Fly fishing means more than simply catching fish. Tradition and lore have created a history flush with ripples and currents that rival those actual movements in fresh and salt waters. These realities have always lured anglers. And so have the stories. The best ones often involve the biggest fish and the greatest struggles.
“Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession, and the Hunt for the World-Record Tarpon” (Pegasus, 278 pages, $26.95) by award-winning, New York Times best-selling author Monte Burke, details the pursuit of fly fishing’s greatest challenge: catching tarpon on fly. The thrilling tale also chronicles the plights of dreamers who chased giant tarpon during the sport’s heyday—in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s an interesting and outrageous tale.
The adventure begins in 1976 when a stockbroker named Tom Evans and guide Steve Huff journeyed from the Keys to Homosassa, a small town on Florida’s west coast. Derived from the Seminole phrase “river of fishes,” Homosassa was relatively obscure—only a few locals knew about its abundant tarpon population. Evans and Huff arrived in search of huge tarpon, and that’s exactly what they discovered and caught. It wasn’t long before the secret got out.
“All fishermen are liars, as the saying goes, and that’s likely true to some extent,” writes Burke. “But it’s also sometimes the case that fishermen are the most foolish of truth-tellers. They discover a new spot, a secret place that teems with fish, and they find that they just have to tell someone else.”
Evans is considered one of the greatest big-tarpon anglers of all time; Huff is arguably the best tarpon guide—ever. Both men soon found Homosassa’s flats pressured and swarming with crowds. Some of the fly fishers who congregated there were legendary for their pursuit of tarpon on fly; others were better known for their actions off the water.
Megalops atlanticus is the ultimate game fish. It’s often called “the silver king” because its scales reflect bright flashes of light when the great specimen leaps in the air. Tarpon—with their broad mouths and slightly upturned faces—are capable of weighing more than 300 pounds and have lifespans that exceed 50 years. Their ancestors swam the oceans during the Cretaceous period 100 million years ago. Hard, bony mouths and muscled bodies make the silver king a challenge for any angler; attempting to catch one with a fly rod can lead to madness. Even Burke, a passionate and experienced tarpon fisherman, admitted: “The really big tarpon are equal parts beauty and terror.”
Burke’s book is meticulously researched and extremely well written. The author brings to life the adventures of some of history’s greatest anglers as they chase the silver king, and he tells their story with a sense of nostalgia and reverence. Burke weaves a cast of characters into his narrative—artists, authors, anglers, famous fishing guides, sports heroes, captains of industry and a mobster. These men include fly-fishing legends Stu Apte, Steve Huff, Flip Pallot, Chico Fernandez and Lefty Kreh; novelists Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison; baseball star Ted Williams; and Olympic skier Andy Mill.
“It was really meaningful to see the sport that I love expressed through these guys,” Burke said, when asked what it was like to meet and interview some of his idols. “Having a purpose when I met them, to tell their story, made it that much more meaningful.”
Burke is a self-professed “fly-fishing history nerd” whose easy-going, effusive manner comes through in his writing. When interviewed himself, it quickly becomes apparent that Burke earned the trust of these fly-fishing legends.
Despite the often-lighthearted style in which Burke tells this story, he does not shy away from the harsh reality that there are a host of environmental issues impacting tarpon and their fisheries today. A serious conservationist himself, Burke understands the importance anglers play in preserving these amazing fish, which ironically must be killed in order to qualify for an International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world record.
“There aren’t a lot of world-record chasers anymore,” he noted. “We’ve evolved in how we view our resources in the ocean. They aren’t infinite—they’re finite.”
As the sun sets on the golden age of tarpon fishing, and younger, hipper anglers come onto the scene, one can’t read “Lords of the Fly” without feeling a sense of wonder and wistfulness. The work is a magnificent re-telling of a great tale and a fitting tribute to fly fishing’s greatest generation. We owe Burke a debt of gratitude for telling this story, which otherwise may have been lost in history.
Monte Burke is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Saban: The Making of a Coach;” “4th and Goal: One Man’s Quest to Recapture His Dream,” which won an Axiom Award for biography; and “Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World-Record Largemouth Bass,” a Sports Illustrated and Amazon “Best Book of the Year,” and a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick. Burke is a contributing editor at Forbes, as well as The Virginia Sportsman, Garden & Gun and The Drake. Learn more at www.monteburke.com.
Eric Kallen is the editor-at-large of The Virginia Sportsman