The skiff floated on a gently rolling sea. Early morning light reflected off the waves, and from the backs of the tarpon that rolled sporadically throughout the area. Barry Kent couldn’t wait for a specific target and cast blindly, hoping for the best.
Suddenly he said, “I’m on, John!” He set the hook repeatedly (shouting nothing in particular very loudly at the same time), trying to make the hook point stick in that hard, bony mouth. The fish made a short run and then jumped, a wild, spectacular, twisting, end over end leap. The hook still held, and Barry set it again. The fish then jumped again, and out came the fly. The battle ended the way fights with big tarpon too often do, with the angler the loser.
Tarpon. The word has a magical sound to it if you’re an angler, and an almost mystical quality if you’re a saltwater fly fisher. Tarpon. A fish with a cult following, a devoted group of admirers, some of whom for two months each year put everything else in their lives on hold so they can try to hook a silver king every day the weather allows it. Tarpon. The biggest, strongest, most frustrating, and most spectacular gamefish that inhabits inshore shallows.
If you want to catch a tarpon on a fly, Florida is the best place in the United States to do so. When most fly fishers think of Florida tarpon, one of two places comes to mind- the Florida Keys, or Homosassa. There is a third option, though. The beaches along the southwest Florida coast, from Tampa Bay all the way south of Sanibel Island, play host to large numbers of tarpon during the typical tarpon months of May and June. Boca Grande Pass lies along this stretch of coast and is the most famous tarpon hole on earth. And, according to Mike Rehr, a longtime tarpon guide who lives on Sanibel Island, the area is the best place in the state for a novice fly fisher to hook a tarpon.
The fishing is different from what’s done in the Keys or Homosassa. In the Keys most guides stake out along a known tarpon run and wait for the fish to come to them. Some Keys guides fish the way most Homosassa guides fish, by using a combination of stern mounted electric motors and a push pole to hunt and stalk tarpon in relatively shallow (6 to 10 feet) water.
Along the beaches most fishing happens in water in the range of 15 to 20 feet deep. Outboards are used to look for fish, with bow mounted or a combination of bow and stern mounted electric motors used to position the boat for fly presentation. Some fishing is also done in the passes, with Captiva, Redfish, and Gasparilla Passes being especially good fish producers.
There are some shallow areas where fish can be stalked with a pushpole, the most notable of which is Johnson Shoal, south of Boca Grande Pass. Here the water is shallow with a white sand bottom, making fish very easy to see. A pushpole can be used to stalk fish here, although most guides still use bow mounted electrics.
Twelve-weight tackle is standard. The fish average 100 pounds and with the water as deep as it is, some serious lifting will be done during the fight. Your quality reel will need to hold 250-300 yards of 30 pound backing in addition to the intermediate sinking fly line.
Leaders are standard big game style in 12, 16, or 20 pound test, depending on how sporting you are. If you want to catch fish, go heavy. One hundred pound monofilament shock tippets are standard, but some guides prefer fluorocarbon leader material, feeling they get more strikes than they do with mono.
Flies range in size from 2/0 to 5/0. Ties are usually standard Keys tarpon streamers, although most guides prefer a weighted fly because of the water depth. Six inches of .010 lead fuse wire tied into the fly usually does the job.
What do you look for? Tarpon give away their presence in a number of ways, some of which are easily visible anytime, and some of which you’ll need good light to pick up. For one thing, tarpon roll. They do this to inhale air, from which they are able to extract oxygen to help in their respiration. When they do this they are easily visible in almost any kind of light, and if you’re quiet they can be quite easily heard too.
Although I’ve seldom observed them do this along the beaches, tarpon “lay up”. Apparently asleep, they lie almost motionless, often right at the surface with their fins sticking out of the water. This usually happens only when the water is slick calm.
Tarpon get into what is apparently a pre-nuptial ritual, a “daisy chain”. While doing this the fish swim in a circle with the nose of one fish on the tail of the fish before. They do this at the surface, on the bottom, and at any depth in between. While in a daisy chain at the surface they are very easy to see, making a large disturbance in the water, often with their fins in the air, rolling frequently. As they get further down in the water column you must have good light to see them, or watch for subtle surface disturbances that give a clue to their presence.
Sometimes tarpon will “bust” the surface, making a large splash. I’m not sure if they’re feeding, or giving a vigorous ending to a roll, or both, but these are really easy to see.
As tarpon swim through the water they displace it. If they’re close to the surface they push a wake up. This surface disturbance can range from difficult to see to ridiculously obvious, depending on the depth of the water, the depth and number of fish, their speed, and the wind speed.
Most of the time the water along the beaches is quite clear and when the light is good you can see the fish in the water. When the number of fish is relatively small they look like black logs moving through the water. When there are a lot of fish they often ball up into a large black mass, one of the most exciting sights in tarpon fishing.
One last way to find fish, especially on weekends, is to look for concentrations of boats. All those boats are together for a reason. Don’t expect a warm reception if you barge into the group, though. More on etiquette later.
Assuming that you’ve got the right tackle and have found the fish, the next step is to hook up and fight the fish to the boat. This can be the most difficult part of the equation.
If you can only see fish rolling because of poor light, a choppy water surface, or dirty water, all you can do is cast to the area they’re rolling and hope for the best. This will work, though.
If you’re lucky enough to find one or more laid up fish, it usually takes quite a close cast, almost on their nose, to elicit a response. Usually you won’t need a lot of fly manipulation, just a very accurate cast.
A daisy chain arguably presents the fly caster with his finest opportunity for a strike. The group of fish tends to stay in one place, and if the chain stays together you get multiple shots. Determine which way the fish are moving, clockwise or counterclockwise. You want to cast to the fish coming towards you. In a clockwise chain this will be on the right side of the circle and of course in a counterclockwise chain it will be on the left. Strip the fly until you think it’s out of the strike zone, then pick it up and present it again.
Fish moving through the water are usually most difficult to convince to take a fly. First of all don’t throw to the lead fish. If it turns off all the other fish will follow it. Secondly, and this is true in all your presentations, start conservatively. You need to figure out how close to the fish the fly can land without spooking them. It shatters your confidence to make an accurate, close cast and have the fish blow out because your fly landed a little too close. Make your casts a little too short and lengthen them. Too short usually doesn’t hurt, but too long often does.
When you have a big school of fish the best presentation leads the fish by a few feet, giving the fly a chance to sink. If this doesn’t work, cast around the edge of the school. Throwing into the middle of the pack only alerts the fish that something is suspicious, and when they get suspicious they often get lockjaw, too.
Tarpon moving along these beaches can often be chased with electrics for miles, giving the angler multiple shots, sometimes for several hours. The fish can easily sound when they get spooked though, and are usually next to impossible to find again afterwards. Careful boat handling is a must.
Once the fish takes the fly you’ll need to set the hook, hard, several times. Rod movement should be parallel to the water. The fish will usually respond by making a wild run punctuated by several jumps. Let it go, and remember to give slack by bowing during the jumps. After the fish settles down you need to fight it hard. Use side pressure, the lower the better, to work on the fish. If he’s not taking line out you should be taking line in. Although each tarpon, like each person, is a unique individual, you should be able to boat most fish within 30 to 45 minutes.
Fish should be revived before release. There are plenty of sharks around, some scary they’re so big, and sharks love to eat tarpon. Make sure your fish can swim away with gusto before releasing it.
Etiquette remains a sticky issue. Lots of boats use the waters off the beaches, and many of them aren’t run by fishermen. Expect other boats to disturb you occasionally. Fishing during the week will minimize this problem.
If you find a school of fish off the beach they’re yours as long as you can stay with them with electrics. If things are generally slow, you’ll see other boats hanging around, hoping you’ll hook up or otherwise lose the school. Then they can take it
Don’t run your motor near where people are fishing. The fish here are not as spooky as they would be in shallow water, but you don’t want to ruin anyone else’s fishing any more than you would want them to ruin yours. The best rule is, “Treat others as you would have them treat you”. If you do this there should be no problems.
Southwest Florida offers anglers a different approach to chasing tarpon, one which offers quality fishing and a great opportunity for success. So if you’re looking for something a little different in the way of your tarpon thrill, give southwest Florida’s beach tarpon a try.