Old School in Old Florida

Back in the day with McGuane, Harrison, Buffet, and the Silver King of the Conch Republic.

Saltwater Fly Fishing
April/May 2006

If you are headed to Key West for tarpon, you need to watch this movie,” said my friend, as he nudged a grainy old videotape across the table of a local Atlanta restaurant. The hand lettering on the side simply read: Tarpon. But any reader who has ever seen the film knows which one I’m talking about—the 1970s documentary featuring poets Jim Harrison and Richard Brautigan, along with novelist Tom McGuane, all captured in the summer of their years, fly fishing’s long-haired literati entranced by spring in the Conch Republic and a shared love of the flats.

The film, which apparently was never distributed but still enjoys a kind of bootleg circulation, was scored with original music by yet another rising star—Jimmy Buffet—and featured an all-star cast of guides and anglers, including Steve Huff, Gil Drake, Page Brown, and others. If fly-fishing cinema can have a cult classic, Tarpon is most certainly it. These were the days of fishing in mirrored shades and cut-off blue jeans, forehead bandannas, and puka-shell necklaces. Picture Starsky and Hutch in a flats skiff, before the invention of the poling platform, when the guide pushed his boat backwards and the angler stood atop the console, fly rod in hand, perched like a kestrel on a fencepost.

Despite the fact that others do most of the on-camera fishing, it is nonetheless the artist as angler that delivers you into battle with the world’s most explosive game fish. For example, after a stellar day on the water, reeking of hippie cool and Lord knows what else, the scruffy and bespectacled Beat poet Brautigan lounges in his hammock and describes his encounter with a big tarpon. “Extraordinary,” he marvels. “So extraordinary as to create immediate unreality upon contact with the fish.” He imagines the leaping tarpon shattering the ocean’s surface “like liquid marble breaking and going up, a silver Atlantis coming out of the water.”

And then there is McGuane, kicking back after lunch at a Margaritaville café, contemplating the nascent sport of fly fishing for tarpon: “I think we are up against the real thing,” he says. “Up against absolutely pure fishing.”

At one point, Harrison ponders the significance of fighting the Silver King on a fly rod. “Who was it that said we go through life with a diminishing portfolio of enthusiasms?” he asks, sucking on a cigarette, blind in one eye but still seeing more than most. “So you try to seek out moments that give you this immense jolt of electricity… and that freshen up your feeling about being alive.” According to the poet, who was almost as famous for his appetites as for his words, tarpon fishing was “better than any chemical.

Without narrating a word, the edit is a sterling commentary on saltwater fly fishing as a means to something more than meat.

Despite all the rhapsodizing about a fish, what struck me, and perhaps most people who can get their hands on a copy of Tarpon, is the unspoken commentary delivered in a scene filmed aboard a Key West party boat. With no narration, the camera is simply turned on during an orgy of graceless death. Small sharks, snappers, dolphin, and reams of large permit get yanked aboard, promptly skull-whacked by a cracker deckhand, and then thrown into a 55-gallon drum, a bloody bouillabaisse of reef and bottom fishes. Enraptured with killing, the mate hammers his sawed-off baseball bat onto the back of a small shark when, in midblow, the film cuts abruptly to a skiff on the flats, where there is only silence and the visual serenity of the tarpon play in progress. Without narrating a word, the edit is a sterling commentary on saltwater fly fishing as a means to something more than meat. As a means to keeping our enthusiasms always expanding rather than diminishing.

I wish I could tell you how to get hold of this film. Sadly, it reveals hardly a blip on the Google radar. But ask around. There are plenty of folks with their cherished third and fourth-generation copies who might gladly lend you one. Perhaps we can even make it available through the magazine someday. Until then, you won’t have to wait any longer to work on your own portfolio. Spring finally has arrived, and with it the tarpon. ✦