Artist Derek DeYoung was headed back to the dock recently after a fishless day that involved plenty of casting to plenty of tarpon in Coupon Bight off Big Pine Key, Florida. Only problem was, the poons all had lockjaw.
“After pulling my hair out for a couple of hours, I’m headed home and I want to get working on a painting,” recalls DeYoung, a talented fish painter and lifelong angler from Michigan who winters with his wife, Janell, in the Florida Keys.
A short aside: I’ve been talking with DeYoung for several months as he worked on a tarpon painting specifically for the cover of the spring issue of Anglers Journal. The readers of The Run are the first outside of the staff to see the new cover, shown here. Back to the fish …
En route to home, DeYoung spotted a big school of mullet churning up the bottom (a “mullet mud” in the vernacular) in Big Pine Channel and paused.
“It’s probably 300 yards long by 100 yards wide,” DeYoung says. “And I’m just about to drive around it and head home because I’m kind of excited to get working. And I’m like, ahh … I just got to stop and make a few casts. This could have attracted some tarpon.”
So he dropped the trolling motor, positioned the boat, picked up a rod and fired his first cast into the mess of mullet. “And I get slammed — and you have no idea what’s in these mullet muds in terms of predators. I set the hook and out pops an 80-pound tarpon just going berserk,” DeYoung recalls. “After about three jumps, he’s loose. Now it’s like wow, I’m going to fish the rest of this.”
The fishing is blind casting because the mullet have kicked up the bottom. DeYoung was using a medium-weight spinning outfit, 20-pound braid and a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader with a 4-inch silver-and-black suspending Rapala X-Rap tied to the end.
The artist worked the length of the mullet mud but didn’t get another touch. “So I come back to the beginning and I’m thinking, Should I even try one more time? I’ve had my fun,” says the artist. “Time to get in and get some work done.”
And then DeYoung did what most of would be inclined to do: He took one more cast and got a light strike.
“He hit right near the boat, probably 10 or 12 yards in front of the boat, and was just kind of laying there after I set the hook,” says DeYoung, who is 35. “I think he was trying to figure out what on God’s earth is this baitfish doing in my mouth? And once he decided he didn’t like it, all hell broke loose. He came straight to the surface and just tail-walked down the entire length of the boat, probably 15 yards out from the boat but down the length of it. It was one of the most incredible greyhounds I’ve ever seen.”
DeYoung estimated the weight of the fish to be between 120 and 130 pounds, one of the largest he’d hooked. “A monster,” he says. “And I’m just laughing. That’s the only thing I can do to react. I’m at the absolute mercy of this fish.”
DeYoung initially thought the fight would end quickly. “Most of the time with hard bait like that, you get a jump or two and that’s it. They just don’t stick. So I really didn’t think I’d hold on to this.”
But this one stuck as the fish jumped and ran down the channel for hundreds of yards with DeYoung in pursuit. “I stayed right on top of this fish with the trolling motor. We do-si-do’d,” DeYoung remembers. “We went right past a guy who was anchored up and had lines out for tarpon, and he’s rooting me on. Another guy saw what was happening, and he pulled in and asked if I wanted him to stay close and take pictures. This is a tarpon culture. People love it.”
DeYoung says he had the fish within 10 feet of the boat a half-dozen times. “Probably 40 minutes in, the fish was close to the boat and he did the right thing at the right time,” he says. “He made a run, probably went 20 or 30 yards away from the boat, and then just turned around quick, and changed the line pressure from one side to the other, and that’s what worked it loose.” Out came the plug.
How did you feel? I asked.
“Well, I felt somewhat relieved because I really was not sure what I was going to do with this giant fish with two treble hooks in its mouth,” he says, laughing. “But you’ve also got this extremely primitive instinct that you want to grab the fish. You want to take a look at it and take a picture of it. So there were two things going on. I’m off the hook but at the same time you’re totally disappointed.”
Fresh or salt, the tarpon is at the top of DeYoung’s list. “It’s unquestionably my favorite fish,” he says without hesitation. “I love its nature. The way it acts like it doesn’t care about your fly or lure and then suddenly snatches it.”
And then, of course, there’s the wonderful chaos that ensues once you’re hooked up. “The first 20 minutes of a fight with a big tarpon is just pandemonium,” DeYoung says. “It’s big-game fishing in 5 feet of water.”
As evidence of his affliction, DeYoung points out that he’s been in Florida for more than three months this season, and he’s pretty much painted tarpon exclusively. “I’m kind of suffering from the tarpon bug,” he says.
DeYoung is unique in that he studies the fish as both angler and artist.
“They’re just incredible looking,” he says. “The fish is a mirror. Beyond that, it’s also kind of a chameleon. Every time I see one they look different depending on where they are, the time of day. Some of the most beautiful turquoise, blues and greens up in the head and in the darker scales up on top.”
There is an ebb and flow to the work coming out of DeYoung’s studio during tarpon season. “When it’s cold and windy, I’m working a lot, sketching a lot,” he says. “When it’s warm and calm and there’s fishing to be done, my mind is on that.”
And when he’s on the hunt, he’s focused 100 percent on fish and not planning paintings in the back of his mind.
“I’m a predator on the trail of my prey,” he says, with a laugh. “I fish hard.”
Visit derekdeyoung.com to see more of DeYoung’s work.