I paddled out the narrow canal and alongside the row of thirsty mangrove roots and then crossed the green water of the basin and headed towards the rickety dock at the mouth of the inlet. A light breeze had stirred a gentle chop in the channel and the saltwater slurped against the dock’s splintered pilings exposing sharp black barnacles that clung to the wood just below the high tide line. I maneuvered the boat alongside the outer piling and positioned its port side against the base to keep from drifting in the outgoing current. The barnacles scraped at the boat’s hard shell and made a painful crunching sound as the kayak rose and fell in the surf. I rested the paddle on my knees and reached into the bait bucket for a shrimp. The shrimp scattered and scratched at the plastic bucket and I pinned down a rather sizeable one and scooped it into the palm of my left hand. I bit off the tail just above the fan and threaded the hook up through the back and out behind the dark spot in the head so that the bend and the point were exposed.
The lively bait twitched and snapped and I tossed it into the water so it could breathe. I slid the rod from the mounted rod holder and flipped open the bail. I held the line gently with my forefinger to keep it from slipping and searched the water for any sign of movement. There was a faint ripple below the dock and I pitched the bait perfectly behind it and held the rod tip high to keep the shrimp from dragging on bottom. I delicately twitched the rod to enhance the shrimp’s presentation and suddenly the line went taut and I thrust the rod towards me to set the hook. The rod bent from the first eye down to the thicker middle eyes and there was a zip from the reel as line spun off against the drag. I tightened down on the fish and pulled rather hard to keep it from wrapping around the pilings and splicing the line on the sharp crustaceans. The kayak came loose from its moor and I drifted away from the fish which put even more tension on the line. I pointed the rod straight and let off the drag again to keep the line from snapping and the fish turned and swam towards me and I reeled hard and fast to remove the slack. I saw a flash of silver as the fish showed me its side and then it continued out past the rocks and towards the open water. It was a big tarpon, at least a hundred pounds, and I knew I was in for a ride.
There was a flats skiff heading out the inlet and the guide slowed to an idle and looked on as the fish towed me past his bow. The tarpon was taking me where it wanted to go and it dove deep and headed out the channel, veering to the west and through a trough that ran along the beach. It pulled at a steady pace with the wind behind me and the fourteen feet of plastic rode nicely in the waves and felt stable. I held the rod handle firmly in my left hand and clutched the paddle under my right shoulder, using it as a rudder to stay straight behind the fish. The strong fish showed no signs of slowing and it continued past the hotel pier, and then past the narrow beach and the row of pastel vacation rentals. There was a group of tourists out taking their morning strolls on the coarse sand and one saw the bent rod and pointed in my direction. I welcomed the attention and gave a quick nod as I glided by, pretending I was in control of my situation.
The sun was now beginning to climb in the morning sky and I slid my polarized sunglasses off my visor and over my eyes. The lenses cut down on the glare and the contrast of the clear blues and greens of the shallows came into view. I rested the paddle across my thigh and took a quick swig from the water bottle and placed it back in the cup holder between my legs. Without warning the tarpon turned hard and ran away from the beach and accelerated back to the east. I nearly lost my balance as the kayak swung completely around and a small wave crashed over the stern and soaked my back. Then a long dark shadow rose to the surface and a keen grey fin appeared just yards off the bow. It sped towards the end of the line with such aggression that I knew it was a bull shark, and acting solely on instinct, I reached for my pocket knife and sawed at the braided line until the tension vanished. The fish was now free and it raced towards the deep and just narrowly missed the shark’s charge. The big bull circled around once more and then disappeared below the surface and I could no longer see it or the tarpon and I assumed it was gone.
For a moment I was relieved for the fish and for myself, but then the shark reappeared on the starboard side and advanced a second time. The tarpon got hit hard and with such force that it rolled on its back and the shark ripped at its scaled flesh and tore the fish completely in half behind the pelvic fin. The tarpon’s head convulsed on the surface and blood poured into the water and I turned away and felt sick. For a moment I paused in disbelief but then a second dorsal fin appeared and I was quickly reminded that this was not a place I wanted to be. Not in an exposed small plastic boat especially. I reeled in the now weightless line and put the rod back in the holder and angled the boat towards the shoreline and headed quickly back home. I paddled steady and strong until I reached the shallow water and I sat back in the padded seat and took a moment to catch my breath.
I felt terrible for what had just transpired and I could not get the gruesome image of the attack out of my mind. I cursed myself for letting the fish swim into an ambush and for draining the energy he would have needed to escape the shark’s advances. I took a few deep breaths to calm my nerves and then turned back into the soft breeze and continued home. I paddled past a string of lobster buoys bobbing in the surf and I took a moment to appreciate how the sun had turned the sky pink and outlined the clouds the color of fire. On any other day I would have taken out my camera and photographed the beautiful images but right then I was in no mood. I waited a couple of minutes for several charter boats to speed out the inlet and for their wake to dissipate and I paddled near the rocks to stay clear of their path. I glanced over at the dock where I had hooked the strong fish nearly an hour before and knew that it would be some time before I pitched a bait there again.