Postcard From Homosassa

Postcard From Homosassa

  • By: Chris Santella
  • Photography by: Tosh Brown
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Postcard from

Homosassa

The once-and-future

(and current)
playground of silver kings.

by Chris Santella

 

photograph by tosh brown

>Like trout aficionados longing to fish the Railroad

Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork on opening day,

anyone who seriously pursues tarpon dreams of fishing the flats

of greater Homosassa, Florida in May and June for a chance to

hook into a “giant” that pushes the magical 200-pound mark.

For six weeks or so, the locals—salt-of-the-earth folks who might feel at

home in a Kid Rock video—are joined by middle-age men in brightly colored

and UV-resistant fishing shirts, toting large-arbor reels that cost more than

some of the cars in the Publix parking lot where everyone gathers to buy ice.

If you’re looking for a chance at a fly-caught world-record tarpon, Homosassa is the place to be.

It was on the flats of Homosassa that the first giant tarpon was landed on a fly. The angler was Lefty Kreh; the year, 1971. A long procession of saltwater angling luminaries, inspired by tales of Lefty’s success, soon followed, among them Norman Duncan, Steve Huff, Stu Apte and Billy Pate. By the late ’70s, word was officially out. “Back in the good old days, it was not unheard of for the best anglers to jump 50 fish in a day,” my buddy Mac McKeever shared during one of our long phone conversations leading up to my first visit. “You don’t hear reports like this anymore, but the big fish are still around. An angler named Jim Holland, Jr. landed a 202.5-pound fish in 2001, just north of town. I’ve seen fish pushing 200 pounds swim right past my boat. To know that your fly is a few feet away from a fish like that is incredibly exhilarating . . . whether they eat it or not. When they do eat, it’s remarkable. ”

“I see fish almost every year that might eclipse the world record,” said Captain Jim Long, an alligator trapper turned guide who’s led anglers to tarpon for almost 25 years. “Billy Pate put it well: ‘Your next cast could be to a world record.’ At how many places can you say that?

“[Pate] also said, ‘I never hooked a bad tarpon. Some are just bigger than others.’”

Everyone agrees that Homosassa’s giant tarpon are migratory fish . . . though no one knows exactly why they come. One popular conjecture is the infusion of fresh water from the cool, clear rivers that feed into the Gulf of Mexico here has a lot to do with it. The theory goes that the mix of fresh and salt water creates an ideal habitat for crabs, which the fish seem to target. Another popular belief is that the fish no longer come to Homosassa in significant numbers—whether it’s because the amount of fresh water running into the salt has changed, making the area less hospitable to crabs, or simply because there’s too much fishing pressure. 

I visited greater Homosassa this past spring, expecting to encounter a rich angling history and a paltry present. I was very wrong on one count.

 

After a 20-minute run from the Homosassa River, guide Jim Farrior killed the outboard and switched on his trolling motor as we began to cut across Chassahowitzka Bay. “Back in the day, Dan Malzone [who still guides out of the Tampa area] and others fished out of Bayport, near Pine Island,” he shared while scanning the bay for “blooping” fish. “They’d pole from the front of the boat, but they didn’t have to pole far. There would be 200 fish around the Oklahoma flats. You’d go five feet, cast, hook and land a fish or hook and break it off. You wouldn’t have to move far to find another. Back then, you’d choose a fish and cast. Now you throw it at the group and hope.”

This was the sort of “should’ve been here 20 years ago” lore I had expected, and scanning the four-foot-deep flats, I tried to imagine a time when tarpon swarmed here. When a huge pod did present itself, dorsal fins audibly slicing through the water as the fish porpoised, I thought it was a reverie. The school—at least 30 fish—daisy chained 50 yards in front of the boat, and my fellow angler, long-time Sage rep Raz Reid, stepped up to cast. “Tarpon angling is an important market for Sage,” he offered, between shots. “It’s not a big market, but it’s a showcase for performance.”

For the next two hours, we followed the school up and down a sandbar in the middle of the bay. The fish would chain up, one of us would cast, the fish would ignore our offerings, disperse, and appear again 200 yards ahead or to the left or right. We tried seven, eight, nine different patterns, with no takers. “I’ve seen times out there when big schools will lollygag around at the top, but won’t eat for anything. It’s because there are sharks around,” Farrior explained. Before we could attach fly number 10, one, two, then four large bull sharks materialized along the periphery of the school, dwarfing the 100-pound tarpon. Not long after, the school departed. Farrior motored toward a spot called “The Point,” at the northwest corner of Chassahowitzka Bay. We anchored and waited to ambush fish heading past on the outgoing tide with the other members of our group, including guides John Bazo and Kyle Messier, and anglers Jeff Fryhover (of Umpqua Feather Merchants), and Mac McKeever and Mike Gawtry (both from L.L. Bean). Not many fish came by, but the whole group was encouraged by the schools we’d all pursued through the morning, albeit unsuccessfully.

I spent the next day in the boat with Will Brundick, who carried a recently minted captain’s license and is the junior member of Homosassa’s guide corp. Though new to the game, Will showed great enthusiasm and a good deal of promise. Fishing tarpon fills an important slot in a working guide’s calendar; a seasoned guide like Jim Long can book upward of 50 days during the two-month season (“It can be like my yearly bonus,” Long told me later). Brundick logs most of his guide hours leading sports to redfish back in the marshes at this stage of the game, though he aspires to make tarpon a bigger part of his spring. “There’s an unofficial code of ethics out here among the guides,” he explained as he poled us parallel to the pole line that extends from the shoreline some seven miles out into the Gulf. “If I’m on a school and one of the guides that are out hunting records, like Steve Kilpatrick and Tom Evans, comes up—or even one of the more seasoned guides like Jim Long or John Bazo—I’ll leave the fish.” This sort of respect has fostered an apprentice program of sorts. “I always try to help new guides learn the ropes,” Long offered. “Some people have told me that I shouldn’t be so willing to help, but I figure that maybe the guy I help won’t screw up my fishing another day. Ignorance is one thing, arrogance is another. Some of the Keys guides that used to come up here were a little less respectful of their fellow guides, though the great ones were. There’s always going to be one bad apple in the bunch.” Long helped found the Homosassa Guide’s Association a few years back to help buff up potential bad apples. “The HGA has created a standard of good ethics and professionalism, on the water and off, that everyone should live up to,” said Daryl Seaton, who operates the Best Western Crystal River Resort and the Nature Coast Fly Shop. “If the first thing a visitor sees is a guide behaving badly, it tarnishes everybody.”

In the early ’90s there were more than 50 guides working the waters of Greater Homosassa during The Season. Thanks to the fishery’s decline—or, in the past few years, the perceived decline—the fleet is now down to a dozen or so boats.

My day with Captain Brundick mirrored the previous day with Jim Farrior. Poling around Chassahowitzka Bay we saw a number of fish, but found no eaters. At The Point, our group watched an angler fishing solo jump what looked to be a 100-plus-pound fish. He lifted anchor and fought the fish for half an hour. He slowly faded into the distance, and we never saw a fish raised to the boat.

(Given the vicissitudes of tarpon fishing and the fact that few fish are actually landed, guides and anglers have devised a special lexicon to measure modest levels of success. These include “jump,” for when a fish is hooked, however briefly, and leaves the water; “eat,” when guide and/or angler see the fish open its mouth in an attempt to eat the fly, but fish and angler never connect; and “lean,” when a fish moves toward the fly, but doesn’t open its mouth in an attempt to eat the fly. With ever-increasing gains in sonar/brain scanning technology, one can imagine that soon captains will be able to monitor and measure “thinks,” deducing that a fish has thought about your fly but decided not to act upon that thought.)

Before daybreak the following morning, I stepped into Long’s Silver King skiff and we pushed off from McRae’s Marina. The Dawn Patrol. The Silver King is the boat of preference among Homosassa’s guide corps. It has a little broader beam than most modern flats boats, and a lot more weight—200 extra pounds. This makes it a bear to pole, but it’s a lot more stable in the kind of open-water fishing one encounters around Homosassa. The three current line-class world-record tarpon caught in Homosassa came out of Silver Kings.

“I don’t know if people can smell tarpon,” Long ventured as we zipped past The Point into Chassahowitzka. “I had a client who claimed he could.” Long has a substantial Homosassa pedigree. He’s one of the bridges between the days of yore and the present, a present that’s not quite ready to be dismissed. “Nat Raglan took me under his wing in the ’80s,” he continued. “He taught me to tie flies and leaders. Nat was a Keys guide, and I met him at the Bayport Inn where the out-of-town tarpon guides would stay. I caught my tarpon on a fly rod with Mike Locklear on a fly I tied that was a variation of the Black Death. When I showed Mike the fly, he said, ‘It’s not perfect.’ After I caught a fish on it, he asked me to tie two or three up for him.”

That morning, the odds were beginning to look in our favor. As the sun brightened the expanses of the bay, we could see three distinct pods of tarpon blooping, porpoising and otherwise exposing their whereabouts. Long, my angling partner Jeff Fryhover and I closed in on one group. Fryhover assumed what Long called ‘the Billy Pate ready position’: hook of the fly in line hand, index finger on line in the rod hand. He had several good shots, but no takers. “When I started guiding, my work clothes were boots and jeans, my uniform for trapping gators,” Long said as we patrolled the bay with an electric trolling motor, searching for the next pod of fish. “I looked like I was fixin’ to climb on a tractor.” Occasional reports from other guides filtered in over the radio and Long’s cell phone; a lot of fish were being sighted, with few being hooked . . . though one boat had landed two fish at the back of the bay.

“Two thousand eleven was the best year we had since the ’80s in terms of the numbers of fish around,” Long offered. “It’s not like the old days, but then nothing is. Even in the bad years, I felt like the fishing was manageable. There were tarpon around, but it was hard for people who didn’t spend lots of time here [e.g., the guides coming in from out of town] to find them.”

When I later asked Dr. Kathy Guindon, assistant research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Commission’s lead tarpon biologist, about the tarpon returns for 2012—and prospects for 2013—she paused. “We don’t really have a way to assess tarpon stocks, as very few fish are harvested, and stock assessments are generally done with data gleaned from dead fish,” she explained. “In the ’50s and ’60s, there were more catch-and-kill tourneys and higher tarpon harvest rates than there are today, but fortunately the ethos has changed.” Beginning in 1989, Florida required anglers to purchase a $50 harvest tag for any tarpon they wished to kill. “That first year, 961 harvest tags were sold,” Guindon continued. “The past few years, it’s been averaging less than 350. Most of the sold tags are not used.”

While hard data on recent fish returns is unavailable, Guindon can say that tarpon stocks are not what they were 50 or 60 years ago. “Commercial fishing records from that time show that there were a lot fish being harvested in Central and South America,” she said. “Considering it takes 10 years for tarpon to reach spawning age, the impact was considerable. But now, new regs are coming into play on a more global basis. Belize is now catch-and-release for tarpon, and Mexico is trying to get changes in place. Right now, we’re in a nice phase for tarpon. In the Tampa/St. Petersburg region where I’m based, we’re seeing a good mixture of size/age class in the schools we’re observing. That’s a good sign. I’m optimistic about the future. Though I will say that since I started my research in 2003, the fishing pressure has increased. Technology advances have made it easier to share information quickly, and that brings more people.”

I asked Captain Long about the record seekers, the small cadre of anglers who come each year for one, two, even four weeks, in hopes of finding their way into the record books. Some of these hyper-focused anglers book their favorite guide for a whole month and rent a house where the two of them will hole up, essentially establishing a two-man tarpon SWAT team. They spend hours each week testing the breaking strength of their leaders. They seek out fish that seem to have potential to be world records, and will generally only cast to such fish—though they may cast to smaller tarpon now and again to test fly patterns, quickly breaking the fish off if they take. “I have a couple record hunters that fish with me,” Long continued. “I tie all my materials to IGFA standards, and carry a tarpon kill tag if we think we have a record. I will not force an angler to kill a tarpon if I believe it’s a record. But I won’t disallow it. It’s the angler’s day.”

A little before lunch, our group finally got on the board. As we passed John Bazo’s boat, not 100 yards away, we watched McKeever cast, strip and come tight. The fish, a respectable 75 or 80 pounds, was in the air five or six times before coming to the boat, each leap long and high enough for even an amateur photographer like myself to get a few good photos. The following morning, Gawtry and Long would find a fish twice that size, landing it in just 20 minutes.

After McKeever’s fish came in, the fish ceased rolling. As we’d started the day quite early, I assumed that our day was about done. Long was poling us along and I was on the deck when he said quietly, “Look to the left. There are some fish laid up.” Thirty-five or 40 feet out, I could see five or six fish hovering near the bottom in about six feet of water. One of the fish seemed very big, with a girth like a giant channel catfish. “I want you to drop the fly on top of them delicately, like you’re casting a dry fly to a trout,” Long said. “Delicate” is not the first adjective I’d use to describe my cast with the 12-weight and a 2/0 Toad pattern, but I tried . . . and my gentler approach left the fly about five feet short. “Again. Further!” Long cajoled. Hell bent on not leaving the fly short, I overshot the mark slightly on the next cast, the line, rather than the fly, touching down on the water above the fish. They slowly finned away, not spooked, it seemed, so much as mildly aggravated. Seeing the flanks of the biggest fish, my jaw dropped.

“I didn’t want to say anything,” Long spoke quietly, “but I think the big one was pushing 180, 190 pounds.” I began to apologize for mucking up an easy shot at a truly outsized fish, but Long cut me short. “Nat Raglan told me once, ‘Jimmy, when someone makes a bad cast, you don’t have to tell them. They know, and they also know you worked hard to get them there. The best thing you can say is, That’s OK, let’s get the next one.’”

 

POSTSCRIPT: As this story was going to press, we learned that Captain Will Brundick died in a tragic accident at his home, 10 days short of his 33rd birthday.

 

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Whether fighting at the surface or down deep, a big tarpon demands the best from an angler and their tackle.

photograph by tosh brown

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photograph by jeff fryhover

“I didn’t want to say anything, but I think the big one was pushing 180, 190 pounds.”

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photograph by jeff fryhover

John Bazo displaying a full box of tarpon weaponry.