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Boca Grande Casting Society

     Words: Jack Reis
Photos: Jack Reis, Andrew Joselow, and Jake Sneeden
My eyes drooped and I let out a long yawn as my cab crossed the causeway connecting Gasparilla Island to the mainland, headed back to Ft. Meyers for my flight home. The driver gasped and scolded me for yawning. She clearly was not interested in spending the next hour and a half listening to me snore. Being a native of New England she was more than content to fill me in on the Bruins games I had missed while I was fishing, but my mind was elsewhere.
For nearly 150 years visitors have flocked to Gasparilla and the Charlotte Harbor area to experience the abundant angling opportunities it has to offer. Prior to its designation as America’s first sport fishing paradise, the native Calusa Indians had relied on the fishery for over 3000 years. Today the main thoroughfare into Charlotte Harbor, Boca Grande Pass, has evolved into a case study in the importance of conserving tarpon habitats. Each spring tarpon travel more than 100 miles to congregate in the deep holes of the pass to rest, eat and prepare to spawn. However, jigging techniques used in the area and mishandling fish at the boat have jeopardized the sustainability of this habitat.
I had heard stories claiming that Boca Grande was on its way to becoming the next Port Aransas, so when I got the invite to fish the area with a group of friends who do so frequently I jumped at the opportunity to find out for myself. I knew that we would mainly be targeting snook and red drum, but I fantasized about getting to see the goliath tarpon that those waters are so famous for. Naturally my 10wt snuck its way into my bag. For the first few days of our trip, I familiarized myself with the golf cart community of Boca Grande and the mangrove alleys and open flats that lie just to the east. We had a few good shots at reds and would periodically claim to have seen a snook, but jacks and trout seemed to be the most aggressive fish around. For those first few days, the only tarpon we saw were those making the intrepid journey through the pass, navigating the gauntlet of boats, a circus we were not interested in joining. Clearly we trout bums were in over our heads.
Thankfully we were able to make arrangements to go out with Jamie Allen, a Vermont native who, like us, was curious to find out what all the fuss with salt water was about, but never caught his flight home. Twenty years went by and he still finds himself loving life in Southwest Florida. When we met Jamie at the dock, he said something I will never forget, “we are going after tarpon, I don’t care what you guys want to do.” Loose lips sink ships and probably result in a slew of other bad things, so I made a mental note to keep the fact that I had never seen one of these fish in person, to myself. I suspect Jamie was not fooled. If my inexperience wasn’t exposed by my thousand yard stare, or my uncharacteristic silence, my first shot at one of these fish told the whole story. Within five minutes of arriving at Jamie’s selected coordinates, I was up on the platform trying to cast to a 200lb tarpon that had quietly slid within 40 feet of our boat.  Jamie was issuing instructions to me in the loudest whisper I had ever heard. Line was coiled in knots around my feet and my mind had become completely disconnected from my body. He had warned me about this, but I realized very quickly that nothing could have prepared me for that moment. The fish spooked out faster than it had appeared and my cohorts consoled me, explaining that “I wanted nothing to do with a fish that size.” The truth was that I did. I wanted everything to do with that fish and although I botched each one of the following shots I had over the next two days, that first sighting was burned into my mind. It is very difficult to explain the adrenaline rush you get when a fish you’ve only read about in books and watched endlessly in videos suddenly appears in front of you. If you have the presence of mind to collect your jaw from the floor you will quickly realize that the window to act is very small. So many things have to come together in such a short period of time to land one of these fish on the fly. From up on the poling platform, Jamie was probably able to see the lights were on, but no one was home. I had the fever.
In the following days we caught countless cobia, a fish that demands respect from saltwater anglers and fights like a bull. These fish are commonly mistaken by western anglers like myself for sharks because of the horizontal orientation of their pectoral fins and large size. Make no mistake, these fish are a hell of a lot of fun, particularly for someone new to the saltwater fly fishing world.
What I saw in Charlotte Harbor was a community with a deep appreciation for their incredible resources and people that had traveled from around the globe to satisfy their own fascination with that incredible species. I also saw a place with an incredible opportunity to preserve one of the world’s great fisheries. The locals and guides that I met there seem to be of the same mindset and my hopes for the area’s future are high.
The whole experience was oddly reminiscent of the first time I went fishing for trout in a western river. I was fascinated by the idea that there was something under the water that I still didn’t quite understand. All I knew was that I wanted to get a closer look and until I felt the tug on the line and saw the flash of a rainbow on the other end, I was not satisfied. My trip to Gasparilla served a number of purposes. I had the opportunity to reconnect with the best of friends, make new ones and explore an area I had never been to before-all characteristics of a successful fly fishing trip. I was also left with an intense sense of anticipation for the next time I get the opportunity to cast to a giant tarpon. For now all I know is I need a nap, and the Bruins are up over the Wings, 3-1.

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