The True Story of How Ken Midyette Got Naked and Caught a Tarpon.
Ken Midyette loves to fish. His love of fishing brought him back to Oriental after a career in places like Charlotte, Hickory, and Raleigh, all too long a drive from the local creeks and coves, currents and bottoms that he knows like the back of his hand. So, when he retired, Ken came home to a village that lists half-a-dozen Midyettes in the phone book, where Midyette Street parallels the main drag, and resident “Ken Junior” (aka “Turtle”) is famous for his rare technique of paddling a canoe in and around the river and creeks while standing up.
You might think that the Midyette family has character, and you’d be right. But you don’t know the whole story. Ken “Senior” was an all-American, a gifted athlete. He brought that same competive spirit and persistence to fishing. That’s why it’s so hard to beleive that he fished for tarpon for 10 years and never caught one, not until the day he got naked, that is. Therein lies this tale!
Ken loves boats. Like many Oriental residents, he has more than one. He’s quick to admit, like many Oriental residents, that he probably has too many boats. But each boat serves a different purpose, a different fishing objective. To name just a few: he’s got a pontoon boat, Ms. Midge, for recreational fishing with friends; a sit-on-top Hobie kayak for casting light tackle on still waters; and the 23-foot cuddy cabin, Wee Chablis, for serious fishing in the sound and on the river.
Ken grew up in Oriental, messing in and around the water before he could walk. It was a wonderful childhood where he fished and swam, caught crabs and minnows, gigged for flounder, canoed, rafted, and motor-boated. When he was growing up, an older brother and his friends rigged some planks to an abandoned duck blind 500 yards out in the river off Oriental’s South Avenue waterfront. The blind was in water too deep for Ken, being one of the younger, smaller guys in the group, to get to without swimming to it. He loved being out there, even if it took a lot of swimming back and forth. When the water was warm enough, that’s where you’d always find him.
Ken learned to dive off that duck blind. He spent hours alone, diving and diving, probably kissed the sandy bottom more often than he did his best girl. He had never seen a swimming pool until he went off to college at East Carolina University. But, through all his years on the Neuse, Ken had learned to dive so well that when he did go away to school, he immediately made the swimming/diving team at East Carolina University and became a five-time all-American and a three-time NAIA national champion, a record that earned him a place in ECU’s Sports Hall of Fame.
So, Ken Midyette brings his competitive spirit and athletic credentials to everything he does, especially fishing. Whether it’s trout, drum, skate, flounder, or mackerel, Ken can usually tell what’s on his line, how big it is, what it’s likely to do next, and how much resistance it has left. He can rest his fingers lightly on the line and give you the fish’s pulse rate and stress level, like a doctor with a stethoscope. Fishing is his passion. But, not having caught a tarpon was a big deal to Ken.
Oh, there were chances. An especially memorable one was when his friend Bruce came down from Charlotte with twelve-year-old Rob and nine-year-old Brooke for a weekend. Ken’s glass-topped table in the living room had fishing pictures under the glass, including a picture of Ken and friends with a big Red Drum. That’s the one Brooke wanted: “Can we catch this fish, Mr. Midge, please, please!” There was no resisting that plea. They were hardly on the river in Ms. Midge with four lines out, light 15lb tackle, when Rob had a bite. The men made sure he set the hook and helped him work the rod around the awning poles to the front of the boat. Rob worked the fish; at least they were pretty sure it was a fish. It ran up and down the river, never once showing itself. When Rob got tired, Brooke took over. They gave her an old shoe to set the rod in, so she could hold it against her tee-shirt without it hurting. The kids worked the line for more than an hour, their father growing more and more excited, shouting encouragement. Ken managed Ms Midge, trying to keep the boat positioned for best advantage, keeping the line clear, watching river traffic, and wondering what in the world they might have on the hook.
The fish didn’t show itself. Ken thought maybe it’s a big skate. The kids ran out of juice and Bruce took over, his exclamations more and more excited as he worked the line: “Wow! Gee! You should feel this! I don’t believe this! Ken, you won’t believe it! Ken, you gotta feel this thing”! Ken was reluctant to give up his place at the outboard; the engine was like an old truck that wanted to either lurch fast or die on you. But Bruce was tired and there was less than an hour of daylight left. Rob took the helm while Ken and Bruce swapped places. Ken took the rod and immediately felt the strum-strum-strum of some huge tail rhythmically stroking the line. A beast in no particular hurry, he thought, as it moved with a confident motion suggesting “it’s only a matter of time before I say goodbye to you”. “What in the world”, Ken wondered, “maybe it’s a Bull Shark”.
Whatever it was, it suddenly decided to make a run for it. In a flash, Ken was all out of line, shouting for Bruce to turn Ms. Midge to chase it. Bruce gunned the outboard nearly dumping both Ken and Brooke overboard. The thing on the line felt the sudden slack and took advantage. Up, up, up. Out of the water a full six feet came a prehistoric monster that must have weighed at least 150 pounds. Not a Red Drum, not a Bull Shark, but a giant TARPON! The kids were screaming and the men were close to heart attacks. Then the tarpon shook in the air, hit the water and was gone in a flash, the line cut cleanly as thread with scissors.
Heartbreaking, discouraging, embarrassing, frustrating, you name it.
In all his early years growing up in Oriental, Ken had never seen a tarpon, let alone ever caught one. Ken never fished for tarpon until after he’d retired, but he was ready. He entered his first Tarpon Tournament in 1993 but came up empty. Year after year, tournament after tournament, he came up empty, barely even catching sight of one. His buddies joked, “Don’t go fishing with that guy.” They were probably just “jerking his line”, but at times it was hard to tell.
Ken did have a few chances, like in the 2003 Oriental Rotary Tarpon Tournament. Too bad he had committed the cardinal sin of trying a new knot between his leader and hook before actually testing it; might just as well race in brand new shoes. For a while it was looking like his luck had changed…he hooked a fish, a big, mean, tough one. He played it for more than an hour. Then he had it, right there alongside the boat. But, when he reached out to grab the leader, in an instant, the knot let go and the tarpon was gone, leaving only a curlicue of line from the untested knot drifting at the end of the rod. That was as close as he’d come in any Tournament or at any time to getting a tarpon, and he sure was frustrated.
That was the last straw! The day after the tournament, jaw set, armed with some very serious determination, Ken had Wee Chablis on the trailer heading for the Wildlife Ramp. He tried to talk his pal Reg Barnes into going fishing, but Reg had other business that morning (and, he may have feared that Ken might stay out however long it took for him to finally catch a tarpon…days and nights …fishing).
So Ken went alone. He backed down the ramp and the boat floated free and eased off the trailer. He set the handbrake on the jeep and stepped out, something he’d done a hundred times. It was hot, a little choppy, and he turned to see his boat trailing the end of the old line he’d used to make it fast to the trailer, drifting away ever so slowly up Green Creek. There was no time to think, there wasn’t anything to do but jump in and fetch the boat. He caught up with Wee Chablis, got her back to the dock and tied her there while he dripped off to finish parking the jeep.
Ken was still dripping as he steered Wee Chablis away from the dock and motored under the bridge to Oriental’s waterfront. There he looked around for anyone who might be hoping to get out fishing. There were no takers, but there was some good-natured ribbing about him being “all wet.” By the time he was ready to put out his lines in the middle of the river off Dawson Creek, his clothes had ripened to clammy, damp and very uncomfortable. It was hot and humid and, after all, there was no one in sight! He set two lines and peeled off his shoes, tee-shirt, and shorts, spreading them out to dry at the bow. There was still no one in sight! “What the heck”! Ken decided to get comfortable and added his jockey shorts to the other laundry drying at the bow. He stepped back to the stern to get on with the serious business at hand…tarpon fishing. There was hardly a moment to enjoy being dry when the reel, a Shimano 4500 Baitrunner, rigged with a light 30-lb test line, sang like “a third-grader with a wedgie”. There was no doubt that what he had on the line was one big fish pulling him and Wee Chablis UP the river.
The tarpon continued to pull him toward the ferry crossing. Dozens of people heading East toward Cherry Branch lined the ferry’s port rail, cheering him on. Dozens more headed West toward Minnesott on another ferry were straining so hard to take in the bare naked truth of such an unusual fish fight, that the ferry listed to starboard.
Ken was now considering various means to get his clothes back on, but not loose the fish. Suddenly, the tarpon turned around and headed in the opposite direction. Now Wee Chablis, her unclad skipper and the fish were headed straight toward a sailboat that had quietly come up behind them. “Oh gosh, what had they seen?” Ken couldn’t help but wonder! He set the drag to a tension he hoped would hold for a second or two, scrambled to the bow (ouch, ouch, the deck was hot on his bare feet) and into his jockey shorts and shoes. The line looked like it was just about to go slack which made Ken leap back to it in an instant, in just his shoes and jockey shorts. He continuing to work the fish as the sailboat approached. When the sailboat passed, Ken noticed the “pretty young thing decorating the its’ bow”. He smiled and waved, what else can you do at a moment like that, and she smiled and waved back. The young man at the helm gave a nod and they were gone. Ken just knew what they were thinking: “What a crazy old codger, out fishing in his underwear! He’s probably from Oriental”!
He dressed in bits as he continued fighting the fish. It took over an hour. When he finally had it alongside, at least a six-footer, he grabbed his scale, weighed it, and promptly released it, to live and fight another day. The fish had weighed more than one hundred twenty pounds and the smile on Ken’s face was worth a million dollars.
Ken has caught other tarpon since then, happily, almost always with his clothes on. On one of those occasions it may well be that he hooked the all-time record for tarpon “50 pounds and larger” caught farthest up the Neuse River. One day while fishing he followed a school of mullet in the Neuse River from well below New Bern up river past the railroad bridge North of Route 17. The mullet were “levitating” above the water. He was fascinated, and patient as to why they would be so agitated. When the mullet “went to ground” he put out lines and promptly hooked a tarpon. Luckily, an employee of a local marine and tackle shop was fishing nearby and snapped the accompanying photo of Ken hauling that enormous fish to Wee Chablis’ rail to weigh it. You can see the New Bern’s grain tower looming in the background. Wow, what a fish! And happily for Ken Midyette, it didn’t get away until he let it go.
This story is by Ken Midyette, as told to Charles Fetzer, on the occasion of Oriental Rotary’s 13th annual tarpon tournament and published in the Tarpon Tournament Program. It has been modified slightly by the webmaster for inclusion here.