A gaudy sunset glowed upriver, backlighting the palm trees and moss-bearded live oaks that flank the stream. In the glassy shallows, mullet competed in a random piscine triple jump. A late-hunting osprey swung past, its white breast flushing pink as it banked into the low light.
"Red sky at night, angler's delight," said Bob Montgomery. "Tomorrow's the day for Godzilla."
Godzilla is the nickname for a collective monster lurking in the warm green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where Florida's Homosassa River empties into the sea. He, or more likely she, might measure eight feet in length and tip the scales at well over 200 pounds. Godzilla is blue-green on top and flanked in laser-bright silver. Godzilla comes out of the water with a roar of gill plates reminiscent of a thousand flushing partridges, tea-saucer eyes flashing bright in the spray, a mouth like the intake of a jet engine flailing madly from side to side. Godzilla is also known as Megalops atlantica, or cuffum or tarpum or—most commonly—tarpon. To the serious saltwater fly-fisherman, Godzilla is the ultimate catch: the world's first 200-pounder to be taken on the fly.
The presence of giant tarpon along Florida's west central coast has been known for many years. Late in the last century, men harpooned them in the shallows when they arrived to spawn in May and June. More than 30 years ago, an outdoors magazine carried a feature story about the lunker silverkings of Homosassa Springs. Harold LeMaster, the inventor of the highly successful Mirrolure, claims to have been taking huge tarpon by trolling and bait-casting in the area since 1950; Lefty Kreh, the fly-fishing guru, was tipped to the hot spot by LeMaster, and Freddie Archibald, a fly-fishing guide from St. Petersburg, about 80 miles down the coast, has been fishing it since 1968. But only in the past three or four years have the heavyweights of saltwater fly-fishing moved into the area for a shot at Godzilla—anglers like Stu Apte, Ted Williams, Al Pflueger Jr., Ben Hardesty, Billy Pate, Carl Navarre, Jim Lopez and Tom Evans, and their even more famous guides, Eddie Wightman, Hank Brown, Billy Knowles, Gary Ellis and Cecil Keith from Islamorada, Steve Huff, Dale Perez and Cal Cochran from Marathon, Bob and Gene Montgomery from Key West, Bill Curtis from Miami.
June 18, 1978
The move paid off in short order. Last year on Memorial Day, Evans boated a record fish of 177 pounds on 15-pound-test tippet. "We were the only boat out that day," recalls Evans, 40, a big, slow-talking ex-stockbroker from Old Lyme, Conn., who fishes a month at a time with Steve Huff. "And we had only one fly left. On it I managed to catch fish of 145, 155, 165 and 175 pounds—almost unbelievable odds. At one point the big guy jumped so that he was silhouetted against a pale sinking moon. He looked like a great silver-scaled rocket as he passed across the disc."
And last month Joe Robinson, an insurance man from Miami, fishing with Dale Perez, brought in a fish of 180 pounds, nosing out Evans' record by three pounds. But still no Godzilla.
Three years ago, on his first foray into the area, Evans hooked and lost a fish that he estimated at well over 200 pounds. "These fish aren't particularly longer than the tarpon you take in the Keys," he says, "but they're much thicker and broader. This one looked like a flying jewfish when he jumped. He must have gone more than 15 feet into the air. Then he was off."
In the Florida Keys, where the tarpon are smaller but more abundant and fish-able for a longer period of time each year, most fly-fishermen are content to get five or six spectacular jumps out of a fish and then break him off for another shot. But to the record seekers, even a fish that seems relatively small in Homosassa waters is worth fighting to the finish: what would appear at first jump to be a 155-pound fish might, close up to the boat, prove to be 180—or even better. What accounts for the presence of such a giant race of tarpon on this particular stretch of coast?
"Nobody knows for sure," says Bob Montgomery, who also has fished Homosassa for three years now. "The tarpon isn't a food fish, so the research money is pretty scant. But it's clear that these are a different lot of fish than the ones we get in the Keys. Big tarpon have been seen for years in the passes off Fort Myers, way to the south of here, and they show up from Tarpon Springs, just down the line, clear on up to the Crystal River north of us and even farther. But it's easier to fish them here—with an excellent motel and good docks fairly close to the action—so this is where we come. Maybe these big fish cruise all the way around the Gulf, from Mexico, or maybe they just move around most of the year in the deep water and only come in close to spawn in the spring. We won't know the answer until somebody starts a tagging program."
The abundance of fresh water flowing into the Gulf at this spot might account for part of the answer. The tarpon is a highly euryhaline fish—one that can survive in a wide range of waters, from near stagnant to nearly 100% fresh. A primitive animal whose closest relative is the oxeye herring of the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, it ranges both sides of the Atlantic, from Cape Hatteras to Brazil on the west and from Senegal to the Congo on the east. Tarpon have showed up as far north as Nova Scotia, but their numbers are greatest in the estuaries and offshore passes of Central America and Florida. They come inshore to spawn in the late spring, usually in shallow brackish water, but sometimes in fresh. Homosassa Springs, a short boat ride upstream from Godzilla's hangout, pumps six million gallons of crystalline sweet water into the Gulf every hour. Dip your hand into the sea miles from shore and you can scarcely taste the salt.
"I've seen them spawning often in the shallows," says Tom Evans. "Daisy-chaining in circles, nose to tail, with the males on their sides so that you see that laser light for a long way off. There's milt in the water, too. Maybe the high fresh-water content around here is necessary to the success of the spawn."
Whatever the explanation, the fact of their presence is reason enough to bring the fly-rod fraternity to Homosassa each May with a glint in the eye and all tackle at the ready. "We've kept this place more or less a secret for two years now," said Bob Montgomery. "The first rule a fisherman learns is never to tell where the hot spots are. But all the really serious flyrodders know about it by now anyway. Still, a lot of them feel that by blowing the whistle you'll get all kinds of amateurs down here in their skiffs, bumbling around and blowing through, putting the fish down. They're like as not to go running full tilt over a pod of rolling tarpon without even seeing them. But they'd find it hard fishing here—lots of rocks to rip out your power drive if you don't know the waters, and nothing to fish but big tarpon." He cackled and rubbed his sunburnt hands. "I reckon the amateurs won't hang around for long."
Bob and Gene Montgomery had towed their skiffs—an 18-foot Maverick and a Hewes of equal length, powered by Evinrudes of 140 and 115 hp, respectively—up from Key West early in May. It is a long, grueling drive, a dull 10½ hours, but they were booked with clients through the ninth of June, so at up to $175 a day the payoff would be worth it. Only the serious come to Homosassa, and the serious are willing to pay dearly for that one good shot.
But the weather played the fly-fishermen false—at least for the early weeks. The entire eastern half of the country was flinching under a miserably cold spring, one that put everything from asparagus and crab apples to trout and tarpon at least two weeks late. A gusty norther blew what few tarpon were in back out to sea, roiling the inshore waters to opaqueness and making life in a skiff a sea-drenched misery. Then the weather settled as a benign high moved into the northern Florida region, and the fish began reappearing.
The 6½-mile ride downriver from the Riverside Villas to the Gulf is a trip on a time machine. Indeed, no sooner does a visitor leave the fast-food joints and shopping malls that flank Highway 19 north from Tampa-St. Petersburg than he is back in the Florida of the early 1950s. Live oaks, winding two-lane blacktop roads, simple houses of pastel stucco or white clapboard underscore the change to raucous plastic-fantastic that has overtaken so much of Florida in the past generation. The river itself is timeless: porpoises and manatees roll slowly in the dark morning water; thin tendrils of mist rise in the green bankside gloom; a bobwhite whistles as loud and as clear as a boatswain's pipe from a jungly patch behind a red and white bait house ("Shinners [sic] and Mullet").
Once past the rickety fresh-fish shanty and the NO WAKE sign downstream from the motel docks, the guides nail the throttles of their skiffs. It's a riverine slalom through the channel markers at 35 mph, vaulting the wakes of slower commercial boats, blasting past homely fishing cottages and a few big, newer homes. Halfway down to the river's mouth, Bob Montgomery points to a stretch of rock fill on the right bank. "Big development going in there," he yells over the engine roar. "Sugarmill Woods, slick stuff."
A final stern-twitching turn and the skiffs line out into the Gulf. The sun has whitened now from its blood-orange rise, and the shallow vees of the hulls thump loud and hollow on a light southwesterly chop. After a 15-minute run, the boats are throttled back to a slow crawl and angled in toward the distant beach.
"We call this Black Rock," says Bob, "because of the dark bottom. Usually in the early morning it's dead calm out here and you can see the tarpon rolling a long way off. But with a chop like we've got this morning, they won't be showing much on the surface. This low light makes it near impossible to see the fish until you're right on them—and by then they're spooked and splitting. We'll give it a shot anyway." He kills the engine and unseats his 18-foot push pole. "Back to the old grind."
But it proves a bad day at Black Rock, and after an hour we pole back out to deeper water and then run down to the next stop—a place called the Bird Racks. "See those four or five stakes sticking out of the water?" says Bob. "Back during the war, the government built a big platform out here for the birds to, well, sit on. When the droppings got thick enough, they'd scrape off the guano to get chemicals for high explosives. Sets you wondering: How many fish did how many cormorants have to eat in order to sink one Japanese destroyer?"
A man who spends much of his waking life at the business end of a push pole must have something to think about.
The breeze freshens as the morning wears along, and the sun is still too low for good spotting. But the water is clear, as evidenced by the sudden appearance of shallow-lying rocks that could tear the motor out of any unwary skiff that came blasting through. Six other skiffs have joined us, four of them late arrivals that had bypassed Black Rock. "The breakfast eaters," Bob calls the. with a contemptuous sniff. He himself is a juice and coffee man, a fact seemingly at odds with his Falstaffian girth—until you see him polish off his own two sandwiches by 9:30 and then look soulfully at yours, which you're saving for lunch. But sandwiches are a poor substitute for tarpon.
"That's the hell of it up here," Bob says. "In the Keys, at least if there's no tarpon cruising, you see lots of other things—sharks and rays and barracuda, maybe even permit or mutton snapper or bonefish. Here it's big tarpon or nothing. That's why I think this place won't catch on with the amateurs. That plus the fact that most fly-fishermen don't like to tie into really big fish on a regular basis. It's more fun to jump 10 or 20 smaller fish in a day than to spend your life cranking and pumping until your arms are down to your ankles."
We move farther south along the coast to the third and, by this time of day, the best spot, a vast reach of light-bottomed water that the guides call "Oklahoma." The nickname derives from a bottom of yellow sand studded with stony outcrop-pings, but through Polaroids the water looks lime green. Margaritaville on the rocks. The wind has died altogether now, except for light and vagrant puffs that cat's-paw the slick from time to time. The sun is straight up, and suddenly we are into tarpon. Billy Pate, a laconic, graying tarpon tamer from Greenville, S.C. and Islamorada, gets the first hookup—a good-sized fish that leaps three times so closely together that it might be three separate fish. After each jump it crashes back into the water like a skinned spruce log off a lumbering flume.
Montgomery and I are watching this spectacle, mouths slightly agape like a couple of kindergartners, when I catch a flash of movement out of the corner of my left eye.
The five tarpon, boring in from the southwest, are within 20 feet of the skiff before I can cock my arm and send the 11-weight line hissing toward them. Too late. Even as the 5/0 streamer fly hits the water, the tarpon are turning away from us. I twitch it back in anyway. You never know if they will turn again. This time they don't.
"Asleep at the switch, both of us," says Montgomery ruefully. "Those were big fish, too. Maybe 150, maybe better."
Tarpon are working all around us now in pods of two or three or even half a dozen, inshore and out in the deeper water as well. This is nothing to what the action will be when the weather warms and calms down, according to Montgomery, but still it is difficult even for the professionals to decide which way to approach them. Stake out and let them come to you? Or go poling after them? And what do you do when you see a nearby school even bigger than the one you're descending upon?
A few hundred yards inshore we see Gene Montgomery poling madly to the south, leaning into it like a seagoing Mike Tully. His 24-volt electric trolling motor is churning at full blower as he uses it along with his pole to try to catch up with a moving school of fish. Suddenly, unpredictably as ever, the school stops and begins daisy-chaining around a clump of slim, silvery ballyhoo. Gene closes on the feeding tarpon and his client casts to them—once, twice, three times. Finally, he makes a good cast, and we see him lean back and sock the hook into the taker's hard mouth. Bam, bam, bam—and once again bam. The fish takes off to the north in a series of long, high leaps, stripping line so fast we can hear it go from a hundred yards away.
"They got a mouth as hard as a loggerhead's shell," says Bob. "This ain't trout fishing nor even salmon fishing. You really got to sock it to them, the more the merrier. That's not Godzilla, though. Maybe 80 pounds. The great-great grandson of Godzilla."
After 20 minutes and a total of six jumps, the fish breaks off. Outside of us, Tom Evans is casting to a fish we cannot see. We watch the loop unfold and the fly line lay out ruler-straight; Evans crouches like a catcher awaiting a fastball, snicking in the fly in short six-inch pulls. He strikes—and misses.
A loud, heartfelt obscenity roars across the water.
"That's not very sportsmanlike," Bob chuckles.
"What rude language," echoes Gene. They grin at each other.
But now the tarpon fade away and schools of porpoises take their place on the flats. Every time they roll and blow, Bob jumps to the alert, then scowls. "Snortin' bastards," he grumbles in anti-Flipperian irreverence. The wind picks up again and we head north toward home.
Back in the Riverside Villas bar, over the customary Margaritas, the anglers are lamenting the slowness of the action. "You can really get bored out there," says Jim Lopez, the Miami contractor who once held the tarpon fly-rod record at 162 pounds and has more than a dozen other records to his credit. "The other day, for the lack of anything better to do, I served myself out of the boat. I was demonstrating my tennis serve to Hal Chittum, my guide, and I ended up neck-deep in the drink."
Everyone is staring out the window at the low light on the water, at the hunting ospreys and at the little islet just off the docks where a family of spider monkeys resides. The monkeys are playing Tarzan on their ropes, or else scampering up on a warning sign—THE MONKEYS WILL BITE—to beg food from passing boats. A miniature lighthouse, striped like a barber's pole, rises from one end of the island. The monkeys are a lot livelier than the anglers.
The fish are still there in the morning. Over the citizens-band radios by which the guides exchange information we learn that Stu Apte, the Pan-Am pilot and outdoor entrepreneur, has already hooked and released tarpon of 80 and 130 pounds. Apte, once a guide himself, holds the records for 6-pound-test tippet (82½ pounds) and 12-pound-test tippet (154 pounds); now he wants the 15-pound record as well. This is the first time he has fished Homosassa seriously, though he push-poled Al Pflueger Jr. around here a couple of years ago. His earlier records were set in Flamingo Bay and at Key West.
The wind today has backed around to the south, and as the morning wears along, its velocity increases to whitecap level. I'm fishing with Gene Montgomery today, while my partner, Art Brawley, who jumped the 80-pounder yesterday, is teamed up with Bob. We're staked out with six other boats at Oklahoma when Bob pipes up on the CB: "Into a good fish down here—150, maybe more."
Bob and Art are outside of us and a bit south, so the poling as we try to catch them is all "upstream." It would be the worst breach of etiquette to fire up the engine in the vicinity of the other skiffs, since the roar would put down any fish that might be moving into the area. Gene sweats us clear, and by the time we reach Bob's skiff the fight is already 35 minutes old.
"He was a single," yells Bob. "I saw him over my shoulder just as we were about to move. Art's cast was short, but he turned and gobbled the fly not 10 feet from the boat."
The seas are heavy now from the south, and the tarpon is dragging them toward Mexico. Whenever Art manages to bring the fish in close to the boat, it rolls to the surface and takes in some air. Rejuvenated, it then surges off again, taking most of the fly line, and sometimes some of the backing. An hour has gone by, and the heavy seas combined with a sore heel (too much tennis) are telling on Art. Whenever the fish gets close to the boat, Bob lies out over the bow with his release gaff ready, reaching with his free hand for the short 100-pound-shock tippet. Twice he gets his fingers on it, but not in time—the fish surges away again.
"If we'd wanted to kill it, I could have had the big gaff in it during the first hour," Bob shouts. "But this guy ain't quite Godzilla—not yet."
After an hour and 55 minutes, with the drag on the fly reel screwed down dangerously tight in an effort to bring the big tarpon within range of the release gaff, the inevitable happens. The leader breaks at its 15-pound section. The fish, not quite as exhausted as Art, fins slowly away, passing under our skiff with a final flash of burnished silver.
"Before we tied into this guy," Bob says, "we saw a string of huge fish—180-pounders at least. You just can't be sure with these fish up here. What looks like 180 could well be over 200. You've got to get them in close so you can see how thick they are."
Art looks up from his seat in the shock chair and wipes his brow with a bandanna. "I'm damned glad he wasn't 200," he says. "We'd be halfway to Panama by now."
That night the wind blows hard and steady out of the northwest. In the morning the water is roiled and murky. Not even the diehards stay out for long. Unless a tarpon jumped in the skiff, it would be virtually impossible to see it. Once the wind stops, it will take two tides at least for the water to clear.
Back in the bar, the anglers sip beer and watch the cavorting monkeys. "I don't know who's sillier, them or us," says Bob Montgomery. "But when that 200-pounder comes along, it'll all be worth it."