From the helicopter chattering 300 feet above it, the sea floor is a bacterial culture in a biochemist's dish. There are blossomings of viridian green, patches of khaki, blotches of sepia, gray and dull white. The sea, flooding in twice a day through dark channels around a pattern of low mangrove islands, barely covers its bed. It would be very easy to assume that the Back Country of the Florida Keys is a barren marine waste. That notion would be far from correct.
The airstream, slamming through the open window of the little chopper, makes it hard to hear what fellow passengers are saying, but there is no difficulty in picking up Carl Navarre's excited shout. "Over there!" he yells. "On your left! A whole pod of them!" The helicopter cants over, slides down to 100 feet, and there the tarpon are—25, possibly 30 of them, black shadows moving with majesty along a channel edge. The lead fish must be better than 150 pounds, and it gets its measure of awed, silent respect before Navarre snaps everyone out of it. "All right," he says, "now let's go check out Sandy Key."
This was Sunday of last week, the eve of the Islamorada Invitational Tarpon Fly Championship, a five-day event that involves only 25 anglers, 25 guides and 25 boats, yet is arguably the most demanding saltwater tournament fished in the world. Only fly tackle may be used, and the leader must incorporate a section of 15-pound test. To receive an invitation to fish, it is necessary to have impeccable angling credentials, which will have been thoroughly scrutinized. Not surprising, since one would be fishing in the company of such men as Jim Lopez of Coral Gables, Fla., who holds more than a dozen world fly rod records including both tarpon (162� pounds)and bonefish (13� pounds), and other luminaries of the saltwater fly-fishing scene like Al Pflueger, whose father founded the famed taxidermy company, Ben Hardesty of Shakespeare Company, Billy Pate, who has caught both black and striped marlin on a fly rod, and Navarre, who had won the tournament in 1969 and whose helicopter reconnaissance of Islamorada waters immediately before the contest is an indication of the intensity of preparations.
Undeniably, it is also helpful if one has a lot of money. At the pretournament dinner for past champions the talk ran casually to salmon fishing in Iceland, hunting in Alaska, shooting birds in East Africa, not competitively but as the normal currency of conversation. There was some heavy-muscled side betting: one wager, struck between Navarre, who is chairman of the board of the Miami Coca-Cola Bottling Company, and Din Hawley, a retired executive, ran to $10 per pound on tarpon brought to the dock. And there were plenty of others. According to Jack Kertz, chairman of the tournament, the immediate expense of fishing the five days runs around $2,000. It can be somewhat more if, as Lopez is alleged to have done, you put in 40 days of practice, with boat and guide, ahead of the competition.
All the money in the world, however, will not put you out of range, should you deserve it, of the sharp tongues of the guides at Islamorada, who form an aristocracy of their own; men like Jim Brewer, Ed Wightman, Hank Brown and the formidable Jimmy Albright, who twice steered Ted Williams to victory—in 1965 and 1967—and was with Al Pflueger when he won in 1972. There's no more democratic place in the country than the inside of a tarpon skiff once it is headed out from the jetty. And, although the fishing is in deadly earnest, there is an engagingly friendly informality. It all starts with a pretty girl who flags away the first boats at 6:30 a.m.
In most years there is an advantage in drawing an early start. One of the most desirable places to fish is Buchanan Bank, on the edge of the Back Country, which is what the guides call the grounds on the gulf side of the Keys, a tarpon-rich area of flats and channels that stretches out for more than 20 miles before the open sea is reached. You might not see more fish on Buchanan than you would at Sandy Key Basin, Palm Lake or Long Key, but for some reason, connected possibly with the color of the bottom or of the water, tarpon will take more boldly there than anywhere else. And one section of Buchanan—the Pocket, they call it—is more productive than any other. So, normally, if you are first away, you roar out to Buchanan and stake your claim.
Last week, though, the timing of the tides meant that the Pocket would probably not begin to produce fish until about lunchtime—and fishing stopped at 3 p.m. So there was a difficult decision to be made. Would it make sense to stake out the Pocket early, knowing full well that the whole morning was likely to be blank, in the hope that an eager eater would be cruising along at noon? Or go, let's say, to Sandy Key and see fish right through the morning, even though they might not be as sure takers? On the first day Mike Schamroth, a New York diamond importer, decided to take the first alternative.
He had the long, hot morning he expected, perched high and precariously on a cooler box in the bow for enhanced visibility, his fly line coiled on the deck of the skiff ready to shoot as soon as a long, dark tarpon shape came sliding down the edge of the channel into range. Sometimes, not with hope of a fish but to break the monotony, he laid out the No. 11 slow sinker. Throwing a line for tarpon isn't as pretty to watch as casting to a trout. Often there is no time for a graceful, artistic presentation. The angler may have only seconds to act when he sees a cruiser just within range, sometimes on the wrong side of the wind. He double-hauls fast and hard, shooting the big streamer or bucktail on a 4/0 hook ahead of the fish's path so that he can twitch it into tantalizing movement at precisely the right moment. It is a very demanding skill.
Schamroth's talent was finally brought into play a little after 1 p.m., when the first tarpon to move along Buchanan Bank turned slightly off course and sucked in the red streamer. The fish acted classically, holding steady at first while Schamroth struck again and again to set the hook, then jumping clear of the water twice before steaming powerfully north. The gaff went in after 40 minutes of play—an 86�-pounder, easily qualifying as a weight fish to be brought to the dock. Seventy pounds is the minimum for this tournament. Fish under this weight are returned alive and earn points as releases. Schamroth, with a manic grin, flung himself into the water to cool off.
His tarpon proved the heaviest fish of a modest first day, though Pflueger had points for two released fish to add to those gained for his 77-pound keeper. But other anglers favored in the betting—Hardesty, Pate and Lopez among them—had taken only releases that would, under the complicated scoring system, not begin to count for points until the anglers had landed a qualifying 70-pound-plus fish to go with them. And Navarre had an even worse day. He had landed and brought ashore a fish that he and his guide, Ed Wightman, believed would be a weight fish. It wasn't. It went just four ounces under 70 pounds, Navarre incurring a penalty of 10 points and losing the 175 points the tarpon would have earned as a released fish. At the end of the day only two anglers, Schamroth and Pflueger, had points on the board. No significant trend was yet observable.