As an aspiring young writer who grew up on the shores of Alabama's
Mobile Bay and for a long period of my life worshipped at the
altar of football, publishing a story in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED would
have been damn near as meaningful as playing for Bear Bryant at
Alabama or dating an LSU cheerleader. So, yes, I read this
magazine long before I saw the Swimsuit Issue.
Even when I left Alabama and took up residence on the infamous
island of Key West, where forearm curls with full "go cups" is
considered heavy lifting, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED followed me. By then
I was way past the point of hoping to make an appearance in the
magazine as either an athlete or a journalist and had settled on
an alternate route in search of fortune and fame--I was a lounge
singer in the Chart Room Bar.
One of my regular customers back in 1972 was the legendary SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED writer Martin Kane, who wrote for the magazine's
first issue, in August 1954. Marty was old by then (and retired)
but still cool. There were enough successful and fledgling
writers living at the end of U.S. 1 to fill that bar as we all
listened to his stories about tangling with famous athletes and
drunken editors. All of us wanted to be famous--or, failing that,
at least successful--but he had actually done it--he had been a
writer for a great magazine and then retired to paradise. Most of
the rest of us had skipped the job part and gone directly to
retired to paradise. I never would have admitted it then, but I
envied Marty and his real job.
My alternate route to success was music, which worked out pretty
well. However, I still love to write, so I can't tell you how
happy I was when SI's managing editor asked me to do a piece for
the magazine. When told I could write about anything I wanted
to--from fishing to football--the first words that came out of my
mouth were, "I want to write for the Swimsuit Issue." (My friend
Carl Hiaasen had written for the issue last year, and I was
February 13, 2004
The next day, though, reality ran down my fantasy, and I
panicked. What did I have to say about swimsuits? That's fashion,
something I know almost nothing about because I have been
fortunate enough to live on or near a beach for most of my life.
Once I had thought about it, though, I realized I am kind of a
bathing suit expert, because I spend half my life in one. In
fact, I was wearing a bathing suit as I banged this article out
on my computer while sitting on a beach in the British Virgin
Islands in January. So sure, I could blow a lot of sweet-smelling
smoke about the social significance of bikinis, but what I really
like to do is fish.
A LATITUDE ADJUSTMENT
Back when I was taught how to fish the flats of Key West, I would
rarely see another boat. There was enough water for everybody,
and maybe just a dozen full-time guides. Today there are more
than 100 guides in Key West and at least a half-dozen
TV-fishing-show hosts in an armada of state-of-the-art skiffs.
Fishing in the outposts has become a big business--there are
high-dollar fishing lodges in Patagonia and helicopter drops to
chase salmon in the far corners of Russia.
The fish do not appreciate all this attention. Tarpon in the
Keys, which used to be so aggressive that they would leave their
mating circles--known as daisy chains--to snap at a fly, are now
totally unpredictable in their eating habits. I have seen them
rise on my fly, then turn toward the boat and look at me as if to
say, Where's the mullet, you dumb-ass? Bonefish and permit, both
naturally neurotic, are now twice as hyper; I don't know if they
are having a reaction to all the cocaine dumped overboard into
the Straits of Florida over the last 20 years or if they are
changing their behavior because of all the fishermen. Whatever
the reason, though, the fish in the fabulous Florida Keys are
A few years ago I was fishing a favorite flat of mine just north
of Cottrell Key. I was standing on the bow, casting and reeling
and doing that wonderful thing that fishing is all about: not
thinking about a damn thing other than fishing. All of a sudden I
spotted a fish out by the reef--the sunlight had marked it with a
split-second flash on the dark tail of what looked like a permit.
At first I thought it too big to be a permit and that a small
black-tip shark had tricked me, but when the tail came up again,
I knew that it was attached to the biggest permit I had ever
seen. This monster was meandering along the reef, looking for his
mid-morning protein fix of baby blue crabs.
I cast, and my fly landed in front of the big fish, exactly where
I wanted it to be, and I started to strip the line in short tugs
that--I hoped--would make the fly look like a tasty appetizer for
this hungry fish. As my line moved across his path, he locked on
my fly. My heart started to race as I pulled the line closer to
the boat, but the fish wouldn't bite. My fly was now no more than
20 feet from the bow of the boat, but the permit still hadn't
eaten it. I didn't give up. I kept casting ... and kept getting
nothing. My leader rattled as it hit the tip of the rod, and I
was now out of options.
The big fish swam into the shadow of the boat, which will spook
any normal flats-dweller, but this fish just cruised on by,
rolled a little to one side and stared at me with a big eye. I
flashed on that scene in Moby-Dick when the White Whale gives
Captain Ahab the evil eye as the big permit swam into green water
on the deep side of the reef and disappeared. It was then that I
decided it was time to change latitudes and look for a few stupid
GOING DOWN TO THE DROWNED ISLAND
Stupid fish are not really stupid. They just happen to prefer as
much distance between themselves and Homo sapiens as possible,
and once they achieve that goal, they let their guard down a
little. That's all I wanted--a fish that wasn't on orange
alert--but finding flats that haven't felt the crunch of a human
foot is pretty near impossible.
My endless wanderings--and damage done to my sailboat by a bad
storm--finally took me to the British Virgin Islands in the
mid-'70s. I parked my sailboat for a couple of winters in an
idyllic place called Cane Garden Bay, where I learned to play
cricket in the boatyard and chased all six cows on the island,
looked for magic mushrooms and wrote a song called Cheeseburger
in Paradise. The picturesque islands that line the deep waters of
the Sir Francis Drake Channel were my sailing playgrounds during
those years. There wasn't much out there you could hit with a
boat--except for Anegada, the most northerly and isolated of the
Virgins, which is surrounded by coral heads and jagged reefs that
have claimed more than 300 ships.
In the winter of 1997 I arrived in St. Barts for my annual visit.
My first morning there, I was sitting at the Bar de l'Oubli with
my old friend Jerome LeFort. Jerome now had a real job--as a
fishing captain. His specialty was going offshore after big
marlin, but flats fishing had always intrigued him, and he knew
that's what got me salivating, which is why he told me about a
guy who had just fished for bonefish off Anegada.
That afternoon, after my nap, I called the Anegada Reef Hotel.
"Oh, Mistuh Buffett," the man said, "we all been wonderin' when
you would finally get around to comin' to Anegada."
I asked about guides and boats, and he said, "Oh, yes. Garfield
has a real flats skiff--you won't be bustin' your ass around in
no whaler on Anegada."
That was all I needed to hear.
PUTTING A HOOK IN YOUR EAR
The next morning Jerome and I took off from St. Barts for the
short flight to Anegada. About 40 minutes later we settled at an
altitude of 500 feet and circled the island. From the air the
reef resembled a giant garden of large, brightly-colored coral
heads. To a sailor on a moonless night, Anegada would raise the
flag of caution, but to a fisherman the island looked like a
salty version of Emerald City. Below us we saw flamingos in the
large salt pond in the center of the island, and like a local
welcoming committee, a large school of bonefish cruised by under
our starboard wing. The combination of large schools of fish,
miles of flats and the mangrove-lined shore got my heart
pounding. Rounding the island's east end, we saw a long stretch
of shallow flats and a mangrove-lined shore, and I sang an
updated version of that Iron Butterfly hit from the '60s:
Anegada-da-vida, baby! I had a feeling that somewhere down there
swam a few stupid fish.
We landed, loaded our gear into a pickup truck and headed for the
hotel. The pungent aroma of low tide hung on the breeze, but to
me it was perfume. As we pulled up to the hotel, I saw a pristine
flats skiff tied to the dock nearby. I stepped out of the truck,
and was introduced to a tall black man who looked like Evander
Holyfield. He held out his hand and said, "Garfield."
Years ago when I was in Cuba for the first time, I stumbled into
a meeting with Gregorio Fuentes, the famous captain of Ernest
Hemingway's fishing boat Pilar and a major inspiration for Papa's
The Old Man and the Sea. As Gregorio and I walked and talked for
nearly two hours, I couldn't take my eyes off his scarred and
callused hands. They conjured up images of him alone in a small
boat on a large ocean, bracing his feet against the ribs of his
vessel to counter the pull of the big fish at the end of his line
as a blue marlin exploded skyward from the foam like a
submarine-launched missile and blocked out the sun. When I shook
hands with Garfield, I felt that same magic.
"Ready to go?" he said.
"You bet," I said. We climbed into his skiff, and were off.
In his skiff Garfield was as quiet and deliberate as the tide.
Since I am basically a quiet and shy altar boy from Alabama, I
did not try to engage him in trite conversation--he had his fish
radar on, and anything I said would only distract him.
When we reached the spot Garfield had chosen for us, I showed him
my flies. "Try that pink Charlie," he said, so I tied it on and
climbed up on the bow. At this point Garfield had no idea what
kind of an angler I was, but it will take a guide just a few
seconds of watching you cast to calculate your chances of getting
a fly to a fish that day. I pulled 60 feet of line from my reel
and coiled it neatly behind me, then made several practice casts.
When I heard Garfield say, "Nice cast," I wasn't able to suppress
a small smile of relief. With that, we eased down the edge of a
broad flat, looking for bonefish.
We fished for about an hour, then anchored the skiff, got out and
walked the flats. The fish were spooked, and Garfield said that
there must be weather coming. We moved across several more flats,
catching just one small bonefish, but by then the wind had
churned up long, thin foam lines on the water, which usually
means you are more likely to hook your ear than a fish.
At Garfield's word, we were back in the boat, easing our way up
to a narrow flat parallel to the shore. The flat didn't seem to
be large enough for bonefish, so I asked Garfield what we were
looking for. "Sometimes a permit or two come up," he said.
"There's tarpon around as well." Garfield was a bonefish man, so
chasing other fish didn't excite him much, but I asked if we
could check out the tarpon flat.
We kept one eye on the weather and one eye on the flats as we
worked our way along the shore's edge, but we saw nothing and the
sky got darker and darker until we finally lost our light.
Some fishermen feel they have to spend every minute of their
allotted time with a guide in pursuit of fish. I am not one of
them. When Garfield asked if I wanted to check a spot on our way
back to the hotel, my fishing radar was being jammed by images of
a beef patty on a grill, a cold beer and the rope hammock I had
seen hanging between two coconut trees back at the hotel, but
something about the way he asked told me I should say yes.
SOME DAMN HAPPY TARPON
If you spend enough time on flats and allow yourself to flush all
the trappings of modern existence from your mind, you will begin
to tune in to your surroundings. It's called feeling the fish,
and guides who can do it don't guess where the fish are--they
know where the fish are, because they think like a fish. I knew
Garfield ran on that frequency when I saw him walking across the
bonefish flat that morning, stepping toe first into the water
like a giant heron to minimize the sound of his movement. Now,
poised atop the skiff's poling platform in the stillness of the
tiny cove, he whispered, "There are tarpon around here." Those
words sent my stomach rumblings into instant remission.
I was totally unprepared for tarpon, though. The only thing I had
in my bag that even resembled a tarpon fly was a large silver
blob--a gift that had lain dormant in the bottom of my fly box
for years. Now I stood on the bow gently casting with it while
Garfield was perched on the poling platform and Jerome scanned
the water behind the skiff. Three men from different countries
and different cultures all tuned in to some strange wavelength.
I finally spotted a long shadow in the water off in the distance.
Suddenly the water exploded and a 100-pound tarpon flashed
momentarily as he pounced on whatever poor baitfish he was
chasing. "Three more behind him!" Jerome shouted. Garfield poled
the boat around to put me at the perfect casting angle to the
approaching fish. I looked at my poor excuse for a tarpon fly,
then looked at Garfield and said, "Maybe?" He flashed a smile.
I cast long and forward of the lead fish and brought the fly to
within range. Two of the fish moved toward it, then turned away.
I instantly made another cast, but again the fish at the edge of
the school turned it down. They were what I call happy
tarpon--not spooked by the boat, not zigzagging at high speed,
just cruising along the shore in front of a clump of mangroves in
five feet of clear water. They cheerily swam right by us, and
That was okay, because I was hungry now, and clouds were blocking
out the noonday sun, so we packed our gear and implemented our
backup plan--to hook some big, fat cheeseburgers.
Later that evening, after my coconut tart and before my Calvados,
I had a vision of those tarpon back by the mangroves, having a
party, belly-laughing about the stupid humans they had driven
crazy. I stared up at the stars that lit the Caribbean sky and
made a silent toast to a few smart fish, confident that I would
see them again.
DROWNED ISLAND, THE REMATCH
I returned to St. Barts the following spring, this time with my
family. I think I speak for all fishing fathers when I say that
there are many times when our priorities get out of whack and
family duties are sometimes overlooked for the love of fishing.
After making this mistake many times, I have learned to attend to
my husbandly and fatherly duties with as much devotion as I can
muster and then wait, like a sailor returning from sea duty, for
shore leave. So, after I had played shark and dolphin, went cave
diving, built sand castles, rigged the rope swing from the
spreaders on the aft deck of the boat, taught my son, Cameron, to
paddle a sea kayak and taken my daughter, Delaney, bottom
fishing, it was time for Dad to get his just reward. I was
returning to Drowned Island.
At dawn the next day the wind was up, and there were whitecaps
just beyond the harbor. I tuned in the weather report from St.
Thomas; the scratchy voice on the radio spoke of a low-pressure
cell moving in. Of course it is, I thought--I'm supposed to go
A few hours later, when I climbed into the plane, the weather had
not improved. This news normally would have been the falling
guillotine blade that ended any flats-fishing expedition, but I
wasn't going back to Anegada to squint and stare at clear water
searching for the shadows of bonefish. I was going back for
tarpon--big fish that roll on the surface, gulp air and jump out
of the water like humpback whales. I had new rods, and new flies
I had tied just for this trip, so damn the bad weather, I
thought, full speed ahead.
As I walked down the dock at Anegada, I saw Garfield approaching
in his skiff. He was clearly bothered by the weather--he knew too
well that this was not a bonefish day. "I guess we be looking for
tarpon?" he said with a slight smile.
"I guess we be," I said.
The normally clear, shallow water was milky, and the morning
cloud cover showed no sign of breaking up. Small swells rolled
our skiff from side to side as I watched the surf break on the
shore. And then it began to rain.
We headed back to the clump of mangroves where I had seen that
school of tarpon several months before, and the conditions were
even worse now. Raindrops stung our faces as we met them head-on
at 30 knots. My guide friends back in the Keys call this hard-man
fishin'. Even Garfield was ready to quit. In fishing terms, we'd
been blown out. We did a 180 and headed back to the hotel, vowing
to try again tomorrow.
The next day, I awoke before dawn to that haunting image of
Gregory Peck, as Captain Ahab, pinned to the scarred skin of Moby
Dick, his arm flopping back and forth. I hoped it wasn't an omen
for my pursuit of tarpon on Anegada. I slipped out of bed and
walked outside, into the dark. The wind had eased; there were
breaks in the clouds, and a few stars were visible in the early
Garfield arrived at 8:30, and so did the wind. Things didn't look
promising, but when he said, "Whatcha wanna do, Jimmy?" I
cheerfully replied, "Let's go find a tarpon."
There was not a lot of fishing magic in the air that morning. By
the time we reached the end of the island, we had 20 knots of
wind and rain in our faces. Garfield calmly surveyed the spot
from the wheel of the boat, then said, "If you want, we can check
the coral flat. My brother seen a coupla tarpon in there
He didn't even wait for my answer; he knew I wanted to see any
flat that had tarpon.
When we reached Garfield's spot, I laced on my wading boots. I
then eased myself over the side of the skiff, stepped onto the
razor-sharp coral reef and was about to reach for my big tarpon
rod when Garfield struck a familiar pose. He was frozen in place,
staring toward the shore like a pointer on a covey of quail.
"There's a push of nervous water up there," he said softly.
"Could be permit."
I followed his gaze and saw what he was looking at. I flashed for
a second on poor Captain Ahab, then reached for my harpoon--the
10-weight rod. As I moved toward the nervous water in my
oversized waders, it was like walking on bubble wrap as the coral
crunched beneath my toes. There was still no sunlight, and the
sky looked more like winter in Maine than spring in the Virgin
Islands, but the wind had slackened. Garfield drifted back to the
edge of the flat, then stood on the platform, trying to spot the
Pelicans were dive-bombing a school of small jacks near the
beach. I laughed at the way the birds threw their entire bodies
at the surface when they attacked and I called back to Garfield
that they reminded me of kids diving into a mosh pit, but I
immediately shut up when I saw the flash of a tail about 50 yards
ahead. After catching a glimpse of that dark, pointed tail,
nothing entered my brain but thoughts of stalking my prey.
I crept toward the fish. The surface of the water was flat gray,
and in that light I wasn't going to be able to see the permit, so
I was hoping that a tail would pop up again. A few minutes later
I spotted a big push of water off to my left. It was now or
I fired a cast in front of the nervous water, and the fish moved
toward my fly. Unfortunately, he had moved directly behind the
only piece of exposed elkhorn coral on the entire two-mile-long
flat. My line had fallen into its branches, which meant I was
screwed--if the permit was dumb enough to eat the fly and take
off, chances were my line would be cut by the coral.
I still couldn't see my fish, so I thought about imitating a
pelican and dive-bombing into the water and pinning the big
permit to the sandy bottom, but instead I carefully freed my line
from the coral. When it finally lifted skyward, I put another
cast in front of the moving wake. In a loud whisper I asked
Garfield if he could see the fish, but even from his perch on the
poling platform, there was not enough sun to penetrate through
the gloom and shed a ray of light on our prey. I stripped my
line, but nothing happened, and I saw the fish swim off the flat
at high speed. I was left standing hip deep in water, in the
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN
So far the day had been a bust, but then the clouds opened up and
let some sunlight break through. The mini-monsoon had passed. I
scooped up a handful of seawater and tasted it. It was more fresh
than salt--the cloudburst had dumped thousands of gallons of
fresh water in just a few minutes. I knew that if I could taste
it, the tarpon could too, and that was bound to confuse the hell
out of them.
Up ahead jacks were splashing wildly at the shallow end of a
large sandy pool, and the pelicans had launched another aerial
assault. I started walking toward the pool. Suddenly, I saw a
dark spot moving toward me and thought, Thank you, God ... and
Captain Ahab! Call it karma or the gift of a guardian angel, but
I felt at that moment that I was exactly where I was supposed to
be--standing in a milky, freshwater sea, soaking wet, trying to
balance myself in too-big wading boots atop a shallow flat of
coral, about to go one-on-one with Mr. Tarpon. I turned to wave
to Garfield, but he was already poling toward me, my tarpon rod
in his hand. "That what you been lookin' for?" he said with a
Gear in hand, I moved toward the pool. It started to rain again,
and I saw Garfield fold himself into a ball and duck under the
poling platform. Through the downpour, though, I could still make
out the dark shadow of my fish. I sneaked up to the pond as
quietly as I could. The pelicans were as oblivious to the rain as
I was. So there we were, four pelicans and one crazy fisherman,
just playing in the rain. Who looked stupid now?
My impatient fishing voice told me to launch a blind cast at the
pool. My patient fishing voice told me to shut up and be still.
Fortunately, the latter won the debate. I waited. And waited. And
then, like an object materializing in the transporter room of the
starship Enterprise, the shimmering silhouette of a tarpon
floated to the surface. My arm moved instinctively, and I cast.
As I lifted the line off the water and began my back cast, I
spotted an even larger shadow gliding into the clear water and
then--whammo!--a 60-pound tarpon sprung out of the water and did
a half-gainer. Nine-point-five on the dive, I thought as I
shifted my aim to the acrobatic tarpon and laid my fly three feet
in front of him.
I hadn't hooked a tarpon in nearly two years, but I had not
forgotten what to do. I stripped my fly in front of this big
fish, and he altered his lazy glide toward the camouflage of the
turtle grass that surrounded the pool and turned to follow my
I figured it was only a matter of seconds before I felt a tug on
my rod and the big silver fish would start to dance on the end of
my line. I sang the chorus to Singin' in the Rain as I shortened
my strips; my fly neared the edge of the pool and the fish
followed ... and then made a sharp right turn and sprinted for
the turtle grass. "S---!" I heard my echo bounce off the shore.
I looked at Garfield, and we both shrugged and laughed. Then,
with that wonderful pragmatic assurance of a West Indian
waterman, Garfield said, "Don't worry--they be back."
A PECULIAR KIND OF PARADISE
And so we waited. The rain let up, and the ocean was as smooth as
a runway. There was no wind, no noise, but still no sun. I was
fishing the tropics as if in a black-and-white silent movie.
As Garfield had predicted, the smaller of the two big fish swam
back into the pool about 15 minutes later. It moved along the far
edge, then disappeared. There were no holes in the floor of
heaven to let the light shine through, so I was still fishing
blind, which meant it all came down to luck. I started casting.
The fish would either be there or not. I covered the pool with
long and short shots. Nothing.
The show was over. The fish had left, but my predator's juices
were still flowing. Big fish will do that to you. As one old
guide put it, "Da war be over and you just started shootin'." We
decided to head back toward the mangroves for one last look.
We drifted along on those flats, scanning the surface for rolling
fish, but saw nothing ... except the sun, which had finally come
out and lit the flat up like a neon sign.
For the first time that day, I looked at my watch. I knew that
the good weather meant my plane back to St. Barts--and my
family--would be returning on time. I was tempted to say, "Screw
it," and fish till sunset, but I had a feeling that the fishing
gods had given me all I was going to get that day.
Garfield seemed to sense it too. He climbed down from the poling
platform while I reeled in my line, but as I turned to drop my
rod into the rack, I saw him frozen in place. He pointed with the
sharp end of his pole and whispered, "Tarpon." I turned and saw
two very big fish, 70 to 90 pounds, cruising by in six feet of
water. They were out of my range by the time I got my line
stripped out, but several minutes later a second pair came by. I
dropped my fly in front of them, and the inside fish turned
toward the boat, followed the fly for a few seconds, then turned
away. I saw another fish moving across the bow from right to
left. I dropped a cast on him, but he too came and went.
While I hastily changed flies, several more big fish swam by.
Garfield was up on the platform now, calling out the location of
the oncoming fish like an auctioneer on speed. I took two more
shots with my new fly but still got nothing. Then, as quickly as
the fish had appeared, they were gone. "It's just not da day,"
"I know," I said. "Let's go get a cheeseburger."
I should have been disappointed as we headed back to the dock,
but instead, I counted my blessings. I don't have to cram my
fishing into an appointment book or a week's vacation from the
office, and I am lucky enough to pretty much go where I want when
I want. I hadn't hooked my tarpon, but I had gotten to know
Anegada, which was now on my short list of places to run to if it
all goes to hell one day.
It took three years, lots of boat and airplane fuel, lots of
glue, deer hair and feathers, and a lot of time on the water, but
in April 1999, in that same spot by the mangroves on the eastern
tip of Anegada, near a giant pile of conch shells, I finally
launched a tarpon into the air. It was a small fish, and the
aerial acrobatics took less time than it takes the space shuttle
to clear the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, but my friend in the
skiff was armed with a digital video camera and captured every
second of it.
I have watched that jump at least 100 times, but I still enjoy it
as much as a good Seinfeld rerun. It is available for viewing by
fellow maniac fishermen or other interested parties on the
Internet at www.margaritaville.com.
Finally, a word of caution. Some of you readers may at this point
drop this magazine, call your travel agent and immediately book
passage to Anegada. Be forewarned--there are tarpon in Anegada,
but they are not stupid.
The wind churned up long foam lines on the water, which usually
means you are more likely to HOOK YOUR EAR than a fish.
I dreamed of Gregory Peck, as Captain Ahab, pinned to MOBY DICK.
I hoped it wasn't an omen.
The best guides don't guess where fish are, they know where they
are because they THINK LIKE A FISH.
Garfield was now calling out the location of the ONCOMING FISH
like an auctioneer on speed.