Divided as fly fishing is into seemingly endless scenes and micro seams, great fly fishing literature tends to cross the divide and unite people whether they be tarpon junkies, steelheaders, dry fly nuts, trout fiends, bluegill bullies, yellowfish fans, etc. One book that walloped the fly fishing world with its universal appeal when it was released in 2020 was Lords of the Fly (Pegasus Books) by Monte Burke. In it, Monte revisited the heyday of Florida’s golden age of tarpon fly fishing, spoke to all the surviving legends of angling, art, and literature that that scene attracted, and dug deep into the impact they had on the sport.
Even if you are unlikely to ever fish the Florida Keys, we cannot recommend this book enough, for the deep insights and research, for Monte’s wonderful storytelling, and for the sense of anemoia (longing for a place or time you never experienced) that it leaves you with. Sex, drugs, and tarpon on fly – what’s not to like? For The Mission, Brent Flack-Davison sat down with Monte Burke to ask him about this book and others, Florida, tarpon, his writing process, and what he is working on next.
Brent Flack-Davison (BFD): Did you spend a lot of time in Florida doing the research for Lords of the Fly?
Monte Burke (MB): I did. I went down to Homosassa for two straight Mays to fish with Tom Evans and just kind of be there in the Poon Shack. I had to do a lot of research in the Keys as well AND in the Miami area. It was so fun, an excuse to go interview all these dudes that I’ve been reading about since I was 13 years old. To go knock on Stu Apte’s door and have him shuffle over and open the door. I was like, “Holy shit, it’s Stu! What the fuck am I doing here?”
I remember contacting Chico Fernandez, who I’ve always just thought was a cool dude, a sensualist, who loves great rods, great meals, and great music. For him to say, “Come on by my house in Miami,” and to go to where he lives and see his totally tricked-out garage was just so cool.
BFD: Having spoken to many of these characters and having fished the Keys yourself, how has it changed?
MB: That whole Florida fishery has completely changed. Just focusing on Homosassa, it was so fun to talk to Tom Evans and Steve Huff about when they “discovered it” in ’76/’77. Some guys had been there before, but they opened the lid on the whole thing. For those first couple of years there weren’t that many anglers. I think on the day that Huff caught the 186lb and Evans caught a 177lb, they didn’t see another boat, which is insane. Fast forward six years later to the height of this craziness of the world record chase, there were a hundred boats there. In Homosassa, the quality of the fishing and the number of fish that come in has changed dramatically. More than anything I’ve ever seen.
Back in the day, maybe 10 000 fish used to come in every May. The times I have been there, we’d have many days of just sitting there bobbing in the water and not seeing a damn thing for the entire day, sometimes three days in a row. There are sometimes little glimpses of the old days. The biggest fish I hooked, there was a daisy chain of fish and I threw this purple fly in there and the fish that hit it and jumped out was literally the biggest thing I had ever seen. Of course when he landed, the hook broke.
The Keys are completely changed too. In one of the chapters I wrote about when Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Jimmy Buffett and those guys arrived down in the Keys. They were this young artist group expressing their art through tarpon fishing. They all loved tarpon fishing. McGuane said that he’d go out there and there’d be maybe another guide out there and that’s about it. That has completely changed. Every day right now, there’s the gold cups going on. There are boats all over the place, especially on the ocean side. You look down the line of boats, you can see a guy crouch down when he’s casting at a fish. He misses it and then it goes to the next boat. Those fish are completely harassed.
This is man-made environmental degradation
Then there’s the back country, not necessarily in the Western Everglades, but in Florida Bay. It used to be filled with laid-up tarpon but now with the algae blooms the seagrass has died. In Homosassa, a lot of this has to do with pressure, but it wasn’t just pressure that kept the fish away. It’s the great freshwater springs, including these four big rivers, which all emptied into that bay. The flow of those rivers is down to 40% of their historical flow. This is man-made environmental degradation – a government, a state government, and a governor’s office that have never done a damn thing except for encourage people to keep building and sucking up water. I think it’s all coming to a head now.
The last couple years have been very difficult in the Keys. We’re seeing fewer fish. They’re not in the same spots that they used to be. It’s changed.
Still, all that said, if someone told me tomorrow, “Hey, I got an opening, do you want to go down and fish?” I would jump on it. Just to spend a day in the presence of those fish is amazing. I see why Ponce de Leon supposedly went there looking for the Fountain of Youth. Florida is magical. It is this otherworldly place. There’s no place like it in the United States. It’s more Caribbean than it is American. It’s a hard place to give up on.
I was down in the Everglades with Steve Huff a couple weeks ago and I forgot how cool it was until I got out on the water. You forget because your body can’t remember these things like you think it can. When you cast out there, the fish follows it, you hook it, you feel that hook-up and it is the coolest thing. You forget how damn cool it is. So, yeah, I’m a junkie just like everybody else is. It’s not as good as it used to be, but that’s kind of the way the world works it seems.
BFD: Of all the characters you researched, is there any particular one that you would’ve loved to share a boat with and why?
MB: I was lucky to share a boat with lots of them. The characters I did fish with were super-fun. I would love to fish with all of them, really. I didn’t get to fish with Chico, but I’d love to. I’d also love to have fished with Stu Apte back in the day. I don’t know if I’d want to fish with Bobby Erra. That sounds like it would be a chaotic thing.
The obvious answer is Steve Huff, whom I’m lucky enough to share a boat with every year. He always calls me on New Year’s Day, and we set up our dates for that year. I get all nervous that day and make sure I answer every call. I practice pretty hard before I go down there. The fishing, I’m being honest, it’s secondary. I just love hanging out with the dude. He’s interesting and fun and smart. At 77, he’s still out there trying. He wants it more than I do, which is what you want out of a guide, right?
Read the rest of Monte’s interview in issue 41. It’s free!
BONUS: Have a listen to Monte’s Mixtape on Spotify.