Megalops atlanticus. The name belongs more to a creature in an ’80s horror film than a fish out roaming the flats. They are so big and powerful it is hard to imagine them existing in real life. I saw Flip Pallot and Jose Wejebe cross paths with these monsters on television. Then again, I’d also seen Godzilla terrorizing Tokyo. It’s hard to say which was more believable. But I wanted them to be real, so I decided they were, just like I believe in magic and my ability to dance after a few drinks.
On a trip with friends to Mexico, I brought up tarpon fishing like most people bring up dessert at a restaurant. “Wouldn’t that be a treat? I heard it was good here. I’ll have some if you do.” In reality, it was the only thing I’d been thinking of the whole time. The ruse paid off, and soon enough everyone agreed to split a day’s guiding on this last-minute vacation.
Isla Holbox is covered with tarpon, according to a few forums dedicated to the subject. One of the better-known fisheries for baby tarpon—at least to those who keep up with such things. My Spanish is weak enough that it took me twenty minutes to spell the island’s name in the search box, but eventually I managed. Tarpon Club seemed the place to go, so we booked a day and I proceeded to die the slow, painful death of anticipation.
Time passed at an excruciatingly normal pace, but the day finally came. As the tide rolled in, we waded through bathtub-warm water to the panga. The ride out was beautiful, but I was too hungover to enjoy it properly. Endless tacos and cheap beer had caused me to lose control the night before. But the surroundings were striking, even through a haze of regret.
I’ve always had what I consider a healthy view of what success looks like. It takes the right sort of measuring stick to gauge these things, particularly when chasing a new target. I just need to see one. Anything beyond that is gravy. It’s a method I’ve well-established on elk, red stag, and salmon, so I was feeling good about it working with tarpon.
It was my turn on the bow when we pulled into the flats. The water was shallow and clear; the mangroves cut down on the wind. The stillness of the place calmed me. Maybe I did have a shot at one. The guide seemed confident enough, but that’s in his job description.
We didn’t have to wait long. The string came around the corner like a band of marauders and I knew right away I was fucked. Maybe it was light refraction or the angle or the tequila still in my system, but they were way bigger than I’d expected. They were supposed to be small—they’re called “babies” for chrissake. These were big enough to ride. No way I was getting one in the boat.
Alberto was leaning on the push-pole and whispering direction that I must have heard but don’t remember. It’s hard to say who was more surprised to see the purple fly land in front of the school. Strip, strip, strip. Faster and faster I pulled, trying to keep up with the tempo of Alberto’s commands. A yell from the back of the boat and I pulled hard.
The world exploded. The tarpon came out of the water like a sea dragon, tail-walking for what felt like miles down the line of mangroves. Probably by accident, I managed to bow the rod tip to him, keeping him on. The fly line burned through my fingers as I tried to clear it. Knotted and tangled, it was never going back on the reel. I tried to fight him in close, stripping strong against the weight on the line, but I pulled too hard and the leader broke above the bite tippet.
I sat down and let the next man up. My hands were shaking. I felt like I’d been drugged. And in a way, I had. My mind was altered by the silver king, and I knew there there was no going back to the way things were before. I wasn’t so much hooked by tarpon fishing as I was gaffed and dragged flopping into the boat. There is no escape from this. And I don’t want one.
Trevor Carter, avid hunter and angler, is the general manager at Seminar Brewing in Florence, South Carolina.