From: A Net Full of Tails
Looking for a life lesson? You’ll
find it here.
Forget about fiberglass
yachts and glistening fillets: sport fishing is all
about heart. While fishermen run the gamut from felons
to kings, the most memorable often appear quite ordinary
– if you’re willing to overlook a few minor details.
Take my good friend, Harvey:
He was the biggest man
I‘ve ever known. At six-foot-eight, and nearly 350
pounds, he was born to the position of All-State
fullback: a distinction he retained throughout his high
school career. But what outweighed his stature was his
competitive nature, which permeated everything he did.
A giant of a man with a
heart of gold, he succeeded where others failed: mostly
by refusing to say “I can’t.” He was gentle-natured
unless deliberately provoked, and as loyal a buddy as I
could have ever wanted. I’m proud to have called him my
The tarpon, you may have
heard, is a character, too, and born to a single
purpose: that of staying alive. While the majority of
tarpon are smaller than Harvey, occasional exceptions
have been known to exist. When it comes down to grit,
the two run neck-in-neck, which leads to a singular
Picture the bridges of
the Overseas Highway, as they follow the sunset into the
Gulf of Mexico. Then envision them prior to 1970, before
millionaire developers commercialized the Keys. If U.S.1
wasn’t completely deserted, it was far less-traveled
than it is today. While Keys residents stayed pleasantly
out-of-touch, they regaled in their anonymity. Among the
“locals” were schools of tarpon – only a fraction of
which ply those waters today.
Once you reach Islamorada
– maybe halfway between Key West and Miami - the spans
get longer and the channels, deeper. That’s where the
largest tarpon gather, starting in May, around the time
when the Poincianas bloom. Witness the latter event and
you’ll be regaled by Nature. But to understand tarpon,
you first undergo pain.
Because it’s only when
your endurance is tested, that you finally decide to put
it all on the line. But that’s what it takes, maybe once
in a lifetime, when it all boils down to not giving up.
Call it competition, or the essence of sport, but I
can’t help thinking of torture. So how did I reach such
a macabre conclusion?
At one time, my friends
and I fished those bridges – for tarpon at night, during
May and June. From the time I purchased my very first
car, I’d grab-up my gear on Friday night and dash for
the door when the boss closed the shop. We’d take
Florida’s Turnpike to Homestead, then hit U.S. 1 and
keep heading south. Who can forget the heat and
I can picture that
all-night tackle shop that was south of Homestead on
U.S.1: We’d stop there for sodas and snacks, in hopes of
beating the heat. I’m reminded that it smelled like
mullet and shrimp, and boxes of frozen squid. We
eschewed all those options in favor of lures –
specifically, the Creek Chub Pikie – because of the
whims of our quarry. We had miles to go before we’d
fish, and it seemed we were always chasing the tide.
Keys bridges, in those days, were a study in stone, or a
history lesson might be a better term.
Some have names that
evoke the past, like Tea Table Relief and Indian Key
Viaduct. Whale Harbor and Snake Creek sound more
romantic, although I don’t recall seeing whales or
snakes. One bridge in particular, Channel Number 5, was
a perennial favorite of ours for tarpon. Two contiguous
spans, Channel 2 and Long Key Viaduct, were also
contenders, depending on the tide.
To be successful at
bridge fishing you need to know the following rule: It’s
the tide that makes all the difference. Here’s how it
works in the Keys:
Celestial forces create
powerful currents that surge back and forth through the
concrete arches. The current, in turn, can work for or
against you, depending on how much forage it carries, as
well as your ability to handle your tackle. Tides are
cafeterias to the legions of tarpon, which spend most of
their lives searching for food. Meanwhile, getting back
to Channel 5...
At the start of the ebb,
the tarpon would gather on the up-current side and wait
for sunset. Before the fireworks began in earnest.
Billions of gallons of seawater carried all types of
prey through the span. Since the tarpon, for the most
part, were the giants of their species, and since the
carnage was unimaginable by today’s standards, you had
to have seen it to imagine the ruckus.
Mullet and ballyhoo,
along with countless invertebrates, were swept towards
the waiting shadow line. There weren’t any lights per
se: only the moon and stars cast the faintest of
shadows. Yet the killing zone was well-defined, and
while diaphanous organisms glowed deep in the current,
billows of green erupted on top. The cacophony would
escalate to a deafening pitch, as it echoed between the
caissons. It was like listening to a symphony from
There’s something primal
about fishing for monsters, especially when you’re
practically alone at the time. But like I said, you had
to be there. Perhaps a word about tackle would be in
I relied on a heavy
fiberglass bridge rod, to which I’d bolted a 4/0 reel
that I’d customized for casting big plugs. I didn’t
waste time with gossamer lines, choosing instead to go
all-out: With 50-pound test or better, I enjoyed equal
footing with the tarpon I hooked. Or so I liked to
believe. My rod, I might add, was 10 feet long.
That meant if I lost my
balance, or leaned too far forward, the mechanical
advantage could send me flying. That’s something I tried
The rules of engagement
were simple: Cast a 6900 series Pikie at an angle to the
bridge; then, reel it back faster than the current. Even
today, Pikies enjoy a reputation, but that’s another
Those hardwood lures
sported three sets of trebles that could probably hoist
a steer. During a particularly memorable, previous
outing, I landed a tarpon over 200 pounds. We weighed it
at Bud and Mary’s, in the days before catch and release.
The fish hit a Pikie.
Meanwhile, the tarpon
that inspired this particular story hit at precisely
12:43 a.m. – something I know from Harvey’s watch. In
the beginning, it behaved like most of them do, while
Harvey stood ready with the bridge gaff. Then everything
changed in a heartbeat. Remember me mentioning the
connection between fishing and “heart?” The following
will explain it in additional detail:
Harvey stayed alongside
me for most of the night, despite a plaster cast that
hampered his movements. It covered his foot all the way
to his ankle, yet I doubt if he felt he was crippled. He
had broken his toes while installing a roof, when he
landed feet-first on a two-by-four. But that didn’t stop
him from finishing the job. Like always, he wanted to do
his part, and no one loved fishing more than he did. He
knew that I’d do the same for him, but getting back to
I realized early-on that
something was different when I failed to turn its head
right away. The strike had felt like I’d hit a wall,
except that this wall kept moving without breaking the
surface. Most 100-pounders jump when you hook them, then
two minutes later, they’re flat on their sides. But this
one just powered into the current until suddenly, my
line went slack.
I realized that it had
reversed its course, and that it was probably headed
back to the bridge. So I took off in its general
direction, while running and reeling as fast as I could.
My pulse by this time was pounding wildly, but
everything else was deathly still. Except for my breath,
which was coming in gasps. I started to taste those
sodas again, and the bridge all around me looked dark
and forbidding. At this point, I still hadn’t run very
The standard response at
times like these is to quickly prepare for the worst.
Say your fish decides to charge the bridge and barrel
full-tilt out the other side. Because of the angle, and
the abrasive concrete, this invariably results in broken
tackle. Unless you pull-off a trick we learned.
The tarpon did what I
hoped it wouldn’t, while ripping-off line in the
process. So I yelled to Harvey to take the bridge gaff
and lower it down on the opposite side. He stumbled
across the highway, and managed to lower the gaff in
record time. If everything gelled, he’d snag my line
and, soon enough, he’d be able to grab it. So I could
pass my rod underneath the bridge, and continue the
fight in the other side.
But while the seconds
passed and the tension mounted, he couldn’t find my line
– by dragging the gaff hook between the caissons, where
it should have been. Now, all I could do was take my
reel out of gear.
Backing-off on the
tension would change the angle of pull, while allowing
the tarpon to run away from the bridge, thereby allowing
the line to lift. Once Harvey could snag it and grab the
mono, I’d throw my reel into gear again and drop the
Then I’d run over to
Harvey, after letting go, and help him lift it over the
opposite railing. If we worked together, it would barely
get wet. Then I’d be tight to the fish on the other
side, and in a position where the odds were more in my
favor. I caution any neophytes to avoid this stunt.
But Harvey still couldn’t
locate the line, after repeatedly dragging the gaff back
and forth. I watched him stumble on his injured foot,
while the line on my spool continued to dwindle. Nothing
made sense anymore at this point. Where was my line, if
not where he’d looked?
All I could think of was
that the fish had run under and circled a caisson before
swimming back out again. Was the tarpon continuing on
its former course? In response to my yelling, and with
no time to lose, Harvey hobbled back to my side of the
That’s where, in less
than a minute, he snagged the line in the only other
place he could possibly find it. The fish had indeed
circled the caisson, leaving us to solve the riddle.
Harvey eventually got hold of the mono, before I
tightened my drag and dropped the rod. While he stood
there holding his breath, we both started pulling until
I was able to grab it, and take-off running down the
I was back on track, but
so was the fish, which kept heading toward the draw
span. That spelled trouble under normal conditions, but
all I could do was pull and pray.
The battle dragged us for
miles from where we started – me with the fish and
Harvey with his cast. Since there weren’t any catwalks
on this particular bridge – only inches of concrete and
steel I-beam railing – we were in constant danger from
passing traffic. Surrounded by darkness, and starting to
weaken, my thoughts were beginning to blur:
“Truck’s getting closer,
I can see the sparks; 18-wheeler in the southbound lane.
Mirrors touched the guardrail; driver must be dozing. I
warn Harvey to scramble to the opposite side. Nothing
between us and the abyss below.”
So once again, I loosen
my drag, and straddle the railing while clutching my
rod. Then, this idiot honks, like it’s all my fault, and
as quickly as they appeared, the lights vanish. Bathed
in darkness, I swing onto the tarmac, and take off
running and reeling again. The fish, I can tell, is
still heading east. If only my rod were two feet
It’s already been at
least two hours; no time to let-up or weaken. Thumb’s
bleeding badly: nicked to the bone. Cuts and scrapes all
burning at once. The taste in my mouth is of ice-cold
metal, and there’s bile in the back of my throat. But
the ordeal continues on into the night.
Ribs must be bruised; it
hurts to breathe. Rod butt’s still locked in my armpit.
“Fish, please slow down and roll on your side, before I
lose my grip.” Legs are shaking, arms are cramped.
Harvey tells me it’s been three hours. He’s struggling
to keep the pace. I mumble something before the fish
turns around starts swimming towards the beach. Which at
Channel 5 is a rocky buttress. Did I mention that the
tide had changed?
So it’s retrace my steps,
and keep-up the pressure, although nothing I do seems to
phase this behemoth. How big could it possibly be?
Miles to shore, with me
on a tether: Or better, a mono leash, at the end of a
10-foot lever – one capable of exerting tremendous
mechanical advantage. I can’t take much more, if she
doesn’t quit soon. Then I look at Harvey, who’s there at
my side again.
Limping and stumbling, he
pauses momentarily and spits these words at my face:
“Don’t even think about it, you son-of-a bitch.”
And so we keep marching
to the end of the bridge.
For a change I think I’m
making some progress, with the fish near the bulkhead
and me, off the bridge. Harvey has to struggle when we
get to the rocks, but he claws his way along the
treacherous slope. We eventually work our way to a canal
and a seawall, where for the first time we see the fish.
I can barely believe my
There, in slack current
and barely upright, swims the largest tarpon I’d ever
seen. And there in her jaw hangs the Pikie, with the
lead hook hung in her gill plate. A few more cranks and
I’ll lift her nose; then finally the victory is mine.
But some things simply aren’t meant to be.
Due to the angle between
me and that plug, I’m unable to keep her nose on top. So
on fourth and ten, she stages a rally and decides to run
with the ball. My drag barely slips, but that’s enough.
Then, suddenly she’s swimming towards the bridge again.
I stumble towards the rocks with Harvey in tow.
For the past four hours,
he’d been carrying the bridge gaff: a heavy affair made
for lifting big fish. In the event I’d held her, we’d
have gaffed that tarpon, and dragged her to the nearest
scale. She was just too big to release, at a time in our
lives when bigger meant better. Somehow, I lost Harvey
in those final moments when the world around me spun out
The final hour seems more
like a dream. The tarpon, I remember, picked-up speed,
fueled by a second wind. While the battering continued,
I re-traced my steps towards the draw span, and the
fenders that lay beneath it.
But this time she managed
to make it, and with a final effort, she ran through the
pilings and cut my line in the process. I dropped to my
knees, exhausted, my body and mind too numb to feel. I
knew neither relief nor disappointment, only the reality
that the fish was gone.
surroundings came back into focus, as a late-night
delivery truck passed by in the darkness I finally stood
up on my feet. My face, I guessed, looked flushed and
haggard. It was a long way back to where this had all
begun. That’s especially true when you’re doing the
limping. My throat was parched, but I kept on moving,
while I pondered the enormity of what had just happened.
Of God’s sea-going
creatures, I’d just been trounced by the gamest, and one
of the largest to boot. I remembered that the largest
tarpon on record, netted by a commercial fisherman in
Hillsboro Inlet, weighed 350 pounds. It measured eight
feet-something in length. The one I’d lost was at least
that large. The IGFA All-Tackle World Record remains
quite a bit less.
Just then, I saw Harvey
stumbling towards me in the moonlight. He was dragging
that bridge gaff, like he had all along. His clothes
looked tattered from what I could tell, and I could only
imagine what had become of his cast. When he saw me
coming, he knew what had happened. A minute or two
later, when he got within earshot, I heard him yell
these prophetic words:
“I knew you’d never land
her. The two of us together didn’t stand a
That summed it up in a
way that I couldn’t. There’s nothing to do at a time
like this, but share the experience with a kindred
spirit. Harvey had written the book on competition, but
he always insisted on playing fair. I hope my answer
reflected that fact:
“I’m happy to think she
made it, because she definitely kicked my ass.”
We stumbled back towards
the shore together, too weary to face the dawn. The
mosquitoes, we noticed, were winding down, and every so
often a car would pass. It would be weeks until all our
It’s been 40 years since
that incredible night that I still remember as if it was
yesterday. That fish, like Harvey, showed indomitable
pluck, and both of them rank as my heroes.
Like I said before, I
hope she made it. Meanwhile, Harvey died while watching
TV – yelling at his set during Monday Night Football. I
think of them both all the time, especially while I’m
watching those games myself.
I always figured that football, like fishing,
is all about heart.