In the Heart of the Backcountry, at the Edge of the World

Casting to Snook during Tarpon Season

Story and Photos by Ryan Brod

At dawn we idled through Mangrove Tunnels and emerged in Florida Bay. Disturbed by our approach, mullet dimpled the otherwise glassy surface. Smells of tidal rot and fish hung on the air. Above, white egrets glided in loose formation. The late-March temperature—hovering in the low-70s—felt incredible after the Maine winter I’d endured.

Rich, my guide and friend of several years, sat next to me at the wheel of his skiff, bundled in a thick Simms coat, his sun mask pulled up. I supposed this was chilly, as far as Keys weather was concerned, but I felt comfortable in my sun shirt and pants.

“I have an extra coat if you want,” Rich said.

“I’m good, man. This is the warmest I’ve been in months.”

Channel markers blinked green, red. Large mangrove islands loomed at the horizon. The morning felt charged with possibility.

“Everyone’s tarpon fishing, even though the water’s still too cool,” Rich said. “Calm days like this, early in the season, backcountry fishing can be on fire.”

“Sounds good to me,” I replied. “Let’s do it.”

By backcountry fishing, Rich meant redfish, sea trout, and snook sight-fished in skinny water. I’d booked two days hoping for tarpon, but I’d learned, through our years fishing together, to trust his judgement. Tarpon had shown up close to Islamorada, but they’d stay fussy until the bay reached 76 or 77 degrees.

Rich punched the skiff onto plane. Cormorants flapped in awkward take off; we nearly overcame them before they veered away. Rich navigated channels and unseen hazards he’d memorized over the years, buzzed bonefish flats where wading birds stood like miniature statues. The bay mirrored a purple sky. Behind us, the immense Florida sun nosed over the horizon.

“Not a bad morning commute,” Rich said loudly, and I nodded.

A few other skiffs—guides with clients, I figured—scattered north and south, sticking close to town. The farther west we drove, the fewer the boats, until ours was the only one around. This excited me; as much as I preferred tarpon fishing, pingponging unwilling fish between skiffs didn’t seem like the best use of time.

A half-hour later, Rich took the skiff off plane and we glided toward a grass flat, deep in the backcountry. Why he stopped here was beyond me, it appeared identical to the myriad flats
we’d run past.

Rich pulled a nine-weight from the gunwale and handed it to me.

“Think of this spot as a warm-up,” he said. “Target practice to shake off the rust.”

“What rust?” I joked, pulling line from the reel and organizing it in neat coils on the bow.

I inspected the fly, a sand-colored, shrimpy creation with bead chain eyes and minimal flash. A guide-fly, as they’re called—simple and fishy.

“That thing is redfish candy,” Rich said, unclipping the push pole. Falling tide swept over the flat before us, which appeared to be no more than two feet deep. The bottom was turtle grass offset by small sand pockets.

Rich poled for a while before the first redfish appeared, dead downlight. With my polarized sunglasses I watched it approach.

“Eleven o’clock, go for it.”

I made the short cast, let the fly sink, bumped it a couple times. The redfish surged and ate. It was a modest specimen, maybe two pounds, accented by a large black spot near its tail. Over the next half-hour, I landed a handful more reds, all the same size, all willing eaters of the shrimpy guide-fly. It was good target practice indeed. This was the kind of fishing that made me feel dangerously effective, but in all reality, the redfish would have eaten anything I plopped in their paths.

The tide slowed and we stopped seeing fish. Rich poled to deeper water and we made a 10-minute run, in which direction I was not entirely sure. The Florida backcountry was disorienting, and I tried unsuccessfully to get my bearings. Thankfully, Rich knew just where we were headed.

When we came off plane in what looked like a basin between islands, I noticed a lone branch protruding from the bay like a gnarled finger. As we idled toward it, Rich snipped the mangled shrimp fly and tied on a larger, dark-colored fly, the specs of which I swore to secrecy. He silently poled the skiff toward the branch.

“OK Ryan, see how the tide is sweeping in on the branch, left to right?”

“Yeah,” I said, though I couldn’t see much tidal movement at all.

“When we get close, I’ll have you land the fly a foot to the left of the branch. You’ll only get one shot. There’s usually a snook hanging nearby.”

I could see the branch easily enough, but the sun—higher now—produced glare that prevented sub-surface visibility in the branch’s direction. I would blind cast and hope for the best. Our approach seemed to take forever. My nerves flared, so I took a few breaths to regain composure; we were not chasing easy targets anymore. I’d spooked snook with bad casts around mangroves, and I’d yet to land one on a fly.

“OK, a foot to the left of the branch, go ahead.”

I made the shot. The fly landed directly in front of the branch.

“Shit,” I said.

“Try it,” Rich replied. “Bump-bump-bump…”

I stripped twice, maybe three times, then the bay erupted. I strip set on contact and the fish pulled line from my hands. When I cleared loose line, the reel sang.

“Nice work!” Rich called. “Keep pressure, but not too much. That’s a good fish.”

The snook turned right and kicked its tail near the surface, ripping 20 feet of line. The difference in fight between snook and redfish was substantial. I had my hands full.

When it began to tire, I noticed the fish dragged at an awkward angle when I pulled against it.

“I think it’s foul-hooked,” Rich said. “Easy now.”

The snook flopped and tail-kicked at the surface until Rich grabbed it. The fly was stuck in the snook’s underbelly—I’d been pulling it sideways. The fish eclipsed 30 inches, shiny and well-fed.

Leader entered the mouth then protruded from the gills. We realized the snook had eaten, then somehow blown the fly out its gills, then managed to get hooked on its belly.

“Never seen that before,” Rich said. He gently removed the fly, snipped it, then pulled leader back through the snook’s mouth. I took a couple photos before the release. The snook swam back toward its branch; at such landmarks, Rich told me later, snook might live their entire lives.

Rich congratulated me on my first snook, then joked that it didn’t really count, given the hook placement. Always confident, he added, “Don’t worry, we’ll get another one.”

A half hour later, we poled the edge of a flat not far from the spot I’d landed the snook. This was wide-open country, not the mangrove edges I’d imagined. The sun was higher now, its reflection intense. There was no breeze and I’d sweat through my sun mask. To the east, the horizon line blurred where sky met bay; herons and egrets stood in silhouette as if guarding the edge of the world.

“Be ready,” Rich said. “If they’re here we should see them in the next hundred yards. It’ll happen fast.”

The water was a bit cloudy, and noticeably deeper. Even downlight, I had trouble picking out shapes or lines that might indicate a snook.

“Shit,” Rich said. “See that puff at two o’clock—that was one. They’re spooky and tough to spot right now.”

Rich poled further, both of us concentrating and I noticed more puffs—cloudy spots that dissipated quickly—where snook had bolted, churning up the muddy bottom. I strained my eyes but still couldn’t see any fish, only their tell-tale exit puffs.

“They’re here,” Rich said. “We just have to spot one before it senses us.”

He turned the bow slightly to aid in visibility, I assumed. A few more puffs, then Rich called out.

“OK, coming at you, two o’clock, see ’em?” Three snook strung over a sand hole like tarpon.

“Got ’em,” I said.

“Two feet in front of the lead fish—go.”

I made the 50-foot backhand shot.

“Good! Wait. OK, little bumps.”

The lead fish—the largest of the trio—turned slightly to track my fly, but didn’t change speed. I ticked the fly a couple times and the snook followed. A few more ticks of the fly, then the snook’s mouth opened slightly and my fly disappeared. I kept stripping; the snook kept swimming. When it finally turned, my line tightened and I strip-set, hard.

The snook freaked, boiled, then slashed the surface, headshaking and spraying water.

“Giant!” Rich said.

Certain guide slang, I’d learned, described unusually large fish in efficient terms: tank, for example, or moose, or giant. Rich’s description of the snook fastened to the end of my line got my heart rate kicking. Straight off the bow and swimming near the surface, the giant snook was a bulbous black mark, surging forward as my line sliced through the bay.

Soon I was into my backing. Rich kept poling; starting the engine would spook everything in the area. I gained back line, then the snook ran again. This back-and-forth pattern continued for 10, maybe 15 minutes, before I managed to get the fish within range.

“Go easy this last bit,” Rich said. “They can wear right through that 30-pound leader. Oh man, I’m nervous…”

I tried to ignore his last comment. Rich staked the pole in the mud and descended the platform, then readied himself at the gunwale. Finally, I lead the tired snook to him. My view of the grab was blocked but I could hear the fish’s final protest, splashing Rich as he grabbed it. Then Rich lifted it into the boat with two hands.

“What a snook!” I said.

“Beauty,” he replied. “One of the biggest landed in my boat.”

We took photos quickly, anxious to get the snook back in the water. Its lateral line resembled the brush stroke of a monochrome ink painting. Not 40 inches, but close. Its girth was impressive, thick from gills to tail. Rich revived it carefully; I could sense his reverence for the fish. The snook kicked off and out of sight. We high-fived.

“Everything has to go right to land a fish like that,” Rich said.

I thanked him for his help spotting the fish, then coaching me during the battle. He handed me some bottled water, and after a few gulps I realized just how thirsty I’d been.

Snook snacks

I landed a few nice sea trout that afternoon, then lost a smaller snook when the hook popped out. We called it a day and Rich ran us back toward town, shallow flats lit up by the afternoon sun: browns and dark greens split by aquamarine channels. Small mangrove islands appeared overexposed in the harsh light.

Rich and I grabbed a beer back at the dock and made plans for the next morning, my mind still stuck on the big snook’s lateral line. I kept thinking about it, and about the birds standing on the horizon where bay met sky, and how fish and birds and landscapes borrowed from one another, or blended together somehow, I wasn’t exactly sure. I was overheated, and the beer
did quick work on my already zapped brain.

The next afternoon the water around town heated up, and I hooked my tarpon, which was another story for another time. This much was relevant: after getting my butt kicked for an hour and 55 minutes, the tarpon—a tank, Rich called it, every bit of 120 pounds—wore through the 60-pound leader. When I handed Rich the fly-less eleven-weight, which had bent inconceivably for nearly two hours, I could barely straighten my arms. I wasn’t about to complain, but I secretly wished I could manage a tarpon without losing muscle function in my upper body. Maybe I could learn to land one in 15 minutes, in the same time frame I landed the big snook. Soon we were back at the dockside bar, where I attempted to regain use of my forearms, at least enough to raise a toast to our days on the water.

Later, we headed to the nearby parking lot, where we settled up and talked plans for next spring. Rich rinsed off his skiff. In the morning I’d fly back home, to Maine, where a foot of snow blanketed the ground, where lakes were still ice-capped. A green iguana scuttled across the parking lot’s white stones. Rich and I shook hands, and I headed for my rental car.

“I keep thinking about that big snook,” I said to Rich, over my shoulder.

“I do too,” he replied, “I do too.”

 

This article originally appeared in the 2020 edition of Stonefly Magazine.