It’s that time of year again. The temperatures outside my snug Montana home are flirting with subzero, and I’m inside thinking over the highlights of my 2021 fishing season.
2021 was a trying year for us all. So it’s no surprise to me that I find myself thinking about trips that had a level of problem solving, puzzle working, do-it-yourself-ness (and a good dose of faith) to them: the wild steelhead I dug out of a 20-foot long slot on a coastal Oregon river I’d never fished, on a 25-year-old pattern I’d tied for Idaho steelhead; or catching half a dozen nice browns with a good friend on a shallow fast-water flat of an Eastern river by following my hunch and avoiding the deep slow pool.
Of course, I had plenty of outings where my theories did not pan out, but even those typify why I love fly fishing—our sport is a problem solver’s paradise; a perfect intersection of art, science and skill.
I feel fortunate that trying to choose my favorite 2021 angling moment isn’t easy. Ultimately, I landed on one with an element of fortune and comradery that really pushed it over the top for me. (It probably doesn’t hurt that it involved warm climates and tarpon, too.)
Tarpon Fly Fishing for Days
I’m lucky in my fishing friends. I’m able to spend time on the water with talented, innovative anglers. One of those is my good friend Drew, who I’ve been fishing with for decades. We both started guiding in Missoula around the same time, but Drew stayed in the trade while I moved on to trying my luck at the business side of the sport. We’ve both since started families and rarely fish seriously for anything in Montana other than carp and occasionally Northern Pike. Drew guides trout during the prime time, so when we do have a chance on to get onto our Montana Rivers, it’s typically more of a family flotilla with our squadron of river-rat children.
We do, however, try to make a habit of tarpon fly fishing together. Drew is a captain and trailers a boat from Missoula to Key West every year to chase tarpon for a month. I spend 11 months saving up good deeds around the house to steal away for 3-4 days of fishing with him at a spot he has cultivated with decades of trial and error. (Like me, he prefers to figure out a fishery for himself.)
On our third morning together, I had drawn the short straw and was on the poling platform trying to keep Drew in position as the tide came in and the strings of fish worked shallower and shallower. I’m not a good poler, especially in deeper water when the wind is blowing, but luckily the morning was relatively calm, and we were in perfect position for his first shot.
Six fish swam casually across the sand giving us time to prepare. Drew, I must say, is an excellent fisherman and performs flawlessly on most occasions. So, when he put down a short shot, then rushed a better shot and got the angle all wrong, I was stunned. He was angry at himself. I tried for a well-placed pep talk: “Shake it off, Drew. Like a QB throwing an interception. Dust off and get ready for the next shot.”
Soon enough, two fish started across the same line. This time, Drew delivered a buttery-smooth cast and ticked his fly along at the same speed as the cruising fish so they could discover it on their own. A bucket of a mouth soon opened, engulfing the fly and turning away. Clean set, jump, jump, jump, screaming run, and off we went to follow the fish; first poling and then motoring. The fish, midsized at about 50 to 60 pounds, zipped around the basin, eventually heading for a channel. Leaning and leaning, he brought the fish under control. We came in close, and Drew turned and reeled most of the leader into the rod so that he only had about a foot between his tip and the fly.
One of the true joys of tarpon fishing is seeing these ancient fish up close. On very rare occasions you land the fish in water shallow enough to get in with them. This is not only an incredible experience but also an effective way to rejuvenate the fish, remove the fly, and allow the fish to swim away much more naturally. Because this fish had crossed the channel, we ended up in about three feet of water. Drew slid over the side of the boat and was in with the fish. You can’t really make this happen; it either happens or it doesn’t.
As Drew gently guided the fish in a slow circling dance, feeding water over its gills, we marveled at the exceptionally long bottom ray of its dorsal, the large silvery scales and the shimmering pallet of shifting colors —silver, purple, blue, black, green. It is a moment you want to linger, but just like that, the revived fish gave a kick and swam off. I was grateful to have been a part of the fishing experience.
In a flash we were back at the spot and I was on the bow. It felt like a mirror image of shots. First wave was a string of 5 fish, set up perfectly. Drew even pivoted the boat to give me an easy forehand shot. For some unknown reason, I lead them by a half-acre and by the time they got to my fly, they were edgy and the fly had swung out of position. Total blown shot.
“Well,” Drew started, “shake it off, like you said…” Then “Oh crap—11 o’clock!”
A single had snuck in on us. I instinctively took a cross-body backhand cast—one false-cast and away. The fly landed so I could work it right across the path of the fish. Tick…tick. The fish lined up. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, in quick succession. Then a sudden great eat, turn, and the fish was off. Jumping and running, it tore out of the basin testing the limits of my Limitless 475. This was a solid and sturdy fish. We worked hard to get up on her and apply the pressure needed to land her quickly. She started working back toward the shallows and by the time the fight had run its course we were miraculously in waist-deep water again! I slipped over the side of the boat and soon I too was dancing this fish in a loving circle. And then it was gone.
Fly Fishing in 2021 & Beyond
Tarpon can be fickle. More so than any other fish I have pursued, they leave little room for error. So even good tarpon fishing can sometimes leave you feeling unfulfilled. The metrics bear this out: fed three, jumped one would be seen as a decent report many days. Even the landing a fish by leadering it at the boat before retrieving the hook leaves me, at least, wanting.
But every now and again, even if only in a moment of reflection, you find these gems that can color the way you see an entire past season, or your hopes for the next. Which I suppose is the nature and the allure of fishing, and why that day was my 2021 fishing highlight.