Several years ago, after our seventh year in a row to the Northern waters for steelhead, my fishing partner and I talked about doing something different.
“Maybe we should try the salt,” Bunkie said. “Chase some bones, “ he added. We’d both done some flats casting, separately. Enjoyed it. But concluded it wasn’t the same thrill as hooking a muscular steelie in a wild river. A bone’s first run was a hoot, but after that it was over, and we both liked the on-going fight, the second and third run, the violent struggle and ultimate pleasure of bringing a hook-jawed male to hand and seeing the rainbow reflecting off its silver sides. And bears all around us . . . Yeah! We liked adventure.
“Tarpon?” I asked. Bunkie smiled. ”Yep, tarpon. Big ones.”
~ ~ ~
It should have given us a clue that this was going to be a different experience when we touched down in Tegucigalpa, and nobody was waiting for us. No message. No note at the airline desk. Nada. There we were, bags and rod cases in hand, anxious to get on with our fishing adventure to Honduras and no sign of our host, John Cook. Helluva of a thing. We decided to catch a hop down the coast to La Ceiba, our supposed jumping off place. There was a plane leaving in a couple of hours with seats available. We’d come a long ways, and we weren’t going to quit.
The La Ceiba ‘airport’ isn’t a big one. You can’t miss anyone there, and no one was there to meet us, again. We were pissed, vowing to figure our situation out and make it work, somehow. We found a taxi, got our bags, and asked the driver to take us to a ‘decent’ hotel. It was easy enough. Pesos all around, taxi driver, room, clean beds, dinner on a small patio, then we crashed. It had been a long, long day.
Next morning, we were back at the airfield bright and early, hoping to get some information about any other flights, or possibly a message from our missing host. The ticket counter person didn’t have a clue, but we didn’t have to look far – John Cook was out cold on the floor of the waiting area!
An hour later, after us showing lodge owner Cook our documents, and him gulping some dark roast to help with the hangover, we were loading our gear bags, reel bags and rod cases into a high-wing caravan, for the short flight to the coast. The air was humid, thick and hot. The pilot flew the whole way at near tree level, with the windshield propped open, about the width of a pack of Marlboros, by a short stick.
The pilot flew over a ridge, immediately lining up for the grass strip that ran downhill to the line of palms at the beach. He was a little ‘long’ on landing and got on the brakes as soon as we touched down. Then harder. Until, finally, we were sliding and starting to tip toward the starboard wing when the plane did a quick, forced ‘U-ey” and we stopped. Wow. I looked over at our host. He had just taken the half pint from his lips and was tucking the rum away in a small pack.
Local natives emerged from the tree line and began transferring our stuff out of the plane to the beach where Bunkie and I, John Cook, and everything else, including supplies for the fishing camp, were loaded into dugouts. Dugouts! To be paddled out to Cannon Island! Adventure here we come.
On the boat ride Cook said the week before a guest had landed a tarpon over one-hundred and twenty pounds, but he assured us, there were bigger ones out there. . .
“Holy shit, Bubba!,” Bunkie said wide-eyed. “What have we done?”
~ ~ ~
Cannon Island was small, with two airy cabins for guests, a cook shack and a two-room lodge where we ate, and our host slept. On the roof was a tall, radio mast – our only link to the outside world since the iPhones hadn’t arrived in the Banana Republics, yet. The flats boats, fourteen-foot Valcros with a six-foot beam, were pulled up on the beach, the boatmen seated on them eating breakfast. We were the only guests that week. Cook had designated Hectór, a wiry local, as our guide.
By one o’clock we’d had a simple lunch and were on the water, patrolling the shoals and cays looking for signs of cruising fish. Bunkie and I each had two rods loaded – a nine weight and a twelve weight, the latter having the heft and flexibility of a telephone pole, but essential we were told. Hectór determined the tide was right, just coming in, and the bonefish and permit would follow the surge on to the flat. We fished as we waded the broad expanse of clear water toward the edge and the drop-off.
The fishing was slow. I decided to try for barracuda and threw a streamer into the deeper water. Almost immediately I hooked-up to a scrappy, toothy ‘cuda which first dove, then came screaming up, jumping into the sunlight with a series of powerful, tail whipping leaps. I fought the fish for ten minutes before a final tug pulled my leader across a sharp tooth and the barracuda broke loose. No complaints. I’d had the best of it!
Oblivious to what I took for a dead log that had been washed up on a coral outcropping, I was tying on a new fly when I heard the shrill whistle and shout directed at me. Bunkie was waving, urgently, for me to come back, and the guide was splashing toward me with hurried steps. He shouted the ‘log’ was a sea-going crocodile. Just as aggressive and dangerous as the grizzlies of the Babine, or Damdochax, and more adventure than I wanted. I kept one eye on the beast as I retreated.
On the porch of the lodge that evening, we planned the next day’s fishing. Hectór wanted to search some open water south of the atoll. It was a migration route, he said, and the big fish should be coming in. Bunkie and I smiled. That’s what we came for: Big tarpon.
~ ~ ~
Standing in the stern of the Valcro on the bench seat I unrolled a long, long cast of twelve-weight line tipped with twenty-pound mono to drag my fly – twelve inches of blue and silver tinsel covering a double hook rig. Strip, strip, strip. Do it again.
Bunkie was in the bow kneeling on a makeshift casting platform mounted over the foot well. He said we could fish side-by-side, if we were careful. I nodded and he stepped up, worked out his line with some false casts and fired a big loop out sixty feet. Two strips and a grab!
“Yellowtail!” Hectór yelled. The rod bent hard, and line peeled off the reel with a high-pitched whine. One run, then another. Bunkie pumped and wound, several times, until the fish was finally netted. It was a beauty! A chunky yellowtail jack, close to thirty pounds. All that a nine weight could handle. Now I wanted a shot. That chance came sooner than I expected. And more so.
The boat was moved to new location, and I picked up my big rod and got up on the seat again, while the guide hunkered amidships, ducking away from the whistle of the fly overhead.
My cast had barely touched the surface and been stripped once when the ocean burst open beneath it. I set the hook hard, with Hectór yelling, “Again, señor, más fuerte!”
I did. It was like jerking on a tree limb. Then an enormous tarpon exploded in a missile launch of spray. It was HUGE! It had a mouth the size of a basketball. It was as long as the beam of the boat. A five-foot monster of twisting fury.
My knees were literally shaking. My body braced against the fight. My hands locked on the rod’s two grips. The tarpon ran and jumped again, then it dove. The spinning reel was a blur, the spinning handle barked my knuckle. I tried to palm the spool . . . and thinking I had never been scared by a fish before. I’d never hooked anything this big. I wasn’t prepared for this. And I knew it.
Eventually, I outfought the enormous tarpon, and it came to the net. It weighed ninety-three pounds! It would prove to be the largest tarpon we boated. In the following days, both Bunkie and I had tarpon on over twice that size. They straightened hooks, broke thirty-pound test, and snapped the top section of my pal’s heavy rod.
We hooked twenty-one of these huge fish in four days and released eleven. Yellow-tailed jacks, after a while, were a pain in the ass. We released over seventy-five. . . we were always releasing jacks! The barracudas we caught we ate. It was going great. Another great adventure.
On the fifth day that all changed.