Stu Apte and The One that got away

When you ask a legendary fisherman for his best fish story, you expect a legendary answer. E-NATION asked 2005 IGFA Hall of Fame inductee and upcoming Fly Fishing Hall of Fame inductee Stu Apte to tell us about the one that got away. His response did not disappoint.


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It was my birthday, May 11, 1982, when my good friend Capt. Ralph Delph of Key West fame and I decided to celebrate my birthday by fly fishing for big tarpon at Homosassa, Florida. Just to sweeten the pot, a new TV film producer had heard about the five days we were going to spend searching for that 200-pound tarpon. He asked if he could follow us in a second boat staying out of our way but shooting the happenings.


The plan involved having the producer and his cameramen meet Ralph and me for dinner on May 10 at the Riverside Villas on the Homosassa River, but they experienced difficulties renting some of the sound equipment and could not join us until May 13. They would be missing the first two days of fishing.


You can probably guess what happens.


The morning started off in a normal way, with the two of us taking turns. I led off by catching a pretty nice fish, about 110 pounds, and Ralph muscled one that looked to be around 130 pounds. At that point, a non-fishing boat ran right down the center of the tarpon mecca, leaving us our jaws and fists clinched in anger. This prompted me to suggest that we get away from the boats and run north for about five miles to another area I knew.


Ralph saw a fish roll about 300 yards away, and we headed toward it. Then about 75 yards off to my right at three o’clock, a school rolled up and went into a daisy chain. A daisy chain happens when a school of tarpon circles a school of baitfish, forcing them into a ball.


Ralph poled me up to the daisy chain and we saw a very big female moving in a clockwise circle with maybe two dozen tarpon, with the smallest being about 115 pounds.


I knew that I must cast perfectly to get the fly across the other tarpon in the daisy chain without disturbing them. I was using a 12-foot-long leader, knowing most often I can put the leader across some fish without disturbing them. This time my cast was pinpoint perfect, and as I stripped the fly in front of the big female, another smaller tarpon made a quick move taking the fly. I would guess its weight was about 140 pounds. Not the one I wanted, so I tried not to come tight setting the hook. It still came out of the water with a little head-shaker and got rid of the fly. But that’s just enough commotion to break up the daisy chain, and the school slowly swam away.


Luck stayed with us, and about 100 yards away, they stopped and formed a daisy chain again, this time circling counterclockwise. Ralph was once again using the push pole to maneuver me into position for a second try at my “Madame Big.”


The positioning and my cast went as they did the first time. The difference now was that she wasn’t about to let some upstart 140 pounder take that goodie away from her.


I’ll never forget that jump when I set the hook. She blasted out of the water like a Polaris missile. She was fully eight-feet long with a big, thick body. We knew that this was a monster – the quintessential legend of Homosassa.


All hell broke loose in the boat. Ralph stowed the push pole and began to lower the big outboard. Normally we’d never crank the outboard with another boat nearby, but we knew this to be an exceptional fish and she was screaming line off my reel like there was no tomorrow. Already, 200 yards of backing had melted off the reel.


Only one other boat is nearby. My friend, Capt. Steve Huff, another outstanding Florida Keys guide, was at Homosassa for the same reason we were. We radioed him and said that we had The One on the line we’ve all been looking for, talking about, and imagining. Steve immediately said not to worry and to go ahead and fire up the engine. He could see the fish when it jumped, and even from that distance, he knew it was a monster.


This fish quickly developed a constant rhythm with its tail and didn’t even seem to be exerting a lot of energy. Ralph managed to keep me within 30 or 40 feet of this big lady, allowing me to put maximum pressure on her all the time.


During the first 20 minutes of the fight, she rolled periodically, gulping oxygen before heading back toward the bottom. Each time she started elevating, I would put about two feet of my fly rod tip into the water, making her work hard to come to the surface for air. Tarpon have a rudimentary lung and get oxygen out of the air.


After fifteen minutes of this, she’d set up a rhythm in her rolling. Now I was beginning to predict when she’s coming up for air. My theory of sticking the rod tip underwater and pulling down and back toward her tail is what I call “down and dirty.” This technique took its toll by making it difficult for her to get oxygen. I wanted this fish to feel that she had to fight her way to the top, a bit of psychology that generally pays off handsomely.


Forty-five minutes into the fight, the nail knot from my leader reached the rod tip and then slid past the first stripping guide as the fish neared the boat. I told Ralph that the next time she came up, I’d hold her there and he could hit her with the gaff. He moved from the console and got in front of me in the cockpit. I pressured the fish, and it wallowed like a drunken sailor.


Ralph braced his knees on the gunwale and sunk the gaff home just in front of the dorsal fin. In a split second, I glimpsed a view of the bottom of Ralph’s shoes as he vanished over the gunwale into the water beside the fish. He handed the 7 1/2-foot-long gaff handle to me and started climbing back in the boat as the gaff came out of the tarpon’s back.


Miraculously, I still had the fish hooked and the fight was on again. Fifteen minutes later, we got the giant tarpon and the boat together once more, programmed the same way. This time, however, I asked Ralph to please use my large barbed gaff that I made especially for a great big tarpon like this one, rather than his smaller gaff, which I firmly believed didn’t possess a big enough bite in the hook. Ralph elected to ignore my plea and instead used his smaller gaff yet again.


It’s the same scenario all over again. Except this time when Ralph struck the fish with his gaff, it jerked him clean out of the boat and charged more than 50 yards away with Ralph hanging on like a hitchhiker.


I didn’t realize at the time, but the boat was still in slow, idle, forward gear. This was no laughing matter. Ralph appeared to be in trouble while literally wrestling with a beast, in its own element and far bigger than Ralph’s 195-pound raw-boned body. Both of Ralph’s arms and legs were wrapped around her. Later he told me that he had tried to put one hand and arm up through its gill plate in order to secure it while at the same time trying to hold the little gaff hook in place.


Then this monster fish came up halfway out of the water with the headshaking jump, and damned if Ralph isn’t still wrapped around it. Later he said he felt like a flea on an elephant.


I dropped the fly rod and dashed back to the console, quickly advancing the throttle while at the same time swinging the bow toward friend and fish. We were in eight feet of water, and Ralph definitely looked like he was not having fun.


I grabbed a very large release gaff as the boat approached the pair. Ralph’s console was different than mine, and I somewhat fumbled with the controls as I approached them. Then, at what I figured was the right moment, I put the engine in reverse to stop the boat’s forward motion and then put it back into neutral. I charged to the bow, aiming to hook that big tarpon under his lower jaw with my big release gaff. I immediately realized that the boat wasn’t in neutral, but instead was still in gear and idling forward. I ran back to the console, threw the boat into hard reverse, and switched the ignition key off.


Too little and too late! I’d had Ralph bore-sighted, and he took one arm off the tarpon to keep the stem of the boat from running over him. The boat rolled both him and the fish under, forcing him to release his grip.


The legend of Homosassa got off the gaff and swam away.


Disappointment! Utter disappointment. I was upset at Ralph being too stubborn to use my gaff either time.


Ralph climbed into the boat dejectedly. “Why did you run me over?,” he asked.


I explained that I thought he was in serious trouble, and not being familiar with the throttle quadrant, I believed we were in neutral rather than idle forward.


Ralph was so full of tarpon slime from being wrapped around that big poon that he got everything in the boat coated with that heavy grease-like film.


Yes, we fish some more and catch two more tarpon that day. As the hours tick on, Ralph smells like a very ripe tarpon. I treasured the moments when he stood downwind of me.


We didn’t mention that fish even once during the rest of the day or that night in the motel or for that matter the next day out fishing. But the next evening at dinner, Ralph turned to me and asked, “What do you think that fish really weighed, Stu?”


I said, “Ralph, so not influence each other as to the weight…” Then I tore a paper napkin in half, gave him half, and asked him to write down how much he thought the fish weighed while I did the same.


Ralph jotted down 230+. From my side of the table, I wrote 230-plus. At that time, the largest tarpon ever landed weighed 188 pounds on 16-pound tippet, so this fish, even on 12-pound-class tippet, would have smashed it.


Another irony: had fate not dealt an unfortunate hand to that camera crew, this epic battle would’ve been captured on film.


19 years later to the day, May 11, 2001, my young friend Jimmy Holland caught the first 200-pound tarpon on a fly ever. It weighed 202 1/2 pounds, becoming the International Game Fish Association 20-pound-class-tippet world record. Of course, we can talk “maybes” until the cows fly home, but that gargantuan poon that Ralph and I lost would have probably set an unbeatable benchmark.

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Stu Apte will be inducted into the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame at the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum in Livingston Manor, New York, on October 6.


Stu has also recently partnered with Evinrude to power his Signature Series of Beavertail Skiffs with 90-horsepower E-TEC engines.


Stay tuned to E-NATION for the rest of our interview with Stu Apte in the coming days.