Carrabelle is in the 'armpit' of Florida (look on a map) and
about three-and- half hour drive from home. If you don't live
up near Tallahassee and don't have a cabin sixty miles south,
you might never get to see this quaint area. It is worth seeing.
Unc Smith and I just returned from a trip there, once again in
quest of the giant tarpons roaming the Florida coast. We
found them and our arms were almost pulled out of their
sockets after playing with them. Why Carrabelle? Tarpon are
along the coast but only a few places offer shallow water and
a bottom you can see the fish against. And, that is where Steve
Kilpatrick was fishing at this time. We had picked the dates a
bunch of months back and would have gone anywhere he was
Unc has fished with Steve for the last three years and I had one
day with him last year. The story about the big one I hooked
last year was with him but in Homosassa.
Steve is the guide to go with for this sport. He was then
and even more so now, as he just got the certification for the first
tarpon over 200 pounds on a fly last month. Unc got to know
and fish with him in the 'off' times through an old connection.
You do have to wait for someone to die to get a slot and if you
want April or May in Homosassa. Then, the list of those waiting
for a slot would make it about 2010.
We stayed in a cabin rented from one of our buddies in the local
fly club but Steve is housed in a "'poon camp." It is a house owned
by a fisherman and kept for only this reason. It is a small place on
the outside with plenty of room to park boats and cars and 200 feet
from the boat ramp at a small bump in the road called Lanark. The
walls are covered with pictures of catches the house visitors have
made. There is one picture of Steve's big catch. Steve, a strapping
six foot two hundred ten pounds of muscle guy, looked like a ten
year old next to a fish that was nine foot long and forty-eight inches
around the middle. The story is coming out when properly written
and controlled. You will see plenty of Steve and this fish soon.
The youngster that caught it was happy to have the title of the
"First 200 pound Tarpon on a Fly," but turned all the advertising
and promotion rights over to Steve. As far as the part of the
fisherman in a success story like this, there is a bunch of skill
and a little luck, but the guide is more than most of the story
of such a catch.
I will buy one of the pictures, eventually, but for a mere $2500 you
can order a 'museum' quality replica made from a mold of 'the' fish,
out of fiberglass, for your wall. Most of my rooms will not have
room and it is longer than the beds. I don't know where my wife
Kathy will let me keep it.
The first morning of this trip Steve told the big fish story and then
we took off to see if we could find something like that for us to
pull on. That fish and all the really big ones seem to come from
Homosassa. Up at Carabelle most of the fish are smaller and
Steve leaves down south and works up the coast as the fishing
peters out in one area and starts in the next area north.
The 'poons start in the Keys in April and end up going by even
our place in Fort Walton ending in July through Sept. Steve does
his art form through sight fishing. Sight fishing with a fly means
seeing the fish on the bottom and that counts out grassy, muddy
bottoms and deep places. Since many of Steve's customers are
chasing world records and the six and eight-pound line weight
records are in the eighty-pound range, the hundred pounders in
Carabelle fill the bill. The lack of fishing pressure on these fish
(they bite readily if presented a fly correctly) helps make this
area good for records. He stays up there for a month and half
each year fishing 45 of the 200-day season.
A hundred pound 'poon on a six weight line takes a long time to
land. The 'two hundred and two' pound fish on a twenty pound
'class tippet' took a little less than three hours, if I remember the
story, but he talked about a thirteen hour fight on the lighter line.
If you cannot get the fish in by dark or a storm comes up it has
to be broken off. He mentioned being thirteen miles off shore
following a fish and almost not making it back in rough weather.
OK, now for our story: The night before was a stormy thing
and tides, most important aspect of saltwater fishing, were not
until late afternoon. We went on a ride in the boat about eleven
and found nothing but muddy water everywhere in a five-mile
area. Nothing could be seen to throw at so we opted for a nap.
We went back out at about four and the tide had cleared out
one spot but we saw we had poor chances to put anything in
the 'mailbox' at all. The mailbox is about a yard off the nose,
with the first movement of the fly moving away from the big
fish. If you are too far away and/or the first strip (pulling the
line in while the rod is pointed at the fly) is towards the fish,
it is not natural. Nothing, and I mean nothing, forgets to run
away from the big mouth of one of these monsters.
We did get to see some of the fish going by and the drool was
forming in the corner of Unc's mouth. I don't get excited like
he does but I have to admit the fish are impressive. The
conditions were such that we did not have a fighting chance
to deliver the right presentation.
We retreated after a big discussion on if we should drive south
to clear water and try again. Steve phoned all over the state to
a network of buddies to try and make the correct call. We parted
at dusk with a planned call at 0630 the next morning to make the
decision. Steve keeps a full computer weather watch at the camp.
Unc and I did the appropriate thing while TDY and had a toddy
or two and big fish dinner at the local fish house and went to bed
early after telling many lies to anyone who would listen.
I got up at 0430 and could see a full sky of stars and the treetops
showed no wind at all. Hope was confirmed when we had the
0630 chat. 0830 was launch time. Unc and I spent time discussing
tactics waiting for the aspirin to kick in.
In the boat on the way out I could see the water was gin clear but
we did have an overcast sky. Without the sun it is hard to see
much but it is possible to fish if the bottom offers good contrast.
The fish are large and dark on the topside. They even roll and
take food or even "bloop/blip." A 'bloop' or a 'blip' is coming
to the surface and taking a big breath of fresh air. They make a
telltale sound like the name sounds. I've now heard both names
used. It could be that some of them have stuffed up noses. As
big as they are they don't "push" water as bonefish or redfish do.
Perhaps they pick the depth better but mostly they are very
efficiently designed and unless they accelerate to eat of run
they don't make a wake.
Steve passed five boats all lined up on a famous spot where the
fish funnel though and have for years. I guess the first in line
had been there for hours to have the prime place. Fishing cannot
start until the sun is up enough to see the fish. We pulled up and
anchored on a five foot deep spot with just about a thirty foot
long and wide patch of white sand on the south east side of the
boat. Steve pointed to a spot and said the fish will come out of
that dark spot and we will see them right about here and you will
throw the fly about there. It was going to be a thirty-foot shot
or less. He also stated we would be lucky if the fish blooped
just before coming into view, as they would be running into a
slight rise in the bottom and turning to follow that under water
ridge. There was not another boat within a half mile of us.
Within three minutes a fish "blew up" right beside us and then
another on the back side as they came up without us seeing them
before they saw us. A blow up is a large swirl in the water or even
a big splash as a tail brakes the surface. We did not quite have
the light to see much yet in sun angle of cloud clearance. Steve
pulled up the anchor and threw it out ten feet ahead and pulled
us up ten more feet. With that adjustment Unc got the first
'shot' at a fish. Timing was poor but excitement was fine and
he missed. The argument started as to if that was a 'shot' or not.
We were to change fisherman after a good shot or half-hour.
The shooter stands on a platform on the front of the 17-foot
flats boat and the guide stands on a taller platform over the
motor. The non-shooter picks his nose sitting in the middle
while telling jokes.
Unc was up first because he leapt up first and I thought it better
to pick my fights better than the first moment of fishing. Unc
had said, last night, that he has several big fish under his belt and
he was going to let me fish most of the time until I had a couple.
I knew what he said was not under the testosterone glaze of battle
and the 'evil' Unc would show up when the fish were flowing by.
I have experience with this. The evil twin was who jumped up
first thing. He got another shot but several fish went by just out
of range and Steve moved us over about a hundred feet to a big
long sand bar. Steve helped me with claiming that was a 'good'
shot and I got up. We could see the fish better here and he thought
the tide was starting to come in and this would be the next place to
be. He was right and we both got shots but with the light not just
right yet we had little time to get the shot in the right place. We
did get a couple of fish to look at them closely and if they did that
and did not bite, Steve declared that color bad and we would
Unc got the first shot with the right color and in the right place about
1130 and hooked up. I forgot what that was like but as an observer
I could see this all happen first hand. I am glad I did, as I would
have blown it big time. The fish took the fly about twenty feet out
and took off like a Bangkok taxi offered twenty dollars to hurry.
It reached the edge of the weed bed and went vertical thrashing
his head all over the place and landed with a mighty splash. Unc
did the correct thing and "bowed" to let the pressure off for the
landing. The pole, which is up at a slight angle, is let down and
pointed at the fish if done correctly. The fish did not come off
so he did it right. The fish started a long run to deep water while
Steve coached the fisherman, unhooked the anchor and started
the motor to follow the fish. He ran the boat up as Unc reeled
in some of the hundred yards the fish took on the run to get back
'on the belly' of the fly line.
The fly line is the last hundred feet of line before the nine-foot leader.
The line is not uniform in thickness and the fat part starts at the
middle and goes to the end to help casting. The start is the fat
part is the belly. So Steve wants you to fight the fish from the
belly or about fifty feet in front of the boat. While this closure
is going on the fish is jumping about every other minute. And,
Unc has a small bird nest size tangle that came off the floor of
the boat when the fish ran. It went through all his rod guides
on the way out and he got it back in through all of them. The
next run it went out again but it was going to be a problem
somewhere in the fight. Steve gave me the helm and told me
keep up with the fish in speed so he could undo the knot.
I did and he did with Unc keeping pressure on the line while
the knot was off the pole and reel back in the boat with Steve
untangling it. That accomplished and Unc back to the hard
pressure on the fish and Steve handing the boat, I got the camera
out to try to catch the fish in air over Unc's shoulder. It was now
five minutes into the fight and we argued about when it started.
Unc was going to land all fish in the first eighteen minutes.
A half-hour later, thirty-five minutes into the 'eighteen minute'
fight and Unc complaining about minor aches and pains, I had
a drink break. We were alternating between catching up to the
belly and watching Unc put pressure on the fish. When in
twelve-foot water, Unc and the fish did laps around and under
boat. I even had to get up and move my Pepsi twice. The
fish was still jumping occasionally and I was taking pictures.
I think the timing on the camera was off, it would try to focus
before shooting, got a lot of splashes on film. Several times
Steve was up front with the gaff ready to do a little hook in the
lips but the fish would see him and pull away. Unc would
groan. I would have had a lunch by then but someone hid
the lunch bucket in the back of my truck and it did not get
noticed and was left behind.
At fifty-five minutes on the clock Steve gaffed the fish and Unc
stopped his moaning. Steve unhooked and pulled him up to
standing and the three of them posed for many happy snaps.
Steve started the motor and we dragged the hundred-pounder
into shallow water to keep a shark from getting an easy lunch.
The fish got frisky with all the water and lack of pressure on
him and swam off after giving Unc one last evil eye. A fish
that big, is six-feet long and, perhaps, 38 inches around. They
look bigger than that. Most fish are not gaffed like that but
Unc wanted to have a 'hero shot' for his wall. Usually the fight
ends with the fish up to the boat and either unhooked if it can
be done safely or broken off there. The fly hooked in the lip
of this size fish is not much to carry until it rusts away.
It was now my turn and I thanked Unc for fighting through
the whole good time of the running tide. He did take it on a
ten weight rod and line so he might have been given some
lea way. . . not!
I mounted up again when we got back to the anchor, which
was marked by a float. Unc said later that he would have
made me stay up there until I got a fish but he did not have
to put that to a test as I had fish on at the second try within
two minutes. This one took it looking right at me out about
fifteen feet as I stripped. When his mouth opened I felt like I
was looking down the intake of an F-16 fighter. He immediately
turned and headed for the deep but did a fancy jump at about
thirty feet off the nose. I had this strange feeling that I was
doing the neatest thing in the whole world, sort of like the
first time having sex. I did not know what I was doing then
either but at least this time I had Steve to advise me.
He got the boat going and the line was pointing off to the left
a little as the fish came out of the water . . . way off to the right.
I was pulling as hard as I could without breaking the line and
could not see the big bow in the line. I reeled as fast as I could
while Steve caught me up to the fly line. Steve shut off the motor
and the fish reversed and ran again off to the left this time while
I was fighting the line to my right. You have to keep the pole
right at the line pull angle or you will break the pole. This run
caught me with my fingers on the crank handle and I got a
crack on the left-hand trigger finger that sounded like a broken
bat single in pony league. Steve pulled us up to the fish again
and I put the pressure on him hard. He 'wallowed' and that
meant he was getting beat. I got him to the boat and almost
in Steve's reach a couple of times. Boy, was this guy big up
close. He pulled down under the boat, which made me put
the pole under the water and pull it around under the front
of the boat. I was pulling he fish backward to let Steve
unhook it and the line snapped. That was counted as a
'catch' as he was beaten and at the boat.
The fight was twelve minutes. I asked to go back to the spot
and get the rest of my half-hour. Unc had hidden my camera
so only used his to take pictures. I bet all he got was my fat butt
and splashes. I had done such a professional job on his, too.
I even took one without his belly in it. That was a tough task.
We spent the rest of day throwing at fish but did not have much
luck. The clouds came back and it was hard to see them again.
We went in early as Unc was showing signs of needing a nap.
I, of course, would have stayed until midnight.
That night the recounting of the stories made for difficult
conversation. We had the stale sandwiches for dinner and
then hit a local bar on the water. Somehow the many
explanations as to why a bigger fish was caught in less
time came up. "Every 'poon is different," "the lighter
rod theory," " the difference in fifty-five and twelve is
really not that much," and "there must have been sharks
in the area" were all tried. It was not mentioned that I was
using twenty-pound leader and he was using fifty. I slept
well that night without a moment of thought about fighting
time and big fish.
The last day was going to be good from the get go. The
tides and winds were good all night. I took care of the lunch
this time so someone could not 'hide' it again. We launched
without me mentioning the twelve minutes except, when I
noted aloud it was; "twelve minutes to nine." If I saw a flinch
it was like the 'green flash.' That is a seldom seen sunset thing
sailors watch for like the submarine races in high school.
Guess what? On the ride out there were only a couple of boats
on the 'famous' Turkey point and there were no less than six
boats anchored at Steve's spot from yesterday. I guess when
you start your motor a couple of times in sight of others and
have big fish slamming about in the water for fifty-five minutes,
let alone war whoops from some fisherman, you might risk
giving up your secret spots.
The first spot on the little opening from the day before was
open and Steve set up on it again. Another boat just came
up within fifty feet an asked if that would bother us. Steve
knew him and knew he could not hope for fish where he was
and said, "no problem." We did get to see a few fish but
Steve said it was not right to be there anyway for the conditions.
The spot we caught both fish was covered with boats and a fish
might run into a motor if it tried to use that path. Steve stayed
for a little and fired up and left. We exited to the east and went
out of sight of the other boats looking for clear water. There
was none that way so we skirted around the inside of the massed
up boats and headed back west towards the dock. The guys
on the good spot must have not noticed us, or thought we left
in 'deep despair.'
Not so at all, Steve took us around to another spot he figured
would be perfect if the clouds would clear a little. No sooner
than we set up and got the line ready and we were throwing at
fish. The ability to see them was poor because of light but we
had plenty of shots. In a few minutes Unc had the perfect long
shot and hooked the fish way out to the left in the shallows.
This one was big and did the same jumping start as the others
had and Steve unhooked and was starting the motor when the
monster jumped and broke the line. That counted as a 'jumped'
fish and what many folks come for. Steve said he saw the fish
had swallowed the hook and the line was through the hinge of
the jaw. Any size of line would not have mattered, as a cut off
would have happened sooner or later in any case. Unc did have
the drag down a little heavy. I am sure he was not thinking of
'twelve minutes' at all. We re-hooked to the anchor and went
through a couple of cycles of lots of shots. The angles were
hard for me to get a good shot because of the wind and my
crappy skills in the wind. One time Steve changed the anchored
end of the boat for me. It helped but would cause a problem
later in the day. I was still stressed and frustrated at seeing
great fish and throwing bad shots. Unc knows I get this way
and was secretly pretending to be sympathetic. He knows I
know that sympathy comes between some special words in
the dictionary too. He was more than happy to get up on the
platform and let me stew.
I cooled off while Unc had a fish 'eat' but not hook. I had one
of those the last afternoon. The fish makes the determination
to eat the fly and opens his mouth. He can't see a thing and
just sucks in a giant gulp. It should have your fly in the gallon
of water taken in but if you are really crafty as a fisherman you
can snatch it out of his mouth. Anyway, I got up again with
that shot and somehow delivered a perfect cast in all that wind
and imperfect mastery of mine and hooked up a big one again.
Same start as the rest but this one was a jumper. Unc even had
my camera this time but he thought he might have taken splashes
again. I did get my finger rapped again but not so hard and Steve
kept me in the belly. The fish did some jumps that I finally got
the 'bow' right on the last two. Had I not had a heavy (50) leader
I might have lost the fish on the first jump. Twelve minutes went
by pretty fast and the fish was showing 'wallowing' signs but was
still out in front at twenty or thirty feet and making short runs that
Steve would have to fire up and chase down. I got him up to the
boat and he almost took me around the back a couple of times.
I actually got him pulled upside down a few times but he was big
and would get a short run away each time I got him to the boat.
Steve finally tried to get down and grab him but that would scare
him into a short burst. I was just getting so I could pull him
backwards back to the boat by backing away from the side
of the boat and then the knot we used on the leader gave way.
He was counted as a 'caught' fish but not released perfectly.
Twenty-five minutes had elapsed on the clock. Steve estimated
this one at slightly larger than the one yesterday, over one
We almost got a couple others to eat but the clouds came up
and then the rain. After a half-hour waiting for it to clear up,
Steve noticed we were not clearing the water that came over
the bow in the waves hitting us. The boost pump had failed.
Not 'clearing' the water was really the PC way to say
sinking. Not to worry much as we were in three
feet of water within two hundred feet of an island. We lifted
the anchor and then tried to power up on the plane to get home.
It was a ten-minute ride, a lot harder than fighting a big 'poon.
Unc and I were sent to the front to allow for the back to get
out of the water. It worked but hitting the waves on the way
back was not too good on any backs. We obviously made
it and it was a heck of a good day as it stood. It was early
so we were going to get home early.
The drive home was started and restarted when we had to return
twice for items placed on the boat and forgotten in the rush of
things getting in and out of the weather. The famous lunch box
was one and my cell phone was the other. I did not figure out
how Unc got me to forget both of them but I guess he had a
hand in it.
I sure hope we can keep doing this once or twice a year and
with Steve if possible. His next 'victim' was standing on the
ramp when we returned. He was in his seventies and has had
a week with Steve every year for the last fifteen. I want to be
in his shoes in twenty years.
Watch the sports mags for the biggest fly fishing story of the
century. I hope this success does not bump the prices too
much. Steve's fame could push us back down the list too.
He fished with Jack and Jackie Nicklaus a few weeks before
us. I guess we could get richer or more famous if needed.
~ Scud Yates