A fish is a fish except when it’s something more. I chartered with a guide in Miami this winter specifically to catch a big tarpon, both as a reminder of the difficult year just passed and to serve as a signal flag for an aspirational future, one where I didn’t simply settle but drove myself to be better.
As I sat down to write this column, a homecoming photo on my Facebook feed reminded me I’ve reached the one-year anniversary of my release from the hospital after a ruptured brain aneurism. A few weeks after I’d come home, I walked to the stop sign at the end of my street and back with the help of a cane and a physical therapist. Round trip is 248 steps.
Speeding through Miami that night in February was like the good old days. Rushing to meet a boat and catch a tide. It felt good. I was eager to hook a hefty fish to put an exclamation mark on a topsy-turvy year.
The outboard on Capt. Fraser Simpson’s 18-foot Parker center console was idling when my friend Dean and I raced into the launch area in North Miami after 9 p.m. We exchanged brief niceties as we hurried aboard. Little time for small talk.
Fraser is a nighttime tarpon guide who’d been working a good bunch of big fish for more than a month. He was dialed in, and he knew we needed to get moving to catch the end of the flood.
We got on plane and sped north toward a dark, mangrove-rimmed basin that looked like dozens of others in the vicinity, only this one held fish. The exact location is the captain’s secret. He says only a few other boats know the spot, and he’d like to keep it that way. Even the background of his night photos are blurred before being shared on social media to hide potential clues. He asked if we’d do the same with our shots.
We turned off the outboard, and the trolling motor moved us toward an empty mangrove island, where Simpson set up four spinning rods, two baited with live shrimp, two with live crabs. The first drift showed fish on the side-scan sonar, but no takers.
I was excited. It had been a long time since I’d caught a big tarpon. I wanted to tussle with a fish that looked like a dinosaur with fins and scales, and because, as my friend Pat Ford once told me, “They’re just crazy and crazy-looking. If there’s a jump that a fish can possibly make, a tarpon will make it. They swim through the air, upside down and right side up.”
On the second drift, we marked five or six fish, and a moment later one of them grabbed the shrimp on the rod next to my left shoulder. We were in business. The fish ran and jumped and lunged across the surface. I whooped and hollered like an island castaway spotting a distant ship.
It was a gorgeous night to fight a good fish. We were three days off the full moon of February, which rose around 10 p.m., flooding us with light. A slight breeze blew. And the water and air temperatures were both about 75. Not a boat or a human in sight.
I had fished plenty, post-illness, through spring, summer and fall, mostly for small striped bass. In October, I released more than 50 cookie-cutter schoolies in two nights standing on the same wrack-covered rock. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, but I never felt my engine had fully revved. I hadn’t put the car on the track and driven it hard.
I was lucky tonight to have hooked a large, ornery fish with what Dean called a “bad-ass attitude.” The fight on 60-pound braid lasted an hour and 20 minutes. The tarpon jumped and lunged half out of the water about eight times. It was one of those back-and-forth bulldog affairs.
After an hour, Dean asked, “Do you want me to take the rod, you know, given your head thing and all?”
In response, I revved the engine higher by tightening the drag. When we finally got her alongside, Fraser exclaimed, “Look at the size of that fish! Look at the girth.”
The fish and I were both tired. I was happy to release my grip on her jaw after removing the 9/0 circle hook, and she seemed pleased to slip off into the moonlight.
“That was 150 pounds easy,” said Simpson, who also co-captains a 92-foot sportfish for a private owner. “The girth is what really makes the fish, the shoulders.”
I got to bed at 3 a.m. and woke at 6 o’clock to hit the Miami boat show. Felt just like the old days, only better.
To contact guide Fraser Simpson, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (954) 295-2212.