Megalops atlanticus, the Atlantic tarpon, possesses an allure for fly fishermen that is beyond all comparison with other sport fish. Reaching weights of more than 300 pounds, living as long as 80 years, and reaching more than 7 feet in length, these giants of the sea are truly impressive creatures. With huge eyes (hence the scientific genus name, Megalops), a massive bucket shaped mouth, and silvery half dollar sized scales, tarpon reflect the beauty and power of their 50-million-year-old prehistoric beginnings. To top it all off, tarpon swim into shallow, clear water where the fly fisherman can sight-fish for them, excitingly presenting relatively small flies that, if cast in just the right spot, the fish will readily engulf. When this happens, Megalops explodes in a frantic jumping run that spins line off the reel in a blurry flash, leaving the angler in awe no matter how many times he or she has done it before.
Lords of The Fly, by Monte Burke, delves into the world of tarpon fly fishermen but focuses primarily on a subset of this group that obsessively pursues world records. Fishermen and their tales are legendary, and this book is full of them — perhaps too many. Burke creates a storyline that follows Tom Evans, a Wall Street stockbroker, who has chased after giant tarpon for more than 50 years and has successfully caught seven world records. Lords of The Fly, however, assimilates countless character sketches of other fishermen and guides that centered their quest in the tiny fishing village of Homosassa, Florida, during its heyday in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
At this time, the tarpon in the Homosassa area had virtually been untouched, and they schooled there in the thousands during the late spring and early summer. High strung, ego maniacal, and uber-competitive, these men would nevertheless eat together for breakfast at the only diner in town, fish all day, and then come back and party most of the night. Greenville native Billy Pate was a dominant figure within this group, catching a 188-pound tarpon on 16 pound tippet that stood for 21 years. Inevitably, the ugly side of human nature came out in this environment, which resulted in broken relationships and, in a few cases, broken lives.
Burke takes the reader past the ’70s and ’80s and describes how the Homosassa fishery has declined to the point that very few tarpon show up in that area anymore. According to Burke, the primary culprit is overdevelopment that has drained much of the freshwater from the rivers emptying into the Gulf. This has depleted the necessary brackish water quality requirements for crabs — a chief food source for tarpon.
Chasing after world records does not have the interest and following it once did. For a fisherman to submit a catch as a world record, the fish must be killed and brought in to be weighed on certified scales. Today’s fishermen are less likely to kill a giant tarpon just to get their name in a record book. At 82, Tom Evans still comes every year trying to break another record. Asked why he continues to come and many times never see a fish, he replies, “There’s just nothing I’d rather do.”