Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestselling book Outliers took an interesting look at the lives of exceptionally successful individuals—from The Beatles to Bill Gates—and offered his novel observations about what, he thought, made them so successful.
For two years now, Wild River Press has been working with Forrest A. Young of Marathon, Florida on a similar examination of an extraordinary individual in our realm of fishing: Master Angler: The Ralph Delph Story (2022). The book is in print and available now. Subtitled Our Years of Sharing the Water Together, Young’s new book chronicles the remarkable accomplishments on the water of his late friend, who died several years ago.
Young is retired from a fascinating career as a marine deep diver. When we started reading his early drafts of Master Angler, we were stunned by the breadth and depth of Ralph Delph’s adventures and innovations. Among hundreds of world records he held or to which he guided other anglers, one day he caught a record tarpon on fly—then hours later he beat that record. He practically invented the center-console inshore sport-fishing boat. He pioneered the active use of every conceivable type of marine electronics in sport fishing. He was a master of electronics in measuring depth and distance when most captains barely used a compass. He was one of the first to test and recognize the superior qualities of fluorocarbon line.
Despite Delph’s wizardry in navigating and fishing the salt, including giant blue fin tuna off Cape Cod, he never lost his boyhood love for dry-fly fishing for trout, which he learned in the Smokies and carried with him each year to his summer home in Montana. Many of the conversations with Ralph featured in Master Angler were recorded by the author in Montana or driving to British Columbia to cast flies for autumn steelhead.
This is a marvelous read about one of the truly great anglers of our lifetime who, outside his personal circles in Florida, many may not have heard much about. He was a humble man who did not like to draw attention to himself. But he was clearly in a league of his own.
Protect the Fly
“If any angler broke I.G.F.A. or tournament rules during the fight—even if that angler landed that particular fish in every other aspect—with no one the wiser, Ralph would always disqualify any catch that didn’t meet the requirements and regulations. If another angler accidentally touched the rod or even brushed the line of an angler fighting a fish, that fish would no longer qualify for a tournament entry or a record on Ralph’s boats. He was a real stickler.
If an angler successfully landed a potential world-record shark on fly and the angler failed to “protect the fly,” with the tippet and leader parting while inside the boat after landing, Ralph summarily disqualified that catch. We would release the shark with no record. My son suffered this fate. He and I both learned to protect the fly.”
Winning Tarpon Tournaments
“Some of the younger Islamorada guides and many of the contestants in general were perplexed and sometimes infuriated. They didn’t understand how this guy, based in Key West—whom they would never otherwise see—could come into their back yards and convincingly win the fly-fishing tarpon tournaments year after year after year. This ability was even more perplexing because he spent little to no time in this area during the spring tarpon fishing season. Unbeknownst to them, Ralph had previously fished these areas extensively, probably while some of these younger guys were in short pants.”
“Ralph Delph pioneered the fishing techniques for sharks on light tackle. He used both fly tackle and other forms of artificial lures. Many of the largest sharks ever caught on light tackle or on fly were either caught on his boat with him as captain or caught by anglers he coached.
The late Pete Peacock landed the shark caught with the highest ratio of line-breaking strength to shark weight. This is the truest measure of the real significance of this catch. Pete was one of Ralph’s anglers. It was a bull shark of 486 pounds. Pete caught it on six-pound general-division tackle that still is the MET record. It is a 61:1 catch. This ratio means the fish weighed 61 times the breaking strength of the line. Typically, we rate a catch of any fish as a substantially respectable catch if the ratio is 10:1. This catch exceeded this measure by six orders of magnitude. Typically Ralph.”
Like a Bulldog
“This is where Ralph surely stood out among captains. Ralph was utterly fearless with a gaff in his hands. I have never seen him reluctant for a moment to sink a gaff into a shark of any size. He was known to do this with sharks over 500 pounds.
I have personally seen him get beaten up in the process. He never would let go. Like a bulldog, I have seen him dragged the full length of the boat and rammed over whatever was in the way as he held on for dear life. I have heard of him being pulled from the boat on at least two occasions by refusing to let go of the gaff. Fortunately, this never happened with sharks.”
“Steelhead fishing was a huge part of Ralph’s interest during the last decade of his life. Previously, while he was working in the summers, he didn’t have a lot of time nor opportunity to develop skills catching steelhead. I admit we were a little selfish with our time, but neither of us regretted our efforts.
Ralph called me one winter day to tell me he was looking at YouTube videos where guys were fishing for trophy steelhead and coho salmon up in British Columbia. He described seeing 15- to 18-pound cohos and 25-pound steelhead landed on the Skeena River.
Ralph was more excited about this than I had seen him in a long time. He suggested that we consider going up to B.C. that summer and see if we could figure out how to catch steelhead with our fly rods. I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of a great experience and nearly 10 years in pursuit of this fantastic species. Ralph spent a lot of time looking at those videos and thought he had a good idea where those guys were fishing. Because of this, going up to B.C. became a part of our regular summer trip. Ralph pursued fishing for steelhead until he died.”
“Ralph was a fisherman’s fisherman. He was intense—he was a winner. He was the guide to have if you wanted to catch fish to win tournaments. This didn’t make him easy to be with or always pleasant. It made him great.
He had an amazing ability with a fly rod. I have fished with many anglers and guides who are skilled casters. Ralph was the best. His loop was a scant inch wide if he wanted it to be. He could cast the entire line into the wind.
He could see a fish, grab the fly rod, strip enough line, and cast before most of us could decide what to do. He rarely fished alongside clients. If you were a buddy on a guided trip with him, it was rare that he would pick up the rod. With me, Ralph fished.”
FORREST A. YOUNG