I spend a lot of time on the phone with Captain Greg Poland and the incredible collection of professional charter guides he brings to the table at TheOnlineFisherman.com. Eight months ago, when we first started talking, the conversations were about business and fish. They've evolved into something much more personal. Lives grow and change. The lives of the people involved in this site have grown and changed side-by-side. Friendships have blossomed. Last week we were talking about God-knows what, when he said "I gotta go. It's my friend from London. We're fishing together and I have to make plans."
London-resident James Lascelles with a beautiful silvery Permit. He's a hard-core flyfisherman, and doesn't like a picture of himself holding a spinning rod, but we took liberty for this image.
When he called me back an hour later, I already had the question behind this article in the back-of-my-mind: "How many places have anglers flown from to fish with you, Poland?" He paused. "A lot. I have to think for a minute. South Africa, London (where his friend James Lascelles had called from that morning), Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Tokyo, Saint Petersburg Russia, Ireland, every Island in the Caribeean and the Bahamas, and Cuba. I've fished Cuba a lot. I'm sure there are more though."
How do you respond to an answer like that? We all have places we dream of fishing. I've fished in the mountains of Colombia with a handline, and saw a trout that had to weigh 10lbs roll over a bug some kid had stuck on a 3/0 steel hook on 50lb mono. No leader. I had asked the kid where he caught the five pounder I had bought from his mom in her kitchen in Sylvia, Colombia at 7 in the morning. He walked me another 3,000 feet up behind the town to a waterfall and the pool holding the fish. It was an acre if that. So we all have our dream places. Our friend Wes Snapp put images on our forums of striped marlin and Roosters caught in Cabo just last week. We all know where we want to go fishing.
The Florida Keys is one of them. It takes us a maximum of eight hours to ready a boat, pull it to Islamorada, and drop it behind our favorite hotel's docks -- a place called La Jolla (reviews). From there to places like Shell Key -- where this story is about to take us -- is a few minutes run. World class fishing. Fly or spin, the level of fishing here is like nothing you've experience until you do it a few times.
And people like us are sitting at computers like this and thinking about fishing there just like we are. And those computers -- and fishermen with a dream of far-away fish -- can be found everywhere people live. Fishing is a part of the human gene, it seems. Putting fish on the table has been around since men gathered together for safety and protection and community (art comes soon after fire, it seems). Fishing as a sport has been around as long. There are written records of Roman troops using flies they learned to tie in the mountains of what's now Serbia. Two thousand years ago. Flyrods. It's part of why some of us are so compassionate about an increasing tendency to picture fishers as environmentally toxic. That beauty, that artform, that passion for the pull of a fish, even without its taste on our plates -- is built-in. Regulations can't control it any more than they can control the feeling one gets when they're standing next to a fountain or waterfall. The ions do something to us. Fish reach deep into some people's persona.
When Greg read-off that list of places where his anglers live, it reminded me of how truly important our sport is; how meaningful. When I did the GoogleEarth Map of places where they had come from, it surrounded the entire globe. Every one of those men and women (plenty of females, alone and with their significants) have his number and email; every one of them have his incredible photography with which to cherish those memorable fights and even more measurable locale; and every one of them has the Florida Keys, and a guy named Greg Poland, in their hearts.
Back to bonefish and and Lascelles yelling "MATE!" to Poland. To truly enjoy this story as much as I am enjoying writing it, you have to have heard Greg doing a really good British accent. If you can do one yourself, reading James' commentary out loud in the Queen's English definitely gives it flavor.
Until about eight years ago it wasn't unusual to pull a big tarpon like this -- the biggest fish James had ever caught on a fly -- onto the boat for a picture. This girl was successfully slid back into the green waters of the Florida keys, and she swam away quite quickly, said Captain Greg. Like all pros and knowledgable amateurs, he doesn't take fish out of the water anymore that he intends to release -- and that's almost every one of them.
James is a software salesman for IBM. I high-level salesman, it seems. One day on a London/NY cross-Atlantic, he read about the Captain's adventures in the Sport Fishing Capital of the World. An avid fisherman dying to fish with Poland, he called him. It was fifteen years ago, and then, like now, Poland was running 300 charters a year. Clients were slipped in and often became repeats. He couldn't get James onto his schedule. That didn't stop the Brit. He scheduled for six months later.
Getting into the Florida Keys isn't exactly like picking an exit on the Florida Turnpike. They made plans to fish Key Largo on the first day of a five-day hire. Anglers that come from 3,000 miles away tend not to do half-day trips. The next day put them in Islamorada at La Jolla Resort (to visit their site, click here), and James on his first bonefish on a fly. The run of that Silver Ghost extending energy into his arms and shoulders did what it's done to a million other maniacs. It hooked him, as well as the fish.
This isn't the fish from the story; it only weighs about eight lbs. But men like James Lascelles, Presidents, regular folks, bonefish, flyrods, tarpon, sailfish, and long-term meaningful friendships with people from all over the world come along for the ride for people that get on the deck of Poland's boats. The people we get to work with -- and there are dozens of them like Greg -- enrich lives doing what they do.
I could feel Greg getting almost giggly telling the story. Don't get me wrong, Poland's a very manly guy (you can't do what he does for a living wearing lacey clothing, if you know what I mean). But the story that was unfolding was so funny that he had me laughing right along with him. Again, you have to plug in the accent to make it like it was with Poland on the phone, because he sounds a little like Sean Connery when he goes Queens (English, not New York).
The next day they're in Islamorada, and a tournament's happening. Not just any tournament, the Fall Fly Tournament. This is big-money, big-time, invite-only tourney fishing. Like a lot of the games in this part of the world, it ain't for the newbie, and it ain't for the weak-at-heart. Poland was already a regular in the Keys tournament scene; he knew the players and stopped at the local watering hole to introduce James. There was an open slot, and they were invited in.
Poland told James it was probably a good idea not to try the tournament. Poland was on his way to winning some of the world's hardest; Lefty Kreh and Greg were and remain good friends. He knows fly fishing and he knows the world of competitive fly fishing. Being a salesman with IBM's world-class customers had developed competitive blood in James, too, though. They entered.
That first year in the Fall Fly, they didn't catch a fish. But the people involved in the tournament so fell-in-love with the guy from London that they created a "Travelled the Furthest" award. He won it.
The next year brought a much-improved Lascelle into the game. This time they were ready. But Poland was also a year older and a year wiser handling his demanding anglers. The morning of the tournament, Poland knew that there were beasts tailing at Shell Key; a five-minute run from the docks behind the resort. But he knew that if he was going to get fish onto James' longrod, he was better off putting him on smaller, and less fished fish. Here comes the English accent. Do it right, and you get a feel for this guy James. Greg verbalized his strategy to target the smaller fish.
"Greg, I play tennis. Were I to be blessed with entering the Wimbledon, I would want to play the Center Court. I feel that it would be better for us to fish the Shell Key."
The tailing fish were there. Big ones; ten pounders said Poland. "We fished for a half hour, Gary, and he hooked one of those bones. He laid a perfect fly in the perfect spot -- exactly where I had pointed him -- and off the fish took. I knew it was big." If Poland says he knew it was a big fish, it was a big fish.
"I kept him behind that fish for twenty minutes, when he took a run directly into a serious chunk of mangrove. When I say into, I mean out of my visual from the platform. He was gone. The line went slack."
"God, I'm sorry, James" said Poland. They both shared the moment silently, knowing that the fish they just lost could well have been in the money. This was the second year this guy had flyfished for bonefish, they were in a major national, and they had probably just lost a winner. I can only imagine. Two years ago I grabbed a 40lb kingfish by the tail as my close friend -- a great fisherman but somebody who I hadn't fished with -- slipped the net under his head. The fish slipped alongside the aluminum ring, and the hook slipped. As he sounded, we knew he was a money fish. It was nasty weather, not a bait to be found, and the Clearwater Rotary Kingfish Tournament paying good money. The winning fish was 21lbs that year.
Greg, between laughs, said "We heard 'FLOP'!!!! but the line was still slack. James jumps out of the boat and disappears. I mean he disappeared, Poyssick. Gone. I hear him yelling "I SEE HIM CAPTAIN GREG!!!!!!!". I yell back GRAB HIM JAMES!!!!!!
"DOES HE HAVE TEETH CAPTAIN GREG?????" Remember, you don't grow up catching silver ghosts on the Thames.
"NO!!!! GRAB HIM"
Poland had put his net into the water alongside the skiff, so James had somewhere to drop the fish. He still couldn't see James, but yelled "PUT YOUR THUMB IN HIS MOUTH AND GRAB HIS TAIL!!!!"
"I'VE NICKED MY LIP!!!!" Now waist deep in the mud and mangroves, and alongside the line and on top of the fish, James had snapped that leader against his lip, and cut it. Not to worry. "I'VE GOT HIM MATE!!! I'VE GOT HIM CAPTAIN GREG!!!!" Yelled the (as you could well imagine) excited angler. At this point, I'm sure Poland wasn't laughing when it happened, but him and I were both holding our ribs. I had to put my iPhone on speaker.
"I hear FLOP again and the fish is in the net. And here comes James, dragging his ass out of those mangroves, and with a look on his face I will never forget. We hooted and hollered and put that fish in the well. She was healthy and fine. She had jammed herself into those mangroves and just got stuck. But she was as healthy as could be. (She was released fine after the weigh-in).
The fish weighed in at 11 3/4 lbs. And garnered James and his guide second place in one of the five toughest bonefish tournaments in the world of Sport Fishing. Greg and James remain best friends, and their conversations -- like Greg's and mine and David Rieumont's and others who have entered this guy's life -- are gentle, important, and a blessing to us all for knowing him.
There will be more stories of Ohero Proffesional Captain Poland and his international Anglers. I was thinking this morning as finishing this piece that some of them have come from Tokyo. Let's pray that they're OK, and will be one of the stories we do this year.