As if detaching itself from the rest of the stars, a big Boeing swooped down out of the night sky to land, another following it and several others circling as they waited their turn. Keeping their distance, smaller planes discreetly ferried private passengers, while nearby helicopters transported the rich and impatient from one pad to another. Beneath them all, the horizon was a dazzling and colourful array of high-rise city lights, reflected on the rippling, dark water of the bay.
Miami seems a city that never sleeps, and like most Saturday nights, the Beach district was abuzz. One of the most popular tourist destinations in America was in high season, and party time was reaching fever pitch. But under all the glitz and glamour, bright lights and dark undertones there were predators lurking; we hoped piscatorial as well as those streetwise.
We had left all the hustle and bustle behind when we boarded Bob LeMay's custom Maverick flats skiff under the backdrop of a peaceful Florida sunset. After negotiating the manatee slow zones, dodging the myriads of stone crab pots and whizzing past countless multi-million dollar waterfront Miami mansions, we arrived at our destination.
Bob held us steady against the concrete pylon as we gently rode out wakes generated by the passing traffic of private speedboats and luxury motor yachts that were mostly overpowered and over-stated. One after the other they ran along the channels of the shallow bay making them dangerous for the unwary, and occasionally attracting the attention of the water police - who were equally overpowered and overstated with their multiple huge outboards and strobing blue and red lights. Overhead the massive road bridge thrummed with the solid noise and vibration that only half a dozen lanes of constant traffic can deliver.
Quietly sitting under the bridge structure, we scanned the shadow line created by lights mounted on the pylons. Occasionally prawns flicked across the surface, their frantic clicking leaps - and their lives - sometimes ending in a large swirl, for in these surprisingly fish-rich, 76-degree waters prowled one of the most famous gamefish in the world. Atlantic tarpon - the silver king.
I stood next to Bob on the casting foredeck of his 18-foot skiff. With fly rod in hand, tarpon fly lying in the current and several yards of line stripped onto the fore deck, my eyes strained for signs of a cruising fish. This time of year they are smaller but still worthy targets with lighter tackle.
"There - over to the right!" said Bob, pointing toward the shape that had materialized from the black shadow of the bridge. My cast was close but perhaps not quick enough and the fish changed direction and turned off before it saw the fly. Another appeared right in front of us no more than ten feet from the boat with the same result. With so little fly line outside the rod tip, it wasn't easy to make such a short cast! Suddenly there were prawns jumping and fish swirling repeatedly. My cast delivered the fly a few feet out into the light, and in front of a cruising fish. As instructed I splashed it down hard onto the water, quickly made one long strip and then slowed and shortened them. Both the fly and the fish disappeared into the shadows of the bridge. I kept the retrieve going and no more than twelve feet from us the dark shape of a fish reappeared, turning hard just under the surface and I felt its strong take through the fly line. Instinctively I pulled back hard as the rod loaded.
"Hit him again! And again! Ya' still got him?" asked Bob, and as I confirmed the hookup, a tarpon of nearly 30lb came hurtling out of the water only a handful of yards away, flashing silver in the lights of the bridge, and showering white water droplets away into the dark background. The #8 weight bucked in my hand and I carefully allowed the loose line to clear the deck as Bob made his way to the back of the boat and started the engine. Again the fish crashed out of the water, pulling the floating fly line behind it and making it rooster-tail across the surface.
Bob slowly idled the boat back out from under the bridge toward the open water that lay down current, and away from its maze of pylons that earlier hooked fish had found while seeking sanctuary. Continually he inquired as to where the fish was and what it was doing, as if expecting it to throw the hook or swim between the concrete blocks at any time. As instructed I kept the rod tip down low and pulled to the side in the direction we were headed. Thankfully the fish followed.
Once out in open water the fight resumed in earnest. Occasionally the fish ran and jumped, but mostly it swam slowly and strongly in the current. Whenever it neared the channel, I was told to get "down and dirty" with it, pulling the rod to the side and steering the fish back out as Bob led it with the boat. It responded well to this tactic.
The first time I steered the fish to the boat it was still very green. As Bob reached out, the tarpon suddenly sprang back into life, and in an explosive reaction streaked a dozen or more yards of line off the reel and launched itself into the air in a classic leap. My knuckles got well and truly 'dusted' by the handles of the single action reel but I felt no pain!
The fight settled down once more and to a small degree I allowed myself to absorb my situation amongst the sounds and the lights of the city. Perhaps the occasional motorist passing by high overhead noticed me too, but beyond that we were happily oblivious of each other.
I returned my focus to the fight. Again and again I dragged the fish around and led it to the side of the boat but it would not be held. The fourth time Bob held the leader a little longer, and when the fish surged the tippet parted. Not to worry. As he does on all his flies, Bob had crimped the barb of the hook and in any case, a fish brought to leader is considered caught. We also needed to get back to the bite while the tide was running!
Thus I accomplished my first tarpon on fly, Florida style. You may wonder what all the fuss is about - after all as Atlantic tarpon go, it may have been more of a prince than a king - but the real McCoy it was, and taken sight casting with tackle light enough to enjoy it. At the right time of year when the big fish are present I hope to return and tempt one of the hundred pound plus tarpon the area is so famous for. Until then, I'll happily use the memories of my small king to keep the desire strong - and to make my mates green with envy!