Mom's Worry

Stu Apte is a legendary angler, guide, and fly designer—and a hell of a nice guy. When the master speaks about tarpon and tarpon flies, we should all listen.
by Don Reed



It was a beautiful day early in the spring of 1954. Flying high at 20,000 feet, the young navy fighter pilot looked out of the canopy of his F9F-5 Panther jet and saw his wingman flying straight and level; beyond the other wing he saw the Atlantic Ocean fading to the horizon. Suddenly, alarms went off, and as he looked at his instrument panel, he saw a deadly sight: fire in the plenum chamber. He had only seconds to react and perform his escape measures. He’d trained for this procedure, hoping never to have to use it. But he wasn’t so lucky. He reached to arm the 30-millimeter cannon shell beneath his ejection seat, activated his emergency oxygen, blew the canopy, and punched out just as the jet exploded into a violent fireball.
     His last thought was hoping the canopy would be gone and out of the way before he ejected; the next thing he knew, however, he was waking in a hospital bed. As soon as he was able, he called his dad. At the end of the conversation, his father said, “Son, you sure are your mom’s worry.”
     That navy pilot was Ensign Stuart C. Apte, better known to his many friends and a generation of tarpon fly fishermen as Stu. You’ve probably come across the famous fly he created, known simply as the Stu Apte Tarpon Fly. Since that fateful day as a young pilot, Stu’s radio handle has been “Mom’s Worry,” and everyone who fishes the waters around his home in Islamorada, Florida, knows his boat, Mom’s Worry.
     To many of us, fishing is a religion; to Stu Apte, it is his life. Granted, he spent 38 years flying for the navy and Pan American Airways, but he also used flying as a tool to improve his fishing. Much of the time he spent with Pan Am was punctuated with layoffs that he filled with guiding and fishing, mostly out of Little Torch Key, Florida. And flying became a way to locate fish, especially tarpon, over a much larger area.
 
Stu Apte Tarpon Fly

Hook: 254SS Wright and McGill (or your favorite heavy-duty saltwater hook), sizes 1/0 to 4/0.
Thread: Danville Flat Waxed, size A (210 denier), fluorescent orange.
Tail (sometimes called the wing): Orange and yellow saddle or neck hackles. All the feathers should be the same length.
Collar: Orange and yellow webbed hackles.

 

Apte on Apte
I had the good fortune to spend some time with Stu at his lovely home in Islamorada. Over the course of two meetings, we talked about flies, fly tying, and fishing for tarpon. Stu is very affable and willing share what he has learned during the course of several decades designing flies and casting to world-record tarpon. He’s the master, and when he speaks, we should all listen. I was especially eager to learn how Stu started tying flies.
     “I grew up in Miami and caught my first tarpon when I was twelve years old,” Stu said near the beginning of our first interview. “By sixteen, I had learned to tie flies, and I started tying for the local tackle stores in the late 1940s. The more I tied, the better I got at it. I spent most of my time back then fishing the local waters and the Keys when I could get there.”
  
     Stu, you said you got out of the navy in December of 1955 and bought a new boat you named Mom’s Worry, right?
     “That’s right, I told you the story of how I came by that handle. You know, that’s still my radio call sign. People around here know the boat and the call sign.”

     Where were you fishing when you got out of the navy?
     “In January 1956, I took my new skiff down to the Lower Keys where I had been fishing for years. I rented a small cubicle at an old place called Popeye’s, on Conch Key. It was cheap and you could tie your boat up right outside. Sometimes a friend came down fishing with me, but the rest of the time I fished the backcountry by myself. Hardly anyone else fished that part of the Keys, so I had it to myself.”

     You said you flew for Pan Am for 34 years. How did that fit into the picture?
     “Somehow all the airlines knew when navy pilots were getting out of the service, and they all courted us to fly for them. Fishing was my life and I didn’t want to leave South Florida. Eastern Airlines was based in Miami, so I figured that was my best choice. I took their physical and completed all the paperwork and got to the last step, which was just a formality, interviewing with their chief pilot. So, I went to see him. He was sitting at this great long table, and he goes into this routine about how lucky I was to be chosen to fly for them, and he said a couple of other things that really hit me the wrong way. In those years I was a pretty feisty young ex–fighter pilot, so I simply tore the contract in half, slid it across the table to him, and walked out the door and out of the building. I ran into a couple of my buddies from the navy, and they were going on about what a great deal they had gotten from Pan Am; they were guaranteed to be in Miami for at least a year, and I should give it a try. That was when I went down to Popeye’s. I spent a full month down there before deciding to take my friends’ advice. It turned out well. I could take a leave of absence almost whenever
     I wanted, and between that and the layoffs that occurred, I was able to build a great guiding business and still fly.”

Bigger Isn’t Always Better
Big fish, big fly, right? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The “big fish, big fly” philosophy for tarpon flies prevailed until the late 1950s. Flies were tied full and heavy to imitate large baitfish. Those patterns were tied with the feathers near the hook eyes, and fouling and refusals were common problems.
     “Most of the fly fishing in the Keys in those days was done out of Islamorada, and those guides dictated what flies were fished,” Stu said as we began talking about fly design. “The water in the backcountry and even oceanside Islamorada was murkier and not nearly so pristine as down around Little Torch. The guides felt that you had to tie large flies, and the way they tied them made them hard to fish. They would tie the feathers in just behind the eye of the hook and extend five or six inches. Even on size 5/0 or 6/0 hooks, they would foul easily and you could not cast them very far.”
     Stu studied his quarry with a scientific eye, and after years of astute observation and some trial and error, he found that tying the feathers on at the hook bend reduced fouling, and if he flared the feathers outward, the fouling problem was almost eliminated. Stu created a very simple fly with the tail tied at the hook bend and a collar of complementing hackles laid back with most of the shank exposed or covered with a tapered layer of thread. Stu found that this fly was easy to cast, it rarely fouled, and best of all, the fish ate it like popcorn. The pattern evolved over time; the first flies were about four to five inches long, and he eventually tied smaller, three- to four-inch-long flies. Contrary to the “big fish, big fly” theory, Stu discovered that smaller patterns actually work better. The power of observation and counterintuitive design gave birth to the first Keys-style
tarpon flies, and in 1991, the U.S. Postal Service included the classic orange-and-yellow Stu Apte Tarpon Fly in a series of stamps commemorating fishing flies.
     “No one thought you could catch giant tarpon on flies, but I knew you could,” Stu said as he reflected on the evolution of his patterns. “I’ve always been observant, and I like to think I have an analytical mind. I studied tarpon behavior and saw the flaws in the existing patterns. Over time I started using smaller and smaller flies with better success. It was when I decided to move the tie-in point of the feathers to the bend of the hook that I really hit it. I started tying my flies on size 4/0 hooks, and they were about four inches long and about half the size of the Islamorada flies. My hookup and landing rates went up dramatically.
     “My friend, Joe Brooks, caught a tarpon on Mom’s Worry that weighed 148 pounds, which was a record that stood for seven years. I beat his record in 1967 with the first fish that weighed more than 150 pounds. As I continued to work on the flies, they got smaller and smaller until now I am fishing size 1/0 hooks. About three years ago, I landed the largest tarpon I have ever caught. The fish was over eight feet long and must have weighed more than 180 pounds. I hooked it on a size 1/0 hook using twelve-pound-test tippet, and landed it in twenty-six minutes. I took a few pictures and released the fish.”

Kicking Butt
As often happens in these sorts of situations, “word got out” about Stu’s ability at catching large tarpon. His reputation grew to the point that when ABC’s Wide World of Sports decided to film a segment featuring tarpon fishing, they asked Stu to be one of the guides. This was when Stu met his angling hero, the legendary Keys guide, Jimmy Albright.
     “In 1961, ABC’s Wide World of Sports put on a fly-rod tournament between Joe Brooks, who was the angling editor of Outdoor Life magazine and fishing expert for ABC Sports, and A. J. McClane, the angling editor of Field & Stream magazine. By the flip of a coin, I became Joe’s guide and Jimmy drew Al McClane. We were all together at this big table at Little Torch Tavern having a french-fried lobster tail dinner: Joe, Al, Roone Arledge, Curt Gowdy, Jimmy, and myself. I was next to Jimmy, who was seated at the head of the table. Sitting next to Jimmy was one of the greatest thrills of my life, and I told him so—you know, just honestly. I don’t know what he thought I meant, but he really went off on me, and not in a nice way. I was a competitive soul, so this incident really gave me incentive to kick their butts in the tournament, and boy did we! We won the competition going away.”

     Did that change your opinion of Jimmy as your hero?
     “No, it didn’t. The Keys guides, and especially the Isla-morada guides are, in my opinion, some of the best guides anywhere. Those guides did not know me, and so they all felt that I was just a cocky airline pilot who fancied myself a guide. They had no idea what I knew or what made me the guide I was.
“A good example was the Metropolitan Miami Fishing Tournament. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a big deal. I always fished with one of my favorite clients, Ray Donesberger. We consistently won the tarpon fly division. The Islamorada guides said we had to be cheating. ‘This guy is just an airline pilot. He doesn’t know anything about fishing.’ They made up a bunch of stories, and it just made me more competitive.”

     What gave you your edge?
     “I worked harder, I had something to prove, and I had better flies. In those days, we poled the boat from the bow, and it was considered poor style to motor after a fish. I became known as the ‘bionic poler.’ We used a maximum of twelve-pound-test tippet, so if you were going to boat a fish, you had to chase it. I was willing to pole harder than the other guys.”

     Poling a skiff from the bow had to be hard work! Tell me how you fished the flies and how they gave you an edge.
     “Getting the fish to eat my smaller flies was no problem. It was the equipment we had that limited things. The biggest rods we had then were willowy ten-weight fiberglass rods. Rods like that did not give you much mechanical advantage over the fish, so we’d just raise the rod tip and try to force the fish or wear him down.
“I started using a much different tactic. I would point the rod tip down and to the side of the fish; I would sometimes even push the rod two feet under the water. If the fish was pulling one way, I would pull the opposite way and put the butt of the rod to work. If I could get close enough, I would pull toward the fish’s tail, causing it to panic and use up more energy. You had to be aware when the fish was going to surge and be ready for it. One day, I turned to my buddy on the boat and said, ‘You just have to be down and dirty with these fish.’ The phrase took.
     “And we used another practice when the fish came out of the water. Tarpon are a primitive fish and can breathe air. They’re known for their aerial acrobatics. During these leaps, you had to be careful or the fish would throw the fly or break the leader.
     I would tell my clients, ‘When the silver king shows his face, bow to the king.’ By thrusting the rod tip toward the fish, you would give enough slack to keep tension
on the fly, but not enough to break him off.”

     Where do you use your feather-wing flies?
     “I made the flies in many more colors than the orange-and-yellow pattern that the artist picked up for the stamp. I use that particular fly during the palolo worm hatch. It was amazingly effective around the Bahia Honda Bridge; the fish would just garbage the fly. I also broke the world record for tarpon twice in the same day with that fly.
     “I use the yellow-and-white version over a sand bottom early in the day. Black-and-orange works well in stained water or late in the day. It doesn’t make much sense, but the more we tie these flies, the smaller they get. We’re now tying them on size 1/0 Owner Aki hooks.”
    
     Have the materials for tying the Apte Tarpon Fly changed much over the years?
     “Other than the new synthetics, not much. For the most part we still use neck and saddle hackles. It seems that neck hackles, whether used for the splayed tails or the collars, create a better profile. Neck hackles move more water and cause more noise, getting the attention of the fish. A lot of tiers like to use the
thin stiletto-style feathers, but I always liked the broader feathers.”
    

     After all the records, all the notoriety, all travel to the ends of the earth, what’s next for you?
     “Well, if the weather is good and the wind is right, I think I’ll just go fishing.”

Stu Apte continues fishing the Florida Keys; they’re his home waters. At the time of his induction into the International Game Fishing Association Hall of Fame in 2005, he had set 44 light-tackle and fly-fishing world records. The Stu Apte Tarpon Fly and its progeny have accounted for more world records than possibly any other fly. That’s a terrific tribute to a truly wonderful man.


Don Reed, who lives in Florida, is a great fly tier in his own right. Check out www.saltwaterflytyers.com to see his flies, the materials he sells, and much more. This is Don’s first contribution to our magazine, and we’re looking forward to many more.
 
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