An Upstream Journey: Dispatch #1, from the Florida Keys

Written by: Paul Moinester

Gordy Hill Cast

Legendary angler Gordy Hill casts off the Florida Keys, in waters that he believes have been
damaged by man’s indiscriminate spraying of chemicals to control mosquitoes.

photo by Paul Moinester

[Editor's Note: Paul Moinester has embarked on a six-month, 20,000-mile adventure to exploring the upstream battle to protect wild fish and their habitat. (Check out his introductory post here.) He will be posting dispatches on the Fly Fishing blog throughout his journey.]

As a relatively novice fly fisherman, I often get anxious when I fish with a guide. Always wanting to be the consummate student, I become consumed by the need to perform well and impress my guide. So you can imagine the butterflies bouncing around my gut as I sped off in a flats boat for a day of tarpon fishing with Gordy Hill, the spry octogenarian and legendary Keys fly fisherman.

Gordy’s fly fishing pedigree is as impressive as they come. The grandson and son of prolific fly casters and saltwater fly pioneers, Gordy’s heritage is befitting of fly fishing royalty. No slouch of his own, Gordy has furthered the Hill name. I don’t have the time and space to run through Gordy’s endless list of accolades, so I will sum it up by saying that Dan Davala, who runs the fly shop at the Orvis in Clarendon, Virginia, described him to me as a Jedi Master. And after spending a day on the water with him, the moniker is fitting.

It turns out my nerves and butterflies were for naught. After five minutes on the water, Gordy had vanquished my anxiety with his calming nature and sweet disposition. He made me feel like I was fishing with a longtime family friend instead of a guy whose name I’ve seen thrown around with the likes of Lefty Kreh and Joan Wulff. With my nerves calmed and my double haul vastly improved thanks to a few tips by the master caster, we settled in for our day of fishing.

As our eyes pierced the crystal clear water searching for silver kings (tarpon), Gordy filled my ears with story after story about his lifetime of fishing the Keys. While his keen intellect and wit made every tale a pleasure, the overriding message of his stories was far less pleasant. Through these stories emerged the bleak reality that the tarpon population in the Keys is far from what it once was.

Gordy Hill Driving

Gordy is still going strong into his 80s, spending nearly every day on the water.

photo by Paul Moinester

Like every longtime tarpon fisherman I spoke with, Gordy is convinced there are fewer tarpon roaming these flats than when he started fishing the Keys more than fifty years ago. Keys fishermen have varying explanations as to why the tarpon population has declined, ranging from overfishing to a poor regulatory regime. Gordy has a different theory, one I had previously never heard but one that makes sense.

Gordy attributes the decline largely to a destructive mosquito control tactic begun in the 1970s. The practice involved mixing various insecticides with diesel fuel and dispersing them widely on mangrove islands by spray planes with little regard for wind direction. While this liberal dosing of toxic substances proved to be an effective mosquito killer, these chemicals leached from the mangroves into the water. Once there, the chemicals wreaked havoc on the mangrove dwelling invertebrates and baitfish – in one fell swoop knocking the legs out from the food chain that tarpon sit atop.

When Gordy began fishing for tarpon in 1962, he said tarpon would migrate to the Keys in waves throughout the spring and spend the summer gobbling down the Keys’ seemingly endless supply of baitfish. But when the baitfish population plummeted, he observed a fundamental change in the size and pattern of the tarpon migration. Rather than staying all summer, the tarpon would arrive in a series of smaller waves and stay for only a few weeks before leaving. The incredible accumulation of tarpon that once existed had ceased.

Spending nearly every day out on the water, Gordy has observed a gradual resurgence in the baitfish population, which he thinks is due to recent improvements in mosquito control techniques. And he holds out hope that more baitfish will rejuvenate the tarpon migration to the Keys—something I know every fisherman in the Keys desperately wants.

During our day on the water, many of our conversations were interrupted by the splattering of jumping baitfish. Unfortunately, the boisterous rolling of tarpon failed to interject at any point. We spent hours patrolling the water for a glimpse of a silver king and only spotted one. And since he noticed us first, all we saw was a flash of its powerful tail and a trail of dust erupting in its wake.

Jack

Tarpon were scarce, so we settled for other species, such as this jack.

photo by Paul Moinester

Sensing no change in cooperation from the tarpon that day, Gordy shifted tactics and took me to a spot where for an hour, just before sunset, we consistently caught feisty ladyfish, seatrout, and small jacks. It wasn’t the dream fishing scenario I had had swirling around my head the night before in my tent, but it didn’t matter. Tarpon or no tarpon, I was more than content to be fishing with someone who has done so much to advance the sport of fly fishing and to protect the fish and waters we fisherman hold sacred.

That night, back in my tent, I lay awake reflecting on what had transpired just hours before. Aside from the great memories and numerous tips Gordy had given me, I struggled to wrap my head around definitive takeaways. Gordy is the first to admit that everything he told me about tarpon conservation is not fact but rather theory, albeit one he has meticulously pieced together after decades of careful observation and research.

Beyond his own theory on the impact of destructive mosquito-control techniques, Gordy was quick to point out a long string of unknown variables that might have also affected the tarpon fishery. These factors include many that other Keys fisherman noted, such as a sharp increase in fishing pressure, the well-documented decline in Atlantic and Gulf menhaden due to commercial netting, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a rise in pollution commensurate with the Keys’ population growth, and so on.

The reality is that there are no cut-and-dry answers to why tarpon have disappeared from the Keys or how to bring them back. The population dynamics for a migrating fish in such a vast and complex ecosystem are presently beyond our full comprehension. Even a man as knowledgeable as Gordy doesn’t have all the answers.

But if we hope to preserve and bolster the reign of the silver king, we need to answer these questions sooner rather than later. To do that, we must support the work of conservation organizations such as Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, which are working to resolve these complicated questions. Only by acquiring a more sophisticated understanding of these majestic creatures and their habitat can we preserve them.

Long live the king.

Sea Trout

My first seatrout, another species to check off the life list.

photo by Gordy Hill

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One thought on “An Upstream Journey: Dispatch #1, from the Florida Keys

  1. Pingback: An Upstream Journey, Dispatch #11: The Perfect Finale | Orvis News

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