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It was all better Back in the Day. We hear that phrase all the time. It’s become an adage, and the adage has a way of telling it like it is. For example, tarpon fishing was way better Back in the Day. Well, here are a few of my memories from the Day — what do you think?
Back in the day, spring mornings smelled the same as they do now and when I’d walk outside to hook up the trailer, the dew was just as heavy on my truck and skiff then as now. Ground fog lying along the Ingram Highway (into the Park) or along U.S. 1 to the Keys was and is still the indicator that the breeze would be light long enough to find them laying up. Bad coffee was still bad and good coffee hard to find at a quarter to 5 a.m. Poling into the wind did seem easier then — why is that?
Sharing the day with a friend was a tremendous part of tarpon fishing, and as you learned the ways of the tarpon, so did you learn the ways of friendships and the sacrifices necessary to maintain them. You learned that pushing away from the dock and all the daily trappings left just the two of you, at either end of a skiff, to be the men that you were and would become.
I was lucky in my younger days to have had such fishing friendships. They become the markers among a changing cast of markers, keeping us in our chosen channels.
John Emery, Chico Fernandez and Norman Duncan were such friends. We went to grade school and college together, survived dating and finding jobs, and watched each other become consumed with fishing. In the middle 1960s, we were night and day fishermen and the fact that very few others understood the depth of our illness drew us deeper into its symptoms.
The speed limit between Homestead and Key West was 70 mph. The bridges were extremely narrow back then and there were only two traffic signals between Florida City and the Garrison Bight boat ramp in Key West. We thought nothing of leaving home in the morning, fishing Key West all day and attending class at the University of Miami at night.
John Emery had a job working for a tackle component company owned by a prominent angler named J. Lee Cuddy. Lee would spellbind us with stories of giant tarpon eating flies the size of chickens. We had all caught plenty of small tarpon on flies along the Tamiami Trail canal, but these storied giants were quite another thing and the stuff of dreams that we knew, at some level, would eventually come true. Lee actually mentioned the names of places he fished, and later, the three of us would study them diligently on charts. We pumped Lee for tide information, fly patterns and whatever else he might be willing to share about fishing for the giants.
None of us knew or cared about which professional athlete wore number three on his jersey or what his annual salary might be. Our heroes became the cutting-edge guides of the times and the pioneers of fly-fishing for tarpon. As our impregnated bamboo fly rods were exchanged for the newer, hollow fiberglass ones and our oak dowel push poles gave way to glass vaulting poles, we were swept into the very highest levels of fly-angling in salt water.
From what we learned about tarpon tackle from Lee Cuddy, and from the selection of rod blanks and components in his shop, we built fly rods in Norman Duncan’s family garage. We would glue and shape cork handles, wrap the guides on with thread and apply spar varnish to the wraps and, sometimes, cast the rod in the street in front of Norman’s house — all in the same day. If longer drying time was needed for the varnish, we would cast the rods at night in the lighted parking lot at the University of Miami. It didn’t impress a single girl as I recall nor a single one of our professors.
When not doing homework, building rods or fishing, we found time to tie flies. The go-to patterns at first were Cockroaches, and Capt. Bill Smith tarpon streamers. Norman Duncan was a great tier, Chico was phenomenal — I was a laughingstock getting only somewhat better with the passing of decades.
Our source for tying materials was the Herter’s mail order catalog, which was the same place we got our duck decoys. We actually made our own vises out of vice grip pliers welded onto a metal dowel on one end and a C-clamp on the other.
We had rented 15-foot Challenger skiffs from a livery on Summerland Key for several years and became very friendly with the livery owner. John Emery bought a hull from him and enhanced it with cover boards, decks and rod holders. John and I bought a trailer and a 50 hp Mercury outboard from Bob Hewes and all at once we had a skiff that would follow us all around South Florida. Norman built his own skiff on an 18-foot Fibercraft hull and named it Xanadu. It was quite a skiff!