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A fumble on the flats

8/12/2003

During the 25-year Sunday afternoon run of "The American Sportsman" on ABC, I played host to just about every star athlete and actor of the times. Many humorous stories emerged from our trips around the world, most of them occurring off-camera. One that did make the air involved Terry Bradshaw, who quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl victories.

The year was 1973. The place was the Florida Keys. The intent: giant tarpon caught on a fly.

We put out of Key West in two flats skiffs, shallow draft affairs, 14 feet long. One carried two cameramen, a soundman and an assistant — all under the direction of the best outdoor photographer I ever knew, Bruce Buckley. Standing 6-2 and weighing a solid 220 in his bib overalls, this no-nonsense, countrified cinematic genius never took the 19-pound, hand-held Éclair camera off his shoulder. As a result, he seldom missed the action, recording on film some of the most exciting fishing and hunting scenes in the history of the series.

This day was no exception. Bradshaw and I shared the other skiff with Bob Montgomery — one of the best guides in the Keys. He and Bradshaw became brothers the instant they shook hands upon our arrival from Miami the previous afternoon. This was fortunate because Terry would have to learn the rudiments of fly-casting if he was going to catch a tarpon.

That evening, with Montgomery coaching him, the former Louisiana Tech All-American stood at the water's edge, and before the sun dropped into the Gulf of Mexico he was throwing a pretty tight line. Athletes like Terry, especially those who throw or catch a ball, possess eye-hand skills unimaginable to ordinary mortals.

Anyway, so now it's the next morning and we're beating along at 40 miles per hour, with Montgomery finding the deeper seams across the vast, undulating tabletop of coral and sand. Bradshaw, meanwhile, has fully returned to his childhood. He's shouting his enthusiasm for the day, predicting like Ali how he is going to slay the dragon, his voice carrying above the engine's whine. Montgomery, of course, has joined him with full pre-battle verve, and while the two trade war stories at the 11th octave, Buckley translates their animation onto film. I, good host that I am, remain calm — tossing an occasional line or two into the sonic boom.

After maybe half an hour, Montgomery cuts the engines and the skiff glides with a hiss onto the upwind tail of a mile-long flat that shimmers white and Coke-bottle green under the mid-morning sun. Montgomery climbs onto the poling platform and begins to propel us down the edge of the flat with a push pole. Blessed silence reigns, except for the click-clack of water on the hull and the squeak of the fiberglass pole running through Bob's calloused palms. With Polaroids to cut the glare, he scans the water 200 feet ahead. The air is salt-scented and soft, in the 70s.

According to plan, Bradshaw will get first shot. He stands on the casting platform in the bow, holding the rod in his right hand, and the fly pressed between his left index finger and thumb. Coiled neatly at his feet is about 10 feet of flyline. He looks like he has done this a thousand times, though he hasn't — and that's what concerns me. It is one thing to know what to do; it's something else to do it under the tension that develops when the tarpon arrives, ghostlike.

Usually the window of opportunity is 10 seconds or less. In that time, Terry would have to pick up the moving form, throw his fly in the water, make a good back cast and send it into the water a few feet ahead of the tarpon's head, then "swim" the streamer-fly in short, fast strips to make it appear life-like. It was a lot to ask of him, even though he has operated with calm under greater pressure countless times on the gridiron.

I looked at Buckley, seated next to me. Holding his camera in his lap, he smiled and nodded, as if to say: "I know, I know."

Then, the moment of truth arrives. Montgomery spots tarpon bearing down on the boat.

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