Wesley Locke on Fly Fishing for Tarpon and Honoring the Old Traditions
BY RACHEL CAVANAUGH
Q: When did you know you wanted to pursue fishing more than just as a hobby?
Wesley Locke: My last year of college, I decided to try to get a job in the fishing industry because it was the only topic I could talk about without getting tired of. The summer I graduated, I came home and I bugged my dad every single day of tarpon season to take me out with him. That entire summer, I jumped on the front and back end of his charters. We’d wake up at 5:00am, go down to the dock, fish for a few hours, and come back. He’d drop me off and go pick up his real clients while I went to work at the chamber of commerce. Then when they got done at the end of the day, I’d get back on the boat and we’d go back out. That summer was when I consciously made the decision to try and go for this. I wanted to see if I had what it takes.
Q: Did your dad encourage you along in this process?
Wesley Locke: My dad never pushed me and he never will. He might push me off the boat [laughs] but he never pushed me to fish. I pestered the hell out of him. I was like, “Please, please, please, please.” And I had so much fun that summer. And for catching zero fish in one summer, I learned so much. I started fishing with him in May and I didn’t catch a fish until September—and it was a red fish. I went years more without catching a tarpon. But I learned a lot. That's where I really got the fundamentals for how to cast, how to control the line. I got my foundation, which my entire fishing skill set has been built on. I caught zero fish, but I needed time on the water to really analyze the basics and the fundamentals of casting and sight fishing—speed-to-fish and accuracy and all of the things that you have to really train. If you have the goals that I have, it's not just fun, it's training.
Q: Aside from casting fundamentals, what else did you learn that summer?
Wesley Locke: I learned just how much rejection I was going to put up with in tarpon fishing. I casted that rod more times at nothing and just stared at the water. But I think I will always look back on that summer as what changed my drive and my love for wanting to do this. Plus, I got to spend so many awesome hours with my dad, which was very cool. That was when I realized I was going to be serious about it.
Wesley Locke: I started running the traditional drift fishing live-bait tarpon tournaments in Boca Grande through the chamber of commerce and I got to see that side of the fishing world. My eyes were opened up to exactly how big the fishing world was as I started attending industry expos. Growing up in a tarpon-obsessed household, I had only ever considered seriously pursuing tarpon. I went into that first ICast Expo and realized just how green I was. All of these different moving parts of the fishing world all feel the way about their preferred species as I do to tarpon.
Q: Tell us about competing in your first Ladies Fly Tarpon Tournament in 2019.
Wesley Locke: It was so cool walking into the kickoff because I'd heard about all of these guides and places throughout my whole childhood. And then all of a sudden, I’m there, but I am there in my own right. It was just a very cool moment for me. Going into the tournament, I knew I was either going to be like “this isn’t for me” or “this is something I really want to pursue.” Because at that point I didn't know if I was doing it for my dad or if I was doing it for me. And that tournament was the deciding factor.
Wesley Locke: When I was approached about being an ambassador I was surprised because I don’t really have a big social media presence, but I was told they weren’t looking for that. I was told that they wanted people that really live the lifestyle, that live, eat, and breathe fishing. I said, “Listen, I will win these tournaments one day. I might be 60 and I might have to figure out how to steal money to do it, but I will do this. With or without a sponsor.” It ended up working out and I was just so excited because I didn't know that you could be sponsored to fish. I mean, I knew you could be sponsored, but not for the type of fishing that I wanted to do. It's an expensive hobby and I didn't know how I was going to do it. I just knew that I was going to figure it out.
Q: Now that you’re an official ambassador, what are you most excited about?
Wesley Locke: One of the things that excites me most is getting to bring attention to my small niche of the fishing world [Florida’s tarpon fly fishing tournament circuit and fishing specifically with IGFA Class tippet of 16 pounds or lower]. It's the hardest, most challenging style of fly fishing and it requires a lot of skill on both the guide’s part and the angler’s part. This community is the epitome of the best fly fishermen in the world, in my opinion. This small niche represents the old-school traditional saltwater fly fishing world and the people that are trying to carry their ways forward. Those are the people that matter to me. I care about what those 100 or 200 people think more than the billions of other people in the world. It’s the way that I was raised with my dad—prove yourself to this little niche of people and you're worth something.
Wesley Locke: They were the originals that started it. They were the creators and innovators of the saltwater fly fishing sport. I was just born with that respect ingrained in me. I don’t know if my dad was talking to my mom's tummy, telling me, like, “Little girl, this is what you're going to care about one day.” But I grew up hearing about these legends from the old record days and the Homosassa days and the Steve Huff days. I met Steve Huff one time and I thought I was going to crumble under the table. I was so excited. And the crazy thing is that a lot of people my age don't even know who that is. And I think about that sometimes. I wish that more people my age had that exposure and chose to be mindful of the Legends that came before them. These people are the ones that did all of the hard work to figure out the sport. And now I’m just trying to absorb their knowledge and carry it forward respectfully.
Q: What type of knowledge are you hoping to carry forward?
Wesley Locke: I think a lot of the traditions of the old guard are slipping away with the evolution of technology and a need for instant gratification—how the fish move in and out of the bays on the certain tides, where they're going to hold on an island or bank, and how their feeding behaviors dictate their travel. That's just studying and watching and learning patterns of the fish. It’s a study of the species, of their behavior, and then making sure that you’re squared away so you can get set up for the perfect shot. It's rarely perfect, but there's so much to it. Part of why I respect these pioneers that started the sport so much is because they all just figured it out. They trial and error-ed it and figured out the knots, figured out the techniques. How to find these fish without watching someone do it on social media. So I’m excited to be able to represent these people that I hold in such high regard and I hope I do them any kind of justice.
Q: What draws you to tarpon fishing specifically instead of other types of fish?
Wesley Locke: I was totally brainwashed as a child so that's not really a fair question. [Laughs] No, but in Boca Grande, the tarpons are our mascot. We’re the tarpon capital of the world. You can't walk five yards without seeing a tarpon sculpture, a tarpon painting, a tarpon something. So it was just this ever-present figure in my life from the time I was three years old. Or even in the womb, I guess. It was always this really important fish that drove the local community and it was my dad's obsession.
Q: What is it about tarpon that people find so intriguing?
Wesley Locke: They are these massive fish that have a hypnotizing quality. It’s ruined the lives of many men—and now women. It’s this epic game fish, this majestic dinosaur creature that's been around forever. Did you know that if you look at the Sistine Chapel—the rendering of Jonah and the Whale—the “whale” is actually a tarpon?
Wesley Locke: This crazy thing washes over my body when I see a tarpon. It is so weird. There is a literal shutdown of my system. My body temperature changes if I know there's a tarpon around. It's like an intense focus. It's very obsessive. I don't really know how to talk about it, but it's like a tweak in your system. Your whole body is trying to prepare for that shot. Even if it's across the bay, all of a sudden your brain changes. The first time I felt that shift in my molecules was when I realized that fishing wasn't just for my dad anymore, that it really was something that I loved.
Wesley Locke: You're not going to get that fish to the boat by getting him in there with your biceps. You will fail. That’s the common mistake. You try to muscle it, like “I'm going to beat this fish,” because you have all of that energy in the beginning. Then you use all of your stamina and your muscles are noodles the rest of the time. It's a very physically demanding sport. You have to train your body like an athlete to do this stuff. You have to have strength throughout your entire body. There's no point muscling a fish when it's green and hot. If it's running, you don’t use your biceps, you would physically fall apart.
Q: So what is the proper technique?
Wesley Locke: There are different techniques on how to pull on fish. You can tell the difference in the pressure you can put on it by the way that you're using your tool. For me, I use my legs a lot to get leverage on the fish and pull back. You're using your back, you're using your arms, your legs. You're using everything. But you try not to fight the fish while it’s running and you need to know when to put in the effort and when you're just wasting your energy. My dad's been preaching that to me for as long as I've been fishing. He’s always said that there's no reason why being a woman would ever give me a disadvantage in these tournaments or in tarpon fishing because it's not just strength. It's knowing how to control these fish. And when you learn that, you'll put the tarpon in your guide’s hands every time.
Q: What would you recommend for people who are just getting into saltwater fishing?
Wesley Locke: For people that are new to fly fishing, especially saltwater, I would not recommend starting on tarpon. There's a huge difference in species and I think there are better species to cut your teeth on for just learning the fundamentals. If you're just getting into it, snook and redfish are really fun to start and it can get you more comfortable with your casting because it's not all sight fishing. Then you can start working up to more challenging species and keep going from there. What's so cool about this sport is you can start there and you will continue learning. And if you really love it, the opportunities and the species and the places you can travel are just endless.
Q: What was the most challenging fish you ever caught?
Wesley Locke: It was the tarpon I caught when we were recording Columbia’s “Why I Fish” video That fish had it out for me. Woo, she did not like me. And she was not giving up—there was no quit in that fish. It was a very big teaching moment for me because it was extremely difficult. I think everybody has a fish that kind of breaks them a little bit, but not to the point where they want to give up. That was that fish for me.
Q: What was going through your mind while you were fighting that fish?
Wesley Locke: I knew I couldn't break off the fish and I was working really hard to land because of the whole photo shoot thing. And I knew what my dad had taught me about fighting technique—but even knowing the information in my head, I had a hard time applying it in real time to that fight. I thought, “There has to be a way to help manipulate this fish to ease this process or else these people would not go and land three to five of them in a day. Because you couldn't. If you tried to muscle those fish, you would physically fall apart. So you have to have that fish that kicks your ass to realize, “All right, what do I have to do to learn the technique to be able to not kill myself for these fish?”
Q: What kind of role has your dad played in your career?
Wesley Locke: Obviously he's one of the top reasons why I fish. It's always what we talked about. Tarpon was like the other brother that was always at the dinner table with us. He created a life doing the thing that he was most passionate about to provide for the people he loved. As he started training me, it became this goal and journey and dream that we have together and that we can share. We can get out there and really explore and accomplish these goals together. It's such a cool bond. The bond with him and the journey together is why I didn't stray away from it. I just fell more in love with it and was more dedicated to these mountain-high goals.
Wesley Locke: That summer with my dad, every dawn patrol ride out in the morning he would talk to me about how important the conservation fight is and what we need to do to contribute, to make it better. He would explain how we always need to come back to conservation, how we always need to be making sure we take care of our resources. Because if I want to be fishing with my grandkids one day, there needs to be something to fish for. The summer of 2018, I watched my entire town be devastated by red tide. This is normally a natural-occurring algae bloom but it was enhanced that year by the outflow of nutrients out of the Caloosahatchee River after the Lake Okeechobee discharge a week prior. It was one of the strongest, longest, most intense strains we'd ever had. The experience lit a fire that got me more involved with conservation and that community.
Q: Where do you see your career going next?
Wesley Locke: Right now, I'm in the very baby green stages of my fishing career. It truly is such a lifelong learning experience and journey. The more fish I catch and the more times I'm out on the water, the more I feel I have it cut out for me. But as far as where I am right now, I want to learn as much as possible from every species, location, guide, angler that I can. I’m going to be fishing in the Spring Backcountry Fly Tournament in February, the HLM Tarpon Cup Tournament in April, and the Ladies Fly Tarpon Tournament in June. For the first time, I’ll be competing against my dad in the Ladies Fly. He’ll be guiding my mentor, Betsy Bullard, and I am so stoked to leave the marina with them in the morning.
Q: Do you have any advice for newer anglers?
Wesley Locke: When I first got invited to do this interview, they asked for some pro tips and I was like, good God, I am not a pro. But if I did have a pro tip, it would be to surround yourself with people that are more pro than you. Where I'm at right now, I'm just trying to absorb as much advice, knowledge, training, and experience as possible. Because the more people you're around—especially people that are way better than you—the more you will learn from them. I find that if you go into it with that attitude of being hungry to learn, there are so many incredibly amazing, talented people that would love to pass on their knowledge. But you want to present as humbly as possible. I know that I am a low man on the totem pole and that’s fine with me. I know how much work I'm willing to put in to reach the goals that I have.