Sometimes the House Wins

By Jess McGlothlin

The last day in Belize dawned dark and moody. Gordy said if he wasn’t guiding Robert and I, he’d cancel the day. Heavy rainstorms threatened on the horizon; we’d already gotten wet on the dock when we met up at 5 a.m. in the darkness. But we’d gone, figuring what the hell, no fish are caught from the lodge bar.

We posted up off a familiar cay, spotting intermittent rolling tarpon in the low light and wondering how long it would take before that big storm hit us. It was my turn on deck, and we’d rigged straight 80-lb. leader instead of the usual 60, feeling stupidly optimistic. A home-tied chartreuse-and-lime tarpon toad was on the end of the line, wriggling nicely through the water.

The mood was casual, none of us really expecting much to happen. The rollers were too widely spaced; the light too low to do anything but wait for them to roll again and try to get a cast close.

And then another silver dorsal rolled. About 80 feet; at the edge of my range for an accurate cast in the wind. Gordy shouted. I’d missed the roll but saw the bubbles; gave two hauls and dropped in a cast. Ten feet short. Fuck.

Any angler worth their salt knows you work a short cast regardless, so I stripped it in, not overly optimistic about my chances.

The leader nearly to the top guide, I gave one more strip.

Water erupted.

The tarpon slammed into the fly no more than ten feet from the boat, swinging to the right and then turning sharply to the left, angling back toward the stern.

I yanked the rod back, trying to set against a moving target.

Gordy was yelling.

Robert might’ve been yelling. I don’t know. I was focused on that bit of chartreuse in a massive silver jaw.

I set again, trying to drive the hook home into her iron-clad jaw, and she jumped. My hands shot forward, giving her line.

And my jaw dropped.

It was a big fucking fish.

She jumped again. Gordy yelled again. In the distance, thunder rumbled … again.

And she was off.

One thing they don’t tell you about the 100-plus lb. fish on the fly—they’re a workout. Like a “I need electrolytes and an ice pack,” type-two-fun workout. 

The tarpon sprinted, pulling out a 100-foot fly line and nearly all the 300 yards of backing before we had to turn on the engine and follow her in an attempt to gain ground.

Running out of backing is not something you want to do.

We’d gain ground (slightly), I’d reel, she’d run. The dance continued for two hours and fifty minutes; Robert had started a clock. I like to land fish quickly—for their health—and winced as every increment drug by.

We ran, reeled, and danced around the island, down a long flat, out into deeper water, then back down the flat and back again. We fought through a sheet-lightning thunderstorm, where I angled the rod as close to the water as I dared and figured that hey, if this was how I went out, there were worse ways to go.

At one point she was towing the boat toward the nearby island of Caye Caulker. Gordy and I both know the same coffee shop there, and I promised a round of iced coffee and rum when this was all over.

Gordy wanted donut holes, too. We could do that.

The guys brought up sips of water and offered a raincoat when it stormed. I gratefully accepted the water but declined the jacket. A shower sounded good in the middle of that workout.

A fishing guide from town crept close to investigate and gunned his motor when he left, and the tarpon shot off toward the mangroves. I don’t know if it was dumb (bad) luck or if she spooked, but she turned. And suddenly I began to feel a tell-tale bump-bump-bump tempo on the line. Dread crept into my brain.

“Gordy, something’s wrong.”

He’d seen it too, and headed that direction. The panga grew very quiet.

We tried to gain line, but something was wrong. And as we drew closer, it became apparent.

The fish had ducked under a deep root or log, hooking the backing. She was now sprinting off in a totally different direction, sawing the line on the structure hidden in the dark water. 


The line went slack.

Silence. I stripped in the backing, staring in dumbfounded horror at the place it had worn through. After three hours, the tarpon was swimming off with the line, a good chunk of backing, and the fly still in her mouth. Nothing we could have done.

It was a long, quiet boat ride home in the rain. It was as if the weather even understood the mood.

Back at the lodge, I was on duty, helping to run a guide meeting, which provided a good distraction and some beer-laden commiseration time with the guys. That evening I sat in the bar nursing a Painkiller and wishing I’d been able to touch a fish that would’ve been the biggest of my life.

The next morning, I woke with bruises on my hips and abs from the fighting butt of the rod. Every time I slung my backpack over my shoulder, sore muscles protested. It was a constant reminder of the fish that oh-so-nearly was.

Indeed, sometimes the house wins; sometimes it’s just a shitty draw. And when there’s nothing you could have done differently, there’s little point in lingering in the past.

 The next time I’m hunting tarpon in Belize, though, there’s a score to be settled.

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