Fish This!

Falling into place


Sometimes there is a story that needs to be told, and while this one may be unrelated to our northern home, fall is upon us, it’s a time of change, time for a change.
And this is truly a fishing story.
It started with a dream. An autumn dream many years ago when I lived in Florida, Port Tampa to be exact. I awoke with one clear image from faded nighttime wanderings: I was looking down at my gold and black Penn 750SS reel, firmly attached to a yellow Eagle Claw rod, and the 20-pound line was screaming from the reel.
That was it, except for the emotion that accompanied the image, the feeling that everything was simply right.
I stumbled from my bedroom to the living room, where my roommate, Scott, was already awake and sipping a cup of black coffee. As he glanced in my direction I said with no hesitation, “Today, we’re going fishing.”
I dressed quickly and gathered my gear, all of it, especially the rig I had dreamt of, and put it all into the back of my van.
Scott was ready in no time, which was odd as he had never been one to come along on a fishing trip, but he must have sensed the severity of the situation within my voice. Scott was usually happy inside of one of his college schoolbooks, or strumming random chords on his guitar. Today he was going fishing, and that was that.
While climbing into the van my mind asked the question, “Where are we going to fish?” The answer was suddenly there; the Gandy Bridge, of course. Hadn’t that been the place in the dream? Didn’t I remember the splintered boards of the catwalk creaking beneath my feet?
Maybe. It was hard to say for sure, but it was less than 15 minutes away and I was already getting an anxious feeling in my legs forcing me to tap my feet.
As we made our way, I went over some information with Scott. He had fished before, mostly from a boat, so he knew the basics. I told him we were quite likely going to get into something big and provided details on how to use the bridge gaff, which was a large treble hook tied to a piece of sturdy rope.
“The current at the Gandy is strong,” I said. “And you’re about 12 feet over the surface. So you’ll have to drop it into the water and let the current draw it underneath the fish, then give it a hard pull.”
Scott knew I fished the Gandy at times, and while the fishing could be good, he was well aware big fish were more than just a rarity.
“What makes you think weíll get something big today?” he asked.
I explained the dream, or at least the image I still had from it, and he gave me a glance usually reserved for zealots and the marginally insane.
As an angler, I knew that look. It’s the one that says, “You’re crazy,” accompanied by that eerie feeling the crazy one may just be right.
When we climbed out of the van in the parking area to the west of the bridge, the heat of the day was already rising. A pinpoint of sunlight shimmered off the windshields of the parked vehicles and heat vapor swirled above their rooftops. The sun was achingly bright and even a squint couldn’t help that sudden jolt of pain behind the eyes one gets when exiting the darkened cab of a climate controlled vehicle to the raw glare and abject heat and humidity of a typical Florida day.
The catwalk of the Gandy was, at that time, a stretch of aging planks bolted directly underneath a concrete span of highway that ran the length of the bay from Tampa to St. Petersburg. The humidity seized the stench of decaying fish carcasses, creosote, and gas fumes from passing vehicles, creating a sickly sweet blend that lingered in the air. The noise of traffic was deafening, and a passing semi-truck made the entire structure vibrate.
When we walked onto the catwalk, arms full of gear, fishermen dressed in shorts and tank-tops were spaced out haphazardly about a half-mile to the end. Their rods stood against the rail, lines reaching into the water, while their owners were tucked away under the shadow of the bridge occasionally jumping up to shoo away seagulls trying to steal their bait.
I could see my usual spot near the end of the catwalk was open, but only about 50 feet from shore there was another opening and a voice in my head said this was the place to fish. Looking back on it, it was a strange choice, but again, it just felt right.
We set down the tackle box and bait bucket, and I started to set up standard rigs for the rods. We didn’t have our lines in the water five minutes when something rare and extraordinary happened.
I was staring into the current as it moved toward us and underneath the bridge forming eddies on the back sides of the pilings. It was as strong as ever. Suddenly, on the surface there was a silver flash and that same shimmering pinpoint of sunlight that reflected on the windshields in the parking lot. Then there was another, and another.
“Tarpon!” I yelled. Some of the other fishermen were realizing it too, and the big fish were everywhere. A large school had moved into the channel over which we fished, and when tarpon roll on the surface it can only mean one thing.
“They’re feeding,” I said.
Most fishermen who have tangled with tarpon will tell you the same; they are the most fearsome of game fish and the most difficult to catch. Prehistoric and with scales like mirrors, they run at over 60 miles-per-hour, leap high from the water thrashing with all their might, and reach weights of over 300 pounds. Tarpon are, after all, “Silver Kings.”
I reeled in fast and frantically rummaged through the tackle box for suitable gear, sweat dripping into the compartments. I had caught some small tarpon in the past, but the ones in this school were in the 120-180 pound range. For tarpon this size you need heavy leader, at least 80-pound, and big lures.
I had a 12-inch Bomber lure that would work, but the thickest leader I could muster was 50-pound, probably not enough to prevent the bony jaw of the tarpon from cutting through. I tied up the rig and cast.
It was amazing how slight the bite was, almost just a tap. I knew from my fishing books it was necessary to fiercely set the hook before the tarpon jumped to firmly plant it into its bony jaw. I pulled with all my strength three times before the fish ran with a quick burst, leaped 10 feet out of the water flashing silver in the sunlight, and snapped the leader like old thread.
While reeling in the limp line a thought occurred to me. The week before, I had gone bottom fishing with a rig that held 100-pound line, perfect for tarpon leader. But was it still in the van? I ran back and found it there, nestled between some work items. Things were falling into place.
In my tackle box was one last Bomber lure. The fish were still rolling so I quickly re-rigged and hooked up immediately on the first cast. The hook set was good, and instead of jumping right away this fish decided to run, FAST.
It was then I remember looking down at my reel, the line peeling from the spool accompanied by the high-pitched whine of the gears. It was also then I remembered my dream and smiled.
The tarpon was fighting not only me but also the current, and this gave me a chance. It leaped in brilliant slow-motion flashes nine times in the next 45 minutes. When it did I remembered to – as the old timers say – “Bow to the King,” which means to drop your rod when tarpon jump to provide slack, preventing them from breaking your line if they fall on it.
When the fish was spent, I maneuvered him under the catwalk as Scott readied the bridge gaff. I told him to try and get the hook right under the gill of the fish so as not to hurt it, which is no easy task in heavy current. On his first try, with no previous experience, the hook slipped under the gill and he steadily pulled.
Scott and five other men who had gathered to watch the fight pulled the silver brute onto the catwalk, the muscles in their arms straining with every pull. The tarpon was over 6-feet long and, at this point, docile.
I removed the Bomber lure, which was immediately retired from service, and with a little help lifted the fish into the air and slid it back into the water. It swam away under the bridge with one final gleaming flash of silver light and disappeared.
Even the tarpon had fallen into his place.
A month later I was walking onto the Gandy for day of fishing, and as I made my way onto the catwalk a child of about nine ran up to me wide-eyed and said, “Are you the guy that caught the tarpon?”
I proudly answered in the affirmative and he asked, “How’d you do it?”
It was the first time I told my favorite fishing story.

Andrew Cremata's "Fish This! column appears monthly April through September. It was judged Alaska's best outdoors column among all media for the 2006 Alaska Press Club awards.