Written by Greg Tinsley
Monte Burke’s most recent book, Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession and the Hunt for the World Record Tarpon, chronicles the modern evolution of saltwater fly fishing, which inevitably leads to – or may begin with – the extreme excesses of bringing these giant monsters to the rail using strictly standardized fly tackle.
Lords funnels geographically to a kind of “Skull Island” for outsized tarpon, which had lain hidden in plain sight until the late 1970s. A remote, big-sky theater of immense sand-and-seagrass meadows, strewn with engine-eating rocks, nearshore to Homosassa on the west-central coast of Florida.
While the mysterious, armor-plated silverfish itself is nothing short of a mind-blowing revelation – an incomprehensible beast that survived the dinosaurs and whatever killed the dinosaurs – this is primarily the detailed telling of the deeds of uncommonly dauntless men, the developers of big-game sportfishing, the adrenaline addicts who began regularly smashing and re-smashing world records for tarpon on fly.
During his first morning to ever to drift what would only recently be named the Oklahoma Flats, one of the most notable of these fishermen, Al Pflueger Jr., observed in Lords:
I’m standing in the bow, looking out over the Gulf when I see them. It looks like a rainshower hitting the water. The fish are 200 yards away, rolling, coming at us. I’d never seen a population of tarpon like that, and never will again. There were thousands and thousands and thousands, as far as you could see. The fish came right through the boats, as happy as could be.
The fishery remained guano crazy for little more than a decade before it faded and crashed. Lords points us to the shock of an ecosystem that lost half of its available freshwater through the historic explosion of human utilizations. It has not recovered. Most every big name fished it before it sadly throttled down to approximately 10-percent of its glory at discovery. Apte, Brooks, Albright, Kreh, Curtis, Navarre, Wakeman, Malzone, Perez, Bishop, Pallot and many more… eventually, a small, nimble navy of the original saltwater masters.
Burke tells us that in one 10-day period at its height, Hal Chittum and Jimmy Lopez jumped more than 200 fish and brought 61 to the boat.
Stu Apte and Ralph Delph twice gaffed a large tarpon that yanked Delph into the water each time. Apte’s emergency use of Delph’s skiff accidentally separated his partner from the fish, which Delph had been cowboying through the water. A lost fish, but Delph was alive for dinner that night. They each wrote their guesstimates on napkins regarding the fish’s weight and turned them over simultaneously. One number, twice… +230. Most everyone saw fish like that, and many larger fish were hooked and lost, because, well, the big ones always get away.
Burke digs into many unforgettable characters, particularly Billy Pate, Steve Huff, Flip Pallot and Tom Evans. Evans, now in his 80s, who went there originally with the legend Huff as his guide, is very much the centerpiece of Lords. He’s given the tarpon of Homosassa approximately 1,800 days from the bow, while investing a significant fortune to the chase.
In 1996, the year after a serious outbreak of red tide swept through those ever saltier waters, which meant drastic reductions in blue crabs (a top tarpon forage), Evans suffered 40 fishless days. However, on May 10, 2010, he landed a 198.8-pounder to set the world record for the 12-pound tippet class. It is a listing that may stand all tests of time. For the past several years, he’s fished with Al Dopirak and Dean Butler on the boat, two of the world’s most ultra-capable watermen and guides.
Only one pure fishing book of my experience may exceed Lords of the Fly. That would be The Longest Silence, an essay collection by The Maecenas, Tom McGuane, a tarpon-on-fly pioneer who is also covered in Lords.
TARPON, the limited-edition coffee-table collaboration by Dave Mangum and Yeti, may own the big-book photography category outright for decades. The mercurial Mangum, who fished Evans on his lone trip to the Forgotten Coast of Florida, is featured in Lords, too. In fact, the cover photo for Lords, an angling team steady to the skull-busting heat of a dead-calm tropical day, is a Mangum original.
Andy Mill, the former world-class ski racer, turned winningest tarpon-tournament angler ever, turned author of A Passion for Tarpon and co-host of the exceptional Mill House podcast, was a catalyst for this spectacular and seminal investigation by Burke.