*The Green Heron or Shipoke is a dark colored bird often seen at the water’s edge, usually hidden in the mangroves. Seen up close, it is a striking bird with a velvet-green back, rich chestnut body, and a dark cap often raised into a short crest. These small herons crouch patiently to surprise fish with a snatch of their dagger-like bill. They sometimes lure in fish using small items such as twigs or insects as bait.
Known to old timers as the tarpon bird. To see a shipoke in the morning is good luck before a day of tarpon fishing.
Growing up on the West Coast of Florida, fishing was more like a religion rather than a pastime. Snook, redfish, trout, bass, catfish, bluegills, it didn’t matter. Jon boat, bicycle, on foot, waders and belly boat as long as I had my pole in my hands and a line in the water, I was happy.
Then I saw my first tarpon…
We caught small tarpon, 10-15# or so once in a while, in the Anclote River where I grew up, but I will never forget the day I saw my first big, I mean really big, tarpon.
When I was 9 or 10 years old, my father had decided to buy a new boat, not one like I had ever seen before except in the Keys. It was a Shipoke, built by a crazy tarpon guide/boat builder named Capt. “Fearless” Freddy Archibald. Freddy invited us to meet him at the Riverside Restaurant on the Homosassa River for a test ride in June. Capt. Freddy was different than any one I had ever met before, to say the least. His sun parched skin, crusty bare feet and wild man attitude I will never forget.
I remember looking at the huge “Equalizer” fly rod under the gunnel that Freddy called “Big Brown” and the flies he had rigged in his box. Capt. Fred seemed to enjoy my enthusiasm, he showed me a bunch of tarpon flies he tied and gave me a pair of sunglasses to wear. Not just any sunglasses, but magic brown polarized ones so I could see the fish! I was pumped to say the least. We ran out the river, through the backcountry and out to the tarpon flats. Freddy got a call on the VHF radio from Capt. Ray DeMarco. Ray said his client was battling a 150 plus pound tarpon on fly and invited us to come close and watch. I remember being excited as Freddy poled the boat close. The angler was standing on the bow of Capt. Ray’s Shipoke with the rod bent double. One thing that stuck in my mind to this day was how cool and calm Capt. Ray was standing on the poling platform of his skiff leaning on the push pole, while his client battled this beast of a fish. I will admit I started getting a little bored after 20 minutes or so, after all of this time we still hadn’t seen the fish. I laid on the bow of Freddy’s boat with my chin resting on my hands when it happened. All of a sudden the fish surged forward and the tarpon went airborne, straight up. I was in awe, the fish looked bigger than the angler battling it. The angler, obviously a seasoned pro, bowed the rod when the fish jumped. The fish surged again and the line parted. I was more shook up than Capt. Ray’s client was.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was at that very moment my life would change forever.
We went back to the Riverside for lunch. The dock was now full of boats, all Shipokes, tied up and rafted together. By this time the restaurant was full of fishing guides and their clients. We sat there for a couple hours drinking sweet tea from mason jars, watching the monkeys play around and listening to Freddy tell us wild stories about tarpon fishing. He talked about chasing these fish around the Keys, Everglades, Anna Maria Island and Homosassa.
After that experience fishing took on a new meaning for me. I started learning to tie flies, cast a fly rod and pole a boat. Those polarized glasses never left my face, even at night. Over the next few years, I read over and over every book and magazine I could find on the subject. I still have my first copies of “Fishing the Flats” and “Fly Fishing in Saltwater” by Lefty Kreh, dog eared and worn from being read and re-read hundreds of times. Dreaming of one day fishing the flats of the Keys, Homosassa, the Everglades and all around the state catching these magnificent fish. Some kids grow up wanting to play football, wanting to be Joe Montana or Terry Bradshaw. Not me, never, up until this point I just wanted to be Bill Dance, but not anymore, I was going to be a tarpon guide.
I was 22 years old the first time I stood on the deck of my then brand new “Silver King” boat, on the fabled tarpon flats of Homosassa among the tarpon guides Capt. Freddy, Capt. Ray and all of the others. It was a child’s dream realized. Now over 20 years later, many different boats and the many different waters I have fished, it still is.
I never re-introduced myself to Freddy in fear of him being upset that I bought a lesser boat… If you knew Fred you know why…lol
Capt. Ray and Capt. Freddy have now long since passed away, but these two old salts and that Shipoke changed the life of at least one cracker boy forever, that is for sure.
For Information and reservations:
Capt. Mark Bennett