Fly Fishing For…Pelicans?

By Doug Patteson

Thank God this was the pre-cellphone camera era. I’d have for sure ended up on someone’s fail reel on IG or YouTube.

I don’t remember exactly where I was, somewhere in the Keys off Route 1. I’d spent a few days in Miami on a business trip then popped down to see friends in Islamorada. My friends had a boat and we were going to head out into Florida Bay at some point, so I brought my 9 weight fly rod with me, dreams of tarpon and permit filling my head.

The day I drove down from Miami, I had time to kill before meeting my friends. So I meandered down Route 1, rod strung up, looking for something to fish for from shore. I had a big clouser on, chartreuse and white, one of my favorite bait fish patterns.

I pulled up to a marina that fed out into a channel between the Caribbean and Florida Bay, a breakwater protecting the entrance to the channel and the bridge over it. The riprap was big enough for me to clamber down close to the water’s edge. I could see the shadowy silhouettes of several large tarpon tooling around. A few kids would periodically poke their heads over the bridge, point down at the fish, call their dad over, and watch for a bit before heading off.

I’d never fished for tarpon before. Hell, I’d never fished clear waters before. The only saltwater fly fishing I’d done at this point was for striped bass and bluefish on the Outer Banks. I also didn’t yet know that fishing for these tarpon was a waste of time; they were mostly waiting to get fed by tourists off the dock in the marina. 

I stripped line from the reel and started casting, being careful not to snag my back cast in the concrete chunks that made up my footing, or the weeds sprouting between the chunks. Cast after cast, nothing. The silver torpedoes hardly moved, finning in the current. I could see them. They were right there. This had to be like casting a streamer to a pod of trout at the tail end of a pool. No interest.

A few birds milled about, gulls and pelicans mostly, diving for scraps of bread and other treats thrown by the tourists. I varied the stripping speeds, hoping a faster strip would draw a tarpon in. Hand over hand I stripped, my line passed under a pelican when I felt a strike. I hauled back and set the hook, hard. I knew for a tarpon, even a smallish one, I needed a good set.

I set it again for good measure, and that’s when I first realized I might not have a tarpon on. You see, on that second hook set, the pelican swimming about 25 yards in front of me very ungracefully disappeared beneath the water’s surface, then emerged seconds later, wings flapping furiously, trying to escape whatever nasty thing was biting his leg. It seems stripping fast brought the fly higher in the water column, right about paddling-pelican-foot-level.

The pelican’s commotion drew attention from folks on the bridge. Shouts of “Holy shit dad, you gotta see this! This asshole hooked a pelican!” brought scads of folks running.

The hapless bird began swimming rapidly away from the channel entrance and doing everything in his power to take off. I figured I’d do a long-distance release and snap the leader off once distance and air served as leverage for me. He got airborne, along with most of the line, and I hauled back again, this time to break the leader, not set the hook. The poor bird was yanked out of the sky, crashing into water with an unnatural-sounding thud, leader still attached. The chirping from the onlookers grew as I tried a couple of more times to break off the bird, before I realized a 10-pound bird wasn’t going to break off on a 30-pound test leader.

So I fought that pelican. I fought him longer than I’ve fought any fish. I finally got him close enough to cut the leader with a knife, setting him free. The crowd got in a few more jabs as I packed up my stuff, my face pulsing red with embarrassment, and made my way back to my car.

I didn’t cast at another tarpon that trip. In fact, I’ve yet to catch a tarpon. But my daughter has. She’s never caught a pelican though.

From the FE Films Archive

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