SI Vault
Jim Harrison
December 03, 1973
Caustic or kind, Florida's famed light tackle guides are obsessed with leading you to the fish—and you sure better catch them
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December 03, 1973

Guiding Light In The Keys

Caustic or kind, Florida's famed light tackle guides are obsessed with leading you to the fish—and you sure better catch them

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That night the customer sees the fish over and over again as he tries to sleep; he is like a bridge player reliving almost grand slams in his dreams. His mind, like a badminton bird, moves between the desire to punch his guide, to catch a record fish, to be back home playing in the snow to know enough about Keys fishing to do it by himself. Where no one could watch.

Sexton is to saltwater fly-fishing what an astronaut is to the space program—a superb technocrat. With his short gray hair and mesomorph physique, he reminds one of a retired NCO who has refused to go soft. He can be irritatingly humorless. Guides can kill the charm of a day's fishing by becoming screaming drill sergeants. It is, after all, a sport, and most notions of sport include the idea of entertainment. No customer likes to sit in the gun seat all day with the general feeling that he is a hopeless incompetent.

Though he has a certain honest charm, Sexton watches with absolute disgust when, after a day's fishing, the customer goes to an oyster house and loads up on quantities of shellfish and beer. Sexton worries aloud like an old lady about the dangers of alcohol and hepatitis. A disease lurks in every cherrystone. He does not like fish. He tells how, when he trained with weights, he would break a dozen eggs every day into a malted milk. And the customer knows that these finicky attributes are carried to great ends. An errant cigarette ash in the Sexton skiff is quickly wiped up with a wet towel. All of Sexton's equipment, however old, looks brand-new. The customer's dog leaps up for a peek into Sexton's new camper. Horrors. A dog can scratch a car. Everything on earth threatens decay and one maintains oneself only with a devotion to discipline that makes many of Sexton's friends reach for a big drink.

As the customer draws nearer to sleep he feels more warm and less nit-picky about Sexton. So what if a man devotes to fishing the same kind of energy Lee Iacocca devoted to the Mustang. A day with Sexton isn't as terrifying as fishing with Stu Apte, for instance, who gives the impression of overbearing faultlessness. Perhaps too overbearing—another guide once went after him with a kill gaff. And unlike Cal Cochran, Sexton often acts puzzled and doubting. Cal Cochran has a macho routine on the waterfront that Marlon Brando should study.

When he is not enervated by bad weather, Woody Sexton gives the appearance of tremendous strength and vitality. He constitutes some sort of classic in conservative guiding; while most guides have turned to larger skiffs—Fiber Craft or Hewes—for the comfort of their customers, Sexton keeps his light Nova Scotia. The skiff was bought from a Hamiltonian Republican who named it Amagiri years ago after the Japanese destroyer that sank PT-109. The name is still on the skiff and has been known to vex some of the Navy personnel on the Keys. Sexton still spends a lot of time on his push pole, a diminishing practice which on a heavy skiff is absolutely brutal. A 1,000-pound skiff with a 135-hp outboard does not glide across a fiat easily. Sexton, however, is willing to chase tarpon upwind and uptide, and the amount of power he gets into the pole is appalling. The skiff leaves a wake and if you are standing you maintain your balance with difficulty. This requires the kind of physique and conditioning that leaves the joggers and exercise buffs hiding in any available closet. (At home in the evenings, Sexton exercises his casting arm—which looks like an oak club—by going through all the motions with a 12-pound sledgehammer with a foreshortened handle.)

Sexton divides his year in half, moving to the West Coast in early July and back to Big Pine usually in February. Typically, he spends much of his vacation time in the West, fishing steelhead and hunting ducks and chukars. During World War II he was a physical fitness instructor in the Navy. Up until 1966 he cut big trees during the winter on a freelance basis for the timber industry. Sexton gives the impression of being hyper-intelligent, cranky and totally physical. One cannot imagine a more stylish or powerful fly caster, or anyone more capable at hooking and fighting fish.

At noon you are staked out in the Snipes and it is very hot and still. You hear the outgoing water gurgling through a tidal cut in the mangroves and you are tempted to throw yourself in to wash away the sweat that is dripping into your eyes and down your chest and legs. There are few tarpon around so you have decided to try the barracuda fly Ray Donnersberger has devised. One version has been called Red Death, a name that deserves to be hooted. But the fly, unlike many flies you have used on barracuda before, works. It is at least a foot long and evidently imitates the needlefish, a favorite food of the barracuda. Donnersberger claims the fly casts "nicely" and you agree, assuming you can stuff it down the barrel of a shotgun. But there are those who wouldn't need a gun. You remember an early morning at Vista Linda marina when Cal Cochran decided to cancel; the sky was dark and the wind was running over 30 mph. A few guides were standing around taking turns casting. Cochran threw the whole line and leader about 100 feet across the marina lagoon into the wind.

This sort of act can cause a great deal of difficulty and misunderstanding between guide and customer. The guide might have logged 20 years on the water and his devotion to angling is all-consuming. The customer has been making money so that, among other things, he can afford the $90-a-day guide fee. Although the customer most often is not one of the great anglers of the world, a few guides have been known to get very hot over a blown cast. Even to the point of running a customer back to shore if the errors are numerous.

Most guides are fairly tolerant and affable, however, especially if a customer's interest is sincere. Even in the frenzy and exoticism of the sport, the good guides remember that their purpose is to enable a customer to catch fish.

The names of guides most frequently heard are Cecil Keith Jr., George Hommel Jr., Stu Apte, Roy Lowe, Bill Curtis, Harry Snow Jr., Eddy Wightman, Jack Brothers, Jimmy Albright, Arlin Leiby, Bob Montgomery, Jim Brewer, Steve Huff and Cal Cochran. A mixture of the great, the good, and some retired. Albright, for example, has been famous for a very long time; Huff, who is only 27, will be famous for a very long time. A few are extremely versatile—you suspect that Bill Curtis, who works out of Key Biscayne, or Cal Cochran would gladly trail their skiffs to the moon if they thought the fishing was worthwhile. Cochran tackles his job with the belligerence of a pro defensive end. Stu Apte has retired from guiding and become a co-pilot on a 747, which reveals something about the type of person who becomes obsessed with this sport. In his spare time Apte is making a movie about fly-fishing for tarpon from a canoe. One wishes him well. It is said he does not know how to swim.

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