Over coffee one day during the spring of 1969, Woody Sexton introduced me to his friend Tom McGuane. At the time, Tom; his wife, Becky; and their young son, Thomas, were living on Summerland Key. Tom, a tall, handsome writer in his late 20s, was fishing the Loggerhead Basin from inside a 16-foot Roberts skiff powered by a 33-hp Evinrude engine and steered by a tiller. That winter he wrote his first piece for Sports Illustrated magazine, “The Longest Silence,” maybe the best article ever written on flats fishing. After reading it that summer, I sent him a congratulatory letter, and he responded by inviting me to join him that fall on his ranch outside Livingston, Montana, for a week of trout fishing. To this day I am surprised I made the trip, because it has never been my habit to accept sporting invitations from people I don’t know well. In this case, and in retrospect, I am grateful that I did. We have been close friends ever since.
When the enthusiasm of an angler toward the wonder, order and harmony of nature takes precedence over the numbers and size of his catch — and if it is the angler’s choice to mostly fish alone — the experience develops into a form of meditation. It was clear from the Sports Illustrated article that Tom was in full harmony with the natural environment he was describing. Whether it was sunlight transitioning over sandbars, the diligence of shorebirds feeding or the collective terror of a school of mullet, he treated the everyday instances of nature with the same thoughtfulness with which he treated the pursuit of fish. To this day Tom hunts and fishes for the pleasure of being in the field or on the water, usually by himself with his thoughts and observations, which he considers evenly with the action at hand. In the case of “The Longest Silence,” it was catching a permit on fly.
On my first trip west, Tom took me to all the lovely, tranquil spring creeks around Livingston and Bozeman, and of course to the Yellowstone River, where late one afternoon he caught two 5-pound brown trout on consecutive casts. It was a big deal. They were “wall” fish and treated as such.
Coming from salt water, I considered a 5-pound anything to be a fish you ate or released. As well, I didn’t think the trout put up much of a fight, but there was no denying that they were beautiful — slick and brown, blood spotted and yellow bellied. The sight of them clean out of the water took me back to my childhood in France and to the confluence of two rivers.
None of my close friends dwell in cities, and we all have deep relationships with animals, mostly with our dogs, some of us with birds, others with fish, Tom with his horses. Mostly artists of one sort or another, they all reside in rural communities or by the sea, where nature persists as the prevailing influence on their lives. Their art, whether it be poetry or prose, painting or music, is a reflection of the environment they choose to live in.
Tom invited me back to Montana numerous times, and the more often I traveled west, the more I took pleasure in the subtlety and minutiae of dry-fly fishing. Wading in rivers as opposed to the ocean introduced me to the unfamiliar weight of moving water and imposed an understanding of depth and flow and the behavior of a dry fly sailing across a quick, shallow run or floating high on a film of calm water. I watched flies knife through the shade of undercut banks, perch on the surface of deep pools and teeter past the wake of submerged logs — pictures that are foreign to a saltwater angler.
By the middle of September, the summer sun had baked the valleys, leaving them uniform and golden. Weeds framed bright green fields of second-growth alfalfa that early and late in the day filled up with mule deer and antelope. Gray partridge chased grasshoppers across the rocky slopes of hills under the watch of eagles and hawks going about their business below the inexorable spread of winter at higher elevations. In October the brown trout swam up from the Yellowstone River to lay their eggs in the clean water of Armstrong Spring Creek.
The creeks outside of Livingston and Bozeman offered classic dry-fly fishing, and in the mid-1970s they presented minimal intrusion from other anglers. Hatches rose from their beds to the surface every fall afternoon, and without any concern or awareness of time passing, I would fully concentrate on the task of laying a tiny dry fly quietly on the water in the right place. Hours came and went like songs, with the conclusion of the melody signaled by a chill that slowed and then terminated the emergence of duns.
Intricate, vermiculated patterns, pale blue halos, red belly fins and bright orange stomachs drew me to the brook trout living in the spring-fed ponds above Paradise Valley. The brookies were members of the char family and had been introduced to Montana in the late 19th century. I loved to eat them, cleaned and shaken in a paper bag with brown sugar and dry Coleman’s mustard, a recipe from Al McClane’s classic cookbook. Fried in butter, the pink-fleshed fish left a mess at the bottom of the pan and delight on the tongue.
Inside an inner tube on Silver Creek, in Idaho, I floated through high-desert pastures, past black cattle and under blue skies while watching flies that I had cast 40 feet ahead of me. Huge imitations of grasshoppers and beetles, the flies drifted at exactly the same speed at which I floated for hundreds of yards until a fish struck or monotony drove me to make a new cast. I can still see the flank of a large brown trout roll out of the water at my fly drifting next to the bank. Ten, 12 pounds? I don’t know, I never felt her.
My original bias toward the size and endurance of trout came from learning to fly-fish in the sea, where the horizons are limitless and the struggle to stay alive, herculean. Rivers are more contained, more feminine; the enemies of the fish that patrol them less abundant. By the end of my first trip to Montana, I dismissed the diminutive size and lesser fighting abilities of trout and simply took pleasure in the fact that I was fishing in hauntingly unfamiliar settings for fish that were particular and often difficult to entice.
Tom moved his family to Key West in 1970, and his friends followed. One of my most vivid memories of that year is of poling Tom and his college friend, poet Jim Harrison, across the flats between Mule and Archer Keys one morning in May during my first spring in Key West. I don’t think either hooked a fish that day, but I remember listening to these two men talk about novels with an ease and facility that I hope I might have deployed discussing the merits of a best London shotgun. I was not familiar with a single title they discussed, even though growing up I had always been a reader. (There was no television in France in the 1950s.) The fact of the matter is, I had not graduated beyond the books of Ian Fleming, Rex Stout and John D. McDonald.
It has occurred to me since then that my literary education did not begin during the 11 years I spent in boarding schools, or during my single year of college, but on that day inside a Fiber Craft skiff poling for fish on the flats west of Key West.
Consequently, just as it took me a decade to learn how to cast a fly correctly, it took me at least that long to understand and value Tom’s novels and Jim’s poetry.
Tom and I fished together in the spring of 1971, mostly for permit, when permit were considered almost impossible to catch on fly and long before anyone had dreamed up the modern crab-fly imitations. That year and the next, Tom and I cast at hundreds of permit — small and large committees of fish working the brittle edge of the sandbars, big pairs and singles on the face of the flats and hundreds of black sickle-shaped tails protruding out of the water, belonging to permit feeding. We ran and fished over miles of shallow water between the Bay Keys and the Marquesas. Although we were both good casters and poled a skiff as well as any guide, the permit — which look like a cross between a pompano and a jack crevalle — did not react to our flies. The fish were as discriminating as trout during a hatch, and we never presented the right match. We fished off and on together for two years, and while we jumped tarpon and caught muttonfish, we never hooked a permit.
I remember fishing the tides between Man and Woman Keys and the rack of clouds that took shape every afternoon from the distant Marquesas to Key West. Small blacktip sharks hastened from one point of interest to the other with a purpose best suited to their single-minded brains. Lemon sharks transferred a more relaxed rhythm to the surface. Menhaden shivered across acres of deeper water, and with the advent of sunset, the clouds melted and the sun fell slowly over a river of water unfolding out of the channels onto the sand. The wind would die, and with the emergence of the moon, the flats would swell into lakes of cathedral proportion.
The next morning, ineffable and complex in their symbiosis with the rising tide, the flats would come to life. When the stingrays began to forage, Tom and I would pole toward them, searching for cormorants hunting in the cloudy disturbances created by the rhythm of the rays’ wings. Shafts of light deepened and saturated the color of the sand. Popping their heads out of the water every few seconds with a crab or a shrimp held in their bills, the birds were often joined by mutton snappers, 10- to 20-pound fish whose red tails waved out of the water when feeding. The snappers took flies well, and once on the line they blistered the flat, raising rooster tails in their wake. Troubled by the activity and also seeking safety in deeper water, the stingrays hurried after them, leaving great wing prints on the surface.
For well over a decade, Tom, Jim Harrison, the painter Russell Chatham and I spent our springs fishing together below Key West. We poled over the alarmingly white flats between Man and Woman Keys, watching for the reflection of tarpon to rise from the sand. We cast bonefish flies at tarpon in water so shallow their fins left furrows on the surface. We fished quietly over laid-up fish in the Peal Basin, where the tarpon assumed a slight discoloration before melting into the sea grass. We jumped tarpon in the northwest channels and off the naval base. We fished named flats such as Loggerhead, south of Big Pine Key, and the Eccentrics, west of Big Torch Key. We fought fish in Mooney Harbor inside of the Marquesas, we hooked tarpon under the Seven Mile Bridge during the palolo worm hatch, and we made long casts under the night lights of the Pier House Hotel in Key West.
Tarpon, tarpon, there were tarpon everywhere.
We arrived in Key West at the end of an era and left at the beginning of a new one. In the early ’70s the town was sultry, magnificent and suspicious, the home of cockfights and unclaimed ladies, tough bars on Duval Street, knifings on the shrimp docks and hippies partying in Mallory Square. Hibiscus and bougainvillea fell from the balconies, and the poinciana trees glowed like setting suns. In the morning we rose to shots of black Cuban coffee.
The landscape of the flats that shifted under the inspiration of currents and daily tides was pristine and, compared to today, empty. The Internet, Jet Skis and cellphones had not been invented. Cruise ships docked at other ports. Advertisers had not discovered the angling apparel that ignited the fly-fishing craze or the infrastructure of hotels and guides that would be needed to accommodate those newfound anglers. The flats were still-life compositions of light. Visited only by a small commercial fishing industry, a handful of illegal netters, Cuban crabbers and a few pot runners, the sea was healthy and the marine life plentiful. Those of us who fished the Keys in those days were the most fortunate of all anglers. The competition was nonexistent, the fish unmolested, and the flats silent and immaculate.
When we left the Keys in the early 1980s, the downtown shops on Duval Street were filling up with bric-a-brac and T-shirts, and the first of a thousand more to come Carnival boats had disgorged its load of pink-fleshed tourists with cheap memories on their minds.
Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham and I were known in Key West as the “fat boys,” as in, “The fat boys are back in town,” loosely translated as, “The party is on.” Not that Key West needed our encouragement to throw a party. We merely added our weight, enthusiasm and appetites to the mix. We weren’t particularly fat (certainly not by today’s standards), but we all cooked and ate well.
By 1974 Tom was often absent during the prime tarpon months, busy writing screenplays and making movies for Hollywood. Through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Jim, Russell and I rented a house in Key West for six weeks every year and parked my skiff at Garrison Bight. Every morning, no matter how distraught we felt from the previous night’s indulgences, if the weather was tolerable we fished, or attempted to fish. One morning — I have been told this but don’t remember — my Maverick skiff was spotted, by a couple of guides and their anglers, drifting inside Mule and Archer Keys with the fat boys — the poet, the painter and me — sound asleep on its floor. The biblical hangover, forgivable, since it was a weekend.
Then there was the day we drank rum and Cokes on the flats beginning at 10 in the morning. It so happened that one of us jumped a fish while another was indulging in a Cuba Libre to chase the fog that had settled after a long, sleepless night. A second fish was spotted at the next mixing of drinks, and from then on our luck increased each time one of us poured rum. Tarpon swam in range of the boat at every swallow, and since it was more fun than studying the tide charts, we persisted. It was magic, and by the time the bottle was empty, we were seeing fish everywhere. The memory of our run back to Key West across Northwest Channel that afternoon surfaces with surprising clarity 40 years after the fact. Mercifully it recedes just as quickly back where it belongs.
Neither Jim nor Russell was handy with the pole, so I did the pushing. Poling gave me a perspective into the world of guides and their clients — the choices that lead anglers to tarpon and the importance of pointing out the fish and setting up the skiff for them to make the cast. The water temperature, the tide, the water level, the contour of the flats and the adjoining channels all tell a piece of the story of shallow-water tarpon, and I soon found the hunting of these big fish and the excitement they provoked in the boat to be as entertaining as the fishing.
For years, after a day on the water, I would tie knots and flies. Over time it would be hundreds of nail knots, clinch knots, blood knots, Albright knots and the Bimini twists for which I used my big toes to open the loops of monofilament and set the knots spinning. My two friends, the artists, pretended not to understand how to tie tarpon leaders. As insurance against having to learn how it was done, they declared that they simply “couldn’t take criticism.” It was the perfect foil against any and all inconveniences.
I no longer wanted to waste bar time wrapping monofilament, so I made our shock tippets using 2-weight leader wire twisted at both ends through a small swivel and the eye of the fly. The leaders took 20 seconds to make. Since we were interested in jumping fish, not in records, the leader wire version worked fine. In fact, it probably worked better than monofilament, given that the wire dragged the fly down to the fish faster.
Back in the days when the calendar and geography worked, Tom, Jim, Russell and I met and took advantage of the fact that we loved books and art and dogs and birds and fish and food and good-looking women. We fished and hunted and drank and cooked from one end of the country to the other for a quarter of a century, with Key West as a beacon of our sporting year. Now when we see each other, we remember what nonsense we used to get into and how even though we thought we did, we never got away with any of it.
What I remember best about those decades was the laughter.
Every time our group was together, we laughed and laughed, often to the point of hurting. Head-splitting, belly-heaving silliness at all times of day and night, in the boat, at the bar, during dinners, in Key West, in Montana, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in France. Everywhere and anywhere, we laughed and laughed and laughed, and I miss it.
The other day I was at the open market in Tallahassee, and one of the vendors I know answered my query about a plant he was selling.
“It is the calyx of the hibiscus flower. You make herbal tea with it.” Then he looked at me and added, “You obviously weren’t a hippy, back in the day, were you?”
Before I could shut my stupid mouth, I replied, “No, but I sure woke up next to a bunch of them!”
He looked surprised and then smiled, remembering.
One afternoon Jim, Russell and I were fishing the flats north of Boca Grande. We had jumped four tarpon that day, three between Mule and Archer Keys and one off the Seven Sisters, with more rolling toward us. We were staked out on a point of sand overlooking the channel that separated Boca Grande from the Marquesas.
A hundred yards to the north, inside the dark, narrow channel that split the flat in two, a school of tarpon was daisy chaining: a merry-go-round of hundred-pound fish following each other in a mock breeding ritual. Big, confident, oceangoing fish.
Under normal circumstances we would have been walking into the Chart Room, a nondescript bar we frequented every evening, but on this day the weather was beautiful, and we knew the tides were right for fish to swim past Platform Point. Soon the bronze head of a tarpon rose out of the slick-calm water and sighed. Like no other fish, when the oxygen content of the water is low, tarpon rise to the surface and breathe into modified swim bladders, producing a ghostly sound that flats fishermen hear in their sleep.
A school of five tarpon, backlit in the waning light, appeared for an instant offshore from us and then changed directions and, for reasons of their own, split into fingers of unease. Russell stood on the bow, a big, gentle, one-eyed man wearing a mustache and a great European nose that preferred one side of his face to the other. He was, like Woody, a product of the steelhead rivers of California. His high casting motion was not as well-suited to the windy sweep of the flats as it was at heaving lead core fly lines into the bodies of rivers. But because he had spent decades with a rod in his hand, Russ instinctively knew where to put the fly and how to swim it.
Jim stood behind him, smoking a cigarette and volunteering advice. Also sporting one good eye and a mustache, Jim carried a rock-hard soccer ball stomach and a sharp sense of humor.
“What did that woman mean last night when she told us that all you wanted her to do was to yank on your gherkin?”
“Jeez, Jim,” Russ answered without looking back. “I’m trying to concentrate here.”
When the tarpon regrouped, they resumed their travels toward the skiff. Russell raised a high, open loop of fly line, and since there was no wind to interfere with the cast, the line unfolded and settled his fly quietly on the water in front of the approaching swell shaped by the school. Russell moved the fly once, a short pull in front of the lead tarpon. The fish raised its head out of the water and heaved forward. The fly vanished. An instant later the tarpon climbed out of the water, contorted and unbridled, exulting in its reach for freedom. The low light illuminated the platinum-colored flank of the hundred-pound fish and momentarily stamped its reflection on the surface of the water.
The tarpon ran from the skiff across the pale grass toward the channel where the school had been daisy chaining earlier. Turning south toward the Marquesas, the tarpon followed the canal out to the broad flat that spilled from its mouth, and once in the Boca Grande Channel it jumped again: a miniature pendant against a setting sky. Russell tightened the drag and broke the fish off.
It is the tarpon’s movements in and out of water that interest me. If the tide is right and the tarpon are running, I don’t see the point in fighting them when I could be casting at fresh fish. Seeing the tarpon underwater, judging where to cast the fly, managing the strike and witnessing the first couple of jumps is where fly-fishing for tarpon begins and ends for me. A fight is a fight, and when I was younger I fought dozens of tarpon. But now I leave the manhandling to others. For me the finesse of the sport ends a hundred yards from the boat.
In my day tarpon were killed for pleasure by men who loved competition. Tarpon tournaments fed egos. Later, once the awards ceremonies and the revelry ended, the tarpon lost their status as icons and were hauled to land dumps or dragged offshore as fodder for the sharks. Some anglers revel in the techniques of combat, just as others take pleasure in lifting weights. I like speed and focus, beauty and motion, and I believe that respect is owed to every heartbeat on the planet.
It took 100 years of killing tarpon for no reason before things began to change. In this country those kill-tournament days are over; the law forbids it. Once again tarpon are icons, but of a different sort, and their mysterious migrations are being studied by instruments as magical as those that revealed to my computer the resemblance of my pond to a bird. Part of me wants to know where the tarpon I see each spring go for the rest of the year, the route of their migration and where they breed, but just as I would want the past history of a lover to remain a mystery, a larger part of me wants this fish that I love to retain the secrecy of its existence and simply show up once a year in places he and his ancestors have called on for millennium. In this age of revelations, mystery is a valuable commodity. Progress often takes away what it took a long time to create.
From the book On The Water, A Fishing Memoir, by Guy de la Valdène. Copyright © 2015 by Guy de la Valdène. Used by permission of Rowman & Littlefield. rowman.com