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.
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!
A good quality fly fishing outfit for freshwater bass can be used on a number of other fish, all over the world. In Minnesota, we suggest people use an 8wt outfit using either 8wt or 9wt weight forward floating line when fishing large rivers.
I love the “bass tapers or bass bullet” type profiles to aid in shooting line. Remember this: to become a proficient fly caster, you must be able to shoot line! Once mastered, you can take this equipment almost anywhere and do some real damage.
This type of equipment can be put to use on many other species besides bass:
- Baby tarpon
- Silver Salmon
Everyone should have an 8 weight fly rod in their arsenal if you’re serious about going after other fish in other lands.
I recently returned from a tarpon trip down to the western Yucatan of Mexico where we had good fishing for baby tarpon. These fish ranged from 5 – 15 pounds and showed some great acrobatics when hooked. The outfitter suggested 9 & 10 weights, but the 8’s worked great in most situations.
Heavier equipment helps when the wind is blowing, so it’s not a bad idea to bring some beefier rods. But in almost all cases, the trusty eight weights did the job. If wind is a problem, which it always is, some of my party simply up-lined to 9 weight line on the 8 weight rod – this combo worked great.
In my opinion, fly fisherman should have at least two rods. Get a 5 weight for trout, panfish, and lake fish such as smaller bass. You should have an 8 weight for the aforementioned applications mentioned above for larger fish.
I will also say a saltwater reel, while helpful, is not a necessity when jumping a plane for the tropics and saltwater. Most of the fish we encountered did not go into the backing and if they did, only around 50 feet. The key is a smooth start-up for the drag.
As long as you thoroughly rinse your reels in freshwater, each day after saltwater fishing, your bass equipment will work well. (I disjoint the nine foot rods in half and put everything in the shower with cold water running over them for about 10 minutes, after each days fishing.)
The exception to freshwater reels are bonefish, of course. They will easily rip out line – well into your backing on the first run. A quality reel with a trustworthy and smooth starting drag is essential.
There are good quality “freshwater reels” that will handle bonefish provided you have enough backing capacity.
A sealed drag system, seen in nearly all saltwater reels, will ward against incursion from saltwater. So if you plan to do a lot of salt/brackish water fishing – you should invest in a quality saltwater reel.
Fly fishing line manufacturers make a lot of money selling specie-specific fly line. You can get line just for bonefish, tarpon, largemouth, smallmouth, and a bunch of others. Most of the time you’re sight-fishing in shallow water and floating fly line works the best. For example, in Mexico recently, I used a $25 Canadian cheapo fly line on my 10 wt. rod and it worked superbly in the wind. So don’t be fooled by all the marketing hype.
Remember, most lower priced fly line is manufactured in Canada by the same fly line mill and sent off to retailers for labeling, etc. These lines generally work very well in most situations.
You can use an inexpensive fly line, provided you have a good thick bullet taper or head, to shoot line with gusto. Other considerations, for larger tarpon or subsurface applications, where you may need a slow sinking intermediate sink line. In these specialty situations, you may need to invest in this specialty line – based on where you’re going and what you’re after.
Most of the time though, the same gear you use for smallmouth bass in the river, will work great in nearly all other environs!
Fly Tying Vise Magnetic Hook Tray
Like many of you, I like to sniff around hardware stores and other similar stores that sell a variety of stuff. I’m always looking for better glues and tools to help in my fly tying.
You place these trays on any metal aspect of the machine you’re working on and it keeps things stabilized, so you don’t lose important components (which have a bad habit of falling into an unretrievable crevice within an engine block or similar).
These magnetized trays work great as a cheap add-on for your vise pedestal. The strong magnet not only holds the tray fast to your pedestal, but keeps hooks and beads stuck within the tray until you need them.
Try to find one that has a light colored background making it easier to ID your components. Just like that, you have a great hook holder. These can also be used for beads and any other components you don’t want to be crawling around on the floor in search of. Metal objects adhere the best, but any other type of components can be laid in these handy trays as well.
I found mine at an “unclaimed freight” store in north central Minnesota, but I’ve seen them all over the place in hardware stores, tool stores, and the like. I like the small ones like the ones shown in the photo, but they come in all sizes and colors, including metal finish.