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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 friend.

          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 tale:

          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 mosquitoes?

          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 Hell. 

          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 order?     

           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 to avoid

          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 story.

          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 that tarpon:

          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 far.

          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 outfit overboard.

          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 bridge.

          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 bridge again.  

          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 shorter.     

          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 eyes.

          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 of control.

          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.

          Eventually, my 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 wounds healed.



          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.



-Tom Greene


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