Book Excerpt-“Fishing Tarpon From A Canoe” from “Marquesa” by Jeffrey Cardenas

Articles, featured, People — By on March 22, 2012 1:42 pm

On August 1, 1994, Jeffrey Cardenas boarded a homemade houseboat and puttered out of Key West harbor toward a cluster of islands on the distant horizon.

The Marquesas rest near the western terminus of The Florida Keys where two great oceans meet in a swirl of perpetual current. Jeffrey’s plan was to spend a full cycle of the summer moon, alone, in this remote and idyllic atoll where he once made a living guiding fly casters for tarpon, permit, and bonefish.

With meager provisions, a library of books, a skiff, and his fly rods, Jeffrey immersed himself, literally, in a warm and salty realm where the vertical span between the seafloor and high ground is measured in inches. His daily ritual was determined by the tides. He fished, he read, he observed, and he wrote.

With an angler’s instinct and the eye of a naturalist, Cardenas returned to Key West after his six-week sabbatical and completed one of the definitive literary works of that era. Marquesa: A Time & Place With Fish was first released in 1995 by Meadow Run Press and quickly sold through multiple printings.

Marquesa eventually lapsed from print, but we are proud to revive Jeffrey’s book in digital format, complete with original illustrations by Key West artist, A.D. Tinkham.

If you have an affinity for saltwater fly fishing, this book will change the way you observe and value the fish, birds, and marine life of our coastal flats and estuaries.

To order the ebook visit-

Fishing Tarpon From A Canoe

THREE DAYS OF HARD WEATHER can have a purging effect on a troubled spirit. The wind howls. Anchors drag. Lightning strikes at all quadrants. Yet, riding out a storm is a great equalizer. There is no room for direct action. There is no subjugating these elements of nature. You batten down the hatches (if you have hatches) and hang on.

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” This witticism is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, although it was actually penned by Charles D. Warner in the Hartford Courant, circa 1890. I consider Warner’s comment less of a wisecrack and more of a testament to things over which we have no control. It’s like the credo of Alcoholics Anonymous that says in part: “Give me the strength to change what I can and the courage to accept what I cannot change.”

With the tropical wave passed, I am still one man alone on a houseboat in the fish bowl of Marquesa—an appreciative man at that. From the perspective above the surface of the water (instead of, say, below it), things look pretty damn good.

Sorting through the rubble inside the cabin of Huck Finn I realize I have no clue what day it is today. This pleases me immensely. There is no calendar aboard. I don’t—I won’t—wear a watch out here. I have fallen into the rhythm of a solar clock; I sleep when it’s dark, I wake when it’s light. I know each turn of the flood and ebb by the smell of the flats and the sound of the water lapping against the hull. The tide tables have vanished long ago under the books and papers and other debris in the cabin.

What day is it? Who cares. It’s a new day.
A high pressure system, the atmosphere’s great shield of armor, has settled over the Marquesas bringing with it fair skies and a light breeze. It’s time to begin the daunting task of cleaning up this slag heap.

After three days of rain and wind, everything in my immediate realm is a soggy, decomposing mess. There’s broken glass, rotting potatoes, and an open can of sweetened condensed milk forming a coagulating slick on the cabin floor. I haven’t worn shoes in weeks so most of this gruel sticks to the soles of my feet. Mold and mildew are thriving in every corner of the cabin. At least on a day like today, the radiant heat will quickly shrivel that blossom and put its spore back in hibernation.

I wash sheets and towels and wet clothing, and set them out to dry on a clothesline. My personal hygiene has also degenerated. I need a good scrubbing and then I ought to put a couple of clothespins on my ears and hang myself out to dry.

Amid the detritus set adrift in the lagoon by the stormy weather I see a glint of something reflective catching the sunlight. There are tree branches, lobster trap floats, every imaginable item of flotsam, and there—oh joy!—are also rolling tarpon.
Forget the chores, the heavy thinking, and other sundry bullshit. I’m going fishing!

I rig my tackle and load it into the canoe. There are several pods of tarpon moving in the upper lagoon. I rub my hands together in pure bliss like a kid in front of a counter of candy bars.

It is the anticipation above all else that is the true joy of fishing. My earliest childhood memories of fishing with my brother and my dad are not of the fish we caught. It was the anticipation of those trips I remember so well. Growing up in South Florida, fishing was always a part of our life. We fished by the most effective means: conventional tackle and hand lines. In our family there were no spilt cane rods or polished Vom Hofe reels. Fishing was not a religion for us. We fished just because we loved to fish.

On Fridays after my dad finished work he’d load up our old station wagon with gear. He was meticulous about packing but I just threw my stuff in; I couldn’t wait to get going. He’d trailer our wooden cruiser down to the Keys, launch it, and we’d have our lines in the water before dinner.

Sometimes my brother and I couldn’t stand the suspense of plunking down a bait and waiting for a bite. We’d grab a mask and snorkel and pile over the side of the boat—road and reel in hand—so that we could watch the grunts and snappers and groupers that came out of the coral to take our bait.

Another parent might have admonished their kids about the irresponsibility of jumping into saltwater with a mechanical reel made up of many moving parts. Not our dad. He smiled benevolently each time we surfaced with a grouper. At night he would painstakingly break down the reels, showing my brother and me how to meticulously clean and oil each gear and each spring so that they wouldn’t seize up with corrosion.

I don’t remember all the details of those trips, but I do remember the anticipation of going. It was the greatest thing in my life.

I feel that surge of excitement now as I approach a school of tarpon alone in the canoe.
With the excitement there is an appealing simplicity to this fishing. There’s a temptation to muddle things up with too much gear and too much technique. People who fish with complicated tackle often fish for complicated reasons.

The technical aspect of my fishing has changed surprisingly little since those days in the Keys with my brother and dad. I fly fish now, but the Cuban yo-yo handlines we used as kids apply a similar technique. There’s no rod involved; casting is done with your arm. On a yo-yo, the line is wrapped around a spool the size of soup bowl. Bait, hook, and Sinker, are attached to the end of the line which is then swung around the head like a lariat. Once the desired momentum is attained the line is released and it shoots off the spool. Timing and delivery has to be just right, as it does in fly casting, or you “wear the rig.”

My daughter Lilly prefers to use a yo-yo. Fishing off the dock recently, she had a five-inch mangrove snapper take her bait. Then a five-foot barracuda took the snapper. With heavy line and no mechanical drag, the pull was like roping a steer. I heard her plaintive wail calling, “Daaad…heeelp!” I ran down the dock in time to see her dally the 40-pound mono around a dock bollard. This brought the ‘cuda to a screeching halt and it shot skyward clearing the water by eight or ten feet before it severed the line with its teeth.
Lilly was quiet for a second. I thought she was going to cry. Then she turned to me with a grin and said, “That was cool.”

I smile at the memory and wish that Lilly was in the canoe with me now to see these tarpon. They roll within range and I watch them for a moment more before I cast.

Tarpon, Megalops atlanticus, are literally swimming dinosaurs. They come from an ancient family of bony fishes called Elopidae, taking oxygen from our atmosphere to supplement what they glean from the water passing over their gills.

Migrating tarpon pass through the Marquesas in late spring and early summer. There is an Atlantic migratory group that chases mullet along the eastern seaboard and a Gulf migratory group that primarily eats shrimp. By mid-May, both groups converge in the Marquesas. The Atlantic fish are sleeker and shine with a quicksilver radiance. The Gulf fish have deeper bodies and show more green on their backs and shoulders. Fish in both groups average about 70 pounds, though it is not uncommon to see them well over 140 pounds on the flats in the Marquesas. As the summer progresses, a resident population stays in Mooney Harbor. These fish are somewhat smaller but they are just as enthusiastic to take a fly.

The tarpon I approach come to the surface with a leisurely roll. The eyes of several fish fix upon what must be the strange sight of a man standing in a canoe. They linger for a second, seeming to drink it all in, before sliding again below the surface of the lagoon. Their processed air floats back to the surface in a stream of bubbles.

I toss the hair-head mullet well in front of the lead tarpon in the tightly formed school. The fish takes notice of the fly with a quivering of its pectoral fins. Then, the tarpon’s entire attitude changes. Its body becomes rigid. It moves out of cadence with other fish in the school. Its tail swings a few extra beats as it tracks the fly. The tarpon’s eyes lock onto its prey. Nothing escapes those great eyes—megalops—which shine as lucid and clear as a glass of spring water.

The fish’s mouth opens and I can see the lower mandible extending beyond the upper gape of its jaw. This is a superior mouth. When the tarpon’s mouth is closed, the fit of the jaws is perfect and water resistance minimal.

When the tarpon’s mouth opens its head has the hydrodynamics of a bucket of water. The fish no longer has smooth tracking ability. At this point all that is left is a strong desire to eat and the unstoppable momentum of blunt inertia.

Watching the tarpon eat a dry fly is unforgettable. The take comes with a slight acceleration. The gills flare and a powerful vacuum causes a void in the water that is replaced with the sudden appearance of the tarpon’s head. So much water is displaced with this crash that the fish doesn’t find the fly on the first try. What makes this a heart-stopping spectacle is the subsequent explosions on the surface as the tarpon tries to kill the hair head mullet.

Then the fly is gone and the tarpon has turned and is going away fast.

Its initial acceleration is at warp speed. Tarpon have incredible power in their tail. (Remember the one I lassoed with Richard Riddell?) Every ounce of power is felt on the first run. Line flies out of the canoe like a rope attached to a harpooned whale. When the fly line comes tight to the reel it’s a Nantucket sleigh ride. Imagine the tattooed Queequeg standing firm with a fly rod on the seat of a Grumman canoe propelled by this strangest mode of prehistoric locomotion.

What follows is one of the great moments in sport—the jump of a tarpon. There is nothing else in angling even remotely similar to the sight of this fish clearing the water at close range. The tarpon’s head breaks the surface of the water with a startling fury. The vision is like a hologram blurred from shaking that is so violent. The armored gill plates flare and the gill rakers rattle. The tarpon’s body doesn’t follow the direction of the head. The two parts appear to move independently. The aerial contortions seem unbelievable. How can it move like this without breaking its own spine?

I spin around with the canoe, out of control, like a circus bear trying to keep my balance in center ring. The rush of adrenaline is intoxicating. In this careful and predictable world there is an attraction in having something in nature deliver you to the brink.
I have to sit down before I hurt myself.

Outside the office where I work in Key West, I have an original photograph of Anthony Dimock taken sometime around the turn of the century. He wrote The Book of the Tarpon, first published in 1911, chronicling his adventures on the west coast of Florida. The picture shows Dimock sitting at the back of a canoe holding a split cane fly rod with a reel on it about the size of a small apple. His guide, Tat, stands in the bow holding a six-foot tarpon with his fist through the gills. Dimock is leaning forward with an incredulous look on his face. He dangles one leg over the side of the canoe for balance.

Anthony Dimock, by all accounts, was a man of integrity. Still, his outrageous accounts of battles with tarpon border on the unbelievable until one sees the remarkable photography by his son, Julian. These are some of the most spectacular images ever of jumping tarpon. Julian exposed his plates using a 75-pound view camera. Somehow he manipulated the camera to give him shutter speeds approaching 1/1000 of a second.

While Dimock certainly had the means to fish out of larger craft he chose a light Peterboro canoe as the stage for his theatrics with tarpon. Julian, who kept a complete darkroom on the cruising boat nearby, made sharply focused images of his father in every conceivable dilemma.

Wrote Anthony Dimock: “I have never been harmed by a tarpon, but they have landed on my head, caromed on my shoulders, swamped my canoe, and one big slippery form dropped squarely into my arms. Funny things sometimes happen…”

In a mad, mid-pirouette with my fish—which is half the size of the one being held by Tat—I share for the moment Dimock’s turn-of-the-century fishing. I am humbled and therefore conclude the scuffle with my tarpon while sitting on floor of the canoe.
There is a reward to being at water level landing this fish. I reach my hand into the gape of the mouth. The hook is barbless and releases immediately. The fish is pooped so I have the opportunity to hold it for several minutes while it regains its strength. This, in the end, is my reason for fishing—to be able to have this physical contact with a wild creature. This is not about dominance and submission. It is about connecting with a species we have not yet managed to tame.

I open my hands and the tarpon kicks once and then glides away.

Jeffrey Cardenas
Jeffrey is a South Florida native who has spent his entire life around tropical saltwater. He graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in photojournalism and attended post-graduate studies there in fiction writing and fine art photography. His writing and images have appeared in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Time, Outside, Playboy, and Fly Rod & Reel magazine where he was a Contributing Editor and saltwater columnist.

For the past 30 years, Jeffrey has made his living on and around the water. He has made three transatlantic crossings in sailboats including a solo crossing in 1980 in a 23-foot sloop. In 1985, on assignment for Time magazine, he donned SCUBA gear and photographed Mel Fisher’s crew as they recovered a $400 million motherlode of treasure from the wreck of the La Senora de Atocha near the Marquesas. For many years Jeffrey guided flats fishermen in the Key West area and in 1989 he was named Fly Rod & Reel magazine’s Guide of the Year. After taking a break from guiding, Jeffrey founded the Saltwater Angler fly shop in Key West.

Jeffrey currently lives in Key West, and when he’s not on the water, he spends his spare time piloting his Cirrus, looking for fish on the flats of the Keys, and flying into remote areas of the Bahamas and Caribbean.

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