Key Largo, Florida, 3 PM
"Don't screw this one up," Paul Dixon counsels in what passes for sensitive encouragement from a Florida Keys fly-fishing guide. "There must be at least 25 fish heading for you at one o'clock. They're 80 feet out. Be ready!"
From my perch on the bow of Dixon's 20-foot skiff, all I can see is a dark spot in the translucent water, moving swiftly across the flat, sandy bottom. Instantly, the spot becomes two dozen tarpon, each full of muscular movement and running up to seven feet long.
The tarpon rise to the surface like porpoises, their backs glistening in the late afternoon light. They make a whooshing sound as they break water. My adrenaline kicks in, as it always does when I'm in the presence of big fish.
"They're 70 feet out, moving to 12 o'clock. Start casting," Dixon commands.
The wind is blowing across my right shoulder. A difficult cast, but not impossible. I fling the fly line into the air.
I try to keep the cast low and under the wind. I try to lead the fish, to get an angle that will drop the fly into the school. I try not to tangle the line around my feet. I try to hold down my excitement, to let the fly sink to the level of the fish, to retrieve the fly at the same speed that a live shrimp would flee the area. In a word, I try just about everything.
The fish aren't feeding.
I lift my rod for one more shot at the school. Just as I've done a thousand times during the past four days, I reflexively flick the rod to set the line in motion. WHAM! I'm tight to a tarpon, not more than 10 feet from the boat. I'm not ready for it, and I don't react well. With a percussive shake of its head, the fish pulls the rod from my hand and sends it clattering to the deck. It spits the hook before I have a chance to recover and continues across the flat along with its brothers and sisters, bound for the Lower Keys and a few days of feasting on the tiny Palolo worms that hatch from the coral on the big moon tides of late spring.
Dixon doesn't say a word. He wears the look of a disaster survivor. He did his job, though — he put me onto fish. With luck, we'll get another shot. If not today, then tomorrow or the next day. The tarpon will keep moving until early July, making their return trip to the Keys in October from who knows where. When the fishing resumes in the fall, a few thousand sports will make the journey to the Keys to try for the biggest of fly-rod trophies. Although fishing for big brutes in the trackless ocean doesn't correspond to the tweedy image of the fly-rodder as a pipe-smoking wuss found on a country brook, the fact remains that saltwater fly-fishing has arrived on the sporting scene. And Dixon's specialty, sight fishing in shallow water, is generally regarded as its highest expression.
Saltwater fly-fishing takes flight.
Sight fishing is really voyeuristic fly-fishing. Standing on a four-foot poling platform in the stern of his Hewes Light Tackle 20, Dixon spots our quarry. He stalks it. I cast to it. I get one shot — maybe two if I'm lucky. As seeing your quarry rise to the fly is to trout fishing, so sight casting is to this rapidly developing sport.
It's not as if sight fishing were just invented. A fair number of fly-fishing cognoscenti have pursued bonefish, tarpon, and permit on the tidal flats of the Keys and the Bahamas since World War II. Then came the fly-rod boom, engendered in part by Robert Redford's film version of A River Runs Through It. The deep lore and mystique of fly-fishing were commonly associated with salmon and trout, and blue-ribbon streams were soon overrun with legions of neophytes.
Savvy fly-rodders are forsaking the long treks to crowded streams full of fly-wary trout. While fly-fishing is generally conceded to have peaked at something like 8 million anglers, saltwater fly-fishing has been growing at a double-digit rate for the past half-dozen years — with no indications of plateauing. In-the-know fly-anglers are spending more time on salt water. And as Dixon observes, "Time on the water teaches you about fish and new ways to take them."
Know your guide.
Paul Dixon, 43, grew up in Southern California, where the fly-rod pickings are rather slim. Even so, he fished for everything that swam, from Newport Beach clear down the Baja. There was something about the big rods, the long-distance casting, and the sheer size of ocean fish that turned him on and eventually turned him east, where he took a job at the Orvis store in New York. There he developed a clientele that still includes Rip Torn, Tom Brokaw, Henry Kravis, Robert Rubin, and Jimmy Buffett (whose fly, the Striper Viper, is highly rated by Dixon). In the winter he fished the Keys and refined his knowledge of the behavior of game fish in shallow water.
Sight fishing requires a number of skills, some of them technical, some of them social. You must understand the tides. Recognize the bait. Deliver the fly. And you must profit from that most intimate of angling relationships — the one between the angler and the guide. You are paying money for him (it's usually but not always a guy) to find fish. So when you get through all the posturing that invariably occurs between guide and sport, remember this: though he may question your skill, demean your character, impugn your ancestry, and undervalue your soul, you are on the same team. Listen and try to do what he says. He knows something you don't, something that might make you a better angler.
It's an axiom of psychoanalysis that "transference" — the basis of a one-to-one relationship — occurs in the first 10 minutes of the first meeting between doctor and patient. The same can be said of the guide and the sport. A good fishing guide sizes up the sport as soon as they meet.
"On the way to the flats I'm always asking questions," says Dixon. "The conversation tells me what kind of person I'm dealing with. Is he talkative? Can she take advice? Does he have much fishing experience?
"Just before we get to a flat," Dixon continues, "I spend five minutes explaining what it means when I say, 'there's fish at two o'clock.' You'd be surprised how many Ivy League grads have trouble passing Clock Reading 101."
How does Dixon handle alpha-wolf business types who aren't used to being bossed around?
"If a guy has a big ego," Dixon continues, "I'll say something like, 'You have a great cast, but you're a little uneven coming forward. Remember, it's the same stroke forward and backward.' Some people want you to criticize them very fully. Others don't want to hear any criticisms. I've learned that you lose them if you pester them. So I save my advice for the big stuff, the stuff that I know will really help them."
To catch fish, cast fast.
Casting is the prime skill required of the saltwater angler. You might be a superb caster on a trout stream, where delicate presentation is paramount. On the flats, delivery is the big variable: getting your fly to the fish and keeping it in the feeding zone. If you can react quickly to an oncoming school, you'll catch fish. If you can't, forget it.
Dixon has two insider tips for saltwater fly-casting. First, "Have six or seven feet of line out of the guides before you cast. Hold the fly in your hand. That way, when I point out a fish you just flick the rod back, and you'll have some line to begin pulling your cast out quickly."
Second, minimize the false casting. "A saltwater line is a lot heavier in the front than a trout line. Once you have the heavy part out of the guides, just haul off and shoot the line at the fish. The flex of the rod and the weight of the line will carry your fly."
That minimize-the-false-casting tip is crucial for the freshwater angler making the transition to salt water. False casting is the angler's most common failing. Instinctively, you try to get as much line in the air as possible before you release the cast. The result? The cast falls apart in the wind. Brute force will do you no good. It's all about timing, and timing is something you learn by doing.
Elliot Key, Florida, 6:30 AM
Pods of tarpon are making their way along the coastline. The air is still. The water is as smooth as glass. If we try to get close, the fish will see us and scatter. Dixon calls for a 70-foot cast. He tells me to lay it out in front of the lead fish, at an angle that will keep the fly in sight of the school for as long as possible. I cast, haul, cast, haul, cast one more time, and let the fly go. That extra false cast eats up precious time and adds nothing to my distance. The fly falls short of the school. The fish pass by.
"Take another shot, now!" Dixon orders. I turn and get off a quicker cast. It isn't optimal. It lands in the middle of the pod, although one fish fakes a run at the fly. The fish might well have hit if it had taken a longer look. This situation calls for a backward cast.
Dixon explains: "You're facing the fish. You get off a cast. They go right by you. If you turn around to take a going-away shot, you give the fish time to get out of range. Instead of turning, just stay where you are, get up a head of line speed and let the cast go in back of you, without an exaggerated release."
He demonstrates. When Paul Dixon takes up a rod, he's almost a human extension of the graphite wand in his hand. Addicted with the same middle-aged paunch that I carry around, he somehow seems to lose 20 pounds when he gets into a casting crouch. He hauls twice and lets the fly go in back of him. Within five seconds he's sent 70 feet of line into the air. I advise you to work on this cast. It will absolutely double your shots at cruising fish.
Ugly is good, uglier is baaad.
It's called fly-fishing, and I've said very little about flies. Saltwater flies are, frankly, pretty redneck when compared with the partridge hackle, jungle cock, and urine-stained vixen fur of troutdom. Case in point: the Whatever, a particularly low-rent-looking concoction of pink marabou, crystal chenille, lead eyes, and long legs made of rubber bands. Showing up at a purist trout conclave with a fly like this would be like serving Tastykakes for dessert at Le Cirque.
In fact, when Long Island angler Rick Williams showed it to Dixon, he pretty much dismissed it. But, Dixon recalls, "When my friend caught a 41-inch striped bass with it, I decided to give it a try. Guess what? The stripers were all over it. Rather than tracking it as they do with a conventional pattern, they reacted to it as they would to a crab. They were afraid it would get away, so they'd rush it and engulf it in a furious take. It's now my main fly on the flats, even if it is ugly as hell."
Gardiner's Bay, Long Island, 3:30 PM
I get a chance to see the Whatever in action. Dixon has just returned from the Keys to his home port of East Hampton, Long Island. All through our Florida tarpon trek, Dixon had passed the time with stories about flats fishing at the end of Long Island, where a ban on commercial fishing has enabled the striped bass to stage a remarkable comeback. I thought there might be a bit of hyperbole in his description — a common failing of the guide class. It turns out that Dixon was right.
Dixon steers his skiff through Gardiner's Bay, just north and west of Montauk, 90 miles from New York City. He cuts the motor and poles along a flat to a spot I've never fished in the daytime, because the know-it-alls say that stripers disappear in bright sunlight. Dixon knows better. The flat flashes white and gold in the sun. Not 20 feet from shore a beautiful bass cruises by in less than 3 feet of water.
Dixon points out the fish. I let go a cast. The bass ignores me. I back-cast as it passes the boat. Following great advice from Dixon, I let the fly sink down to the fish's line of sight.
Good thing, because the bass follows the Whatever straight to the boat. If it looks up, it'll see us. It doesn't. Instead the bass opens its mouth, flares its gills, and sucks in the fly. I strike. The fish runs. I can see its every movement against the sand flat's brilliantly lit background. A few satisfying minutes later I lift the bass by the lower lip. It's 30 inches long, all silver, black, and white. I release it and it swims off. We continue down the shoreline, spotting many more stripers cruising placidly over the sandy flats, as beautiful and unsuspecting as mermaids.
Peter Kaminsky (email@example.com) writes the "Outdoors" column for the "New York Times" and is the author of "Fishing for Dummies" (IDG Books, 1997).