“Maybe there is a beast” – William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Back in 1985 William Golding did a reading at Simon Fraser University and answered questions about his work. He was touring in support of his To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, and seemed relieved when someone would ask him about it. Most of the lit majors (like me) asked him about Lord of the Flies, a subject you could tell was a bit tiresome for the great scribe. The strange little book about a strange little band of messed up schoolboys, alone on a jungle island, made him a literary star. But by then it was something probably best left to discussions in high school English classes.
Thirty-five years later I’m reading Lords of the Fly, a new book by Monty Burke. If you’ve followed his work in Forbes, The Drake and elsewhere, you know he’s far too crafty a writer to simply have thought Lords of the Fly was just a cool name for a tarpon book. It only takes a few chapters to realize there’s a Beast lurking in the waters off the mouth of Florida’s Homosassa River, and it looks an awful lot like the Beast in Golding’s novel.
From the outside, everything about tarpon and the tarpon sports fishery seems larger than life. Giant fish on light tackle pursued in small open boats sounds like the stuff of fiction, which is probably why Lords of the Fly initially reads like a novel. It’s a great way to present such a story, and using the novelist’s techniques and structures hints at what’s to come.
The book chronicles the obsessive pursuit of world-record tarpon, most notably by Tom Evans, perhaps the greatest Homosassa tarpon fisherman on earth. Many others appear in the book—names you’ll recognize, from well-known Florida saltwater guides to the anglers who become legendary tarpon fly fishers. But mostly this is Evans’s story. He’s the spiritual center of the book, the quintessential tarpon angler, the star around which all the planets spin. In any pursuit there are The Great Ones, and then the often obscure ones whom The Greats Ones admire. Obscure is Tom Evans, and Burke takes great care in presenting an honest portrayal of a man and the price he paid in pursuit of a dream.
Throughout the book, what everyone else is doing looks a lot like Evans’s tarpon fishing, in much the same way a Sergio Leone film looks a lot like a classic Western. But of course there’s something different going on here. Burke reserves judgement on this, and the reader is left to decide if one approach is better. Burke has a foot in both skiffs, but you can tell which way he’s leaning.
But Lords isn’t all relentless trophy seeking. There’s lots of other fun and interesting stuff in there, too. Between its covers you’ll find gems like Thomas McGuane’s short lesson on how to be a great writer; the origins of the Billy Pate fly reel; and why baseball great Ted Williams ALWAYS SPOKE IN CAPS. Tales are told of angling legends like Billy Pate, Lefty Kreh, Jim Holland Jr and many others who helped shape and define the Homosassa fishery. Sometimes you’re in the boat with them, and sometimes you can see them way out there in the distance, but their presence is always tangible—for better or worse. Obsession changes us—or reveals dark things that we manage to suppress in other aspects of our lives. Inevitably the luster gets rubbed off the legends. But somehow, even the more extreme and objectionable personalities we meet in Homosassa are humanized by the poon.
Through it all you’ll find clear evidence of Burke’s mastery of his craft. For the first half of the book there are moments of beauty as he takes us from the early days of the great Homosassa tarpon fishery through its Golden Age. Then, as things begin to change, the writing does too, and we begin to see a more journalistic approach—somewhat more distant, the fishery seen through a subtle, but more critical eye.
Like all the best fishing books, Lords of the Fly isn’t just about the fishing. Fishing is the lens through which we peer into these people’s lives. The drive towards greatness is central to the human experience, and central to the book. Burke knows that greatness is found out there beyond what seems possible for most of us. It’s what draws us to stories of men and women who push the limits. We admire the ones who succeed of course, but we reserve a special admiration for those who fail. Lords of the Fly is about those winners and losers and those qualities of character—good and bad—that set them apart.
But yes, thank goodness, it’s still a fishing book—and a great one at that. One part Moby Dick, one part Old Man and the Sea, and three parts Pirates of the Caribbean, Lords of the Fly is the perfect cocktail for these strange times, an elixir that is at times challenging, but always transportive and triumphant. It will have you thinking about your post-Covid fishing plans, and how tarpon might fit into them. If, like me, you’ve never pulled on a silver king, it will surely have you adding the tarpon to your bucket list.
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and can be found each year (minus 2020 of course) swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him at @danawsturn