My last year as a professional skiff guide was 1992......the year Hurricane Andrew slammed into Homestead, Florida. Andrew changed my life in many ways for the better.
In July of that year, about four weeks before Andrew hit, I was poling a Sport along the Key Largo shoreline. We were seeing a good number of bonefish and all at once he whipped out his cellular telephone and placed a call to his Zurich office to check on the days price of Euro-Yen on the international market.
I wondered then, and still do, exactly what synapses might have to fire in the brain, and in what order, to cause a fellow on the shoreline of Key Largo, looking at bonefish, to think of placing a call to Switzerland. That was my introduction to cellular phones. I hated them, vowed never to personally own one and thought to put a clause in my literature banning them from my skiff.
As the 20th century wound down, I wound up getting a cel phone and reluctantly became as dependent upon them as the rest of the modern world. I still hate them! Those silly little rings and annoying beeps that remind me of the sound track of a Benny Hill T.V. show.
I hated cel-phones until yesterday morning........I was headed for the post office to mail some fly samples to Lefty Kreh. On the truck seat next to me was the Devil Cel-Phone. It rang that silly, Toys-R-Us ring...... "Hey Flip, it's Bill Bishop, I'm out on the Indian River hooked up to a sure enough world record tarpon on six pound tippet. I'm by myself and could sure use some help if you can get away."
Bill was on his cel-phone calling me on my cel-phone. What a country!
It was 9:30 in the morning. "How long have you been hooked up?" I asked. "For about half an hour" he breathlessly responded. I've been following this fish with my trolling motor since I hooked up but the battery is running down."
I was fifteen minutes away from a marina near where Bill was hooked up on the River. He flagged down two anglers that he knew and they agreed to run to the marina, pick me up and take me to where Bill and high adventure waited. All these arrangements were made by cel-phone.
It was a perfect day to set a world record. Clear sky, no breeze at all, no more than six feet of water anywhere within 30/06 range, a great angler on the bow and a totally committed boatman at the stern (that would be me). I figured this should take an hour or so; another hour to get the fished officially weighed and measured and then of course, the obligatory celebration.......which might take longer than the catch and would surely involve adult beverages.
No thought was given to rain gear, sun screen, water, food, flashlights or extra fuel. We would wind up needing them all. Things were gonna get ugly.
As Bill's friends left in the other boat, I tilted the electric trolling motor inboard and fired up Bill's 40 H.P. Merc. I began to take stock of the challenge at hand. "Hey Bill, I'll be needing a pair of gloves.......and where's the kill gaff for when we get the fish up alongside the skiff?" No answer from Bill. Perhaps he hadn't heard me. I glanced toward the bow and got a glimpse of Bill with his head bowed and his lip pooched out. "There is no kill gaff" he softly uttered to the ether. "I do have a pair of gloves under that rear hatch." Not having a kill gaff would at some time mean that I would be handling a six pound test class tippet. I really didn't look forward to that but didn't want to put additional stress on Bill. The gloves would let me get a good grip on the tarpon's lower jaw, but without that kill gaff the fish would have to be completely played out before we took a chance at boating it. I figured I could just snatch the fishes jaw, drag it over the gunwale of the skiff and we'd be in the record book.
That was before I got my first good look at the fish.
Just moments after getting started, the tarpon it made its first jump in my presence. This was a very big fish. Especially on six pound tippet with no kill gaff. My best guess put the fish over 100 pounds. Bill, who'ss a good hand at judging tarpon, agreed.
A plan developed. "We're going to herd this tarpon, using the skiff, onto the shallows over by those bombing targets. Once he's in that shallow water we'll get this fish pretty quickly even if I have to jump on top of it" I predicted.
Herding tarpon is exactly like herding cattle, sheep, or emus.......except that it doesn't work! Wild tarpon are just exactly that......WILD! Nothing I tried with that skiff remotely resembled herding. The tarpon merely did whatever it wished, to our complete frustration. My vaquero days were over!
I decided that we would resort to my favorite technique. Based on high school physics, the tactic of using angles and direction of pressure works well in all fish fighting situations. Surely it would bail us out here. Bill knows the technique. He's great at it and has a knack for sensing the maximum amount of drag that a situation will permit. Like a well oiled machine we teamed up on the fish; me using the boat to set up directions of pressure and Bill applying the pressure. This would be over before long.
After nearly an hour, Bill asked me to pass him the bottle of water that was against the rear bulkhead of the cockpit. "Is this all the water we have?" I asked. "I never planned on being here for very long" he responded. I was getting thirsty myself. I'd leave the water for Bill......He was working harder in that heat than I was.
By 1:00 P.M. it was really hot! Those having fished Central Florida in August will remember the temperatures hovering around triple figures. The humidity right there as well. They'll remember those towering, cumulus clouds making up each afternoon, their pink undersides rolling outward while their tops anvil over. Distant peals of thunder announced the afternoon inevitable. This day was classic. How could I not have thought to bring rain-gear?
The tarpon moved steadily south in the direction of the building weather. When it came to a point west of the Haulover Canal, it turned east in the Canal's deeper, cooler water and seemingly gained strength. I was getting thirsty.
At 2:45 P.M. we had followed the fish through Haulover Canal and were entering Mosquito Lagoon. The fish made straight east for the south end of Tiger Shoal and shallow water. We were getting a break! I took a small drink from the water bottle. Not much left. As the tarpon neared the shallow water I began to smell the roses. Finally this fish had made a mistake. Bill and I both sensed that we could soon end this now six hour battle. It was beginning to rain.
Rain may not be the right word. Suddenly I couldn't see Bill's fly line through the downpour. Hell, I couldn't see the front of the skiff. The lightning strikes and thunder claps were simultaneous. From under the bills of our fishing caps we looked at one another and smiled........
Nothing but a little Summer freshet which would cool things off and invigorate us. Wrong again.
Soon we were freezing and the only one who seemed invigorated was the tarpon.
The squall broke apart after about 45 minutes and miraculously lightning failed to strike the skiff. The battle moved North.
The cel-phone rang. It was Bill's wife Jane calling to see who had won the battle. "It's Flip, Janie, Bill is still fighting the fish. We'll call you when it's over." She wished us good luck.
It was getting to be late afternoon and the struggle had taken us three quarters of the way North along the Mosquito Lagoon. Bill seemed to be making some progress. He was backing the fish up now and then. I put on the gloves.
An hour later my hands were really getting hot and sweaty. I took off the gloves. The phone rang......."Hey Flip, it's Keith Holcomb, I heard you guys were battling a really great fish and I just wanted to wish you well. How's Bill keeping?" The call was short but encouraged us. We were eight and one half hours into this fish.
At 6 p.m. a whopper of a storm came at us from the South. Lightning was spider webbing across the rooftops in the small town of Oak Hill as we followed the tarpon northward, now in the deeper Intercoastal Waterway. The tarpon made a sudden run and series of greyhounding jumps to the east across the Waterway. Another skiff with two anglers aboard saw the fracas and pulled up alongside. "Need any help?" one asked. "Man, we could sure use some cool water if you have any" I answered. They did. We drank. It was heaven sent!
"You've been on that fish since nine this morning?" he said, disbelieving. "That's right. With no food or water" Bill replied. That's all these guys needed to hear. Their skiff was on plane in seconds, headed north. Soon they were back with sandwiches and cold drinks. They fed us and stayed around for a couple of hours directing traffic in the Waterway so that passing boats would not cut Bill's fish off. They left after dark, wishing us well.
8 p.m., another phone call. "Flip, it's Billy (Bill's Son). I heard about the battle. All of Orlando knows about it. Do you guys need anything? Never mind, I'm going to trailer my boat over the New Smyrna Beach, launch and meet up with you guys. I'll bring a headlight, some beer and sandwiches..........See you in about 45 minutes!"
Right away the phone rang again. My wife Diane. "What happened to you? You were going to be gone for an hour or so and you've dissappeared". I filled her in and she wished us well. "Call me on the cel-phone when it's over" she ended.
Bill had an idea......."Grab the phone and call Scott Tripp, a local guide on the river. Scott will have a kill gaff and will probably bring it to us. His number is programmed into my cel phone."
I gave Scott a call. He had already heard from a friend that Bill was fighting a big fish on the River. "We're not on the River any more Scott. I said. The fish took us through Haulover and up the Lagoon. Right now we're in the Intercoastal Waterway at Oak Hill. Can you bring us a kill gaff?" "I'm on my way!" he said, and I could hear his sneakers hitting the terrazzo before he hung up. He really was on the way!
It wasn't long before we spotted Scott's skiff screaming through Shotgun Pass, heading our way. Scott anchored his skiff down at the edge of the Waterway and jumped in with us. He had brought some water and the kill gaff.
The storm wrapped around us and blew alternatingly warm and cold bands of air as the lightning continued to blast just west of Oak Hill. It looked like Fourth of July fireworks and illuminated the fly line often enough to allow me to keep the skiff positioned. I kept thinking about that flashlight that Billy was bringing. He should be along shortly.
By 10:00 P.M. the water had come alive with phosphorescence, which old time Florida folks call "Fire in the water". Every single thing that moves in the water takes on a bright, blue, green glow for as long as it's moving. The moment it stops moving it stops glowing. Fire in the water is shocking to witness that very first time. It's hard to describe this phenomenon to someone who has never seen it. Small shrimp and baitfish on the surface glow like comets blazing across the night sky. The engine and the boat hull are aglow as they move through the water. The fly line glows as it's dragged along, cutting the surface leaving a blue, green scar, and most amazing of all is the incredible glow of the tarpon as it jumps free of the water, leaving a million glowing droplets suspended above the surface. As I try to discribe fire in the water I realize that it really can't be done.......It's not just me..........It can't be done! Your own eyes have to see it. I hope they will.
Billy, the beer and the sandwiches arrived at 11:00 P.M. We could see the glow in the water as Billy's skiff approached from the north. The tarpon had stopped travelling and was swimming back and forth across the Waterway. He was staying on the bottom in the cooler water.
We took this to be a good omen. I surrendered the skiffs tiller to Scott and laid the gaff along the gunwale. It might be needed soon. Bill's phone rang. "Hey, it's Jeff McFadden.......are you guys still with that fish?".
This was unbelievable. The middle of the night, food delivery, cel phone communication with the entire Central Florida fishing community, fire in the water, lightning in the sky and a fish and an angler still in the game after almost fifteen hours. "We're still at it Jeff", I said. "We'll call you when it's over".
A slow, steady beeping from the phone.........The battery was about gone.
The tarpon had stayed within the same 75 square yard area of the Inland Waterway for over an hour. It was 12:15 A.M.. Billy stood off a short distance in his skiff, hoping to see the landing of the world record; every now and then encouraging his Dad. Suddenly he yelled, "Guys, look behind your boat!" I spun around, looked past Scott, who still held the tiller, and saw two huge, fast moving, glowing dolphin shapes pass the skiff on the port side. As they came abreast of us they simultaneously broke the surface with a loud WHOOSH, taking air (I think it was a whoosh). The glow was fantastic and they made a clicking or pinging sound as they passed. Their glow faded about 50 feet in front of the skiff. Just about where the tarpon was. The tarpon and the dolphin were along the bottom.
All at once the drag on Bill's reel began to scream! Really scream! Like it hadn't done in the past fifteen hours. 25 yards ahead of the boat the tarpon shattered the flat calm surface of the black water, sailing five feet into the air, re entering the water with a blue, green crash. On either side of the fish a glowing dolphin........all three now moving north.
They stayed together for the next thirty minutes. Not almost together, or nearly together, but really together. Same speed, same course..........seemingly in touch with one another; connected by some inconceivable bond. I'm not given to anthropomorphism, but unquestionably these dolphin were helping the tarpon.
The lights of New Smyrna Beach came into view around a bend in the Waterway. "This is a really bad area for oyster bars" Scott said. As the man made lights grew brighter, the fire in the water began to fade. We could see the dolphin and the tarpon waking ahead of the boat, silhouetted against the city lights. We could also see the oyster bars to our left and right.
Bill kept steady pressure on the tarpon, a long bend in the bottom of his nine weight, the tip pointed straight at the traveling fish. I watched the trio ahead of the skiff as I tried to keep us in the perfect position. I was watching Bill at the very instant that the six pound tippet very unceremoniously parted. The rod recoiled slightly backward and up. For the very first time in sixteen hours, Bill Bishop was not straining against a tarpon.
In my fishing lifetime I've seen hundreds of fish lost for one reason or another. I've been a member of a good number of fishing teams in a good number of fish fights. Never one that lasted sixteen hours. Never a fight so skillfully fought. Certainly, never one involving so many telephone calls!
The moment Bill realized that the fish had won, he turned to Scott and I and said....."What a FANTASTIC day this has been! I can't thank you guys enough for your help". There was no uttering of oaths. There was no.....I shoulda' this, that or the other thing. He simply smiled, sat down on the front deck and massaged his cramping hands. He might have asked for a beer......I can't remember.
Bill had lots of help during this very long day. And that's the way it's supposed to be. I felt privileged to have been a part of it all and to have helped in some way. As it turned out, the tarpon may have had some help as well. We'll never know if it was the dolphin, an oyster bar or a very tired class tippet that ended the fight in favor of the fish. We' re not meant to know.
The phone rang. It was Jane. "It's over" Bill said. "The fish is gone and we're headed for home".
The "low Battery Light" quit blinking. The cel phone was gone too.