Barry Kent is a gifted fly-tyer; he owned a commercial fly-tying operation in South Africa for almost two decades before he emigrated to the USA. I met him at a Backcountry Flyfishing Association meeting. He and I hit it off, and we started fishing together.
Back then (mid-1980s) we used heavy monofilament tippets, 80- or 100-pound test, when fly fishing for big tarpon. Line that heavy is hard to get straight, so the flies with the leaders pre-tied onto them were stored in a box called a tarpon box, or sometimes, a stretcher box. The box stretched the heavy tippets, keeping them straight. One of the pleasures of getting ready for tarpon season was tying up new flies and leaders and lovingly placing them in the box.
Most flies then were variations of the classic Keys-style tarpon streamer. Minnow patterns tied with synthetics didn’t start showing up until a couple years later.
Barry and I went to Homosassa together on one of my early trips there. After rigging him up with a yellow-and-orange Keys-style streamer, I poled him around for a while. We didn’t see anything. The fact we were the only boat out there did little to give us confidence, either.
Barry had tied up some flies he called “Baby Blue.” Beautiful, realistic things, they looked like little blue crabs, except they were rigid, not fishy-looking at all. I think he wanted to tie one on when he turned and said to me, “I don’t have any faith in this fly.” I said, “Go in the box and get another one.” He started to take the fly off. I said, “No. Find the fly first, then change it.” He admitted this was a good idea.
All this fly-changing nonsense had distracted me from my fish-searching duties. He hadn’t even thrown the fly I’d given him at a fish! Distractions now over, though, I started looking again. Not for long. Forty feet off our starboard was a string of tarpon so long I could not see either end of it, hundreds of fish swimming nose-to-tail, parallel to our course.
“Barry! Pick up the rod and make a 40-foot cast off the right side of the boat!” “Where?” “Anywhere, just get it out there!” Oh, and that yellow-and-orange number was still on the line. Kent could cast, and the fly sailed as instructed. As it came down, a fish broke out of the string and crushed it as it landed.
In a state of shock, Barry reared back, the classic bass-bubba hook set. This accomplished two things- it broke his leader, and terrified all the fish, who left in a hurry.
I almost fell off the poling tower for laughing. It was tragic, and it was also hilarious. It is hard, Hard, HARD, to break a 20-pound leader with a fly rod. “I guess the fly was OK after all,” I choked out.
I’m not sure Mr. Kent saw the humor in the situation.
He’d have many more opportunities through the years to see humor in not catching tarpon. I learned he was one of the most stubborn, hard-headed individuals I’d ever met.
My skiff had built-in rod tubes, of course. Through the course of owning it, I’d learned that it would only accommodate rods nine feet long or less. Barry liked using a 10-foot fly rod, one made by G. Loomis. He tried to put it into the rod tube one day.
“It won’t fit, Barry. It’s too long.” “Really? I’ll make it fit.” And he did. But now his formerly 10-foot fly rod was more like nine feet, one inch. I’m not sure Mr. Kent saw the humor in that situation, either.
He was there when I was rigging a fly line one day. Using a piece of monofilament, I whipped a loop (they didn’t come with pre-made loops back then) in the end of the line. “That’s not very strong,” he said. “When you get a fish on it will break.” “It will not,” I answered. I’d been rigging this way for several years and had never had one fail. “It will,” he said. “It won’t. Let’s test it.”
I loop-to-looped a piece of 50-pound monofilament to the fly line. He wrapped a towel around his arm, then wrapped the fly line around that. I wrapped the leader around a glass bottle. Then we started pulling, until something broke.
“See? I told you it wasn’t strong.” When I examined it, the fly line in the loop had broken. My knot was still intact. “The fly line broke,” I said.
“It’s a bad connection,” he said. “A tarpon can pull harder than that.” “Yes,” I said, “It can. But I have a 20-pound tippet on my leader, and a drag on my reel. The tippet would break before the fly line, and the drag will slip before that much pressure is applied, anyway.” At least most of the time!
We were off La Costa Island one day when we found a school of fish that had to have 300 individuals in it. Mind you, this was at least ten years after the Homosassa incident detailed above. Barry had yet to land a big tarpon. I was sure the deed would now be done.
My instructions were simple, delivered calmly. “Cast out in front of them and let them swim into it. Strip it just fast enough to maintain contact.” He ignored me, and cast across the middle of the school, stripping it back hard, right through them.
Visibility was great. You could see the fish move out of the way.
“Don’t do that,” I said. “Cast out in front of them and let them swim into it.” Again he ignored me, casting across the middle of the school and stripping it back, hard, right through them. The fish parted like the fly was Moses and they were the Red Sea.
The tone of my voice was no longer calm. “You’re stripping it too fast! Can’t you see them move away from it?” He turned to me (we were side by side, this boat had a bow-mount trolling motor) and said, “I don’t like to strip it slow.” Well, OK then, I’ll shut up.
He made the same presentation over and over again for a half an hour, all with identical results. He finally said, “I don’t have any faith in this fly.” “Hand me the rod and go get a different one.” He handed me the rod and went to the stretcher box. In the meantime, I made two casts. A large fish took the fly on the second, jumping several times before the hook came loose. I handed Barry his rod back, telling him, “It’s not the fly, man, it’s you.”
Of course, the school spooked with the commotion, and we didn’t get any more shots that day.
A year or two later I was getting the stretcher box filled up and thought of Barry. I called him. “Do you want to go tarpon fishing this year?” I asked. “I would love to,” he replied. “Here are the rules,” I said. “You’re going to agree to follow my instructions, right now, or I’m not bringing you.” “But I…” “No,” I said. “No buts. Either do what I tell you or don’t come.” To my surprise, he agreed to follow my instructions. “And I have some new flies I tied,” he said.
“Leave them home,” I replied.
I’d be the first to admit that Barry’s skill as a fly tyer was vastly superior to mine. My advantage was, I spent 60 days in a row on the water during tarpon season, times ten or twelve seasons, where he had a total of ten or twelve days combined. I knew what worked. He didn’t. Again to my surprise, he left his flies home.
My new fly that year was a striped bass streamer called Electric Sushi that Mike Martinek (now deceased, unfortunately) had showed me how to make. When tied in chartreuse, the angler could see it 50 or 60 feet away. You knew exactly where it was, relative to the fish. The tarpon had never seen one before, and they took it well. It was an awesome addition to the fly box.
This was the fly I gave to Barry.
Fly fishing for tarpon is unlike any other kind of inshore fishing. You can go days without seeing a fish. It’s often long periods of boredom punctuated by periods of the most intense excitement imaginable.
On this particular day we saw a fish here, a fish there. No sustained action, and no good opportunities. In the afternoon we found ourselves in Captiva Pass with several other boats. The tide was going out. We were all waiting for the tarpon to show, to start feeding on the crabs the outflowing water usually carries.
We got bored. No action. I suggested we float out of the pass and run down the beach. Barry agreed.
Before we got down the beach a quarter-mile, here came a herd of fish, heading north along the shoreline. I shut down the outboard and used the trolling motor to put the boat in position. “Cast it in front of them and let them swim into it…”
Barry surprised me by following my instructions. As a reward, almost immediately one of the tarpon took the fly. A good fish, it took a little more than 30 minutes (Barry yelling the entire time) for him to get it close enough for me to grab the leader. Twelve years of trying, and he finally got one!
The fish were coming up the beach by the hundreds, and Barry would hook two more that afternoon, landing one more. I’m there, like “Damn! You see what happens when you listen to the guide?”