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Stories From Afield • Updated Fri, Mar 1, 2024

World Record Tarpon, Writing, and the Human Condition: Monte Burke

It’s amazing the degree to which the stories of fish landed and fish lost affect us as human beings. Each time we leave the dock, we unveil the next chapters of our own fishing anthologies — forging memories in company of fellow anglers or in complete solitude. While some of these stories embody life’s most carefree moments, Monte Burke’s Lords of the Fly tells a fisherman’s tale of much higher stakes. Burke’s writing transports the reader to the storied flats of Homosassa, Florida, during an era of fierce competition among world-class fishermen in the hunt for angling history. We sat down with Monte to dive deeper into his life, writing, and research in covering the race to catch record-breaking tarpon on a fly rod.

An interview with Monte Burke

Monte Burke’s life-long love for fly fishing began at age 8, when his family moved to a farm in rural North Carolina. Here, Monte spent hours fishing on their local farm pond in pursuit of panfish and largemouth bass. “We had this barn where my dad kept all of my grandfather's old fly gear — all these old Orvis bamboo rods,” Monte recounts. “They were warped and a bit dated, but to me they were perfect.” In the spring, Monte would arm himself with a handful of balsa poppers and spend the afternoons casting, searching for that next topwater eat. Years later, Monte would attend college in the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains, where his love for trout fishing grew as he explored the area's many streams and lakes. He spent his summers working as a butcher in Idaho and fishing the famed western waters around Sun Valley, before discovering his love for saltwater fly fishing upon arriving in as unlikely a place as any — New York City. Monte came to the big city for a job in journalism, and felt rather pessimistic about his outdoor prospects. “At first, I thought that was the end of things for me fishing- and hunting-wise,” he admits. “I grew up in Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Vermont — always in the woods, always on the water. I thought I was screwed when I got to the city. But then I visited the Catskills [just a few hours’ drive north of New York City], which has some outstanding trout fishing, and quickly discovered the salt through the first friend I made — a fishing guide out of Staten Island.” Monte would chase striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, and bonito for 9 months out of the year, and soon developed a passion for fly rodding in the salt.

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Monte and friends cruising out on a striper mission beneath the New York City skyline.

Around the spring of 2008, Monte found himself on the boat of Steve Huff, a legendary captain out of Everglades City, Florida — who many folks have described as the greatest guide to ever live and a central character in Burke’s account of the hunt for world record tarpon. Since meeting, Monte and Steve have fished every tarpon season together. During days on Steve’s skiff, Monte soaks up whatever he can of his seemingly boundless knowledge of fish, the ecosystem, and art form of planning for success on the water. A self-described “dream-maker,” Steve takes the task of putting clients on fish extremely seriously. “He wants to catch that next fish even more than you do,” explains Monte. “He’s doing everything he can to make your trip a success — ever attentive to all the complexities of tarpon fishing. The tides, the wind, the sunlight, the forage, the strengths and weaknesses of your cast. If you take a step back, it’s like watching an orchestral conductor.”

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Monte battling a tarpon under the watchful guidance of Capt. Steve Huff.

After first hearing from Steve about Homosassa, where obsessed anglers vied for the same IGFA tippet world records, Burke would spend two full tarpon seasons on location in Homosassa soaking in the aura of this fabled tarpon fishery. For almost a decade, this small Florida gulf-side commercial fishing town housed a handful of the best anglers on earth, cohabitating and fishing the same area out of the same marina, attempting to best their own standing records season after season. Monte explored the haunts of A.W. Dimock and artist Winslow Homer who fished the area long before the great competition among record-seekers began. He learned of evolutions in fly tackle technology as anglers like Flip Pallot and Chico Fernandez designed gear to better withstand brutal tussles with 150-plus pound tarpon. He highlights the drama between legendary anglers Stu Apte, Billy Pate, Tom Evans, and their expert guides. His time conducting interviews revealed the true level of technical adeptness among the world’s most seasoned tarpon fishermen. “Guys like Andy Mill and Tom Evans — they can subdue these massive fish so quickly,” Monte explains. “It’s not about muscle power, but about angles and leverage. It's real artwork and truly incredible to witness firsthand. And the best guides play a tremendous role in coaching you through this process.” In all aspects of fly fishing, Homosassa was the ultimate proving ground for those set on pushing the boundaries of angling possibility.

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Legendary Homosassa guide Capt. Al Dopirak scouring the flats for signs of tarpon.

Monte believes that at the highest level “these amazing, true fishing stories are a lot like great fiction books. They’re not really about fishing, but about the human condition.” Lords of the Fly is certainly no exception to this. The characters in this story differ vastly, yet their paths converge around a shared infatuation with tarpon, the “Silver King.” These fish are true air-breathing relics of piscine prehistory — growing in excess of 200 pounds over 80-plus-year-long lifespans. In exploring the intensity and commitment of these anglers during the later 1970s and early 1980s Burke illuminates the greatest glories and deepest pitfalls of true obsession with America’s most iconic saltwater game fish.

Monte Burke is a contributing editor at Forbes and a best-selling author. He His latest book, "Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession, and the Hunt for the World Record Tarpon," is available in print, e-book, and audio book. You can also find his work in The New York Times, Outside, Garden & Gun, Town & Country, The Drake, Men's Journal, and Field and Stream.

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