Last Updated on Dec 08, 2010 / Posted by Russ Lumpkin
Anyone with basic fly-casting skills can catch a 100-pound tarpon on a fly if they are willing to properly prepare for the challenge. I know it’s a bit intimidating if you are used to a 5-weight for trout, but you really do not need the physical skills of Stu Apte or Andy Mill to best a triple-digit tarpon. How do I know? Mainly because I have pretty basic fly-rod skills, and I’ve caught a lot of tarpon over the years. If you really want to catch your first tarpon, here’s how to do it.
First of all, you need to charter a guide who chases tarpon with a fly rod on a regular basis, where they are most abundant. Early in the season—February through April—Key West is usually the more productivedestination; however, the weather can be sketchy at that time of year. April through July, tarpon can be found in good numbers from Key West up to Miami. And from June through August they have migrated up to Northwest Florida. The best guides are usually booked well in advance of tarpon season, but in today’s economy there are a lot more open days than you might think (see “Tarpon Guidelines” below).
Of course, all that a guide can do is find the fish and put you in a position to make a cast. The rest is up to the angler. You have to be able to accurately cast a 12-weight fly rod 50 to 60 feet, and to do that you need to find the right outfit for your skills. And you need practice.
Choosing a 12-weight outfit is pretty simple. Andy Mill is the best caster I’ve ever seen, but he uses a Tibor Pacific reel, which I find to be way too big and heavy for me. A Tibor Gulfstream or a Nautilus 12 is much easier on the elbow, and there are plenty of other manufacturers out there selling tarpon-weight reels. Find one to meet your budget as well as your elbow. Fill it with 300 yards of 50-pound braided backing and a tarpon-taper floating line. The floating line casts well and makes it easier for you and the guide to keep track of the fly. Tie on 10 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon for a leader, and you’re all set to pick out a rod.
Take the reel down to your fly shop, and try out every 12-weight they have until you find one that you can effectively cast. It needs to feel good to you, and when you are trying it out, tie on a heavy tarpon fly, preferably with the hook cut off. Do not cast the rod without a fly. You probably should wet the fly and try casting into the wind, too. Avoid rods with a front cork grip if you can—you’ll never need it, and it just makes the rod heavier. Take your time, and find the model that’s best for you. You can go with an 11-weight if it improves your casting, but a 10-weight is really too light.
Now you need to go out in the backyard and practice. Do not show up in the Keys and pick up your 12-weight for the first time. Tarpon fishing is expensive, and Day 1 is not the time to practice. If you’ve never fished in salt water before, find a casting instructor and take a lessen or two. You need to be able to shoot 60 feet of line with two backcasts and put the fly reasonably close to a fish, the mere sight of which is going to send your nerves into the stratosphere. I guarantee that no matter how proficient you are in the yard, a school of six-foot tarpon gliding into range will make you fall to pieces. A half hour a day casting to a garbage can top exactly 60 feet away hopefully will allow enough basics to come together long enough for you get the fly to the fish.
Ocean versus Backcountry
In South Florida there are two separate tarpon fisheries: the ocean and the backcountry. In the ocean you will cast to a few hundred tarpon on a good day, and if you’re lucky, two or three will eat your fly. Cast after cast will be ignored regardless of how accurate it is. But don’t feel too bad; they ignore most everyone’s fly. Just make the best casts you can as the fish are approaching, as they’re going by, and as they’re leaving. Eventually you’ll come across one with stupid written across its forehead that will swing out of line and suck in your fly. Don’t give up, but be prepared for a lot of rejection.
The backcountry, on the other hand, has tarpon that will eat. You may have only a dozen shots, but half of them will eat if they see the fly. Fish along Florida’s northwestern coast also eat aggressively. Tarpon in the “back” are more sensitive to wind and weather, but if the guide says that there are fish in the back, that’s where you want to be since they are easier to feed.
These backcountry fish will be “laid up” in a small comfort zone, occasionally rolling on the surface, or they will be cruising in relatively murky water. In either case, backcountry ’poons prefer bigger flies, which are harder to cast than the tiny flies used on the ocean. But everything is about getting the bite, and the fish in the back are far more forgiving on placement. Unfortunately, they still have the same effect on your nerves.
If you are on your first tarpon quest, do not worry about leaders or flies. The guide will have both and will rig your rod for you. Just be sure to mention to him in advance (for example, when you’re asking him what he’d like you to bring for lunch) that this is your first trip, and you’d appreciate his expertise on rigging and fly selection. Again, your primary concern should be “presentation” to both guide and fish.
Every guide will have his own selection of secret flies, and he will know which patterns to use in each location. If you’re on the ocean, you will probably use a toad, shrimp, or worm pattern on a 1/0 Gamakatsu SL12 hook. In the back, flies range from toads to huge purple monstrosities that are killer in dirty water. Leaders are usually composed of 20-pound Mason hard mono with a 60-pound fluorocarbon shock (in case you want to bring supplies). That 60-pound butt section that you were using in practice also works on the water.
Now let’s assume that you’ve booked a good guide, practiced diligently with a rod you can handle, and that you’ve just dropped your fly in front of a huge tarpon that, as you can see through your polarized glasses, is rising up behind your fly with lunch on his mind. This is phase two of the process, and there are still a few things you need to do. Keep your rod tip at the water’s surface while you retrieve your fly. Strip slowly. A fast, jerky retrieve will spook a tarpon, as will a fly that’s charging toward the fish. If a hamburger ran across a table at you, you’d spook, too. Same theory. The prey should be moving away from the predator. Undercasting is always preferable to overcasting.
Always keep your rod tip down! Tarpon do not bite flies. They suck the fly in by blowing water into their cavernous mouth and out through their gills. From the angler’s point of view, the fly just disappears while the mouth stays open. If you try to set the hook as soon as the fly disappears, you will simply pull the fly right back out. Wait until you see the tarpon shut its mouth and turn his head; then strip-strike him while
moving the rod (with tip still low) in the opposite direction of the fish’s turn. It is also acceptable to strip-strike when the guides bellows “Hit him!” from somewhere behind you. It’s hard to set a hook in that concrete mouth, so hit him good, but don’t hang on too long, because that big old prehistoric herring is about to go nuts. This is the best 60 seconds in fishing. Be prepared for chaos.
Teamwork between guide and angler is essential in tarpon fishing. Standing on the poling platform allows the guide to see everything that’s going on a lot better than the angler. The former tournament team of Andy Mill and Capt. Tim Hoover—five-time winners of Florida’s Gold Cup Invitational Tarpon Fly Tournament—were the best. Tim, who is now retired, would tell Andy whether his cast was okay, too long, too short, or whether to cast again. He’d tell Andy when to slow down or speed up his retrieve, and when to twitch or slide it. Capt. Rick Murphy does the same thing with me: He literally talks me through the take and then yells “Hit him!” just to make sure I’m not completely mesmerized by the whole scene. Rick readily tells everyone that I would catch more fish blindfolded because then I would be forced to do exactly what he says and when. I’d never admit it to him, but he’s probably right.
Don’t be offended by the guide talking you through the cast and hookup. There’s an advantage to having a coach at the back of the boat, but there’s a big difference between a coach and a critic. Whether you’re a novice or an expert, no one wants to pay $600 a day for a critic. Just something to keep in mind when selecting a guide.
When you get that first bite, you’ll need to clear your line as Mr. Poon heads for points unknown. When a tarpon jumps, you must to bow to him by thrusting your rod toward the horizon. The reason for this is that the weight of a swimming tarpon is diminished by something like 80 percent. When he takes to the air, flip-flopping and shaking his head, he weighs 100 pounds again. The tippet will hold up a lot longer if there’s no pressure during the jumps.
The best instructions for fighting a big tarpon on a fly rod are contained in Stu Apte’s video "The Quest for Giant Tarpon," which can be ordered from Stu’s Web site: www.stuapte.net. The essentials boil down to this:
• Fight with the butt section of the rod as much as possible. At times, this may mean pointing the rod almost directly at the fish for greatest leverage.
• Fight the fish “down and dirty,” meaning low-angle, lateral pressure away from the fish’s direction of travel whenever possible.
• Bow to the fish when he jumps.
• Fight a tarpon aggressively. If they get the idea that they can do what they want, they will never give up. Put the heat on them from the beginning.
The topic of fighting a tarpon is itself worthy of an entire article, but you can watch the whole process in the comfort of your living room with Stu Apte’s video, which is the best instruction you will ever find. Consider it a necessary part of preparing for your first tarpon encounter.
There is absolutely nothing like hooking your first triple-digit tarpon on a fly. The sight of that inhaling grab and the power of their jumps and runs will stay with you forever, and keep you coming back for a long, long time.
Pat Ford is a Miami-based freelance writer and photographer and the author The Best Fly-Fishing Trips Money Can Buy (Stackpole Books, 2006). He spends as much time as possible traveling the globe to capture his love of fly fishing with his camera.
The best way to find a guide is by word of mouth from anglers you know and trust. But if you are starting from scratch, try contacting The Fly Shop of Miami (305-669-5851), Florida Keys Outfitters in Islamorada (305-664-5423), or Saltwater Angler in Key West (305-294-3248). All can recommend quality guides, but be sure to tell them that you want someone who specializes in tarpon on fly. For Northwest Florida tarpon, contact Capt. Gjuro Bruer at (850-685-5756). Other than that, decide when and where you want to fish, do some guide research. Book early, and prepare yourself for the conditions.
Stu Apte once remarked that tarpon fishing is best when just breathing makes you sweat. If an angler isn’t prepared to spend eight hours standing in a flats skiff in the blazing sun, he should not be out there. You absolutely need polarized glasses and a hat with a dark underside of the brim. Wear boat shoes, long-sleeve shirts, and long pants with a high UPF rating. Sun gloves will protect your hands and help you grip the rod when things get sweaty. In addition to major sunscreen lotion, most of the guides and regular anglers wear Buff face masks. The sun is not your friend, so be careful, or your trip could be a complete burn out.
These five flies will cover just about any situation for the silver king. All patterns can be tied in a variety of colors and sizes, but the Big Country and Purple Monster typically should be five inches long. They can be tied smaller for laid-up fish. The Toad works everywhere, and a brown version is also very effective. There seems to be no reason to go above a 2/0 hook even on the bigger flies.—P.F.
Hook: Size 1 Gamakatsu SL12.
Thread: Olive or tan 3/0.
Tail: Two-inch maroon Zonker strip with most of the fur cut off, and mono loop for support,
Head: Half-inch head of light olive or tan chenille.
Hook: Size 2/0 Gamakatsu SL12.
Thread: Shrimp or pink 3/0.
Tail: Tan marabou.
Eyes: Large mono, burnt and painted black.
Head: Tan chenille.
Hook: Size 2/0 Gamakatsu SL12.
Thread: Chartreuse 3/0.
Tail: Two white saddle hackles inside, two gray grizzly hackles on the outside.
Collar: Yellow schlappen.
Hook: 2/0 Gamakatsu SL12.
Thread: Chartreuse 3/0.
Tail: Chartreuse or green marabou, with two wraps yellow Zonker.
Head: Green rug yarn, Merkin-style body.
Eyes: Large black mono, or small dumbbells for sinking version.
Hook: 2/0 Gamakatsu SL12.
Tail: Purple Krystal Flash under purple Zonker strip. Add mono loop or spike under tail for support.
Body: Palmered purple marabou.
Collar: Black schlappen body.
Eyes: Eyes are optional on this pattern.