Spring Fishing Pilgrimage

By Seth Vernon

It’s the first day of Spring as I write this, a welcome transition full of awe and wonder for many of us emerging from the late season hunting blues. My hunting gear has been carefully cleaned, repaired, and stowed for the coming months. Friends and bird dogs are getting a much-needed rest. The emergence of Spring means more to me now than it has in years past, more than just the fish. I'm middle aged now and a father to a preteen daughter. Time feels more precious as I've grown more appreciative of how quickly our lives move on.

Here in my small coastal community along the Cape Fear coast, the serviceberry trees, azaleas, daffodils, dogwoods and cherry trees are resplendent, a color palette inspirational enough to humble even an extravagant fly tier. From these displays of grandeur, with their promise of rebirth and rejuvenation, my heart stirs in anticipation of the incredible spring migration of fish in my home waters and those in latitudes to the south, where tropical breezes from Cuba linger like fine cigar smoke on aquamarine shallows holding secrets. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My guiding career began in the late nineties in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Boone, NC. Mainly focusing on trout, smallmouth, and musky, I honed my skills before landing a position as a guide at a remote fly out fishing lodge in Alaska. The experience of chasing wild fish in wild places led me back to saltwater and the challenges of fly fishing on the coast. Now fishing has been a part of my professional life longer than it hasn't. I've spent more time on the stern of a flats skiff, push pole in hand while guiding anglers, than I ever dreamed possible. 

The last twenty springs have seen me pursuing redfish in Southeastern North Carolina with my guests before adventuring as far south in the continental US as is possible in search of the Silver King or tarpon.  I consider the redfishing my personal spring training session of shagging pop-flies and fast ground work before getting called up to the big leagues of line drives and ninety mile an hour fast balls.

In coastal Carolina, Spring brings fresh, bright, belly flashing schools of hungry redfish into shallow clear water, eager to feed on small crustaceans and baitfish. My anglers and I spend the ever-warming days sight fishing, shedding layers of fleece, and getting fresh sunburns while stretching our fly casts over large schools of red drum, sea trout, and the odd flounder that survived the lean times of winter. We employ a variety of sacrificial offerings; carefully selected and tied hunks of the feathers from birds that fell in front of our barrels last winter. A wild array of dyed fluorescent fur from raccoon, rabbit, elk and deer is carefully dressed on hooks all in the hope of enticing these fish to make a mistake. We cast mighty minnows in chartreuse, kwan flies in purple and black, and Borski’s bonefish sliders in tan, searching for a strike. 

Anglers near and far vibrate with the enthusiasm of a young Labrador on opening day when they get their first cast of spring off to a school of roving redfish. That principal cast is a tangible release of pent-up hope and longing; a desire to connect, to prove that Spring hopes eternal. The flies we cast in spring share several key features; they are painstakingly tied by my hands, sparsely dressed, without much flash or "bling" material, and are light weight, allowing for soft stealthy presentations. Similarly, we choose our light tackle spinning lures for their qualities of attraction and ability to be presented in a delicate manner so that the fish discover the lure instead of the lure banging into the school. The method of choice is to cast past the leading edge of a group of fish to create an interception with jerk baits in new penny and silver mullet rigged on 1/16th or 1/8th oz Gamakatsu Super Line Spring Lock weedless hooks which are a deadly combination retrieved in short staccato jerks of the rod tip. All of this preparation and passion culminate in the success of working as a team; guide and angler; to spot, stalk and land one of these gilded creatures for a moment of adoration at hand before allowing them to continue about the business of being redfish.

Shortly after Easter, I leave my home and drive south one thousand miles, to the very tip of mainland Florida, pursuing another migration. This is no ordinary spring break destination, it's the Serengeti of saltwater fly fishing. Everglades National Park is the last tropical jungle in the United States, home to dense mangrove forests holding elusive creatures like the mangrove cuckoo and Florida Panther. There, in a small corner of “The Park," is a settlement called Flamingo. There are no bars with enticing nightlife, no restaurants serving fresh caught Mahi or Grouper, no beaches or swimming pools, and no drinks with umbrellas. Manatees and saltwater crocodiles are more common than motorists and local headlines warn of invasive Burmese pythons wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.  It is the final destination of the River of Grass, as Marjory Stoneman Douglas penned it, home to the magnificent fish that is the Tarpon. 

Tarpon are to fly fishermen what dragons were to the knights of fairy tales. A tarpon is a heavily armored beast whose interlocking chrome scales belie the muscles and athleticism of a professional NFL running back. Their leaps seem to almost defy the laws of gravity. Along the Gulf Coast and south into the Keys, tarpon migrate as they have for millennia, seeking warm waters to feed and frolic. 

I find myself encamped in Flamingo every year with a gathering of fellow tarponaholics who share in my delusions and happen to be some of my dearest angling buddies. For two consecutive weeks we live by the tides and weather, logging hundreds of nautical miles on a skiff. We search every corner of this playground from dense green mangrove-walled rivers the color of whiskey to blue green gulf-side flats, where it's difficult to determine where the water ends and the sky begins. We do it all for the reward of battling a triple digit fish until our muscles ache. When the sunlight fades and dinner is polished off we reminisce around the campfire, replaying the day’s highs and lows while obsessing over where the tarpon will appear the next day. 

In preparation for my quest, I spend nights feverishly fashioning tarpon flies with names like the "cockroach," "toad," and "snake." My hands become calloused and cut from making hundreds of Bimini Twists and Huffnagle knots to ensure solid connections when we hook one of these titanic fish. Rods, lines, and reels get checked and re-checked for the most insignificant flaw, the potential determining factor between a total catastrophe or sweet success. 

Tarpon show in migratory columns of fish traveling head to tail in long waving lines known as "strings." Predawn, they roll on the surface, gulping air to gather oxygen in their "lung" or swim bladder. What drives crazed tarpon anglers to such lengths; enduring heat, isolation and mosquitoes with no promise of anything save fatigue and eye strain? The bite. 

Tarpon consume their prey in a variety of ways. I have observed them "crashing" on mullet, leaping clear of the water like a jettisoned missile, slurping crustaceans near the surface with an audible thump, and the famous suction feeding swipe when devouring a fly. The milliseconds that transpire between the cast and the eat appear to unfold in slow motion as a six-foot-long beast begins to stalk your offering. When the tarpon moves to the fly, fins out and tail beating in time to the strips of the fly, it feels like you are communing with the fish; some ancient prey predator relationship. On the final "twitch" of the fly, the tarpon engulfs the fly with its mouth while the angler holds fast to the fly line, praying the hook finds purchase under tension. The steel of the hook drives home and the resulting chaos signals the beginning of something as violent as a rodeo with more than eight seconds on the clock. A hooked tarpon leaps, crashes, runs, shakes, and rattles to free itself from your sway. It is the greatest show on Earth, a mutually assured and honest seduction of both angler and fish punctuated by the bite and a dance like nothing else in the sporting world. 

Wherever luck may find you this spring it is my wish that you will seek adventure, be it near and familiar, or new and daunting. Go prepared, be passionate in your pursuits, share the experience with a friend, and come back rejuvenated with a few fresh mosquito bites and some salt spray on your ballcap. 

About the Author

Hailing from Wilmington, NC, Captain Seth Vernon is a full time saltwater charter captain and owner of Double Haul Guide Service. When not passionately engaged in the pursuit of redfish, tarpon and turkeys, Captain Seth enjoys spending time on the water with his wife Francesca and their eleven year old daughter, Olivia.