Tarpon Fly Fishing Guide
Fly fishing for tarpon, to a lot of people, is the ultimate fish to catch with a fly. For some, it’s the bite, others crave the acrobatics and giant holes they make in the ocean but for me, it’s team work, patience, and persistence that both the guide and angler play throughout the day. Both have an important role in the dance and neither would be successful without the other. I’m here to help break all of that down to make this season as enjoyable as possible!
We all know that tarpon are a prehistoric creature that migrate up and down our coast when the water temperatures hits 72 degrees, with large numbers showing up after it exceeds 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The term “migratory” means that they are moving/traveling. Some fish are moving south and others are north bound. What determines this? Who knows but BTT is working to figure all that out! Lets focus on how to catch them. Tarpon swim the contours of the bottom and are comfortable in 6-8 feet of water but they cross over shallow sand bars to get to their destination. When they cross these bars, it makes them much easier to see because of the shallower water. There are advantages to this along with disadvantages. Tarpon being a large fish becomes a little uncomfortable in the shallower water and begins to speed up his pace and the placement of the fly and speed of the strip is a LOT more critical. These fish are designed to feed UP and if the fly drops below the feeding zone, they can no longer drop to eat the fly because of the shallow water. Fishing them in deeper water is a LOT more productive because the fish are moving slower, they’re more comfortable, and the fish can drop below the fly to eat it.
Boat positioning is absolutely everything with these guys. If you’re focusing on a fish swimming a specific direction, be patient. There aren’t fish swimming all day and in fact there are periods where nothing is happening. This could be due to barometric pressure, tide, moon, etc. But once you see the first fish of the day, you can almost count on the next fish/group to take the same path. Anchoring your boat in their path is by far the best way to fish for tarpon but nowadays people are using trolling motors. Trolling motors may be a little unorthodox to some but as long as they are used conservatively and not used to chase down fish, I don’t see an issue. The direction the wind is blowing and direction the tide is moving play a vital roll in boat displacement and the fishes ability to detect us before we get a fly in front of it.
Fly Rods for larger tarpon should be no lighter than a 10 weight. More often than not, anglers fish with 12 weight fly rods which gives them a little extra power when the fish gets boat side. 10 and 11 weight fly rods deliver the fly with a little more ease than their heavier brother and can be the ticket to getting the bite when the fish get a little more sensitive. Most rods are a 4-piece construction but if given the option, a 1 piece is preferred in my opinion. When anglers are fishing all day and taking shots at fish, it’s rarely in the back of your mind that we need to make sure our rod is 100% together and over time, just the force of casting causes these rods to SLOWLY come apart. When it comes to casting or presenting the fly to a tarpon, it is encouraged to be able to throw 50-60 foot accurately both forward and back casts but most of the time magic happens inside of that range. It is also important to not throw too far to these fish, waiting until the last possible second to make sure the fish isn’t going to change directions and your fly is going to get noticed is the key. I watch anglers throw 80-90 foot to fish only to have to strip in half of the running line to be able to pick up the remainder and then redeliver to 60 foot. I encourage everyone to practice in windy conditions because when it comes to game time, the fish don’t care how windy it is and it makes for a much more enjoyable experience!
When it comes to a fly reel for big tarpon, it’s definitely something to splurge on for these zip code changers. Whether you are just into the first few second of the battle and the fish is screaming away from you, your buddy is on the outboard chasing him behind you, or the fish is boatside and you need max drag, tarpon will always be testing your equipment. A good reel is going to be one that has a very large arbor (allowing you to pick up line quickly and hold a ton of backing) and has a smooth variable drag. Most reels in the heavier line classes have a large arbor to begin with so that leaves the drag up for debate. Sealed or Unsealed? There are a few different styles of drags in fly reels in our application 1. Stacked drag systems (Orvis Mirage and Hatch) 2. Draw-bar drag systems (Tibor and Able) 3. Hub drag systems (most Lamson Waterworks). Regardless of the drag design the reel you pick has, it is imperative to back the drag off to prevent it from retaining it’s compressed or “in-use” state. Fly reels really are works of art and require minimal maintenance.
Fly lines for tarpon fishing….man. Everyone, I mean everyone, has there take on it. Guys from up north love Rio and the guys down in the keys love the Cortland crystal because it’s clear and stealthy. Opac or colored lines help the guy who has issues seeing his bug but regarless, it’s important for the angler to get to his local fly shop, bring his rod, and try out a bunch of different lines to see what his casting style and rod demands. With that being said, lets get into the fishing side because all lines are made with similar characteristics. We see F (floating), F/S (floating/sinking), I (intermediate), S (full-sink), on the packages and this describes what the line will be doing in the water. On the back of the package it often gives you an IPS rating (inches per second). In our application a full floating line F and a floating line with a sink tip F/S would be the most utilitarian. There are only a few situations in our area where a F/S line would help so having one on an additional spool wouldn’t be a bad idea. Personally, a full float line gives the angler the ability to pick up line and redeliver it with ease where a F/S line demands that you strip in most of it to redeliver. The last 10-15 feet of a F/S line is sinking and creates an enormous amout of resistance when trying to pick it up off the water. Most of the time, we can tweak our leader to get our fly in the right part of the water column so a full floating line does 95% of what we need it to do.
Constructing leaders is always a topic of discussion whether your’e at the shop, on the boat, or at dinner because more often than not, it’s the difference between getting bites and not getting bites. Way before my time, guys were using 100-120 pound monofilament to target tarpon. Now, fish have gotten smarter and the fishing pressure has increased, so we have to fish with lighter bite sections to convince the fish our offering is “real.” The two major differences in the leader we have today helps me decide on how to constuct the leader for the day. Always remembering that monofilament floats and fluorocarbon sinks will help you get your bug to the zone it needs to be in without weighting your fly! Typically, The first 50-60% of the leader is monofilament, then adding a class tippet or something “breakable,” followed by a piece of 40-60 pound fluorocarbon. An average leader should be 10-14 feet long depending on the wind, water clarity, and where we are in the season. Longer leaders are advantagous especially in clean water, around spooky fish, and when fishing back in the school. The farther the fly is away from the fly line, the better the chance the fish won’t detect anything out of the ordinary. Checking your leader periodically throughout the day can make a huge difference. There are a lot of moving parts and sometimes we hit the poling platform, push pole, boat, you name it. Eventually there will be a “scuff” or a few “knicks” in the leader that will not only weaken it but the fish can see it! It happens even when we aren’t thinking about it. You set your rod down to get a drink and the leader is laying on the cockpit floor and without thinking, you step on it! The small things make all the difference in this game and that’s what makes it fun.
Tarpon flies…..we all have our favorite. Often times, we look at patterns in a fly shop and wonder what the hell the fish think it is or how does a fish that big even see it! Well, I hate to break it to you but their eye sight is far superior to ours. They have 5 cones in their eyes and we only have 3! Their ability to see just blows my mind sometimes. There has been quite an evolution of hooks over time where as before they had to sharpen 4/0 and 5/0 hooks where now we are using #1-1/0 that are so sharp, all a fish has to do is swim by it. Water clarity, sky clarity, tide, and time of year helps narrow down the selection a lot when picking out a fly for the day. My all time favorite tarpon flies are the ones I can see! The black and purple flies stand out the best and help our tremendously when dancing with the fish, then next is brown/tans, and following that is a Fl. Yellow which really pops in the water. At the end of the day, we’ll try anything to make them bite and there are a ton of great flies that aren’t in the colors mentioned above. Knowing where your fly is in relation to the fish is the most important part behind getting a bite after that follow the speed of the strip or pace of the fly.
The only other thing that over rides everything else in this article, is to just have fun and be respectful of other anglers on the water! Thanks for reading.
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