By Pat Ford
Anyone with basic fly casting skills can catch a hundred pound tarpon on a fly if they are willing to properly prepare for the challenge. How do I know this? Mainly because I have pretty basic fly rod skills and I’ve caught a lot of tarpon over the years. Now, if you really want to catch you 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. The best guides are usually booked up well in advance of tarpon season but in today’s economy there are a lot more open days than you’d think. If you can’t find a guide by research and/or word of mouth, contact The Fly Shop of Miami (305-669-5851), Florida Keys Outfitters in Islamorada (305-664-5423) or the Salt Water Angler in Key West (800-223-1629), but be sure to tell them that you want someone who specializes in tarpon on fly. Decide when and where you want to fish, do some guide research and book early.
Now all 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 cast a 12 weightrod 50 to 60 feet accurately and to do that you need to find the right outfit for your skills and you need to practice.. Fill your new reel with 300 yards of 50 lb Braid backing and a visible ‘tarpon Taper’ floating line. Braid can cut you finger if you try to put pressure on it while the fish is running. The floating line is the easiest to cast and makes it easier for you and the guide to keep track of the fly. When your reel is set up, take it down to your local fly shops and try out every 12 weight they have, till you find one that you can cast effectively. 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. Loomis, Sage, Loop, Temple Fork, Scott and many other companies make excellent 3 and 4 piecetarpon rods. You can go with an 11 weight if it improves your casting, but a 10 weight is really too light.
When rod selection is complete, you need to go out in the back yard and practice. Do not show up in the Keys and pick up your 12 weight for the first time. Tarpon fishing is expensive. It’s 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 back casts and put the fly reasonably close to a fish, the mere sight of which is going to send your nerves into the stratosphere. A half hour a day casting to a garbage can top exactly 60 feet away, hopefully, will allow enough pieces to stick together long enough to let you get your fly to the fish.
In South Florida there are two separate tarpon fisheries – the ocean and the ‘back country’. In the ocean you will cast to a few hundred tarpon on a good day and if you’re lucky, 2 or 3 will eat your fly. But don’t feel too bad, they ignore most everyone’s fly. Eventually you’ll come across one with ‘stupid’ written across it’s 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 ocean fish are tough!
The ‘back country’ on the other hand has tarpon that will eat. You may only have a dozen shots but half of them will eat if they see the fly. The 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. These fish will be ‘laid up’ or cruising in relatively murky water so they prefer big flies that are harder to cast than the tiny flies we use on the ocean, but everything is about getting the bite and the fish in the back are far more forgiving on almost every level. 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. Like in fishing, presentation is everything!
Every guide will have his own selection of ‘secret’ flies and he will know which patterns to use in each location. 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 surface while you retrieve your fly. Strip slowly – fast ‘jerks’ will spook a tarpon as will a fly that’s charging the fish. The prey should be moving away from the predator.
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. Wait till you see the tarpon shut it’s 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. Don’t be offended by the guide talking you through the cast and hook-up. 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. No one wants to pay $600 a day for a critic, whether you’re a novice or an expert. Just something to keep in mind when researching a guide – find out how compassionate he is with newcomers.
When you get that first bite, you’ll need to clear your line as Mr. Poon heads for points unknown. As everyone knows, when a tarpon jumps you need to ‘bow’ to him by extending your rod towards the horizon. The reason for this is that when a tarpon is swimming his weight is diminished by something like 80%. When the tarpon takes to the air, flip flopping and shaking his head, he weighs 100 lbs again. The tippet will hold up a lot longer if there’s no pressure on it 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 website: Stuapte.net. This video is absolutely the best instruction you will ever find on fighting a big fish on a fly rod.. Consider it a necessary part of preparing for you first tarpon encounter. There is nothing in fishing that I have seen that compares to a six foot tarpon inhaling your fly and then going berserk at the sting of the hook. Something like 8 out of 10 fall off no matter who the angler is. Baby tarpon (under 40 lbs) are fun but nothing like their parents. If you want to absorb the total tarpon experience, go for the big boys. The only complication is ‘addiction’ but that’s not really all that bad.