EDITOR’S NOTE: In the late 1970s and early ’80s, something unique happened in the quiet, little town of Homosassa on the west coast of Florida. The best fly anglers in the world gathered to chase the world record for the most glamorous and coveted fly rod species, the tarpon. It was a collision of circumstances and personalities that was unprecedented in the world of fishing and one that will never be seen again. Monte Burke explores this chapter of fishing lore in his new book, Lords of the Fly. The following is an excerpt.
By 1978, all of the players were in place in Homosassa.
Stu Apte was born in Miami on Mother’s Day in 1930.
He pronounces the name of his hometown as “My-am-uh,” in the same way that Flip Pallot does. Apte’s voice is, at once, deep and nasally — almost like he has a persistent head cold — which provides it with a peculiar sort of authority, one he has earned and one he is unafraid to let you know about.
Apte’s parents moved to Miami from New York City. His father was in the produce business until he took up a side hustle gambling on the ponies, which ultimately cost him his livelihood. Apte’s mother took to doing the majority of the raising of her son. Apte boxed a bit in high school. He went to the University of Miami and then into the military, where he became a fighter pilot. Though he was on active duty during the Korean War, and says he was “gung-ho to get over there,” he never left the training base in Virginia and didn’t see any action. After his military service, he became a commercial pilot for Pan American World Airways.
Apte, now 90, is the hub from which all of the spokes on the tarpon fly-fishing wheel emanate. He knew — and knows — everyone, from the early tarpon guides, like Jack Brothers and Jimmie Albright, to the big shots of the 1970s and 1980s, like Tom Evans, Billy Pate Jr. and Al Pflueger Jr. He also personally mentored and trained both the young man who would catch the world’s largest recorded tarpon on a fly in 2001 and his guide. No one in the tarpon world is more than a degree or two away from Apte.
He started fly-fishing in salt water at the age of 16, with a three-piece South Bend bamboo rod. Joe Brooks was among his first real fishing partners. At the age of 18, while in college as a zoology major, Apte routinely cut his botany labs to go snook fishing on the Tamiami Trail. He was driving home on one of those days when he saw “this big dude casting a fly,” he says. He pulled his car to the side of the road, got out and asked the man if he was having any luck with the snook. The big dude ignored him. Apte asked again and was again ignored. After the third try, the big dude finally turned to him.
“WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT CATCHING SNOOK, BUSH?”
“I know enough that I caught three 15-pounders this morning,” Apte replied.
The big dude reeled up and walked over.
“YOU’RE NOT BULLSHITTING ME, ARE YOU, BUSH?”
Apte told him he was not bullshitting him, and they chatted a bit and then fished together the next morning. The big dude, who had a pretty cast, fished well. After the tide ran out and the fishing slowed down, the big dude wrote down his name and number on a piece of paper and gave it to Apte. “I don’t follow spectator sports and had no idea who this guy was until a friend told me later,” says Apte. And that’s how Stu Apte and baseball immortal Ted Williams became fishing buddies.
Apte started guiding in the Keys after he was laid off by Pan Am in 1956. He was later rehired by Pan Am and then laid off again, but by 1960, he had a house in Little Torch Key and was fishing and guiding full time.
Well, almost full time. Much of this era in his life is detailed in his autobiography, Of Wind and Tides, which is really the story of Apte’s aptitude for the three F’s: fishing, flying and, to put it rather indelicately, f—ing. There are pictures of a young Apte in the book. He is, indeed, quite studly — wiry, with muscular forearms. In some of the photos, he sports a tightly trimmed mustache, which he wears to this day, one that seems ironed onto his upper lip. He tells stories of his fishing exploits and his flying career. And he talks about the many flight attendants who took their layovers at his love shack in Little Torch. He writes that he was “scoring like Shaquille O’Neal at a basketball dunking contest … surrounded with never-ending groups of lovely ladies, coming down to visit whenever they so desired.”
Modesty has never been Apte’s strong suit. “Stu does not possess one molecule of humility,” says the guide Harry Spear. Adds Sandy Moret, angler and owner of a fly shop in Islamorada: “Stu’s very easy with a good story about himself.” Apte was not pleasant to fish with, stressful even, as Guy de la Valdène has noted. He was aggressive and pushy and a constant yeller. For many years, he had an RV that had an enormous picture of his face on the side, under which was written, in large letters, “Stu Apte, world’s greatest fly fisherman.” He drove that RV from the Keys to Montana and back every year, and he used to park it in front of his home in Islamorada.
But as Dizzy Dean supposedly once noted, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.” Apte is the real deal, to some the best pure tarpon fly angler who ever lived. “He was a predator,” says Moret. “People used to gather at the dock to watch him launch his boat.” Much of his aggressiveness and self-promotion were rooted in his hard work and his perfectionism.
He spent his nights rigging his tackle, tying and retying knots until he got them just right. “There are knots, and then there are Stu’s knots,” says Doug Kelly, an outdoor writer from Florida who knows Apte well. Apte once wrote that he “caught most of his fish before he went fishing.” He had all sorts of little rules that he followed, about how best to approach a fish, and where and when to cast. One of his flies, the orange-hackled Apte Tarpon Fly, appeared on a U.S. Postal Service stamp (like Lefty Kreh’s).
He pioneered a method of fighting big tarpon that is still used by some today, something called “down and dirty,” in which he keeps the rod low to the water and uses the butt of it to “program” the fish, as he called it, taking control of the fight with leverage and his strong forearms. He was the master of now legendary spots Coupon Bight and Loggerhead for many years, having had them pretty much to himself. He once poled onto a flat near Loggerhead to within earshot of another boat, helmed by someone he didn’t know.
He staked off and started jawing at the man in the other boat, telling him how to fish the flat and pointing out all the things he was doing wrong. The man listened for a while and then grew impatient and yelled back, “Who do you think you are, Stu Apte?”
In May 1961, he was fishing in the Keys with Joe Brooks when Brooks hooked a big tarpon. As Brooks got the fish close to the boat after a two-hour fight, Apte gaffed it. The tarpon pulled, and Apte went flying into the water “like a pole-vaulter,” he says, still attached to the fish. The tarpon came loose, and Apte, chest-deep in the water, gaffed it again. The fish weighed 148 pounds, 8 ounces, the biggest tarpon ever landed on a fly. That record stood until 1967, when Apte broke it with the 151-pound tarpon he landed in the Keys while fishing with Valdène. He broke his own record, again in the Keys, with a 154-pounder in 1971.
When Apte arrived in Homosassa in 1978, he was nearing the age of 50 but was still very much in his prime as an angler.
Williams, the baseball player and wartime fighter pilot, started fishing for tarpon in 1947. He would routinely arrive early for the Red Sox spring training camp in Sarasota so he could get in some fishing.
During camp, he sometimes snuck away and went down to Miami and the Keys for more fishing. He also fished while doing his fighter pilot training in Florida. It turned out that his 20/10 vision, incredible quick-twitch coordination, uncanny patience and insatiable drive translated very well to fly-fishing on the flats. In his boat, he would stand on his fly box, rod in hand, eyeing the water and waiting for the fish, just as he had once stood in the batter’s box. Sports Illustrated deemed him an “expert fisherman — maybe the most expert of our time.” Even accounting for some inevitable hyperbole, it’s very possible that at different times in his life, Williams could have been considered the best hitter, fighter pilot and saltwater fly fisherman alive.
Excerpted from Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession and the Hunt for the World-Record Tarpon, by Monte Burke. Published by Pegasus Books. © Monte Burke. Reprinted with permission.