Getting Into Tarpon
I know this is site is largely focused on bass fly fishing, but I have a confession: I’m a tarpon freak! Here’s some thoughts on my trancension into the wonderful world of baby and juvenile tarpon.
A Little Background
I got interested in tarpon fishing over 30 years ago and have spent a lot of time in Southwest Florida – in some of the hallowed hotspots like Boca Grande. I’ve caught several tarpon over 100 pounds and lost many more.
No, I’m not a tarpon expert by any means, but once you’ve hooked some of them, you’ll never be the same.
Saltwater fly fishing is not nearly as forgiving as in freshwater where you can make dumb mistakes and still catch fish. Tarpon, bonefish and permit require you do everything right.
As Billy Pate said in his landmark 3M video series on tarpon fishing: “Do everything right and you’ll still lose most of the time!”
In my experience, tarpon fishing for the giants has devolved over the last decade. It was almost a sure thing in the 90’s and early 2000’s to go down to Boca or Sanibel, spot rolling schools of tarpon and eventually hook up. Good guides were extremely important, but with so many fish and good shot opportunities, chances were good you’d connect with one of these powerful lighting bolts.
In the last ten years I believe environmental and increased fishing pressure has taken a toll on the giant tarpon along southern and western Florida, where I have bore witness to these changes. The fish do not roll or porpoise like they have through the earlier years. So it follows, if it’s more difficult to see the fish, it’s much more difficult to set up for a shot.
I’ve spent most of my time during the prime key tarpon seasons in Boca Grande. For the last five years, it’s turned out to be a very expensive boat ride with the going rate approaching $750/day. I never hooked a fish in that time and had few opportunities.
I’ve had enough.
My first encounters with tarpon began in the Cayman Islands over thirty years ago. My wife and I were vacationing there and we connected with a displaced guide from the British Isles who put us on to baby tarpon in some of the vast array of mosquito control canals dug inland. I’ve been a big fan ever since.
Baby tarpon are considered young fish running 5 to 25 pounds. As they get bigger, they are called juvenile or adolescent tarpon and weight 20 – 50 pounds. The smaller fish inhabit inland creeks and lagoons and stay close to mangrove laden shorelines until they reach a size large enough to join schools of pelagic juvenile fish. Many of these fish return to the area of their birth seasonally and can be targeted along with their younger brethren.
These are largely sexually immature fish. By the time they reach about 45″ in length and over 50 lbs, they start hanging with the giants and become sexually mature and develop a migration pattern that are fairly well documented.
Baby tarpon do all the things the giant tarpon do – they hit hard, immediately leave the water, throw flies and lures, and fight as hard as any fish on the planet. The difference? There’s a lot more young tarpon around in certain regions, they’re more easily accessible, and their habitat is not threatened nearly as much as in the U.S.
I’m talking about Mexico.
The Yucatan region, especially the northern tier, is a haven for baby tarpon and a wonderful place to visit and fish for these smaller silver kings. Don’t ever discount their relative size. They are extremely exciting to pursue and many of their favored haunts these days will take you to friendly and safe places in Mexico.
For an excellent overview of saltwater fishing opportunities in Mexico, check out, “Fly Fishing the Yucatan” by Rod Hamilton with Rhett Schober and Nick Denbow.
I’ve made many trips now to the northern Yucatan where the tarpon fishing is still somewhat undiscovered. There are a myriad of coastal towns stretching from the metropolis of Campeche all the way around to north of Cancun.
For you bass fisher-people out there, your #8 wt will double as a great choice for baby tarpon. I always bring a 9 and/or 10 along in case we trip over some larger fish. My NuCast Smokin’ Hot 8wt and the new Aurelius #8 wt from Maxxon, have held up very well during recent trips battling fish from 10 to 45 pounds. So for around $150 – 200 you can have the time of your life while others are paying $600 – 800 for the fancy ones.
Reels are important, but not as much as you may think. The prevailing wisdom used to be – you needed an expensive $500 saltwater reel to tango in the salt. The new imported CNC machined reels today are excellent and hold up against any saltwater fish you encounter for less than $200. I’ve used the SDX Trax Reel (sealed drag – good in saltwater) from Maxxon ($200), as well as their MAX Reel (less than $100). As long as you have a smooth “start-up” and enough backing (100 – 150 feet), you’ll be just fine. Chances are you’ll be in a guided “panga” (Mexican version of a flats boat) and if you hook a screamer, you just fire up the outboard and lay chase to the fish before you get spooled.
Floating fly line for big game fish works great. It’s good to carry an Intermediate Sink Tip as well. Most of your fishing will be done with a floater. Even your bass bug line will work fine in the salt. I personally love the RIO QuickShooter Saltwater line. It stays limp and shoots like a gun. I use it for any saltwater quarry be it tarpon, bones or other.
Casting and Hook Set – Read this section a couple of times!
I’ve seen many a grown men and women wilt when faced with a head-on shot at a school of tarpon. I’m also speaking from many humiliating personal experiences. If you are going to take the time and money to pursue tarpon in Mexico (or elsewhere) there are two things you must do:
- Double Haul
- Strip Set
Don’t kid yourself into thinking because you show up your buddies on the trout stream or bass river – you’ll kick booty in the salt…you won’t. You must be able to double haul effectively and shoot a straight line cast at least 40 feet. Sounds easy? Add some wind and big fish jitters and 40 feet is a lot farther than you think! Quite simply most “nubies” are always about 10 feet short of where they need to be to catch fish. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. So practice diligently before you go, especially in the wind and on the water.
I remember well my first shot at mid-sized 60 – 80 pound tarpon in Belize. A perfect straight-on shot at a six pack of nice fish coming right at me. I made a decent cast and began stripping. A fish broke out of the school and opened it’s bucket mouth to inhale my fly. Just as it was clamping down on the fly I managed an ill-fated “trout-set” and rescued the fly safely up and away from the surprised fish.
The Belizian guide in the back of the boat simply exhaled a disgruntled, “Oh Sheeeet!” Since then I have tried my damndest to strip set and it works very well. You simply must do this.
If you’ve ever dreamt of going after tarpon, take my advice and at least start with baby and juvenile fish. You’ll learn all the same techniques you can use on the big ones if and when you go.
In my case, I have so much more fun with the smaller silver kings, I have no reason to switch.
Blue Blockheads for Smallmouth
In the previous post, I discussed trying our Carolina Blue Blockhead Poppers. I’m not sure why, but this early season the river smallmouth have been going nuts over these blue foam popper flies.
I thought you guys and gals should know about this.
Here’s the scenario. In the last 1 1/2 weeks, I’ve hit three different tributaries to the Mississippi River in Central MN. All the rivers are slightly different. Some are super rocky with a mild current, one is mainly shallow, clear and sandy, and the third had stained water from recent rains.
From the outset of these midday floats (we commonly put in around noon and float 4 – 5 hours), the smallies have been both blasting and sipping top water flies.
By far and away the best one we’ve used this late spring/early summer is the Flybass Blue Blockhead Popper, only available at FlyBass.com. We’ve switched out during the day with other proven patterns to test the efficacy of these blue ones and I just have to say, “They flat out prefer the blue”.
I know it sounds like a sales pitch, but I swear they are really effective!
Double Blind Crossover: I intentionally switched to White and Yellow poppers, Gorilla Chernobyl Ant (#4), Tan Mega Hopper Popper (Size #2), as well as White and Red Gurglers and even some Murdich-style streamers just to see if they’d hit anything. All the aforementioned are proven bass killers.
The short answer was: NO, they wouldn’t hit everything, especially with the gusto they were taking the blue blockheads.
Anyway, check them out. I just posted a new video on some tying techniques for foam poppers HERE.
New Blue Blockhead Popper Bodies!
I’ve been getting bugged for years from fly fisher people out east in Virginia and North Carolina to offer some blue colored blockheads. It seems the smallmouth bass really like ’em there and everywhere!
Somewhere between Yellow, Chartreuse, White (especially good this summer), Black and Blue – you’ll find a popper that will turn fish. Even on those days when fishing is slow, keep chucking these blockheads and good things will happen.
I generally will switch to a Mega Hopper Popper, when the poppers don’t work. Many times the hopper, especially mid to late summer will coax recalcitrant bass up to sip in these delectable foam hoppers.
If that doesn’t work, I’ll head down with streamers and ultimately dredge with Clousers or Weighted Crayfish patterns, of some sort – not near as much fun in my book…
But we always go back to the blockheads periodically – later in the day as most often, smallmouth will look up at some point.
You’ll generally take your biggest fish with a surface popper as well.
Oh yes, did I mention they work quite well. At left is a dandy 20″er caught in the Mississippi at the beginning of August in 78 degree water.
I’m holding a NuCast Smokin ‘ Hot Fly Rod with a NuCast Synergy II reel. For those of you who don’t want to spend $600-800 on a Sage, these NuCast Rods for $150 are as close as you’ll come to fly casting nirvana. My brother Bruce (with Mike Klever of Sartell, MN) prefers his NuCast 8 weight over his Sage Rods.
This was a strange overcast day with a light NW wind with relatively clear brown stained Mississippi River water, common for this time of year. About three foot visibility.
We caught a bunch of small fish early, but later in the afternoon, the big ones started to hit. Not a lot, but you’re never going to get many this size!
We’ve taken lots of floats this season and it’s funny how a couple of slobs can really define a particular trip and stretch of water.
This section of water has generally put out some big fish. Yet sections of river water will cycle through the years. For a few years they’ll put out big ones and then the fish will diminish in size for a few year only to put out some monsters once again.
It’s always good to see those smaller fish which means lots of great fly fishing action for years to come!
Not A Fly Fishing Snob? We Forgive You!
I’ve been fishing, writing and selling fly fishing related information and equipment for a long time. In the summer, me and my cohorts fly fish for bass at least once and generally multiple times per week.
I’ve decided to come out of the fly fishing closet… I’m Not A Purist!
Yes, there are those that choke at the thought of picking up a spinning rod when pursuing river smallmouth – not me.
I’ve taken so many trips where the fish just are not interested in flies. We always start with poppers, just in case they’re going on top early in the trip. If that fails I’ll start working my way down the water column until I get a hint at what they want.
We generally time our daily sojourns to start around noon or early afternoon, fishing into the golden hours of the late afternoon-early evening, when the water warms and fish often look up.
There are times when the fish simply will not come to flies with enough frequency to satisfy my needs.
Therefore, I always carry a stout medium-heavy spinning rod with 8# test and tie a snap or clip to the end (not a swivel – a snap or clip). The snap allows for a quick lure change, a low profile and allows for free movement of the lure.
I generally use a Strike King Mini Buzz Bait in chartreuse or white. I doctor the attachment end of the wire loop which, unless you tie on direct, will slip out of position when using a snap, clip or swivel. I think this is a design flaw.
To remedy this, I slide a small 1/4″ diameter piece of shrink tubing over the protrusion and heat it up to shrink it down – allowing enough open space at the distal end to clip or tie on direct. I do this on any spinnerbait type lure that comes in this conformation.
I also use a surface plug like the famous Storm Chug Bug. I like plug poppers somewhere between 2 1/2″ or slightly larger.
I remove the forward treble hooks on the plugs to make release so much easier and to avoid damaging the fish as much as possible.
I have personally witnessed countless days on rivers, especially smaller ones, where fish were very reluctant to eat a fly, but will slam a buzz-bait or stick bait. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but it happens a lot.
Without the spinning rod along on a typical 4 – 5 hour float, the lack of fly rodding action would make the jaunt nothing more than a nice, relatively boring canoe or float trip.
I will always go to back to a popper or high riding streamer, if the top water spinning action heats up, just to see if their mood changed and they will now cooperate with the more gentlemanly persuasion of fly fishing. I actually prefer the topwater explosion of a bass hitting one of the aforementioned surface lures over streamer fishing, in many cases.
A spinning rod is also the perfect antidote for either a non-fly fishing partner or someone who can’t cast well enough to get the fly where it needs to go. Believe me, you won’t have much trouble getting them to use the spinning rod, once the water starts roiling with pissed-off bass.
No, I’m not a purist. I like to catch fish – especially on top. If you have the fly fishing blues due to recalcitrant bass and want to stir things up – try some top water spinning presentations and get ready for some bonus excitement this season!