It was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It was scripted for the skilled pen of Hemingway. It was ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ in the days of the Old Man’s youth with a fish that wouldn’t die. It was epic. Flagler Beach Pier bore witness to it in elegant silence.
Nick Kennerly age 15, his friends Jeff Lademann 15, Kyle Heffner 14, and pier regular Richard Williamson 17, had a ‘lifetime moment’ as the huge fish smashed Nick’s bait off the end of the pier. A few seconds into the battle between the young man and his fish, the mirrored silver flanks of an 80 lb. tarpon flashed brilliantly in the afternoon sun high above the surface of the sea. For fishermen and Flagler Beach Pier visitors, the lull of a hot afternoon catching dinner ended as abruptly as if a cannon had been fired. The end of the pier now belonged to Nick. The entire pier would be his before this battle would end.
With the power of a draft horse, the Tarpon swam away from the pier while Nick pressured it as hard as he possibly could considering the tackle that tethered them together. He had all the muscle necessary, more than enough to break the big Tarpon off, but his reel was on the short side of adequate. This was going to be a battle of wits and strength. The Tarpon’s acrobatic leaps left no doubt that this was a big, powerful fish. Several times it stripped as much as 200 or more yards of line from Nick’s reel. Then it turned parallel to the end of the pier and the shore so that Nick could not turn it’s head. That position allowed the Tarpon to put incredible tension on the line while saving swimming energy at the same time. Moving the fish would be like dragging a car sideways down the road. On more than one occasion, Nick gained precious line and reeled the fish very near the pier. We all watched the battle in amazement. Another angler poured fresh water on Nick’s hands and reel to relieve some of the heat and stress the fish relentlessly applied. Nick understood cooling but asked the angler “how did you know?” referring to the angle pouring water on his hands too. The old man just grinned and said, “I’ve had a big fish on a time or two in my life”.
Eventually, Nick and his mighty Tarpon began the trip down the pier towards the beach. 60 ft along, the fish proved it was not ready to be taken and it swam back to the deep water with Nick in tow. That scene repeated itself twice more before the fish began to fatigue. By now, Nick owned the pier but not yet the Tarpon. 900 feet of pier would be like miles with 80lbs of Tarpon in tow unwilling to surrender. Each barnacle encrusted pylon threatened the separate Nick from his great fish. The evidence of his ability as a sport fisherman was apparent at every one of them. Watching how he carefully monitored the wave action, fish behavior and obstacles as he overcame each pylon was a lesson in wits and skill. His timing and rod handling was impeccable. The professor was showing us all how this is done.
It was like watching an artist put the finishing touches on his masterpiece. Nick delivered his mighty Tarpon into the hands of his friends Kyle and Richard waiting in the gentle surf 20 yards out from the beach. The grace and care with which his friends handled the now defeated Tarpon was a powerful testament to their respect for the great fish. With the connection between line and fish undone, Nick took off like a bullet down the pier to get out to his prize so he could hold it and see it up close. Ever so carefully they lifted the fish for a couple pictures and Jeff snapped a quick cell phone photo of his prize. Then began the process of reviving it for release back into the sea from which Nick had taken it. It was indeed a heart warming sight to watch him swim his fish back to the safety of deep water as he revived and then released it. It was one of the most sportsmanlike and gentle releases many of us had ever witnessed. Nick let his big fish go and the Tarpon swam peacefully out to sea forever taking with it, a big piece of Nicks gentle heart while leaving him with a lifetime memory.
©scott r adie 2012
Photo by Jeff Lademann