I've had a few mentors in my life when it comes to fly fishing.
The first who comes to mind is the late Addison Gilbert, a native Floridian who grew up fly fishing for bass on the St. Johns River.
Gilbert, a graduate of Florida State University, came to Sarasota County in the 1950s and may have been one of the earliest fly anglers in the area. He began his career as a teacher and retired as the county's Director of Secondary Education.
I first met Gilbert while sitting in the old Shell City, a bar and lounge located at the corner of Bee Ridge and Shade in Sarasota. Gilbert loved to talk fly fishing while sipping Wild Turkey. We caught many a fish in that gin joint.
I didn't get to fish with Gilbert until the early 1990s when he invited Ed Hurst and me to go tarpon fishing in the inshore Gulf of Mexico off Venice. Hurst and I showed up with spinning rods in hand.
Gilbert had other ideas.
"What bait do you like for tarpon?" said Gilbert.
"Pinfish," I said.
"Then we'll take a few pins," he said. "And we'll take a few crabs."
At the time, Gilbert was running Fisherman's Wharf Bait and Tackle, a bait shop/tackle shop/fly shop located on the Intracoastal Waterway in Venice. He kept his Hewes Bonefisher tied up at a dock behind the shop.
We boarded the boat, then headed for the Venice Inlet. I noticed when we were going through the inlet toward the Gulf of Mexico that the spinning rods had been put away. The only rod out was a G.Loomis 12-weight fly rod.
"Oh, great," I thought. "I don't want to do this."
It wasn't as if I'd never fly-fished. It was that I perceived fly fishing for tarpon, bonefish, permit and other glamor species as an activity for only the highest-skilled fly anglers. And I didn't think of myself like that.
I'd been fly fishing for 20 years, but mostly in fresh water -- for bluegill and bass.
Tarpon, I thought, most certainly were out of my league.
We slowly motored south and when we neared the Venice Pier, Gilbert eased back on the throttle and said, "I want to see you cast."
I grabbed the rod, stepped up onto the bow casting platform and pulled line from the reel. I began casting. I made a couple of false casts, then sent the fly out about 70 feet.
"You'll have no trouble catching a tarpon," said Gilbert.
"Yeah, right," I thought.
About five minutes later, Gilbert spotted a school of tarpon a little southwest of the pier.
"I'll let you know when we get in range," he said. "Cast a little in front of them, let the fly sink,, then begin stripping it it. When you get a hit, it will feel like your fly has snagged a big log.
"If you do everything just right, you won't even see the fish jump. You'll need to clear your line first."
A couple of minutes later, we were about 100 feet from the school and getting closer. My knees really were shaking. And my heart was pounding.
"Cast when you're ready," Gilbert said softly.
I took a deep breath, raised the rod and began false casting. After two false casts, I sent the fly out in front of the school.
I let it sink, then began working the fly back by stripping the line in with my left hand.
Suddenly the fly stopped and the line went tight.
I had an effing tarpon on the line! On my first cast! Holy crap!
I began setting the hook by sweeping the rod to my left. No "trout sets" here, thank you. You had to really pour the coals to a tarpon. This fish was hefty, about 80 pounds.
The tarpon took off and I began "clearing" the line. When you're fly fishing, line piles up at your feet as you pull the fly through the water. And that line suddenly begins to fly off the deck as the tarpon speeds off. You clear the line by letting it flow through a circle made by the index finger and thumb on your stripping hand. Once you've cleared the line and you're "on the reel," the fight is on.
When I was on the reel, the silver tarpon made its first jump. And when it did, it threw the hook.
I lost the fish.
"Don't stand there feeling sorry for yourself," said Gilbert. "Pick the line up and cast back into the school."
I looked up and saw the school still within a cast.
I sent the fly out in front the school, let it sink and began the retrieve.
It happened once again. The line went taut and I was into another fish.
This time, everything went according to script. I set the hook, cleared the line and fought the fish.
Forty-five minutes and eight jumps later, I had the tarpon, a 75-pounder, to the side of the boat.
Gilbert grabbed the leader and unhooked the fish.
I still couldn't believe I did it.
I had joined an elite fraternity.
Now, it was Hurst's turn. Hurst, a native of Kentucky who grew up in Sarasota, is a great angler. But he had never touched a fly rod. However, he knew "instinctively" what to do. He had grasped enough to be functional.
Gilbert found another school of tarpon and Hurst stepped to the bow. He was only able to get the fly out about 35 feet, but it was enough. He hooked a tarpon on his first cast, but lost it on the jump. He made another cast, hooked another fish and landed it three hours later.
Final scoreboard for the neophyte fly angers: Four casts, four tarpon jumped, two landed.
It was time for lunch. We headed for the Rum Bay Restaurant at Palm Island and celebrated our good fortune with grouper sandwiches and draft beer.
Grouper and beer never tasted better.