It’s sunny and sixty-eight degrees. Just a little breeze. It’s mid-April. A perfect day for fishing in Bozeman, Montana.
The trouble is, we’re not in Bozeman. It’s actually ten degrees warmer in Bozeman. I know this because my buddy Rich is looking at the weather on his iPhone instead of fishing. And why not? When it’s sixty-eight degrees in the Florida Keys in mid-April you’re about as likely to see Santa Claus as a tarpon.
At least that’s how our first day had gone. Beautiful day for a boat ride. That’s how fishing in the Keys is, you book your days and take your chances. I’m used to it. I do a lot of off-season fishing with friends in Florida and I have had some phenomenal days but I’ve taken a lot of boat rides too. For Rich it’s a little tougher. When you fly all the way from Montana to the Keys in, what should be, peak tarpon season it fair to have some expectations but as all fishermen know, expectation is a tricky business.
It’s about nine-thirty on our second day. It should be pushing ninety and we should be hip deep in tarpon but the weather has screwed us. Rich is already stressed over some issues at work. A dozen emails on his phone and the bad weather aren’t helping. If we are lucky it’ll make it to seventy today. Lacking tarpon, we have chosen to be hip deep in beer. We were clearly all thinking the same thing this morning because we all brought beer and lots of it, even our guide. That should tell you something. In fact we were so focused on the beer that we forgot to bring lunch so we’re on a liquid diet since early in the morning. We may not see a fish but we’re going to have fun.
The day before, we had some how gotten on the subject of moonshine. Rich is a westerner and has preconceived notions about southerners. That’s fair, I guess but he had confided in us that he had always suspected that moonshine was a southern legend and didn’t really exist, at least not these days. That was as good as a dare. For all of its tropical flavor, the Keys are still very much the south and it had been a simple thing for our guide to produce a quart jar as evidence.
We’re staked out on an ocean-side flat having a grand time. The conversation is lively. It would be lunch time if we’d brought lunch. I was on the bow and seeing as we had no lunch, or fish, I didn’t see the point in waiting any longer to open that jar. The cold homemade liquor was sweet and smooth with a hint of apple and cinnamon. It warmed my body like Georgia sunshine.
“Hot Damn! That’s what I needed!” I took another drink and felt a tingling numbness along the back of my neck and down my spine. “That is definitely real,” I told Rich as I passed him the jar. The expression on his face told me he was prepared for the worst. Some kind of half turpentine devil’s fire water from an old radiator, not this sweet well- crafted spirt. The south was looking pretty good right about now.
Proud that he had provided such a quality sample on such short notice, our guide is busy telling us about the care that goes into making good moonshine when he pauses, lowers his stance a bit and, reaching blindly for his push pole, says, “oh my fucking God!”
I wheel around and, a hundred yards from the skiff, I see a huge black shape headed straight for us. A school of tarpon. For the sake of not being called a liar I’ll say two hundred fish, but I feel sure it’s more.
The sight sobers me up pretty quickly. I glance down at my line on the deck. Everything looks good. I wish my fly was wet but there’s no time, the fish are moving fast. The guide turns the boat and I take a cast. It’s a good cast but no interest. The fish are moving to two o’clock. I cast again, still no looks. Now the fish are at three, hell they’re everywhere. I make a third cast. Perfect, just the leader over the lead fish’s back. Nothing. “Rich, get your rod.” I say and start reeling up.
“No Man, stay on ‘em,” he protests but I make him take the bow. “There not having it, try your fly while I change.”
It’s not the fly. These fish are surly, pissed off and in a hurry. No interest in flies, still it’s amazing to be in a huge pack of them, just out of the blue like that. Rich takes a dozen shots before giving up on them. We run back up to our spot and anchor up.
We’re pretty fired up about seeing fish, especially on a day like this. We stay sharp and ready for about forty-five minutes but we don’t see any more fish. We relax and shoot the shit a little more. Rich is on the bow when the moonshine comes back out. He hits it and passes it back to me. I turn the jar up and before I even swallow I hear the guide say, “cut us loose Rich, here they come.”
It’s another big school. Not as big as the last but riding higher. Rich makes a cast and this time he feeds one. There’s momentary contact but the fish doesn’t stick. Still, that’s a big improvement. Rich stays on the fish but gets no more love. We motor back to the flat and stake out. I step on to the bow and tell Rich, “pass me that jar.”
Every time we hit the jar fish show up and every school is higher and happier than the last. The schools get smaller but I’d rather have three happy fish than a hundred locked jaws. We each feed a few more fish before Rich hooks up. His fish jumps twice and unbuttons. He’s got his tarpon stripes, the line burns on his fingers from the fish’s first run. He’s feeling pretty good in spite of the lost fish. I take the bow. There’s only one shot left in the jar. I toss it back and get in my ready position.
The light is getting low and visibility is tough. The next school sneaks by us. It’s too late to chase them when we finally see them. We see the next school though, daisy-chaining at two o’clock. I can’t see well enough to pick a fish. I just throw a hail Mary and the guide yells, “set!”
A huge fish, well over a hundred pounds, goes twelve feet in the air. She makes a big run jumping again and again and again. She’s in the air five times when the line goes slack. “She’s gone,” I shrug and start reeling up. I look back at Rich and the line comes tight again, “no she’s not!” the guide shouts, now bent over laughing at my drunk ass. The fish jumps a sixth time and is really gone now. Straightened an Owner Aki number one hook. I’ve never seen that happen before.
We’re out of moonshine and daylight so we head in. I’m headed home without touching a fish but I’m still feeling like its been a great trip. I guess it’s all about those expectations.
I like to think that there’s a moral to every story. I like to think every day on the water teaches me something. So what’s the lesson this day? Good things come to those who drink? A fish in the hand is worth two in the air? Maybe it’s be careful about your expectations. Peak season doesn’t mean it’s going to be great and shitty weather doesn’t mean it’s going to suck. Maybe it’s, a good day is one spent on the water with friends. Maybe it’s as simple as, if you’re going to drink moonshine don’t forget your lunch.
Whatever it is, it’s a lesson I look forward to repeating.Louis Cahill Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!