After 10 minutes of excruciating tugging and reeling, we see the fish move past the boat.
"120 pounds," Richard says. "Easy."
I am stunned. When Richard told me tarpon were "big," I had no idea he meant the size of a growing teenage boy. I stop reeling and look down at my tarpon, which is half the length of the boat. The fish took advantage of my distraction, peeling off the yards of line I had gained.
When it stops, I crank the reel again. When I can't reel another inch, I tug. When she slacks, I reel. When I slack, she rips off more line. Another 20 minutes go by. Torture.
Then, just as I am beginning to win by inches, it starts raining. Softly at first. Then hard, in our faces. I have to step around the boat to keep the line from snapping on the anchor. When I am again planted firmly on the bow, I realize the fish is towing us back towards the marina.
"If you need help, just say," Richard yells. "There's lots of guys who couldn't bring in that fish."
"Don't touch me!" I shout in my best Bette Davis voice. (The driving rain provides extra drama.)
After another 10 minutes of reeling and tugging, a big lightning bolt hits nearby.
"We can't snap the line till we tag her," he says.
"Tag her?" I say. "I'm risking my life so she will be 'it?'"
"Yeah," he says. "Catch-and-release only. They're no good to eat."
I struggle some more. I can barely reel. But I want the fish. The fear of lightning and the strong desire to be rid of the long graphite pole I am holding provides a burst of strength.
"C'mon, girl!" I shout. "Let's be done!"
"Hey," Ronnie says. "The rain stopped."
I look up. We are now directly under the bridge, temporarily sheltered. I give a desperate tug. The fish rolls next to the boat, baring her huge silvery belly above the black water. I lean out to try to see her head, but she has ducked it too far down. To me, she looks like a massive, lumbering shark pushing through the water. I tighten every muscle in my face, my arms, my legs and cry out, "Ugggggh!"
I'm determined to turn her over. But still, I'm conflicted. I badly want to tag her, to finish and to get out of this rain! But I don't want to hurt her. My wrists shake. One last tug. I feel her stop struggling. I lead her next to the boat and, in an instant, Richard tags and releases her.
We all sit down. Soaked. Silent. Then Richard starts the motor. The water cascading off the bridge drenches us as we pass under it and head into the inlet. We all shriek and laugh. I punch both fists in the air. I feel like I've won something.
Richard guns it back towards the marina. I wrap both arms around Ronnie and lift my head up, letting the rain pelt my face.
Later, in our room, I take the most resplendent hot shower I can remember. Ronnie pokes his head in through the steam.
"I'm hungry," he says. "Wanna go get some fish?"
I hurry. I can't wait to get down to the bar and find someone to listen to our story. Preferably other fishermen. Like us.
M.B. Roberts' last story for Travel was on Alaska. She lives in Boulder Junction, Wis.
Bud 'n' Mary's, there since 1944. (Bud 'n' Mary's photo)
IF YOU GOGetting there: Take Route 1 south to Mile Marker 79.8
Activities: fishing, deep sea/offshore, backcountry, party boat. Also: diving, snorkeling, glass bottom boat, full service marina and motel.
Back country guides: Full day: $375; half day: $275.
Evening tarpon trips: $300 (includes bait).
Lodging: Motel rooms: $85 per night, double occupancy. Penthouse apartment: $250 a night, with full cooking facilities, two bedrooms (each with two double beds) wrap-around deck with ocean view.
Reservations: Bud 'n' Mary's Fishing Marina, P.O. Box 628, Mile Marker 79.8, Islamorada, Florida 33036; phone: 800-742-7945; fax: 305-664-5592; Dive Shop: 800-344-7352.
Information: For Islamorada, call: 800-322-5397.