From the helicopter chattering 300 feet above it, the sea floor is a bacterial culture in a biochemist's dish. There are blossomings of viridian green, patches of khaki, blotches of sepia, gray and dull white. The sea, flooding in twice a day through dark channels around a pattern of low mangrove islands, barely covers its bed. It would be very easy to assume that the Back Country of the Florida Keys is a barren marine waste. That notion would be far from correct.
The airstream, slamming through the open window of the little chopper, makes it hard to hear what fellow passengers are saying, but there is no difficulty in picking up Carl Navarre's excited shout. "Over there!" he yells. "On your left! A whole pod of them!" The helicopter cants over, slides down to 100 feet, and there the tarpon are—25, possibly 30 of them, black shadows moving with majesty along a channel edge. The lead fish must be better than 150 pounds, and it gets its measure of awed, silent respect before Navarre snaps everyone out of it. "All right," he says, "now let's go check out Sandy Key."
This was Sunday of last week, the eve of the Islamorada Invitational Tarpon Fly Championship, a five-day event that involves only 25 anglers, 25 guides and 25 boats, yet is arguably the most demanding saltwater tournament fished in the world. Only fly tackle may be used, and the leader must incorporate a section of 15-pound test. To receive an invitation to fish, it is necessary to have impeccable angling credentials, which will have been thoroughly scrutinized. Not surprising, since one would be fishing in the company of such men as Jim Lopez of Coral Gables, Fla., who holds more than a dozen world fly rod records including both tarpon (162½ pounds)and bonefish (13¼ pounds), and other luminaries of the saltwater fly-fishing scene like Al Pflueger, whose father founded the famed taxidermy company, Ben Hardesty of Shakespeare Company, Billy Pate, who has caught both black and striped marlin on a fly rod, and Navarre, who had won the tournament in 1969 and whose helicopter reconnaissance of Islamorada waters immediately before the contest is an indication of the intensity of preparations.
Undeniably, it is also helpful if one has a lot of money. At the pretournament dinner for past champions the talk ran casually to salmon fishing in Iceland, hunting in Alaska, shooting birds in East Africa, not competitively but as the normal currency of conversation. There was some heavy-muscled side betting: one wager, struck between Navarre, who is chairman of the board of the Miami Coca-Cola Bottling Company, and Din Hawley, a retired executive, ran to $10 per pound on tarpon brought to the dock. And there were plenty of others. According to Jack Kertz, chairman of the tournament, the immediate expense of fishing the five days runs around $2,000. It can be somewhat more if, as Lopez is alleged to have done, you put in 40 days of practice, with boat and guide, ahead of the competition.
All the money in the world, however, will not put you out of range, should you deserve it, of the sharp tongues of the guides at Islamorada, who form an aristocracy of their own; men like Jim Brewer, Ed Wightman, Hank Brown and the formidable Jimmy Albright, who twice steered Ted Williams to victory—in 1965 and 1967—and was with Al Pflueger when he won in 1972. There's no more democratic place in the country than the inside of a tarpon skiff once it is headed out from the jetty. And, although the fishing is in deadly earnest, there is an engagingly friendly informality. It all starts with a pretty girl who flags away the first boats at 6:30 a.m.
In most years there is an advantage in drawing an early start. One of the most desirable places to fish is Buchanan Bank, on the edge of the Back Country, which is what the guides call the grounds on the gulf side of the Keys, a tarpon-rich area of flats and channels that stretches out for more than 20 miles before the open sea is reached. You might not see more fish on Buchanan than you would at Sandy Key Basin, Palm Lake or Long Key, but for some reason, connected possibly with the color of the bottom or of the water, tarpon will take more boldly there than anywhere else. And one section of Buchanan—the Pocket, they call it—is more productive than any other. So, normally, if you are first away, you roar out to Buchanan and stake your claim.
Last week, though, the timing of the tides meant that the Pocket would probably not begin to produce fish until about lunchtime—and fishing stopped at 3 p.m. So there was a difficult decision to be made. Would it make sense to stake out the Pocket early, knowing full well that the whole morning was likely to be blank, in the hope that an eager eater would be cruising along at noon? Or go, let's say, to Sandy Key and see fish right through the morning, even though they might not be as sure takers? On the first day Mike Schamroth, a New York diamond importer, decided to take the first alternative.
He had the long, hot morning he expected, perched high and precariously on a cooler box in the bow for enhanced visibility, his fly line coiled on the deck of the skiff ready to shoot as soon as a long, dark tarpon shape came sliding down the edge of the channel into range. Sometimes, not with hope of a fish but to break the monotony, he laid out the No. 11 slow sinker. Throwing a line for tarpon isn't as pretty to watch as casting to a trout. Often there is no time for a graceful, artistic presentation. The angler may have only seconds to act when he sees a cruiser just within range, sometimes on the wrong side of the wind. He double-hauls fast and hard, shooting the big streamer or bucktail on a 4/0 hook ahead of the fish's path so that he can twitch it into tantalizing movement at precisely the right moment. It is a very demanding skill.
Schamroth's talent was finally brought into play a little after 1 p.m., when the first tarpon to move along Buchanan Bank turned slightly off course and sucked in the red streamer. The fish acted classically, holding steady at first while Schamroth struck again and again to set the hook, then jumping clear of the water twice before steaming powerfully north. The gaff went in after 40 minutes of play—an 86½-pounder, easily qualifying as a weight fish to be brought to the dock. Seventy pounds is the minimum for this tournament. Fish under this weight are returned alive and earn points as releases. Schamroth, with a manic grin, flung himself into the water to cool off.
His tarpon proved the heaviest fish of a modest first day, though Pflueger had points for two released fish to add to those gained for his 77-pound keeper. But other anglers favored in the betting—Hardesty, Pate and Lopez among them—had taken only releases that would, under the complicated scoring system, not begin to count for points until the anglers had landed a qualifying 70-pound-plus fish to go with them. And Navarre had an even worse day. He had landed and brought ashore a fish that he and his guide, Ed Wightman, believed would be a weight fish. It wasn't. It went just four ounces under 70 pounds, Navarre incurring a penalty of 10 points and losing the 175 points the tarpon would have earned as a released fish. At the end of the day only two anglers, Schamroth and Pflueger, had points on the board. No significant trend was yet observable.
But on Tuesday, Hardesty came in with a 103¾-pound fish which, together with the releases, gave him 1,740 points and the lead. Schamroth, fishing Buchanan again, had another weight fish of 79 pounds, and Pate had opened his score with a 72-pounder. Almost last into the dock was Navarre. He and Wightman had a mighty 120-pounder to haul up to the scales. It gave Navarre a count of 1,190 points and put him in second place.
The tournament scoring system is heavily weighted in favor of big individual fish. Minimum qualifiers, from 70 to 85 pounds, earn only five points per pound; tarpon between 85 and 100 pounds, 7½ points; from 100 to 120 pounds, 10 points; from 120 pounds to 140 pounds, 12½ points. Monsters from 140 pounds upward earn 15 points a pound. Releases add 175 points to the total as long as the contestant has landed the required weight fish.
It's a definite advantage that the pocket calculator was invented in time for the tournament, and maybe Navarre was busy with his. In any event, his tactics were becoming clear—an all-or-nothing approach aimed at catching big fish with little regard for piling up release points. Naturally, though, a man has to locate big, undisturbed tarpon before he can catch them, and the talk around the Islamorada Fishing Club that night was that Navarre had done just this, possibly through the helicopter survey, but probably not, since he had headed away in a different direction for the second day's fishing. What Navarre had done, in fact, was locate a school of very big fish at a place in the Back Country known as Man-of-War Key and on the third morning of the tournament, Wednesday, he headed there again. He took another secret with him as well—a black and red streamer fly called Black Death.
He was confident that no one would think of Man-of-War in tournament terms. The area is certainly a prolific yielder of tarpon in April and May, but most anglers believe the fish move on by mid-June. Navarre knew better. On Wednesday morning he was out there by 7:05. Light conditions were poor, but good enough to show up rolling fish—tarpon head-and-tailing like salmon. Later Wightman would pole Navarre along to look for laid-up tarpon, fish that hang steadily in the tide as if resting. A laid-up fish is almost always a sure taker if the fly is properly presented and twitched past its nose.
A minute after Navarre arrived, though, a lot of his self-possession was gone. Somehow or other, his fly box had been left ashore. There were just three flies in the boat. One of them, however, was the tattered Black Death that had killed the 120-pounder the day before. Wightman tied that on, then stood up to look for fish while Navarre rigged the ship-to-shore radio mast. If he could raise the Yacht Basin, somebody might be able to run his box out to him.
In fly-fishing for tarpon, situations develop with extreme rapidity. All in one second the radiophone was dangling off the hook, the mast was crashing to the deck and Navarre was frantically getting his line out in response to Wightman's yelling. Ahead was a big school of tarpon, moving slowly, great fish showing their dark tails, swirling with their shoulders. There was time for a second cast when the first drew a blank, and this time the graphite fly rod went over hard and Navarre hit the fish again and again. Wightman said, "I hope it's one of those big lazy old cow fish we can kill easy, not some young bull teenager that's going to beat us all up." It wasn't either. It was big, but enormously strong and active.
Navarre stood in the bow and fought it for an hour and 35 minutes, thinking all the time of the extra hazards outside the angler's skill or the quality of his tackle that can lose him a big tarpon through no fault of his own. A raft of weed on the line, or perhaps, as had happened to him in extraordinary fashion in the 1974 tournament, a small barracuda or a mackerel, attracted by the bubbles the line makes as it cleaves the water, cutting right through it. The hazard, when it came, was different—with the tarpon close to the boat, a big hammerhead shark swung at it and missed. Wightman started the motor to scare it off. The strategy, fortunately, worked. A mutilated tarpon cannot be weighed in. This one was fine. The scales gave it 121 pounds, enough to push it into the 12½-point category. Navarre now had a very solid lead, even though Pate had had a good day with smaller fish, had taken a 78-pounder and two releases that qualified for points. Hardesty, unhappily, had blanked out. The only question now was how well Pflueger had done. He hadn't returned by 4:30 p.m. "He's into a big fish," everybody said. The tournament rules allow an angler to play out a tarpon if he has hooked it before 3 p.m.
Pflueger had, indeed, had a fine tarpon on. Later he estimated it at well over 130 pounds. But its hooking ended in an ugly scene. Jimmy Albright, going in with the gaff, had been pulled off balance by the thrashing of the fish and had fallen into the water. As he grabbed for the tarpon, the gaff point had gone into his leg, and Pflueger, trying to save him, knowing that Albright could barely swim, had snatched the handle of the gaff, driving the point in still further. He finally hauled Jimmy out, he said, and he still doesn't know where the strength came from. Other guides shook their heads. Jimmy, said one, had always tended to try to gaff fish that were still green. Once he had one in the boat for Ted Williams in three minutes. This fish, though, had been on for 2½ hours. Regretfully, Pflueger decided to retire from the tournament. Albright retired to the hospital where he had 15 stitches put into his wound.
Thursday saw Navarre increase his lead still further. Yet another fine tarpon, of 116½ pounds, gave him 3,872½ points, a tournament record, with a full day still left for fishing. His nearest rival was now Pate, with a good record of releases on Wednesday and Thursday, and some weight fish to bak them up. The most unhappy angler of the week had been Lopez, with only three released fish and no qualifiers. On Wednesday he had lost nine of the 10 fish he hooked. Unexpectedly gratified was Dr. C.J. Tegtmeyer from Charlottesville, Va., who, fishing Channel Two more or less blind, found himself presented with a 17½-pound permit—a rarity taken on fly.
Friday was hot and still. Bad conditions. The tides were beginning to deteriorate also, so far as good fishing was concerned. There was still a chance, though, that Pate, given a fish of 100 pounds or more, together with some releases, could make it. The odds went down a little when Navarre's boat, Backlash, was first home, with Wightman giving the thumbs-down sign. Seven fish hooked, none landed. The other boats came in one by one. No sign of Pate. He could be fighting a big fish, the crowd on the jetty told itself, as it always did when a boat was late.
But there was no last-minute drama when Pate finally eased around the jetty into the basin. "Just one release," he said. He didn't seem unhappy. Among the last stragglers was Lopez, and for the first time in the tournament he had a weight fish in his boat. Barely a weight fish: just 72 pounds. He went straight up to Navarre on the jetty and congratulated him. "Lopez money," Navarre said. "It's hard to get your hands on Lopez money." He was grand champion for the second time and captor of the biggest fish. Perhaps that small moment, though, was equal to either achievement.