One Fly, One Cast, One Tarpon

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Photos by Louis Cahill

Photos by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

The bow of the skiff rises and falls under my feet as my eyes scan the vast expanse of blue and green.

We call this riding the bull. Balancing on a casting platform as the boat bobs and shifts in the surf. Out on the ocean side, that’s where you find migrating tarpon. These big fish push past in schools, often single file. It’s challenging fishing and today has been no exception. We’ve seen plenty of fish and plenty of refusals and disappearing acts but no open mouths or flared gill plates.

It’s late on the second day of fishing. We haven’t seen a fish in a while and haven’t fed one all day. My buddy Johnny Spillane and I each put a couple of nice fish in the air the day before, in spite of poor light. We had great expectations when we saw the beautiful blue sky this morning. Neither of us, or our guide Capt. Jessie Register, have an explanation for the attitude the fish are giving us, except that they are tarpon and that’s what they do.

A little red catamaran is cooking up the beach straight for us. It’s up on one hull and the guy is leaning out over the side. As he gets close, we are all wondering if we should be panicking. It really does look like he’s going to T-bone the skiff. It occurs to me that we are all watching the sailboat bearing down on us and that’s exactly the time a nice fish would swim by. I make a quick scan and, sure enough, there she is at two o’clock, and she’s big.

It’s a perfect setup and an easy cast. I make a perfect presentation and, when the fish swims near my fly, she cuts to the right and passes it with no reaction at all. I don’t know what happened to the sailboat but it missed us somehow while I was fishing. that’s how it’s been all day. Boating drama and bad attitude. We’re trading on shots, so it’s Johnny’s turn to fish.

The sun is getting low, and with it, visibility. Any day you can stand on the bow of a skiff and see nearly a hundred tarpon, especially in July, is a great day whether you feed them or not. The three of us have done this enough to be happy with that. We are all thinking of cold beer when Johnny spots a single fish coming the wrong direction down the beach. He makes a beautiful cast and the fish almost breaks its back eating the fly.

It’s absolute mayhem. When Johnny sets the hook, the fish is already in freak-out mode.

Screen-Shot-2018-07-18-at-9.57.27-AMIt hits the fly hard and never slows down. The running line is flying everywhere and wraps around the console of the boat. I’m frantically trying to free it and there’s no slowing this freight train down. As I get the final coil free, I feel the power of the fish for a split second as it takes the line from my hand. Johnny has his hands full.

All fish are not created equal. Even a smaller fish, if it has heart, can wear an angler down. I broke my foot once, fighting a tarpon like that. Just from squatting the fish and trying to lift it. This fish Johnny is tied to is not small and she has heart. Plenty of it.

If you follow Olympic snow skying, you may know that my buddy Johnny is not your average angler. He’s been to three Olympics and has three medals to show for it. They don’t just hand those things out for showing up. Anyone with an Olympic medal is a bona fide badass and a fierce competitor. Johnny is no exception. Nicest guy you’ll ever meet, but you don’t want to compete with him. You will lose.

DSC02963This tarpon is cut from the same cloth. Johnny is wailing on this fish and she’s not giving an inch. He gets her to the boat several times, and several times she makes a dramatic jump and another blistering run and he’s back in his backing. Jessie is on the motor keeping the angle in our favor. Each time the fish comes to the boat, he dives onto the bow to land her. He must have leadered the fish six times.

The next time the fish comes to the boat, Johnny goes all in, bending the eleven-weight B3 Plus to the reel seat. Boron or no, the big rod shatters like a four-weight. There is an instant feeling of release. You can feel it in the air. It’s like the oxygen is sucked away. I feel my shoulders drop. The only one who apparently doesn’t feel it is Johnny. He throws the shattered rod on the deck, drops to his belly and grabs the leader. We are not out of the game.

The fish goes ballistic. Jessie dives onto the bow, next to Johnny.

They both have the fish by the jaw, and then the leader, and then the jaw again. The fish is filling the skiff with water and for an instant I think I might be going back to the dock alone, but they subdue the big girl and we have a landed tarpon.

DSC03156We are in waist-deep water, so we jump out for a quick photo. It’s Johnny’s first big tarpon. It’s pretty rare to land a fish like that in shallow water where you can get in with it and not be eaten by sharks. It’s a pretty special moment and it reminds us all that we are out of our element. That the fact to ever land one of these beautiful fish is a miracle. 

Johnny is exhausted, and so is the fish. On our first attempt to release her, Jessie doesn’t like the way she looks and dives in after her. He grabs the big fish and swims back to the boat with her like a lifeguard. We tow her alongside at idle speed to push some water through her gils and in a minute she kicks free and is gone. 

There is absolutely nothing like tarpon fishing. It’s a cruel mistress, but fish like that keep you coming back. Ninety-nine fish can give you the fin and swim down the beach. It only takes one. One fly, one cast, one fish, and one memory to last a lifetime.


Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline 
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6 thoughts on “One Fly, One Cast, One Tarpon

  1. Hope that you kept the broken rod section to hang on a wall somewhere to help keep this story alive. You couldn’t have done this without the help of the rod. When people see it and the picture of the fish and ask about them you get to live the story another time.

  2. I saw a big tarpon like that one time while I was bonefishing. It swam right beside the boat. I could see it approaching from well over a hundred feet away as it lazily made its way directly at us. I was so dumbstruck by watching it, I completely forgot about trying to make a cast. If you have never fished in saltwater, you might not understand how something like that could happen. If you have spent a bit of time fishing in saltwater, I have said everything I need to say.

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