Honestly, I had no interest in saltwater fly fishing before the mid-1990s when my father called and said, “My publisher is flying me first class to the Florida Keys. He’s got a house on the Atlantic and a boat moored just outside. He asked if you want to join.”
I was living in Sun Valley, Idaho with some fun-loving fly-fishing guides and the name of our game was trout. But your dad is your dad, right, and you can’t spend too much time with them. You’ll sense that in your 20s and 30s and you’ll know it by 40. If you don’t, something went very wrong somewhere along the way.
It was a red-eye flight and my mom had given us some sleeping pills so we wouldn’t suffer to badly from the lag. I washed that down with Lord Calvert, which the flight attendant kept in ready supply. When I awakened we were landing in Marathon.
I went to a fly shop and asked a guy what might work. I told him I could cast, but otherwise was clueless. He laughed, grabbed a few flies and said, “Sorry, these aren’t the best,” and then told me to lead the fish and don’t let the fly swim at them.
Couple hours later I was motoring out of a cut, my dad and the publisher on the flying bridge (as little as I knew about saltwater flats fishing, I understood immediately that this was not a premiere flats rig). But a minute or two later my dad said, “There are fish on the starboard.” I quickly glanced, identified the trio as some juvie tarpon and cast a Cockroach in their direction. It really was the perfect setup—the Cockroach landed, the fish charged, two peeled away and the largest latched on. I probably demonstrated the biggest trout-set in history, but the hook held and a few minutes later I’d landed my first tarpon and shouted to my dad and the publisher, “That was awesome.”
And it was. Not because an hour later I hooked a permit, which somehow came off the hook, but because this was a whole new world, with everything to learn and unlimited challenges to meet. Fact is, I only owned an 8-weight rod for salt and the next tarpon, a big, migratory beast, just about destroyed me. I don’t think I landed another tarpon on that trip, but we wrangled some big mahi, caught some yellowtail, smoked cigars in Key West, and generally went full conch-mode.
I’m still defined as a Rocky Mountain trout guy, and a PNW steelhead addict, but I’ve tried to fish salt as often as possible, though logistics and life have steered me away from some major salty locales.
Having worked with many of the best writers in our genre, I often close my eyes and think of their lives and why they made certain choices in their careers and life paths. John Gierach stands out—why would that man, who would quickly be invited to any fly-fishing lodge on the planet, never have fished salt? I asked him that question one time and today I can’t remember the exact answer, but I think he said it was about priorities, and not enough time to do it all and to do it well, and that those chinook salmon and steelhead and Labrador brook trout gave him enough to consider.
I remember thinking that way, too. And not to say John is wrong, but you never really know what you’re missing until you’ve been there. That trip to the Keys made me more of an all-around angler and gave enough pause to ask the question—do I need to live the rest of my life in the Rockies chasing trout? Or could I do something entirely different?
The following year I was in the Keys for a full month, shopping flats boats and researching captain’s license requirements. This was a cool lifestyle, I’d determined, and I wanted more of it. But my appendix blew out, was finally removed 12 days later, and I was toxic and near death for about a week. I survived, but returned to Sun Valley about 30 pounds lighter than when I left and lacking quite the enthusiasm for big change. Soon I moved to Montana and stayed.
Looking back, I would’t have known the appeal of salt if I hadn’t lucked into that offer from my dad and his publisher and spent those incredibly memorable and mind-shaping days on the flats, hunting tarpon, searching for the worm hatch, running offshore to chase mahi, sails and marlin . . . turning around and repeating each day. I’ll be getting more of that action this fall and winter, likely in Belize, the Bahamas, Cuba and Mexico, and would urge anyone who’s resisted salt to take a stab at it sooner versus later. But I’ll also offer this warning: hooking a big bonefish, or a giant tarpon, or any permit you can get a fly into, could change your life path in many unexpected ways. Don’t say I didn’t say so.