I concede that
"mutton snapper" is hardly a prepossessing title. The sheep, from which
the name derives, is not much of an animal. No civilized person will deal with
him except in chops and stews. To bleat is not to sing out in a commanding
baritone; to be sheepish is scarcely to possess a virtue for which civilization
rolls out its more impressive Oriental carpets or, for that matter, even a few
ordinary bath mats.
And it is true
that the fish, as you may have suspected, is not at all handsome, with its
large and vacant-looking head, crazy red eye and haphazard black spot just shy
of its tail. Yet its brick orange flanks and red tail are rather tropical and
fine, and for a number of reasons it deserves consideration as major
light-tackle game. When you have been incessantly outwitted by the mutton
snapper, you cease to emphasize his vaguely doltish exterior.
To begin with,
mutton snapper share with the most pursued shallow-water game fish a
combination of hair-trigger perceptions. They are wild and spooky, difficult to
deceive and very powerful. Taken under optimum conditions, they are as
enthralling as any species that haunts the flats.
Like most flats
fish, the mutton snapper is primarily a creature of deep water, another
individual thread in the ocean system that, following its own particular
necessity, crisscrosses the lives and functions of the species that share its
habitat. Which is to say that in looking for one fish you find another—and
maybe in the end you find it all.
After a long
winter's flats fishing, I had naturally acquired a ready facility for
recognizing most anything that came along. A flat is a circumscribed habitat so
far as larger fishes are concerned. The first mutton snappers I found were
encountered while I was poling for permit on flood tides close to the Florida
Keys. They were wild fish, hustling around in their curious way and pushing
abrupt knuckles of wake in the thin water. Their red tails made them
They seemed so
quick to flush and so conscious of the skiff that it was hard to see how they
might be taken on a fly rod. Besides, they were hard to find, somewhat harder,
for example, than permit, and they were every bit as alert and quick to
Last May, Guy and
I began to fish for them in earnest, spurred on from time to time by the sight
of brilliant red forks in the air. The fish often seemed hurried, and when we
would pole to the place where we had seen a tail, there would be nothing. Most
of the first fish we found were in a grassy basin south of Key West, a shallow
place usually good for a few shots at permit. The basin was little more than a
declivity in the long-running ocean bank that reaches from just below Key West
to the Boca Grande Channel—and across which lie the Marquesas.
Early one hot day
Guy and I began to fish this basin. A long convection buildup of clouds lay
along the spine of the Keys, like a mirror image of the islands themselves, all
the way to Boca Grande, and then scattered in cottony' streamers to the west.
So we fished in a shadow most of the day, straining to find fish in the turtle
leisurely wan hope that comes of being on a flat at no particular tide, I was
poling the skiff. We passed a small depression on the flat and suddenly spotted
two mutton snappers floating close to the bottom with the antsy, fidgeting look
they so often seem to have. Guy made an excellent cast and a fish responded
immediately. My hopes sank as it overtook and began to follow the fly with the
kind of examining pursuit we had come to associate with one of the permit's
more refined refusals. But with considerable �lan, Guy stopped the fly and let
it sink to the bottom. The snapper paused behind the fly at a slight forward
tilt and then, in what is to the flats fisherman a thrilling gesture, he tilted
over onto his head and tailed, the great, actually wondrous, fork in the air,
precisely marking the position of Guy's fly.
I looked toward
the stern. Guy was poised, line still slack, rod tip down. He gave the fish
three full seconds and I watched him lift the rod, feeling foredoomed that the
line would glide back slack. But the rod bowed. Abruptly, the fish was surging
away from us in a globe of wake that it pushed before itself; a thin sheet of
water stood behind the leader as it sheared the surface.