The look in my wife’s eyes suggested that what she was about to tell me would be a crushing blow. “I wasn’t able to get a ticket for you,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
The ticket in question was to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, which, in the world of our teen and pre-teen daughters, is serious currency. My wife had secured six such tickets to the sold-out concert at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. All of which were allotted to my daughters, their friends, and their moms.
I put my hands on my wife’s shoulders, looked her straight in the eyes and replied, “Don’t worry, honey. I’ll try to find something else to do.”
We’d planned a whole trip to Florida around surprising our daughters with the concert, and suddenly I had reclaimed six hours for myself. I immediately Googled the words “night,” “snook,” and “flyfishing,” which led me to Capt. Jacob Lenges and his Hell’s Bay skiff. I told him that sight-casting to snook under bridge lights is one of my favorite things to do.
“We can do that,” he said. “But if you want, we could also try sight-fishing for tarpon.”
This had me intrigued. I’d fished for tarpon at night under dock and bridge lights, but those were mostly babies. Lenges described something different. These, he assured me, would be bigger.
The girls and I headed south and were greeted in our hotel lobby by a sign that read, “Welcome Swifties” and included a menu of cocktails named after her songs. Dozens of mothers and daughters milled about in various arrays of glittery concert attire, discussing Swift’s set list, her choreography, and what surprise songs they hoped she’d play.
The scene at the boat ramp was a stark contrast. Pulling into a dimly light parking space, Lenges’ truck and trailer was the only other rig there. At the ramp, red and green navigation lights on his skiff led me to the end of the dock, and we were soon idling across the dark waters of Tampa Bay.
We made an open-water run to a section of bridge sitting so low over the water that its lights created a distinct line on the surface. Under the tight confines of the bridge and its pilings, Lenges positioned the boat so I could make short sidearm casts to the light line. Cars passing overhead created a hypnotic rumble that, combined with my efforts to focus on the target, induced a trance-like state.
“Here comes one, left to right”
“Here comes one, left to right,” Lenges said, and the long, slender silhouette snapped me out of it. I couldn’t see my backcast or where my fly landed, but I had faith that Lenges could. As I started to strip, the black shape turned toward the boat and accelerated. I felt the line tighten in my hand, set the hook, and within seconds every inch of stripped line had retreated back out through the guides.
The fish hooked left along the pilings, but Lenges trolled us out before it turned, jumped, and headed to open water, pulling us farther away from the pilings that could’ve abruptly ended the fight.
The scene devolved into a series of comic almosts, as I repeatedly brought the fish to the side of the boat, only to have it dig deep and peel off again into the darkness. My body burned with the build-up of lactic acid, which no doubt the tarpon was experiencing on the other end. Finally, mercifully, the fish came to rest along the gunwale and Lenges grabbed its lower jaw. His headlamp made the large, reflective scales glow in the water, and I knew—whenever he chose to let it go—that the memory of our struggle and that iridescence would be all I had left.
I sat on the gunwale catching my breath and watching Lenges move the shiny slab back and forth in the water to help it recover. My phone buzzed with a text from my wife; a short clip of my daughters dancing in a crowd, lit up by fluorescent glow sticks and stadium lights piercing a cloudless night sky. The smiles on their faces were priceless; an indelible moment shared with 70,000 other screaming fans.
I was having a similar moment, but with just one other person and a 70-pound prehistoric herring. I’ll go to my grave wondering who had more fun.
Pete McDonald is the executive editor of Boating magazine. He coaches too many youth sports teams, but still manages to sneak out and go flyfishing whenever he gets the chance.