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FS Classics: Fly Fishing For Tarpon

In honor of Vic Dunaway’s many contributions to the magazine, and for the benefit of new readers, we are reprinting some of his articles on the Florida Sportsman Web sites. Dunaway, the magazine’s Founding Editor, passed away May 17, 2012 (click here for the news item). Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more Florida Sportsman Classics: Vic Dunaway Remembered.

Vic wrote about all manner of subjects, including fly fishing. The following article, reprinted from the April 1993 issue, was the first of a three-part series on the “short, but eventful, history of fly fishing for giant tarpon.”

–Jeff Weakley, Editor

Who tallied the first flyrod 100-pounder? Sorting it out is tough, and the answer is bound to surprise you. 

By VIC DUNAWAY

Jimmy Albright's 30-foot Prowler made the first forays to Nine-Mile Bank in search of big tarpon.

This is another in our frequent series of arti­cles about historic first catches made in Florida or by Florida anglers. It also begins a three-part series on the short, but eventful, history of fly­fishing for giant tarpon.

Spring is here and giant tarpon are returning to the fishing flats of Florida. Facing off against this annual invasion are great picket lines of flyfisher-men, by now a familiar sight on the shal­low banks of the Florida Keys, South Dade and (a bit later in the season) Homosassa. The rankest novices among them are ach­ing to do battle with fish weighing a hun­dred pounds. The veterans are dreaming of hookups with tarpon twice that size.

Less than 40 years ago, the idea of catching a 100-pound tarpon on “regula­tion” tackle was looked upon by most fly fishermen as not merely a dream, but a fantasy as far-fetched as interstellar travel. Even after the first few 100-pounders had been duly and officially recorded in the late 1950s, strident voices all over the land —some of them in South Florida—were still protesting that the public was being hoodwinked; that it was patently impossi­ble to catch a fish of such size on fly gear.

Jerry Coughlan, left, with 125-pounder and guide Jimmy Albright

Today, of course, all interested parties are fully aware that hundreds of hundred-pounders have been conquered by fly casters. The feat is no longer looked upon as a particularly big deal, except by those accomplishing it for the first time.

Meanwhile, the flyrod record has been pushed to 188 pounds, and when that first 200-pounder finally does hit the scales, ab­solutely nobody will be astonished to hear of it.

So why is an angling feat that was once deemed virtually impossible now so com­monplace? Experience is only a small part of the answer. Many light-tackle fisher­men in the fifties were practiced enough and skillful enough to handle huge fish on the flimsiest of gear. Numerous 100-pound-plus tarpon had been taken on baitcasting (plug) tackle, and the record in that category, set in 1950, weighed a whopping 160 1/2 pounds.

Improvements in fly tackle, then?

Nope, not that either. True, today’s ded­icated chasers of tarpon are armed with tackle that Izaak Walton would scarcely recognize as fly-tossing equipment—high-modulus graphite or glass-composite rods; machined reels with infinitely adjustable drags as smooth as a baby’s bottom; rotproof flylines and backing lines of space-age design and materials. Such niceties now make the job much easier, but they did not bring about the breaking of the hundred-pound barrier; for the most part, they resulted from it.

Here’s the answer, plain and simple: Just as a common stone proved the key to David’s undoing of the Biblical giant Goliath, it was nothing more than a foot-long piece of thick monofilament line—a heavy shock tippet—that made it possible, at long last, for a flyrodder to duel a giant tarpon with real hope of success. Not un­til 1955 were flyfishing rules amended to allow the heavy tippet to be added right next to the fly, after which comes the light “class” leader. Before that, the fly had to be tied directly to a leader or tippet that tested no more than 12 pounds.

In the 1950s, tarpon fishing on Florida Bay was a lonely game, with few players.

The concept and basic rules of competi­tive saltwater casting categories—fly, plug and spinning—were developed by the Rod and Reel Club of Miami Beach, and later passed along to the general angling public by being incorporated into the Metropolitan Miami (now South Florida) Fishing Tournament.

The Rod and Reel Club was founded in 1928, and its members did a great deal of saltwater flyfishing before World War II: However, the club record for tarpon in the prewar period was less than 20 pounds. Less than that, too, were the very earliest flyrod catches mentioned in angling liter­ature: “tarpum up to 10 pounds,” caught in the Indian River in the 1880s by James Henshall, author of the classic Book of the Black Bass. (Henshall caught his baby tar­pon on a 12-foot, 12-ounce flyrod. If that seems like too-heavy artillery, remember that Henshall must have been a timorous angler. He once described the largemouth bass as “inch-for-inch and pound-for-pound the gamest fish that swims.”)

After the war, Rod and Reel clubbers began assailing South Florida waters anew with light tackle, and the tarpon became a primary target, but mostly with plug tackle. Capt. Jimmie Albright, most fa­mous of all the pioneering light-tackle guides in the Keys, recalls that many of his clients who belonged to the Rod and Reel Club, or who went after trophies in the Met Tournament, did try for big tar­pon with flyrods, but kept running smack against a light-tippet wall.

“Fifty pounds seemed to be about the dividing point,” Albright says. “Lots of 30- and 40-pounders were landed, and some 50s. When the fish got much bigger than that, the fight always lasted long enough to somehow fray through the light tippet, even if the fish was hooked in a good spot.”

If hooked in a “bad” spot—where the leader could come in contact with the tarpon’s raspy jaws—a breakoff usually re­sulted almost instantaneously.

“When they started allowing heavy tip­pets, the dam broke,” Albright said, “and the records started piling up pretty fast. Ted Williams got three of them, for in­stance, in one day.”

Williams, the Hall-of-Fame baseball star who is no less celebrated for his angling exploits, was near the peak of his dia­mond career at the time but, according to Albright, he didn’t let spring training stand in the way of his eagerness to chase after a 100-pound tarpon with a flyrod.

“Ted came down in February with Juli­an Crandall, who was the president of the Ashaway Line company. Spring training had started, but he was holding out that year, as I recall. Anyway, we went out and in one day Ted landed three tarpon that weighed 76, 77 and 78 pounds. They were caught in that order, too. Each one was a new Met record, but Ted was a little disappointed that he couldn’t get a hun­dred-pounder.”

Don’t feel sorry for Williams. He has since topped that standard many times.

Just a week or two after Williams’ endeavors, Albright booked a trip with Char­lie Clowe and Dave DeTar, who belonged to the Rod and Reel Club and were among those hoping to be first to break the century mark. Both were top-rank anglers and prolific point-getters in club competition.

At the time, Albright was one of only a few guides who worked very far into the Florida Bay backcountry out of the Upper Keys. The postwar boating boom was just beginning; neither outboard motors nor skiffs were well suited to running 25 miles or more across often-bumpy water to spots—such as Nine-Mile Bank and Sandy Key—that are easily reached by many (too many) boats today. But Albright had no problem. He made the trip in a 30-foot Prowler cabin cruiser, towing a pair of 15-foot skiffs.

“We could make it to Man O’ War in about 45 minutes, and to Nine-Mile, of course, in a little less. When we got there, we’d get upwind and drift along the out­side of the bank until we spotted fish. Then we’d throw the hook, get into the skiffs and push down into casting range. We didn’t use the outboards very much, Sometimes they didn’t get cranked till it was time to go back to the cruiser.”

The outboards were 7 1/2 horsepower Mercurys. “Mercury gave me four motors a year back then,” Albright remembers. “Two for each skiff. If one motor broke down, it wasn’t easy to get it fixed back then, so that’s why Mercury provided the two spares.”

Another guide was needed, of course, for the second skiff. On this trip, as on a great many others, Albright’s associate was Capt. Cecil Keith of Islamorada. Upon [spotting fish off Man O' War Key, Keith began pushing angler Clowe—who no doubt was wearing Coppertone suntan lotion, since he had founded the company—while Albright fished DeTar.

Not long thereafter, Clowe cast to, and hooked, a big tarpon.

Equipment may have changed, but the guides on the flats sure haven't gotten better looking.

“The fight didn’t last long,” Albright says. “Charlie had the tarpon whipped in maybe 30 minutes at the most. Now that they had heavy tippets, good anglers no longer had to baby their tarpon like they’d been doing before; they started putting the same kind of pressure on them as they were used to doing with their plug tackle.”

Clowe’s catch weighed 101 pounds and was the first hundred-pounder ever to be taken on regulation fly tackle—and officially recorded. Of course, there may have been others that did not quite meet regulation or were not officially regis­tered—maybe because the angler was not a club member, or because the Met (which I ran only four months a year and closed just as the annual tarpon “season” began to heat up) did not happen to be open.

Albright knows about one “unofficial” 100-pounder because he and Keith were the guides on that occasion, too. He tells a strange tale of a catch that has missed a deserving place in saltwater flyfishing annals:

“One of our regular customers was Cliff Fitzgerald, who headed a prominent New York advertising agency. He liked to flyfish and was one of those who caught plenty of tarpon up to 50 pounds or so, but could never seem to do any better in the  days of light tippet only.

“A couple of years before heavy tippet  was allowed, Cliff came down with his son Cliff, Jr., who I think was in his late teens or early 20s. A New York brewery was running a fishing contest at the time to promote its beer in Florida. Miami Herald fishing columnist Allen Corson helped  set up the contest rules, and he patterned a lot of them after those of the Met Tournament. One rule he changed, though, for some reason: He upped the maximum leader test for the fly division to 15-pounds, not 12-pounds, the latter being the heaviest allowed in the Met and the Rod and Reel Club.

“Young Cliff fished with Cecil and he landed a 115-pound tarpon—with his fly tied straight to 15-pound leader.”

Fitzgerald’s amazing catch won all kinds of loot in the brewery’s fishing contest, but in the local flyrodding community, it was sniffed at; ignored, because it had been made on leader heavier than “regu­lation.” Although that very likely was the first 100-pound tarpon ever landed on a cast fly, it is all but unknown today, except the people involved—and now, of course, readers of Florida Sportsman.

But Charlie Clowe’s first “official” catch did not remain in the public eye for very long, either. Actually, the allowing of heavy tippet was by no means universally popular. The flyfishing traditionalists grum­bled about the change for years, and many top anglers refused to go along with it, claiming that anyone who tied on a heavy tippet was no longer flyfishing.

But there were enough modernists around to keep the Met flyrod record for tarpon inching upward until, in 1958, it came to rest at 125 pounds—a plateau that was to resist king-of-the hill assaults for eight long years.

The triumphant angler was Jerry Coughlan of Essex Falls, New Jersey, who was a very prominent Met angler—so prominent that his 125-pound tarpon is still widely but, of course, erroneously, believed to be the first 100-pounder ever caught on a fly. Not only that, but many believe him to have been a dominant figure in the develop­ment of flyrod tarpon fishing.

Nothing could be further removed from the facts, which were these: That 125-pounder was the first tarpon Coughlan ever cast to with a fly—and the only one he ever caught on fly tackle.

Since Coughlan and Albright were truly a legendary team, the public misunder­standing is easily explained. Inflating the accomplishments of legendary figures is a trait of even ordinary citizens. Let fisher­men take over the inflating, and you had better watch out!

Coughlan and Albright received most of the angling publicity that came out of Florida in the decade of the 1950s, as they racked up a then-unbelievable string of giant tarpon (and Met trophies) with plug tackle, including the 1601/2-pounder al­ready mentioned. Freshwater fishermen in every nook and cranny of the nation were oohing and aahing over the monsters-on-bass-tackle exploits of Coughlan and Albright, which they were reading about not only in outdoor magazines but also in the Saturday Evening Post and oth­er general-interest publications.

Because of the times, Coughlan got far more national attention than any winners of the Met’s Master Angler trophies in la­ter years, most of whom far outpaced his early angling accomplishments, especially when it came to versatility.

But it was the idea of versatility that led to Coughlan’s 125-pounder on fly. He had the winning tarpon in the Met’s plug divi­sion safely tucked away that year (1958) and so, according to Albright, he got the idea of trying for a sweep of the three Met artificial-lure categories—fly, plug and spinning.

“Soon after he caught his big fish on plug,” Albright remembers, “we were fishing in the backcountry one day when Jerry told me he wanted to go after the winning fish on fly.

Pioneers of the tarpon flats, from left to right, Cecil Keith, Jimmy Albright and Ted Williams discuss tackle and tactics for tarpon over the 100-pound mark.

“I couldn’t believe my ears. ‘You’re kid­ding!’ I told him. ‘You’ve never cast a fly in your life!’ ”

” ‘You can show me,’ he insisted.”

So the guide showed him as much as could be expected in a single, extempo­raneous, on-the-water lesson.

“His luck was perfect,” Albright said. “In a little while we came on a big tarpon laying up in a mud inSandyKeyBasin. Jerry got the fly to him—he didn’t need a particularly long or artful cast because of the murky water—and before you know it, he was hooked up.”

The fight was anticlimactic for an angler of Coughlan’s experience.

Coughlan almost did complete his cov­eted sweep that year of the Met casting categories. In the end, the spinning divi­sion foiled him, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on Albright’s part. Again, the skip­per narrates:

“One trip we found a big fish—100 at least—in a white hole downwind of us. Jerry was using a spinning outfit and a Leaping Lena plug. I told him to throw the plug in front of the tarpon’s nose and just let it lie still. He executed the cast perfectly and the tarpon rose and sucked in the plug instantly.

“Jerry began striking to set the hook. I expected a long run, so I was already poling hard toward the fish. But he fooled me. He just stayed there, shaking his head and wondering what he had eaten. Be­fore you know it, we were right on top of the tarpon and he hadn’t noticed us yet.

“What the heck, I thought. I picked up the gaff and hit the fish in the shoulder on the right side. He took off and the gaff ripped a furrow the full length of his body before it came out at the tail end. We never did get that one.”

Although Coughlan never caught an­other tarpon on fly, his 125-pounder re­mained the Met record until Pete Siman of Islamorada broke it in 1965 with a fish weighing 144 pounds. Meanwhile, how­ever, wild things were going on in the chase for giant tarpon on fly outside the Met Tournament, which ended each year around the middle of April. Some of those adventures will be the subject of an article next month.

As to who should get credit for the first 100-pounder on fly, here’s one vote for Cliff Fitzgerald, Jr. Although his use of a 15-pound leader was considered an atro­cious breach of flyfishing form by tradi­tionalists of the period, it actually gave him no real advantage over 12-pound, in­asmuch as the light leader was tied direct­ly to the fly.

Flyrod records now are kept by the In­ternational Game Fish Association (IGFA), and 15-pound has long been a standard tippet category—the one, in fact, which lists the current flyfishing mark, about which we shall hear more next month.

Recently, the IGFA added a 20-pound category to the flyfishing records.

That rumbling you hear is the sound of many a departed purist turning over in his grave.

FS Classics