big old wonderful character, and he showed us this boat that was barely rigged that he said was going to be his son’s. I asked if he minded if we took it out and poled it. Well it was blowing 25 knots in Biscayne Bay that day, so nothing would have poled well in that wind, but I loved the way the boat looked and took a chance on it and had one built. I went back up there two or three times and designed it just the way I wanted it — very simple — and that little boat came down and turned out to be a wonder. It’s the boat we used in the movie, of course. But the story goes on from there. When I stopped fishing as much, Buffet wanted the boat, and he bought it from me and used it for a few years. Tommy Robinson guided Jimmy out of it. About that time Lenny Berg asked if he could make a mold off of it. And Mark Castlow built those original boats for him in the early ’80s. All these years later Castlow came back recently and asked Jimmy if he could take the boat out of the museum in Miami and pop another mold off of it. And I was just in that boat last week with Jimbo Meador and Tommy and it was such a great pleasure. It was such a wonderful-running boat, and it rekindled some fond memories.
Anyway, Jim and Chatham and I stayed fishing down there until 1982, and I do know that date because at the end of that tarpon season we looked at each other and said “If we ever do this again, we will f-#@!*–ing die.” We didn’t do a lot of fishing, but we did do a lot of partying. I mean we had had houses down there for years, and we’d come back from fishing at four or five o’clock in the afternoon and we had no idea who was going to be in the house. There could be two people or there could be 75 people. We went out every day, because you had to get out on the water just to get the hell out of town and clear your head a little bit. And we did jump fish — that was not a problem. But the partying in ’82 was so heavy that we just said, “That’s it.” And then from then on when we went back, it wasn’t for five or six weeks at a time.
I kept going down to Key West every so often through ’80s and so did Jim, but not very often. By the ’90s I had moved up here to the Panhandle, and the only times I’d went back was to fish with Gil, particularly in the summertime, when there was nobody there. The last five or six years I haven’t been down to Key West at all — since before 9/11, so it’s been a long time. I sent Gil a copy of “Tarpon” last month with a little note that read, “By the way, you do know that this is the year that we met fifty years ago. We are our fathers.” Neither one of us liked that!
But really what I remember most are the close friends, a great deal of fishing, and then, off to the side, the partying.
Then there was Key West, and as I’ve told a lot of people, you know, my Key West was different from Hemingway’s Key West, and Hemingway’s Key West was different from the guy before him, and these things change every twenty years or so. People now live in Key West in a place I think is tacky but that they find intriguing. What I loved about Key West in ’74, the guys who were there in ’54 probably would think was the shits. So it’s just a natural progression, but it was a wonderful time to be alive. And as you say, there were three or four guys who went on to do awfully well. They will all be remembered.