Fly Fishing for Baby Tarpon
Fishing’s Juvenile Delinquents – Hell Raising Misguided Youth
As your thoughts drift to a warm weather get-away this season remember this: There’s a good chance you can find and battle baby tarpon during your tropical sojourn. If you look hard enough and ask the right questions you can be in for some heart-stopping action in and around the Gulf or Caribbean on a shoe string budget.
For the price of a rental car you can search and find hidden coverts teeming with the greatest fly fishing quarry there is – in a size you can handle with bass equipment!
I encountered my first baby tarpon nearly 25 years ago while visiting Grand Cayman Island. I found the only fly fishing guide – a refugee from Wales who was catering to a scant number of fly fisherman (masquerading as scuba divers) who happen to visit this popular diving location. Somehow we found each other.
Our guide Clive drove my wife and I back into the scrubby desert-like habitat very common in this part of the Caribbean. The beauty is in the water, not the land. The inland canals or dykes are bordered with mangroves. There is a maze of backroads with canals on either side, harboring these goggle-eyed demons – ready to blast a well placed fly.
We tried wading some shallow flats for bonefish without success and then headed inland to the myriad of man-made canals, built for mosquito control and swamp drainage on Grand Cayman and many other locales in the tropics.
We threw Lefty’s Popping Bugs against the mangroves, sometimes blindly and other times near a tarpon rise or roll. The strikes were always explosive, shocking and very exciting – especially in tight quarters.
Such is the case in tarpon fishing of any kind – you will lose at least five for every one you land. But, no matter – the hook up and subsequent aerial circus is the essence of tarpon fishing.
Both my wife and I hooked a bunch and landed a few baby tarpon and it was the highlight of our trip, which included scuba diving, snorkeling and lesser pursuits.
We subsequently returned many times for “do-it-yourself” baby tarpon, mixed in with other tropical fun and relaxation. Because let’s face it people: You can only lay on the beach for so long without wanting to go fishing somewhere.
Baby tarpon generally weigh between five and thirty pounds. The smaller fish, which live in creeks and canals, are five to ten pounds and pack the same manic attitude as their 100 pound behemoth relatives. The larger versions weigh 15 to 40 pounds are referred to as juveniles. These fish are typically found in adjacent shallow bays where schools of them can be spotted rolling on calm days.
Tarpon hate hooks. No fish abhors containment more than a tarpon! They will do anything to separate themselves from you. This includes jumping repeatedly, often into the trees, and generally just going berserk. Every hookup is breathtaking with the ensuing battles often short in duration.
The Cold Hard Truth:
If you have not fished tarpon, you need to; baby tarpon is a great way to get started!
Equipment for Baby Tarpon
The very same gear you use for bass works great for baby tarpon. An 8 weight fly rod and 7/8 reel with 20# backing will do the trick. Leaders are very simple: Butt section 40lb (flouro – 4 feet), Class tipped 10 -15lb (hard mono – 2 – 3 feet), Shock tippet 30 – 50 lb (2 feet).
Travel rods are great for this situation. Your wife may not even notice you packed a rod “just in case”.
If you’re going after larger juvenile “bay” fish, they can and will execute spirited runs, but you’ll rarely need more than 100 yards of backing, which you may already have on the reel. Some anglers will go to a 9 weight rod in this setting where longer casts and wind may require more backbone.
When fishing in shallow bays, you may need a guide. Your guide will typically fire up the outboard to catch up with running fish allowing you to take up line and fight them once you’re back on the flyline. This is much more common with giant tarpon than babies.
Mangrove fishing among creeks and canals is close quarters combat. Basically you’re trying to horse the fish away from the mangrove roots where trouble always awaits. Landing a fish here is even more difficult because of all the hazards. But who cares, right?
You are going to lose fish so:
- be prepared,
- learn from your mishaps, and
- look forward to the next hook-up.
Best Time and Places to Pursue Baby Tarpon
While the experts claim the best months are from April to October for hard hitting surface action, let’s be real. Most of us go to the tropics to escape the cold, if only for a week or two. I’ve had solid baby tarpon fishing in January through March, including surface action (which is supposed to peak in May to June, just like the big ones).
Don’t let a lack of in-depth fishing information stop you from searching for these fish in any tropical environment. Nearly every favored winter getaway from Florida to Honduras, including islands in the Caribbean, have tarpon nursery habitat that you can exploit. When in doubt, rent a car and take a few back roads. Ask questions at the fishing shops or marine dealers. Find out if there are canal systems anywhere in the area. If there are – they’ll be fish in them!
Care of Equipment
If you use freshwater equipment, remember to take time after each outing and thoroughly rinse off your rod, reel and line with freshwater. I like to set the rods/reels in the shower and just let it run for about 15 minutes. This typically does the trick. You can also consider reels made for saltwater with waterproof drag systems impervious to saltwater incursion. We sell a super cross-over (fresh/salt) called the Blue Crush.
Flies for Baby Tarpon
Here’s a short list. Check YouTube for tying instructions.
Seaducer ( three strands of flashabou on each side. Red/White, Red/Yellow, Red head/body
- Lefty’s Poppin’ Bug (Lg size in Yellow, White & Chartreuse)
Cockroach (Orange or Red Grizzly. same flash)
Gurgler ( Black, Tan, Red, Chartreuse – foam, white body and tail, raibowflash on the tail)
Black Death (either common feather ones or bunny)
Purple Death (either common feather ones or bunny)
Clouser Minnow (White/Red, White/Chartreuse)
*All hooks stainless steel – in 1/0 or 2/0… for clouser minnows i would tie a few extras on #2 for snook.
Click to Enlarge Photo
This box is ready to rumble for a baby tarpon excursion in early December. Stay tuned!