At the risk of sounding simplistic, tarpon fishing is as easy as it gets. Knocking it down to basic components, you place the fly in front of a fish and keep it there until he eats or refuses it. Plus, tarpon are so predictable that in some areas, I know within five or ten feet of where the next fish will pass. Since tarpon normally move from a known direction, many variables encountered while pursuing bonefish, permit, or even redfish can be avoided.
No, I’m not saying they are always easy to catch, just that they’re easy to fish for. There’s still the matter of feeding them your fly, and that is anything but easy. In fact the presentation of the fly is all important, and after presentation come the questions of color and pattern. If a fish flares as soon as your fly hits the water, it’s undoubtedly the cast and not the fly that bothered it, but at other times, reading a fish’s behavior might not be so simple. What color fly should you tie onto your leader? The answer will vary among fishing guides as widely as the color and brand of boat they run. If you checked among five different boats fishing the same flat, you would likely find at least four different color variations and styles of flies. Amazingly enough, all five of these boats may have gotten bites during the day using totally different colors.
Presentation versus Color?
So is presentation more important than color? Stepping out on a thin limb, my answer is – Yes. I firmly believe that the best fly in the world, improperly presented, will have no better chance than a mediocre fly dropped exactly where it needs to land. I ask my clients to throw directly toward the tarpon, and urge them not to swing on the fish as if leading a duck with a shotgun, thus turning a head-on shot into a crossing one. This concept sounds simple in print, but it is so difficult to get anglers to grasp that I carry a diagram aboard my boat for them to look at. Head-on presentations, in my opinion, always offer the best chances for a hookup. Tarpon eat flies directly from behind, and a head-on presentation moves the fly away from them, affording them an easy target without the need to change their direction. This also eliminates the chance of the fish seeing your leader or fly line.
Let’s say you’ve just made a perfect head-on cast to a string of thirty tarpon – laying the fly down six feet in front of the lead fish, and directly in line with it. As the lead fish approaches the fly you begin your retrieve, and the tarpon sinks, stalls and turns, drawing the rest of the string away. Do you change flies? You might consider it. I do know guides who will go through a dozen or two color changes during the course of a day, trying to find exactly the right food to entice Mr. Tarpon. While some of them are very successful, I often wonder if their effectiveness is due to the fly changes or just from getting one to a fish that is ready to eat. I don’t, and for several reasons. In the first place, I start my day using a fly that I have the utmost confidence in; it will be a pattern that fish on preceding days have eaten.
Another reason not to change flies yet is that, in my experience, lead fish rank among the most fickle that swim. A refusal from a lead fish can rarely be taken as a consensus on your choice of flies. So when schools approach the boat, I scan them, looking for active fish: tarpon that may be pushing ahead from the rear, crossing the backs of other fish, or swimming outside of the school like they are looking for action. My instruction to a client on a school coming like that might be: “There’s a fish on the right side of this string, five fish from the back. He’s outside the others. Do you see him?” When they do, I’ll ask them to make sure THAT tarpon sees the fly. For their next shot I might ask the client to allow the lead tarpon to swim by the fly while it lies motionless in the water, and to begin their retrieve as the second or third fish approaches. It’s a feeling thing, and sometimes it even works.
If we still get a refusal, most sane people might think a fly change would definitely be in order. Remember though, this is a fly that I not only believe in, but that has caught fish within a day. Change it now? Not on your life. I’ll have my client cast it alongside the boat and strip it by the poling platform in order to check its action in the water. I want to know the fly is not fouled and that it is swimming correctly, hook down, not spinning or twisting. It may be necessary for me to adjust the leader, to get the fly swimming properly. Even at the point when the refusals persist after the fly is swimming well, I’m still much more apt to change retrieve before fly color!
If, however, you’ve made eight or ten perfect, and I do mean perfect, presentations to fish and you get absolute refusals, not just a simple turn, but an actual bolt from the fly, then it may be time for a change. Fishing in Florida Bay the other day we started with a pattern that I have used with great success for years. The first string of tarpon we threw it at sank and turned. The second group of fish we threw it at moved away from it so fast, they left scales in the water. We made a change. With our second fly, the first group sank and turned just as the ones before. We then put on a fly that I consider my bread-and-butter fly when fishing on the ocean, but have never found productive in this part of the backcountry. Our next shot came at a string 90 degrees from the boat – the third fish in line put on the brakes, stuck his whole head out of the water, and engulfed the fly. Just try reading a tarpon’s mind!
Less is more
But even when I do make changes they are often subtle. For instance, before changing color I might change size first. Only then do I consider changing color or pattern. In certain backcountry situations, particularly in areas of dirtier water, it seems less critical for fly patterns to mimic food than it is for them to be easily seen. In these spots, heavily dressed dark flies like the Black Death, and a purple pattern of mine called Early Times, stand out. A fly’s visibility to the fish often counts as its most important feature. Also, if you keep your selection simple you won’t need to wrack your brain about which fly to use. I carry about a dozen different patterns, and use three or four of them. To simplify things, I’d suggest light, neutral, dark, and bright patterns in sizes 2/0 and 3/0.
Getting tarpon to bite consistently is one of the most rewarding experiences in fly fishing — and one of its biggest challenges. I always have a definite reason for switching flies, and when I do make changes they are often subtle, like a slightly different shade or size of fly. But I don’t believe it does any good to make a fly change without having made a perfect presentation, and don’t forget to experiment with your retrieve too.