ST. PETERSBURG — Sitting at breakfast, hoping the weather would clear so we could go fishing, fly rod legend Stu Apte talked about his life on the water.
"Memorable fish?" he said, repeating a reporter's question. "Why, I have caught so many over the years …"
Apte wasn't bragging.
At this particular tournament, where the format pairs celebrities with the Tampa Bay area's top fishing guides, there was no shortage of egos. Yet Apte, the event's biggest name as far as fishing was concerned, moved humbly around the tent like a 10-year-old looking for autographs.
"Well, if I really thought about it," he said, scratching his chin. "There was that sailfish …"
I had first heard the story more than a decade ago. It was 1995 and Apte was in the bay area giving a speech to the Tampa Bay Fly Fishing Club.
Apte had several dozen world records to his credit, but there were two that stood out in my mind: a 58-pound dolphin caught in 1964 and a 136-pound Pacific sailfish caught in 1965, both on 12-pound tippets.
The two marks have yet to be surpassed and are considered the longest standing fly records in the International Game Fish Association's book of world records.
I must admit that, at first, I was skeptical of Apte's sailfish. I had never heard of anybody catching a billfish on a fly rod before, but nobody else had either, until Apte showed them how to do it.
But the story of that fish, and many others, is told in a new book called Of Wind and Tides. The 496-page autobiography recounts Apte's friendships and fishing trips with other legendary anglers, including baseball great Ted Williams.
In 2005, Apte joined the ranks of Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey in the IGFA's Hall of Fame.
"For 50 years Apte fished with Ted Williams," proclaimed the Hall program brochure. "Ted taught him how to pole a boat and called him 'bush' because he considered Apte's skills 'bush league' compared to his own. When Williams finally started calling him 'Stu,' Apte knew he had made it."
But Apte had proved himself time and time again before that.
Growing up in Miami, Apte was just 12 years old when he landed his first tarpon. At military school and later at the University of Miami, Apte devoted his time to studies, boxing and fishing.
During the Korean War, Apte flew fighter planes like his friend, the Red Sox's Williams. After the war, he worked as a pilot for Pan Am, which gave him the opportunity to fish all around the world.
During his down time, he tried his hand at guiding out of Little Torch Key in the Florida Keys. When the airline laid him off, he ran a charter boat full time. Word of his tarpon-catching flies quickly spread, and in 1991, one of his signature creations was featured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp.
In 1967, Apte made history again when he became the first person to catch a tarpon over 150 pounds on a fly. In 1982, Apte actually set two tarpon records in one day, one in the morning and one after lunch.
In 1995, I asked Apte to share the secret to fly-fishing, half-thinking he would pitch some fancy rod or reel company that was sponsoring him.
"You don't need to spend a lot of money to catch fish on a fly rod," he said. "That's not it."
Then what does it take?
"Speed and accuracy," he said. "That's it."
And plenty of practice, he added.
Before Apte ever hit the water, he worked on his casting skills in the backyard of his parents' home in Miami. Once he figured out how to get the line to do what he wanted, he tried his luck with real fish.
"I started off fishing for anything I could catch plenty of," he said, mentioning ladyfish. "But before too long I was catching snook, jacks, you name it."