First Shot

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Photo by Tim Hardin

Photo by Tim Hardin

By Justin Pickett

“With an explosion, the water suddenly gave way to expose the shimmering scales and black fins of a perfect Everglades Silver King.”

The weeks of preparation, tying, and fantasizing had come to an absolute end as I found myself sitting in the backseat of a pickup truck that was hauling a Hells Bay Professional through the eerie darkness of the Everglades. With Captain Jason Sullivan of Rising Tide Charters behind the wheel, Tim Harden of the Venturing Angler and I chatted back and forth about the typical things fisherman banter about. Memories of past trips, how the prior days’ fishing had been, as well as what we might expect out on the water. As with any trip, for me, there is the usual anxiousness that crawls over my skin as visions of acrobatic tarpon dance through my head. I’ve fished all over Florida, but the Everglades has been the one destination in the Sunshine State that has always found a way to elude me. Thanks to Tim and some perfect scheduling, I’ve finally found myself here.

As we pull into Flamingo and step out into the steamy morning, the usual quiet of the pre-dawn hours is immediately interrupted by the constant buzzing of a thick cloud of mosquitos. Apparently, someone told them we were coming and they were waiting for us with empty stomachs. But, even the constant prodding of those vampire-bugs wasn’t going to diminish the excitement we were all feeling as we loaded up our gear and dunked the skiff in the warm waters of the Glades.

The skiff glided into the black water. Tossing the last few pieces of gear aboard, we cranked up and began our disappearance into the mysterious pitch black that enveloped the landscape. As we snaked through the canopied canal, the delightful sounds of the outboard rang in the ear, pushing us closer and closer to our fishing grounds guided only by brightly colored lines on the back-lit map of the GPS. As sudden as a blink, it seemed we were spit out by the canal and thrust into a vast open bay surrounded by the faint outline of distant thunderheads, periodically highlighted by jagged streaks of light. The ride was loud, but quiet, amplified by the dark vastness of the pre-dawn Everglades.

As the boat broke plane and the engine was cut, a tingle ran up my spine. The silence was insane. A faint buzz could be heard near the mangroves from the myriad bugs whirring about, but the moment you were more than a cast-length away… nothing. Not even a breath of wind was present to disturb the calm.

The roll of a tarpon could be heard a hundred yards away as a magenta sunrise began to paint the sky, disrupted only by a few wispy clouds high in the atmosphere. Three sets of eager eyes scanned across a large boxes filled with feathers and fur in order to select the first players in a game of cat and mouse. Lines were threaded through guides and tippets were tied deliberately to trusty hooks as the last few preparations were completed.

I hear Tim’s voice from behind me, “You’ve got first shot.”

Inside I’m as geeked as a sugar-loaded toddler, but I’m also Tim’s guest. I’m just grateful to be here and I certainly don’t want to take advantage of an already amazingly fortuitous situation. I politely declined, which, in turn, gets shot down. So, I found myself on the casting platform scanning for the slightest signs along the water’s surface, catching the occasional roll as the sun climbed higher. Breaking the silence, chaos erupts on the opposite shoreline as tarpon crushed a school of baitfish along the shoreline. As the baitfish jump and flee, these juvenile tarpon porpoise and lunged through the water with their armored mouths agape. The sight itself was awesome, but, of course, I want in on the action.

Jason begins a steady push towards the feeding group of kings and before I know it I am in range. I drop my fly and begin my stroke, and as my rod loads behind me the group of tarpon erupt again, but this time they are no more than a couple of boat-lengths away. My fly line shoots through the snaked guides and lays out near the bank with a subtle splash. As immediately as the fly broke the surface I began stripping quickly, mimicking the frantic baitfish that were zooming along the flat. Soon, a disturbance could be seen stalking behind my fly.

With the sun in front of me, the push of water was as black and mysterious as the pre-dawn ride that got me here. I could not see just yet, but I knew that underneath that nervous water was a hungry king. He was chasing. Hard. I knew an eat had to be imminent as I anxiously awaited the big pull. But not yet. This tarpon seemed to be analyzing and calculating every move my fly made. Using those big, discerning eyes to size-up his next victim. When he made his final move, it was certain. Unmistakable. Devastating.

The pull on the line was fierce. With an explosion, the water suddenly gave way to expose the shimmering scales and black fins of a perfect Everglades Silver King.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

As I respectfully bowed, I was finally able to lay eyes on this noble giant. He was stunning. Sunlight reflected in every direction from his prehistoric shell as he took flight across the glowing flat. The sounds of his gill plates rattling and the flapping of his tail were all I could hear. The amazing sight of this tarpon flipping and flying through the air made me freeze. Everything else in that moment was simply drowned from existence as I gazed in awe. I was hoping for a fight, and he did not disappoint.

As the tarpon touched back down on the water’s surface with a big splash, I think I was finally able to blurt out some sort of sound that is related with excitement. It’s hard for me to get too crazy with emotions when I’m locked in on something as awesome as that moment was. That tarpon would make one more big leap just seconds later. In the midst of that jump, my fly unbuttoned and the mirror-scaled king slipped back into the salty expanse. My hookset had felt sure and solid, but it doesn’t always go your way. Besides, I couldn’t be sad about it. I had just experienced one of the most awesome things in fly fishing… Jumping a Tarpon in the Everglades.

The whole experience was amazing. Inside of the Everglades is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. One could get lost for an infinite amount of days trying to cover all of its ponds, creeks, and nooks. The vast area that it covers is overwhelming and I certainly couldn’t have enjoyed such an amazing day flying through the mangroves without Capt. Jason Sullivan and the invite by Tim Harden. Taking the first shot is kind of an honor to me. Some may not see it the same, but you’re basically being handed possibly the only shot at catching a fish for the day, so to have Tim give me that opportunity was very gracious of him and something I’ll remember for a very long time.

I certainly would’ve loved to have had that tarpon’s lips in my hands for everyone to admire, but just having the shot at squaring up with one was everything I could have asked for and more. I can’t wait until the next time when I get back out on Jason’s boat and I get to watch Tim take the first shot from the bow!

Justin Pickett
Gink & Gasoline 
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4 thoughts on “First Shot

  1. Sweet post! Wondering what’s the best time of year for this kind of fishing? Looking to book a hotel in Florida City area to give this a try. Is February any good?

  2. We had the discussion this past April on our annual journey to the Everglades. “What is the perfect fish to target?” It has to be strong, run, jump, hard to stay hooked and smart. It also cant be too easy otherwise you would tire of the effort.

    The perfect fish is the Tarpon and this is why we go back every year…..

  3. Been there as both guide and angler. From June until December there’s a great baby tarpon fishery in Flamingo with adults too, if you know where to find them. It’s a really dependable tarpon fishery, with snook and other species around too. I like this article. It brings back lots of good memories for me. Thanks for publishing it.

  4. You experienced the best few moments. This time the fish won & gave you a great thrill whilst doing so. Very nicely written, thank you!

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