Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

July 26th, 2004

GATOR...ERR...TARPON FISHIN'
By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

Yes, we have big alligators in Florida. No, they don't live in every backyard pond, lake, river and drainage pipe here. Or do they?

We have big gators, little, cute baby gators, freshwater gators, and the meanest of them all; the saltwater gator. I don't know why they are meaner; maybe the salt chaps their rumps. Or, maybe they just feel superior to their freshwater cousins, 'cause they live and hunt in the salt (I just had to throw that in...sorry).

The four of us, Capt. Jon Cave, Capt. Ron Rebeck, Bill Parlaska and I set out on a trip to the Mosquito Lagoon to bid a final farewell and toast our two fly fishing brothers that had recently passed to the other side of the waters. It was meant to be a day of remembrance, funny stories, irreverence, yep, that too, and juvenile tarpon fishing along the brackish ditches somewhere along the roads of Merritt Island (exact location withheld due to me being threatened with my life by the other three).

I had never been to the area, but heard a lot about the ten to twenty-five pounders that would eagerly take a fly, then jump into the mangrove trees that lined the fifteen-foot wide ditches.

I was in total disbelief when we got there. The brackish waters in the ditch looked like rusty water that pours out of a metal barrel that's been sitting for half a century. "There's no way a tarpon, or anything else, could live in that (expletive deleted)." I said, as I saw the greenish, yellow-brown soup.

I stepped from the truck and damned near passed out from the heat. It was hotter'n seven hundred hells. The no-see-'ems, deer flies, horse flies and mosquitoes tried to drag me into the marsh. Bill pulled out a can of bug dope and hosed me down.

I suppose, from this point on, should provide a disclaimer...
I did not purposely harass the protected Florida Alligator, besides, he harassed me first. And no gator was harmed in the filming of this story.

After a brief moment of silence, gulping a few shots of coconut rum to toast our friends, and a few funny stories about them, we got down to business. Rods were brought out, flies selected and spots chosen along the steep banks of the ditch to cast flies into the putrid waters, where "mud puffs" could be seen indicating the baby 'poons were there; at least some kind of something was there.

Ron yells from a hundred and fifty feet away. "Hey Bill, you see that gator?" Bill is fifty feet to my right. "Yep, looks to be around eight feet." Picture this; I'm standing on the top slope of a steep, ditch bank in thigh-deep grass and weeds, four feet above the water's surface. "What gator?" Then he pops his head up twelve feet in front of me, scattering the mud puffs away...I mean the baby tarpon away.

"Okay, here he is...he's in front of me. I think he scared the tarpon away."

I finally realized this critter was following our voices. I'm not sure whether he's curious or trying to figure a way to snatch me off the bank into the murky waters. Yep, he's all of eight feet long. Not a big gator, by any means, but enough to send the unseen tarpon in all directions.

"I'm gonna pop him up 'side the head with this fly, if he doesn't get outa here!" I yell toward Ron and Bill. Oh yeah, Cave hasn't arrive yet. He's always late ...always.

I size up my cast and fling the 1/0 foam popper at the invader's noggin. Missed. Two more casts. Missed. Getting' closer, though. Just one more, and I'll nail the sucker 'tween the eyes. KER-POW!!! "Gator on!" I instinctively set the hook, and off goes the gator, ripping brand new fly-line through the mangrove branches, stripping line from my left hand as I cleared the obstacles and weeds. "Get out of the way, Bill, here we come!!! Ron, look out!!!" The gator does "death rolls" with the new, seventy-dollar line. But a few belts of coconut rum had provided me with a logical reasoning that it is worth it.

"Holy (expletive deleted)! I hope he doesn't break my rod!!! (More expletives deleted)"

Ron now has a camera in hand to record the event. "Do you think we can get him into the IGFA record book?" I ask Captain Ron. All three of us are laughing so hard we damned near fall into the nasty water where the gator is now at the surface, pissed off and hissing and growling at us.

About this time, Ron stretches out and grabs the leader. "It's official, he's caught! Bill, call IGFA!" We're still howling as our hands are two feet in front of the big jaws and staggered teeth of the angry alligator.

I ask Ron, "What we gonna do now?"

Ron is laughing so hard he's cryin'. "You really don't want that fly, do ya?"

"Hell no, it'll rust out! Break 'im off and run like hell!" The twenty-pound line snaps and we scurry from the bank as the gator slips below the surface.

After we had calmed down, we loaded up and drove down to the Lagoon and wade-fished for a while, waiting on Jon to show. Nothing there, only a few big trout crashing mullet schools too far for us to wade out to. No gators in sight, either!

When we returned to the ditches, Jon had arrived and we continued to fish a while longer for the baby tarpon without success. Rod let out a yelp, and once again, line raced from the reel as another gator attacked the foam popper he was casting. This one was a monster. Probably twelve feet long and had a little more experience than the eight-footer I had caught earlier.

Ron and Jon fought this one for a few minutes, sharing the rod between them. I fetched the camera, but before I could get a photo, the hook came out at Mach six, sending the foam popper ripping between us, causing all to duck and run, not sure where the old gator was.

So, there you have it. All in a day's fun fishin' for baby tarpon, catchin' saltwater gators, drinkin' coconut rum and sayin' farewell to buddies with a slight hint of irreverence.

Just a final thought...Do you think a retired flats guide could make any money fly fishin' for gators? Probably not. Hell, I couldn't afford the liquid courage.

See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary

About Gary:

Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area. After moving a little closer to the coast, his interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."

He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the waters will ever be present.

Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater patterns in the early '90's and has participated as a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting and tying instructor and stained glass artist, creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.


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