Standing in a 9.5ft fiberglass dinghy, roughly 150lbs over capacity without a motor, a relentless Eastern wind pushed the nefarious characters away from the scene of the crime and back towards civilization.
As the darkness enclosed around them in the mangrove wilderness, 9Toe Smothers and Half-Foot Jayne stood with blank stares fixed on the horizon. An eerie silence descended upon the lagoon.
Looking out onto the black water, their characteristic rouge cheeks drained to a more ashen shade of what-the-fuck-just-happened grey; there was no need for words.
After intensely flipping flies for 40 of their first 48 hours in paradise and beating up every goddamn inch of mangrove shoreline to no avail, there was no place on earth they’d rather be than this moment. But damn if it weren’t bittersweet.
9toe had just trout set on the fish they came for— the crown jewel of the backcountry— Magalops Atlanticus.
And a good one, too.
It was a lot like the Game of Thrones episodes where the Red Viper fights the Mountain or the infamous Red Wedding – right when you thought long-awaited victory, justice, and instagram glory were to be restored to the Universe, your favorite character ends up dead in the worst fucking way and the whole world goes to shit….the lines goes slack…the excitement ends….the water which for a fleeting moment was once so full of life turns to black
In this instance, 9toe and Half-Foot didn’t die horrific, graphic deaths…but try telling that to 9-Toe…..
Remick “9-Toe” Smothers and Brogan “Half-Foot” Jayne landed in Sarasota on May 9th at 3pm. Arriving at a familiar place, they intended to fish hard until Monday before heading their separate ways. There was one thing on their minds—redemption.
See—the previous October, the boys had planned to hit it big. Taking time off from some epic trout fishing in their home waters to chase the leviathans that live in the salt.
They arrived in the SRQ (Sarasota) on a Friday, fished through Sunday, and found themselves on the wrong end of a post-frontal, new moon fueled, high-water shit show that rendered every fish within their vicinity absolutely lock-jawed. Over the course of 80 odd hours in Paradise, they came away with only a small tarpon to show for their efforts and a few big reds that threw the hook.
Half-Foot stuck the tarpon on the last day too.
It was just one of those trips.
Ain’t fishing great?
But this time was going to be different. They were fully prepared.
9-Toe tied up fewer flies than last time (albeit with more variety and quality) to figure out what would ignite the bite. Depending on what worked, he would tie from there.
He did better research, this time not picking a random weekend and hoping for ideal conditions – but guaranteeing them.
The first full moon in May can be that good. He read up on fishing reports and tide charts. If only he had shown this sort of dedication in school…
They vowed to be more precise.
Make softer casts.
And never, ever trout set.
After a dozen or so IPAs and some Sniki Tiki chow that night – the weary travelers hit the hay at 2am.
They’d be on the water before the sun.
The next morning, 9toe and Half-Foot woke to darkness, threw on their fishing shirts and board shorts and hopped in the Ford Echo to make their daily stop at the 7-11 on Midnight Pass Rd. The night before, fueled on ambition…or Sweetwater…they got all their ducks in a row – launching the skiff, stringing up the sticks, and picking up a Styrofoam cooler to act as a drying pad/life line to hydration and caloric intake.
They named it ‘Yeti’. It cost $2 and kept their flies dry and their drinks cold and honorable.
Yeti lived a happy life for four days before former FlyTimesDC contributor Tony Pikos lost his balance while playing with his hang down and used the dilapidated Styrofoam chalice to break his fall….’Yeti’ was destroyed….and then we bought ‘Yet 2’…..
Loading up on PURPLE G2, water, ice, sandwiches, cerveza, and breakfast stuffs (new stuffed hash browns are wonderful) the two anglers were ready to get weird on some fish before the sun poked its head over the horizon. They'd repeat this step daily over the duration of the trip.
After two days of ABSOLUTELY CRUSHING GIANT REDS, the boys were still in hot pursuit of a date with Megalops Atlanticus.
Looking down at his sunburnt and fire ant bite ridden feet, Half-Foot, who in the exact same spot about an hour earlier had jumped a nice fish, tried to offer up some encouragement.
“That take was absurd.”
“I know, man. Planet earth shit.” 9toe paused, sighed, got a cigarette out of his pocket, and lit up.
“What happened, dude?”
Looking up at the sky for answers that surely wouldn’t come, 9-Toe sighed heavily. He had two choices. Blame the fish or take blame himself. It was an easy choice, “I just fucking trout set.”
And that was the end of the conversation.
As the ideal moon cycle began to fade, the red bite slowed down. The tarpon, which we had seen somewhat consistently each morning and evening, seemed extinct. Worst of all, Half-Foot had to roll out leaving 9toe to maneuver the vessel while fighting and landing a potential fish solo. Not an ideal situation but not an impossible one. He had done it before.
After almost a week of perfect weather, a front pushed through. The wind would spike to 25mph from the SW after 9am for two days - leaving a miniscule 3hr window to get bit by a fish that by all means did not want to play.
Big, white half-n-halfs and a relatively new baitfish pattern 9toe tied up at the Best Western had produced a few takes. In the span of fishing 5 days with Half-Foot, the boys had managed to cast to 10 fish, jump 3 and ultimately fail to bring any to hand. All fish were spotted in the same 100 yard stretch of shoreline. They had somehow figured out a pattern (by eliminating every OTHER square inch of lagoon...) Time was running out. Half-Foot's exit signaling the final 3 days of fishing for 9toe.
As 9toe launched the skiff that morning - a cool breeze gently rippling the water - he tied on a star**** and began to stealthily place casts on the mangrove ledges. About 10 minutes into his adventure, he came to the tree where just a few days prior - he trout set on the fish of a lifetime, pulling the hook out of the fish's mouth. Making a short, 25ft cast under an overhanging branch, 9toe let the fly descend into the black water for a couple seconds before stripping it back as quickly as he could.
The fish were on it after the first strip and three juvenile poons (10-20lb class) shot out of the groves to inhale the fly.
There would be no trout-setting this time. No pilgrim-anticts of any kind. The Fish grabbed the fly, 9toe strip set hard, and the Megalops Atlanticus skied into the early morning light. After a 10 minute tug-of-war in which the fish attempted to pull 9toe and his motor-less vessel into the mangroves - 9toe managed to get the fish to deeper water and eventually brought it to the surface. Locking the fish grip on its prehistoric mouth - he pulled the juvenile dinosaur in the boat and started fawning over it like it was a hot blonde holding a puppy.
But hey, that's what 4,000 casts and averaging 12hrs a day on the water will do to you.
After a short photo shoot, 9toe gave the beast a quick smooch and revived it boat side. With a strong kick his prize headed back to its mangrove layer.
With the tarpon out of the way - 9toe called Half-Foot at 7am to let him know what went down. Life was good.
Good things come to those who don't give up.
Sitting under a fresh batch of stars on the back deck of the Sniki Tiki (the greatest tiki/dive bar of all time) cold beer in hand, hot wings en route, and a gentle Gulf keeping the relentless no-see-um offensive at bay, Brogan Jayne and I could do nothing but shake our heads and try to put the pieces together. After months of planning, anticipating, and dreaming of Red October on the Heron Lagoon – our pursuit of producing quality fish porn was supposed to be more…..well….more.
More cow bell
And the list goes on….
It wasn’t supposed to go down like this.
Good god no.
Taking a sip of my beer and looking up at the tropical night sky for answers that surely wouldn’t come while in the refuge of my favorite tiki bar, a sun scorched mind offering up only the most irrational excuses for angling futility (don’t forget your lucky hat), I didn’t try to sugarcoat it. “Bro, I don’t think we’ve ever worked harder for a fish. Ever.”
Brogan laughed it off. “Amen to that, Rem.”
And then we ordered more beers…..
A trip that spanned over 33 hours (out of 72) on the water with one of my best friends and absolute sniper with the fly rod wasn’t supposed to have produced the amount of heartache and frustration that it did. It didn’t help that the Braves and Rays were eliminated in that same time span. It didn’t help that the entire coastal region flooded due to heavy rains in the weeks prior. It didn’t help that we had a new moon. But everything happens for a reason. When things get tough, the tough get going. That’s the beautiful thing about fishing.
It is absolutely unpredictable.
No day on the water is the exact same as the day before (although if fishing is tough, it usually stays tough unless there is some X factor that single-handedly erases the sheetiness. Weather, moons, tides, & holding doors open for old ladies all factor into your day on the water believe it or not). Brogan and I have been on the receiving end of some brutal, fish-led assaults on the mind, body, and ego in the past. Sometimes perfect conditions are met with fishless days and at other times, you couldn’t pick a worse time to be on the water and things line up right in a big way. This wasn’t our first rodeo. We knew what we were signing up for the minute we brought the cameras in the boat.
Fish hate cameras.
So instead of getting disheartened by each “perfect” cast that deftly landed a few feet back in the groves or under a dock and went untouched – we adopted the mindset that we were one cast closer. The refusals only pushed us to fish harder. Make better casts. Pack more dips. Finding fish through elimination—talk about faith. But if you think about it, this incredible game of probability and chance eventually had to swing in our favor. The fish had to eat at some point. Inevitably, our fly would land in the right place, do its dance, and get clobbered by something hungry. It’s a game of perseverance. Plus there are just too many self-respecting game fish in this body of water for things to stay slow forever.
Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. David Thoreau said that.
It probably best explains why – even though the fishing was on par with pulling teeth – that we kept at it. The things you see each time out on the water are an entirely new and genuine set of experiences. So although we only bagged a small poon, missed our shots on big reds, and managed to get an iota of the footage we needed – I’ll always look back fondly on this trip.
The things we saw will be hard to forget…. A 40+” redfish crashing bait like a porpoising dolphin and the heart pounding seconds that were failed attempts to get his leviathan ass to eat a huge streamer….Tarpon backs breaking glass-calm water in predawn darkness….The slow, methodic, and entirely reckless pursuit of the unseen….. Bald eagles chasing ospreys…….
And now I want to do it all over again.
Fly dudes doing fly things in fly places with flies. Got that?