July 31, 2014

Photo Finish

We were fishing with Futch, mid-morning in Boca Grande Pass, when the big Penn reel squealed its rapid-fire clickety-click, and I turned to my wife and said: "It's yours."

Debbie grabbed the rod, let the fish run, and when Futch said, "OK, set it," she hauled back, the big stiff rod bowing against whatever it was that had sucked down the live mullet bait. We were hoping for a tarpon. After all, it was April in Boca Grande Pass and that is why we were there, to catch tarpon, along with dozens of other boats stacked almost transom to transom in the choppy, white-ruffled waters. Twice that morning we'd heard the cry, "Fish on!" and watched other anglers locked in battle. Both times the fish had spit the hook.

"It's big," said Debbie, something almost like fear, but not quite, more like awe, coming into her eyes. "Why don't you take it?"

"No way, baby," I told her. "It's all yours."

I grabbed the camera from the bag and snapped off a few frames: Futch cinching the fighting belt around Debbie's waist; Debbie with her eyes closed, straining against the pull.

Futch studied the angle of the 50-pound test line as it knifed into the inky water.

"It's going deep," he said.

We were all thinking: Could be a shark. There are plenty of sharks in Boca Grande Pass, big ones, including some sedan-sized hammerheads that congregate in tarpon season, lurking and watching, waiting for a pod of tarpon to move through and then slicing into them like flesh-eating chainsaws.

"One time we had this tarpon on and it sounded, danced right up on its tail like they do. And right behind it came a hammerhead," said Futch. "Cut the tarpon in two before it hit the water."

We go way back with Futch. There are lots of Futches in Boca Grande, many of them tarpon guides. As they all say: "If you ain't a Futch, then you ain't much." Of course, some folks turn it around, just to poke a little fun, but Futches know how to fish. And now Futch was at the helm, keeping the engine idling against the course of the fish, keeping us clear of the other boats.

I circled Debbie with the camera, taking a few more shots. If this was a tarpon, then it would be her first.

"Save your film for the fish," she said.

Then it sounded, leaping out of the water far from the boat, but not so far that we couldn't see that it was a tarpon all right, green and silver against the sun. Futch guessed it might go 120, maybe 130 pounds.

And so the next half hour passed, the tarpon sounding two more times, each time closer, so close I could catch it in the viewfinder and snap off a few more frames.

"I'm getting tired, really tired," said Debbie, her arms about to give out.

But the fish was tired, too, and soon Debbie had it alongside the boat. I straddled the gunwale, shooting away, the tarpon rolling on one side, its big liquid eye taking us in.

"God, it's beautiful," said Debbie.

"Get a good look before we release it," said Futch, reaching down to grab the leader. I leaned out and plucked off one of the tarpon's scales. Then Futch flicked his wrist, the hook wrenched loose-it was mangled and bent-and the tarpon was gone. There were high fives all around.

Debbie said, "I can't wait to see the pictures."

I punched the rewind button on the camera. Nothing happened. I punched it again. Debbie and Futch were both watching when I popped open the camera: No film.

We'll skip the part about who said what next. My wife is a lovely woman, really she is. I found film in the bag and put it in the camera and asked Debbie to pose, the tarpon scale in one hand, the mangled hook in the other.

"Say cheese," I said.

She tried hard to smile, really she did. 

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