Classic Florida Tarpon

Looking back into the early days of tarpon fishing along Florida's coast.
Flip Pallot circa the early days: The reel, a classic Fin-Nor wedding cake; the rod, built in Norman Duncan’s garage; the skiff, a Challenger livery edition rented on Summerland Key; the background, you’ll just have to figure that out for yourself.
Chico Fernandez: I remember outings with Chico for so many reasons. He was a marvelous fly-caster, even back then. No one in all of fly-fishing throws those lazy, effortless, laser loops that are Chico. He was a debonair dresser and often showed up at the dock with a tennis sweater tied around his neck, pressed slacks and dock shoes. You wouldn’t know him from David Niven! Chico never got dirty — he could pull a hundred-pounder up onto his lap for a photo and never get slimed. Another reason that I remember outings with Chico so well is the unbelievable Cuban sandwiches made for each trip by Chico’s mom. By 9 o’clock each morning I’d begin asking Chico if it was lunchtime yet.
Stu Apte: On a warm January day, tarpon fishing with Stu in Key West, I poled him along the rim of Pearl Basin where a number of large fish had laid up. A giant fish finned out straight into the morning sun. Stu judged the fly placement perfectly, as always, and the explosion of the strike was backlit by the rising sun as was the first series of jumps. I had never seen such a large tarpon! The fish ran down the rim of the basin spooking others whose wakes slipped off the flat onto the slick dome of the bowl. The hooked fish followed them and embarked on a new series of greyhounding leaps. Ten minutes of the battle slipped away and I followed the tarpon with the outboard — this was a tough fish! I had seen Stu in many a fish fight and very few lasted more than 12 minutes or so. He commonly licked 10-foot Pacific sailfish in under 15. Another series of jumps, closer to the skiff, and we noticed that the tarpon had an enormous crescent-shaped scar from a previous encounter with a shark. Yet another leap revealed a similar scar on the other flank. This old warrior had escaped what could only have been an incredibly large shark — only to meet up with Stu Apte. The tarpon, however, continued to run, jump and tussle for another full five minutes before Stu was able to bring it alongside (above). I simply could not believe the size of this animal! I slid the release gaff behind her lip and struggled to hoist it to gunwale height. This fish, no doubt at all, eclipsed the existing world record, which at the time was held by Stu himself. Her scales and skin were barely abraded by the shark bite and the wound was partially healed over, its fighting ability certainly not impaired nonetheless, yet Stu did not wish to kill and enter the fish for a world record — an early lesson for me in sportsmanship by the man who would become my fishing and hunting partner through a lifetime outdoors.
Shooting the shot: Legendary angler Stu Apte makes a presentation from the deck of his skiff, Mom’s Worry, to an approaching string of Keys tarpon.
Lefty Kreh: I was with Lefty when he retired from giant ­tarpon fishing. It was on the Mosquito Lagoon, and as I stood by as Bill Bishop held Lefty’s fish up and a photo (right) was snapped by our friend Sam Talarico in another boat, Lefty (center) announced, “That’s my last giant, boys. It’s small tarpon from now on!” That must have been 10 or 12 years ago and Lefty is still pestering those small tarpon with flies.
An Aussie’s First Giant: Australian fly-angler Rod Harrison in the final seconds of a hard-fought battle with his first big tarpon, found in Florida’s Mosquito Lagoon.