Ways and Means

If fly fishing is about anything, it’s about the way we fish.

Saltwater Fly Fishing
June/July 2006

Undoubtedly, it was going to be a day with bugs. For the last two hours, Islamorada angler and artist Tim Borski and I had been working our way across Florida Bay toward the no-motor zone east of Flamingo. He was giving me a peek at one of his special spots, where baby tarpon blooped on the smoked-glass surface of a hidden lake, as great white anvil clouds hung over the horizon. In August, the only sounds were of squawking ibises, the occasional pop! of a snook, and swarms of mosquitoes probing the head net just beyond our eyeballs.

To get there the Borski way, you haul a canoe atop a skiff for an hour, anchor up the skiff and row the canoe for another half hour, break down the oars into paddles, and then suit up and stroke your feast of flesh through a twisty, skeetery creek before gliding into the lake. You stow the paddles, attach pontoon outriggers for stability, and then pole silently toward the school of baby tarpon that always seem to be there. It’s the same boat and the same Borski as in Dale Spartas’s photo essay on page 28, and it’s no place where you’d expect to see another angler, especially one barreling in under power.

But there they were, two “googans” puttering around the point from an adjoining lake, plowing to a stop on top of the tarpon just as I was about to make my first cast. With an anchor quickly over the side of their johnboat, they started casting plugs into the mangroves, missing the water by half an acre in their frisson of first-come eagerness. The ensuing confrontation could have gotten ugly were it not for the fact that no dog holds his hackles very high when he’s been caught wetting the rug. And soon they cranked up and left, defiantly heading farther into the no-motor zone. It put Tim, me, and the tarpon in a sullen mood for the rest of the afternoon.

The episode came to mind again as we were crossing the Ts on this issue, which is rife with commentary about right ways and wrong. Fly fishermen are closet ethicists anyway, and given the chance, each of us will hold forth on whatever we think is the best, worst, lamest, or loveliest way to sling string at a fish. Consider our feature on tournament sailfishing by veteran big-game angler Scott Leon. Twenty-foot leaders. Flop casts and trolling. Fly lines bastardized beyond recognition. When are such setups fly fishing, asks Leon, and when is it all just a phony means to an end? Similarly, boating columnist Bob Stearns contemplates the proper role of the boat in fighting big fish on light tackle. When is the boat a useful aid in making a quick release, and when does it create an unfair advantage that negates any skill with a fly rod? “Let your conscience be your guide,” writes Stearns.

As Borski puts it: “No motors means no motors.” And that’s why we paddled, pushed, poled, and slapped our way toward the tarpon.

From our letters section, in which a reader takes the magazine to task for publishing photos of anglers with their fingers in fish’s gills, to our “Tactics” piece on using strike indicators for seatrout—which will surely raise an eyebrow among fly-fishing purists—methodology seems to be the unspoken motif of this issue. I, for one, have little patience for scolds and fly-fishing prudes, but one has to admit that if our sport is about anything, it’s about how we fish. Method matters here, and well it should.

Recently, I had another fly fisherman tell me he regularly powers his skiff into the no-motor zone and would rather risk paying the fine than hassle with a canoe. But, as Borski puts it: “No motors means no motors.” And that’s why we paddled, pushed, poled, and slapped our way toward the tarpon. In the end, the cheaters left and we stayed, sweating it out for a single tarpon. It wasn’t a big fish. But it was no-motor, backcountry fly fishing done right, and a day that left us with nothing to hide from but the bugs. ✦