HOLBOX ISLAND, Mexico -- Because of his white hair, white beard, and wire-rimmed spectacles, Whidbey Island's Paul Messner has a nickname among fishing quides in southern Mexico: Papa Noel.
He comes by it honestly.
Messner is Father Christmas every year in Coupeville's December parade. He also is Santa's helper when his fire district hands out candy canes and fire prevention information during the holidays.
After watching Messner land a 150-pound fish on a fly rod after a grueling battle, I'm tempted to start calling him Santiago, the name of the old man in Hemingway's Pulitzer Prize winning novella.
Of course, there were differences between the two. Messner, 65, fought a tarpon, not a marlin like the one hooked by Santiago. His fight was much shorter than the Cuban fisherman's epic struggle. And things ended better for both Messner and his fish. Santiago's marlin was shredded by a shark. Messner released his fish back into the sea, keeping only one of it's huge scales and some photographs to preserve the memory.
Messner was among a group of six fly fishermen from the Puget Sound area who went to Mexico in August to fish for tarpon -- giant ones that can reach 200 pounds and babies from between 10 to 30 pounds.
On the trip in addition to Messner and myself were Carl Johnson of Monroe, Jake Jacobson on Mukilteo, Clarence Hein of Whidbey Island, and Jim Higgins of the Seattle area. All of us caught tarpon, but nothing like the one landed by Messner, who's been hunting for big tarpon off Holbox since 2000.
Initially, his best giant tarpon was 80 pounds. Since then, he's caught one 105 pounds, then 115 pounds, and now 150 pounds, with lots of smaller fish in between. He acknowledges he has a bit of an obsession for landing bigger and bigger tarpon.
"I caught one, then I wanted to catch a bigger one," he said. "Then a bigger one."
Tarpon, called the silver king, are among the world's most sought after game fish.
Some of the reasons: Because of their bony mouths, setting the hook is something of a challenge. If you are successful at that, tarpon usually introduce themselves with a dramatic leap into the air, displaying a brilliant flash of chrome. "It's a huge thrill when they come out of the water," Messner said.
The leap is often followed by a powerful run. And the leap-and-run sequence can be repeated again and again and again.
All that speed and power can be punishing on equipment. And people who don't know the right techniques and don't keep their gear in top shape are likely to lose the contest.
For Messner, that contest lasted for an hour and 50 minutes, with him reeling in line inch by inch and the fish taking it back with some scorching runs. Messner kept up constant pressure, fighting the fish with his rod nearly doubled. Numerous times, Messner got the fish to within about 25 feet of the boat, only to have it make another run.
"I would think it's got to be (coming in) this time and then there it would go," he said. "It just had so much power. The drag (which makes it hard for a fish to release line from the reel) was cranked way up and it still kept going."
Three times, guide Angel Ancona handed over some water to keep Messner hydrated in the hot sun. Once, he also grabbed a Coke out of the cooler so Messner could get a little energy from the sugar.
Messner landed his fish about the time we needed to head in for the day. He was happy about that because his muscles were starting to cramp up and, for once, he wasn't interested in trying to beat his personal record.
"If I were him, I would put in everything now and go until something broke. But thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able." -- Santiago, referring to the fish in Hemmingway's, "The Old Man and the Sea".
I can't imagine that our tarpon had read Hemmingway, but the "go until something broke" passage best sums up my part of the trip, my first for tarpon.
Messner and I shared the same boat, a panga, and took turns casting. He got to see me fight my first tarpon, estimated by Ancona at about 90 pounds, for all of about one second per pound.
I had put on a red-and-black fly called Black Death and had tossed it out ahead of a school of tarpon feeding on anchovies in 30 feet of water. The fly looks nothing like an anchovy, a silver, herring-like baitfish, but the tarpon sucked it down anyway. As I yanked repeatedly on the line trying to drive the hook into its bony mouth, the fish launched itself into the air, pulling out line that lay coiled in the bottom of the panga after I had stripped it in while working the fly. As the fish fell back into the water, the line looped itself onto the handle of my reel.
The fish continued its dive, snapping my 12-weight graphite rod like a twig.
I dropped the useless rod and grabbed the fly line, hand-lining the fish like Santiago did, but with less success. For a short time, I got the silver bullet headed toward the boat. Then it simply changed direction and swam deeper while throwing the hook back in my face.
The experience left me with a red face, a broken rod, a seriously tangled fly line, and a reel that didn't work very well. We untwisted the line and I took the reel apart that night, doing my best to put everything back in place.
The next morning, we went back to the tarpon feeding grounds several miles off Holbox in an area where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Carribean Sea. The colliding currents are filled with schools of anchovies and feeding tarpon.
We soon found a large school of tarpon on the surface and positioned the panga so they would swim alongside.
"Cast 11 o'clock," Alcona said. "Long cast."
I threw the line out about 60 feet and we waited for the school to swim by. It did.
"Strip," Alcona said, adding, "Faster."
I stripped another Black Death with short jerks, trying to make it act like a wounded anchovy. It was inhaled on that first cast by a tarpon Alcona estimated at 70 pounds.
I fought the fish for 38 minutes. Everything was fine. The fish was clearly tiring.
Then I noticed that the screw holding my reel together had loosened and was about to fall out. I sent out a quick SOS and Ancona pulled out Paul's trusty Leatherman tool and tightened it back up.
The reel then started making weird noises and suddenly stopped working. It would neither release line nor allow me to wind it back in. I dropped the rod and reel like a bad habit and found myself once again trying to hand-line a giant tarpon.
This time, it worked.
I got the fish to the surface at the boat, it dove down weakly about 20 feet, and I hauled it back alongside the panga. I was relieved when Ancona locked his hands onto its thick lips and hauled the fish aboard. If my reel had blown up a couple minutes soon, I never would have caught the fish.
We removed the hook, took its picture, and let it go.
It was only about 8 a.m., plenty of time to have another go. But neither Messner nor I were interested in trying to catch another giant tarpon that morning. I was tired of seeing all my stuff break or fall apart. He was just plain tired from landing his big fish the previous afternoon.
So we went back to the island to fish in the shallow waters for "baby" tarpon. The smaller ones were fun, too, and I didn't break any more equipment.
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