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Unseasonable late January and February warmth has sparked red hot shallow water tarpon fly fishing throughout South Florida. Much higher than normal winter water temperatures are bringing great numbers of silver kings out of the deep and into the sightfishing arenas. These winter poons are large and willing. Finding them is knowledge and timing. Catching an unforgettable world record is all about talent in the front and back of the boat and pouncing on opportunity.
Recently, Heidi and Paul Nute joined Capt. Tim Mahaffey for their first tarpon outing of the year. After a slow start in the morning, they began finding fish and switching off turns after every 3 shots. They had several solid eats, jumped 5 and Paul broke off a giant. Using 12 pound tippet, Heidi now had the honors and Tim immediately spotted a massive figure, laid up and finned out in barely 3 feet of water. The right-facing silhouette heard the purple and black toad pattern enter the dirty water. The broad shape lined up and followed the undulating maribou . Heidi twitched the bug enticingly and the cavernous bucket opened! The giant shiny missile left the water three times in high, greyhounding leaps. Tim reflexively shouted, “That’s the one!”.
Mahaffey wisely stayed quietly on the pole for nearly five minutes. They were in a productive area of Everglades National Park where other fish were peacefully laying around. If the fly came out, they would still be very much in the game with the motor off. The fly stayed in, and the Yamaha on the 17 Mirage was cranked up in pursuit. After 45 minutes, the fish stopped and displayed its very first signs of fatigue.
Heidi had been to this point and further, during her 3 1/2 year quest to best the 12 pound tippet Women’s Flyrod Record 74 pound 4 ouncer held by multi-record holder Dotty Ballantyne. Ten of the “right” fish had eaten the fly in the past and several somehow escaped. On four of these occasions, Nute had record or near-record tarpon subdued at boatside, but decided not to officially weigh them, waiting instead to trounce the 74 pounder and establish a mark that would deter other “close” fish from being unnecessarily entered.
Now, standing on the bow facing the daunting task of sticking an obvious world record fish, Mahaffey was fired up and adrenalized. The important instrument in his hand was the folding-barb kill gaff that Paul and Heidi had bought at auction from Billy Pate’s collection of historic memorabilia. This very hook had boated all of Pate’s tarpon and marlin records.
Literally gripping that reverence for angling history, Tim waited for the exact angle to subdue the fish. Finally, after 16 jumps and 65 grueling minutes, the great tarpon laid up sideways and Tim slammed the perfect hit and held him helpless against the gunwale. Heidi was careful to remain slack if the fish fell off the hook and the fight continued, and also to preserve the integrity of the leader. A broken class tippet will disqualify a record under IGFA rules. After Tim and Paul skidded the whopper into the skiff, they both guessed him at easily over 130, and he “taped” at 145.
The tree limb-mounted official electronic scale at Worldwide Sportsman in Islamorada awaited their arrival, set up because of a call on the way in. The congregation in attendance gasped as the tail of the tarpon was still on the ground after hoisting. He was simply too long to hang in the air! The staff summoned a forklift for higher mounting which worked. The beast weighed 152.8 pounds and handily destroyed the existing record. (And also coined a new term for any fish too big for the tree: “forklifters”).
Ms. Nute used a Hardy 11 weight stick, a floating tan line, 50 pound fluorocarbon shock leader and a custom made Tom Kapusta reel.
As with any record catch of this magnitude, there was no randomness and very little luck. Heidi (and Paul) went through Sandy Moret’s school of flyfishing in 2006 and both made the decision to excel. Paul has already won the Islamorada Fall Fly Bonefish Tournament twice with Capt. Bou Bosso. Heidi was victorious in the Islamorada Ladie’s Tarpon Fly Tournament in back to back years in 2012 and 2013. In fact the Kapusta reel she used to beat the record was a Grand Champion award from the 2012 win! She has also won the Ladie’s Fall Fly, a bonefish, tarpon, permit, redfish and snook event, all with Capt. Rob Fordyce.
And it didn’t hurt to have Tim Mahaffey in the stern, smoothly making the transition from angler to captain. Mahaffey’s numerous and impressive tournament wins are highlighted by: Redbone Superfly Series Grand Champion, Redbone Celebrity Series Grand Champion, and the first and only angler to have won both the Spring and Fall Bonefish Fly Tournaments, and all three of the Tarpon Fly majors, the Hawley, Gold Cup and Golden Fly.
Ultimately, Heidi Nute’s 12 pound tippet slightly overtested. It was moved into the 16 pound division, where it bumped out Diana Rudolph’s 135 pound 5 ouncer. Far from sad, Heidi now owns the Largest Women’s Fly caught tarpon on the books. She plans to continue chasing the 12 pound record.
– by Capt. Mark Krowka