The tarpon: A tribute

Hi, this is Curt Gowdy — here to pay my respects to two of the great athletes of all time: the best baseball hitter, Ted Williams, and the most spectacular saltwater gamefish to be caught on a flyrod: the tarpon. More than six decades ago, these two came of age in their respective arenas.

As a third-year left fielder for the Boston Red Sox, the "splendid splinter" was the last major league player to hit over .400 — .406 in fact — collecting six hits in eight at bats on the last day of the season in 1941. At that time, the giant tarpon was making angling history: the 100-pound-plus silver-sided jumper was engaged with heavy-butted nine-foot split-bamboo flyrods on the flats of the Florida Keys — vast, shallow, tide-driven areas along a 110-mile necklace of islands extending off the southern tip of Florida known as the Keys.

Neither hitting a baseball nor hooking up with the wary, powerful tarpon were for the feint of heart. Both had their champions. But one was master at both: Ted Williams. With his guide and friend Stu Apte, who also was a decorated combat pilot in the World War, Ted spent hundreds of days after the armistice hunting the tarpon on the flats out of a little fishing village known as Islamorada, which today is the Keys primary shallow-water tarpon port of call.

Centrally located about half way between the mainland and Key West, Islamorada allows guides to be on their favorite tarpon "grounds" well within an hour. Skipping across the shallows at 40 mph, the more experienced guides — of which there are hundreds where once there were only a handful in the 1950s — could put their clients on fish just about every day.

Williams, Apte, with writers Al McLain, Lee Wulff and guides Elmer Keith, Woody Sexton and Jack Brothers, were the pioneers in this new angling game. They designed light, shallow-draft skiffs — usually 14 feet long — that could maneuver in water often no more than a foot deep. They devised streamer flies that would attract the giants, and tackle that would withstand their tremendous power, and they made the first over-sized reels that could store the hollow enamel floating flylines and hundreds of feet of monofilament backing necessary to contain the long, surging runs of the great fish.

The poling station was a key innovation in the evolution of the tarpon game. Mounted above the outboard engine, the three-by-three-foot square space afforded the guide greater visibility as he eased the light craft along with a 16-foot-long push-pole made first of bamboo and later constructed of layered fibre-glass — with the angler standing at the ready with his flyrod on a wide platform mounted on the bow.

Equipped with Polaroid sunglasses the team of two scanned the sun-drenched shallows, usually at the tail of a bank, on the downside of the tide, looking for the dark torpedo-shaped backs of the 80- to 150-pound prey as they moved toward the boat in small schools, foraging the sand and coral bottom for crustacean forms, usually shrimp.

If the technology has changed, tarpon fishing remains as it was. When the tarpon arrive, they seem to come on the angler like ghosts, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. They are usually too close for the novice to react in time. Sometimes their dark green backs and silent passage weaken the knees and blunt the instincts of even the most experienced freshwater angler, causing him to make a miscalculation. Then the big fish pass in seconds, and the window of opportunity closes.

But if the client swallows his pride and concentrates on what his guide tells him, he will eventually begin to visualize the dark shapes immediately after he hears the man in the poling platform whisper, "tarpon, 11 O'clock, 100 yards." Then, if he keeps his cool and doesn't step on the lines coiled at his feet, he will make one false cast and shoot the streamer fly some 30 to 60 feet so that it lands within the cone of sight of the closest fish. But he must calculate the influence of the wind, and the angle, speed and direction of the fish.

No simple task. But, if he does it right, he just might get a follow as he retrieves line rapidly with his fingers, giving the streamer fly lifelike movement — as if it is a shrimp in a hurry. And if he gets a "take" he is more than fortunate. Then, as he sets the hook, striking hard several times to penetrate the tarpon's armor-plated mouth, he starts to live his dream; just by hooking a tarpon he has beaten the odds by perhaps 20 to 1.

Now he faces the tricky task of bringing the monster to boatside. When the big fish jumps he must bow to him, giving his line so that he does not haul back on it and break off. Then, when the tarpon is running he must let him do so, cranking down on the drag hard enough to make him work but not so hard that he breaks the line. Then, when the fish is tired, he must pressure him every second. If he does all this, and brings the big fish to the boat so that the guide can release him, the angler has accomplished one of the most difficult and exciting things in all fishing. He will replay the fight over and over in the theater of his mind for years.

The tarpon revolutionized the sport of fly-fishing, taking it to an undreamed-of level. Big, strong and blessed with the power of extended flight, the fish has forced the tackle industry to change over the years: New rods of new materials, new casting techniques, new reels, lines and leader materials with new knots that will hold under pressure. By the end of the 60s, a whole new game-fishing industry was in full swing.

Before Ted was done, he'd caught and recorded 1,000 tarpon caught on a fly. He also caught 1,000 bonefish and 1,000 Atlantic salmon on a fly. Now that's a triple crown to brag about.

Tight lines folks. I'll see ya soon.

CITGO In Search of Flywater airs Sundays at 7:30 a.m. ET and Thursdays at 6:00 a.m. ET during the months of July, August and September. A new Curt Gowdy memory appears in this space every other week.