Fly fishing for tarpon is one of the biggest challenges
in fly fishing. The fish are huge, they jump up to 6 feet in the air, and their
mouths are solid bone. It has the hunting aspect of bonefishing but with a huge exhilarating take ( many times on the surface)Landing one over 100 pounds is something a very small
percentage of fly fishers have ever done. Below you will find some tid bits about tarpon,
the truth is nothing can prepare you for the Silver King.
If you ever decide to pursue these prehistoric
creatures give me a call and I will steer you in the right direction. We have
several places in our roster that boast tarpon. Florida Tarpon are legendary but our other tarpon only destinations are: The
Caribbean coast of Costa Rica or Mexico's Caribbean and Yucatan coasts, Belize has a good mixture
of bonefish and permit thrown in and Venezuela also
has great baby tarpon fishing.
Table of Contents
1.Tarpon on My Mind
2. Florida Tarpon Season
3. A Few of the Best Tarpon Flies
on My Mind
The early morning was made even more beautiful as the sun tried to burn
away the mist hanging over the river. The Howler monkeys were doing their best to
make sure I knew I was in the jungle with their larger than life calls. I was in Costa
Rica trying to catch a tarpon.
Today we were on a small lagoon off
the Rio California near the village of Parismina. To get our feet wet we were starting off
with some small tarpon that our guide Carlos found here on a regular basis. As he shut the motor down and drifted
towards the lagoon, Carlos switched to a paddle to move more quietly through the mist.
"One o'clock, 100 feet" was the whispered command from the back of the
boat. Sure enough their was a huge ring spreading in the mirror like water.
I stripped off a hundred feet of line ( as if I could
really cast it all) and threw it about 70 feet, well short of the intended target. I
stripped it in and tried another cast in the presumed
direction, but nothing.
"There he is again" as Carlos pointed further left and I just caught a glimpse
of a fin as it slipped underneath the water again. If that was the same fish he was
moving to our left and I think he was in reach of my casting skills. The adrenaline
was flowing but I somehow didn't step on my line or fall out of the boat or anything, I
just cast. I stripped in the relatively slow style that I had been instructed, but
nothing. "Same cast, again" came the voice from the back as if out of some
spiritual movie. Well, I obeyed and the cast laid out fairly smooth. I stripped,
stripped watching my white streamer, barely visible 2 feet below the surface. A large very
slow flash appeared where my fly was and my line was tight. "HIT HIM!!!"
God yelled behind me and I struck with a vengeance.
The next moment is a moment I will be able to recall the
rest of my life. The line screamed away from the boat and 5 feet of tarpon exploded
through the mist into the sun and hung 5 feet out of the water thrashing it head with his
gills wide open. This must have taken a split second
but it seemed like minutes before the
The line was slack and I knew I had
lost the fish. Somehow it just didn't matter. It was the most magnificent sight
I had ever witnessed while fly fishing. I sat down and noticed the adrenaline
induced shake to my hands. I looked at Carlos and said " I thought we were going for
small fish!" I thought he was joking when he said "Yeah, tomorrow we'll
look for some big ones in the ocean" The next day I found out he wasn't
Ever spring tarpon travel from Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, both coasts of Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas to meet in the Florida Keys to spawn. At least that's what we think. No one has ever actually witnessed the spawning but some typical pre-spwan rituals have been recorded. During April May and June the Keys have more tarpon than anywhere else in the world. Huge numbers of fish, many days we see over 500 fish. Getting one of those to eat your fly is the challenge.
There are a few things working against us as sight fishing fly fishermen: Tarpon eat mostly at night, they eat mostly in the deeper channels; when we do see them in shallow water traveling on the ocean side of the keys, their primary goal is to find a mate or travel to the spot they believe will find their mate, eating is not on their mind; and there are hundreds of other fly fishermen presenting flies to them all day long. It is no wonder a 100 pound fish will occasionally spook at the sight of a well presented 2 inch long fly.
What can you do to improve your chances at one of these lazy eating giants? The biggest thing you can do is to hire the right guide. There are some trade secret flies that actually do work better than what you find in stores, those secret flies are guarded even between guides. There are so many variables that go into a successful hookup: the tide; the current; the time of day; fly pattern, reading the fish, the temperament of the fish; the line leader combination; the cast; enticing that fish to eat; setting the hook; and finally fighting it hard.
In general I see more hookups in the early morning or late afternoon, if you guide wants to get out at 7 am, trust him, if he wants to start late so you can fish till sunset, trust him. It is certainly easier to see the fish at high noon but they are also the most skittish at that time. The effective tides are different on every flat but moving water will get them moving out into the shallows. You can't do anything about the temperament of a fish, some fish will present a body language that indicates it is relaxed and happy, willing to eat, others will be a little deeper, faster or too straight of a line of travel. Your guide can tell which fish have the best chance of eating. Not that the deeper faster darker fish never eat it is just almost never. We can't control the temperament, but we still have to take a shot if there is not a happy fish nearby. In fact the only thing we control is the fly, the leader/line and the presentation and strip. Since the most effective fly will come from your guide we don't even control that. Even the rod, reel, leader and line will be provided by the guide as they prefer to know you have the right tackle.
Pretty much that leaves you with presentation. Here is where you need to learn things before you head out for your first tarpon. There is an art and feel to putting the fly in the right place. A laid up fish floating on the surface needs that fly to land softly a foot in front of it and maybe 6 inches past it, gently wiggle the fly into the center of its vision. He will either spook instantly or wiggle awake.. and eat OMG! The first rule is I believe a tarpon needs to see a fly with 2 eyes, make the same cast 6 inches to your side of the fish and your chances plummet. Their eyes are on the sides of their head which gives then a very narrow window where they can see something with both eyes. The seem to like to see food with one eye then the other. You need to pass through that window, this means you need to cross the tarpons line of vision. Never throw it short.
A fast cruising ocean fish needs a different technique.. this fish must never sense the fly landing, they must never see the fly line and they must see it with two eyes for as long as possible. To keep them from sensing the landing of the fly you can lead a fish by 30 feet. Many anglers aim at what they think is 30 feet but with 4 false casts and a moving fish that 30 foot lead is now zero and it hits the tarpon in the head. (tarpon don't like that) It needs to LAND way way in front of him. The other reason it needs to land way out in front is you want to cast it too far and slide the fly into the line of the fish. ( remember 2 eyes) so a cast that ends up landing just short ( even by inches) will only be viewed out of his near eye, your chance dwindle. Without a lead you do not have time for this line adjustment, and the tarpon may see the fly line as you slide the fly where you want it. This long lead will mean you cast in the wrong direction occasionally as the fish changes directions. A long lead gives you some chance of taking a second shot.
The angle of the shot you take with a cruising tarpon is extremely important, I like a sweet 45 degree shot and sometimes even a 90 degree shot ( especially fishing worms) Those beauties that swim right at the boat are just a little awkward to get a proper two eyed shot, invariably it will end up just a few inches to the left or right just off on one eye. If they do eat then they usually don't turn on the fly they open suck it in and your first strip pops the fly right back out again ( occasionally the fish will eat it again!). Sometimes you just can't get away from this angle so you take it anyway working the fly very slow as him swims up near it gradually speeding up matching his speed as it gets into his strike zone. The longer it stays on that 3 foot cone in front of him the better. Let him eat and wait on the hook set ( I still can't do this!) till he changes direction, maybe stomp on the boat or he will finally start to know something is wrong and will try to expel the fly ( usually with some head shakes) strip it then, and hope he turns away from you!
Second shots: If you have a choice never throw at the same fish twice! All too often an angler will get fixated on the lead fish taking a second shot at that fish ( with an increasingly lousy angle) rather than looking back in the school and choosing a fish with a better angle. Once that lead fish is past the others will be less spooky. One trick with a long school and a 45 -90 degree shot is to let the first fish get into casting range and throw the leader and fly over the tail of the first fish and feed it to another fish down the line. If that one doesn't eat, pick up and throw it over the tail of another fish further back in the line. I have seen lines that take 3 minutes to go by affording 10-15 shots! Usually it is the #1 cast that is most effective, sometimes it is the 15th.
Now that you have the fly in the right place what do you do with it? Make him eat it...Visualize it... make him believe it is just to easy and yummy to pass up. This is the art part, some fish need just a tickle of a stationary fly, some need some teasing with fast and slow strips just a head of him to flick the switch, some want a slow long strip to light them up. I wish I could tell you one always works. Some flies ( like a Toad) work well going very slowly, they do not sink fast and have a lot of life without stripping much, other more baitfish specific patterns need a more jumpy strip, others like a worm pattern like a smooth non bumpy strip. Make him eat... be one with the fish.
Listen to your guide. Listening to your guide while 30 80-100 pound fish swim towards you is harder than you think. You are looking at a fish that the guide knows won't eat and he sees a happy one 20 feet behind and to the side, he tells you where to cast and you can't hear what he said.. you cast to the non biter that you have on your radar.
Hooking and fighting that fish will have to wait till another day... it is all about the take anyway! I am off fishing!
Favorite Tarpon Flies
Table of Contents:
2. Baby Bunker
HOOK: Tiemco 811S 1/0-5/0.
THREAD: Black 3/0.
TAIL: Six grizzly hackles, bronze Flashabou (optional), skirted by brown bucktail.
BODY: Black thread coated with epoxy
EYES: (Optional) Painted, white with black pupil.
Tie all six hackles towards the rear of the hook with some
curling out from each side.
- Tie in a small amount of flashabou if desired.
- Wind thread forward and tie a collar of brown bucktail that surrounds the
hackle and puffs up slightly. To get it to puff out more wind a lump of thread and tie the
bucktail just in front of the lump.
- Wind a tapered head, add eyes if desired and whip finish.
HOOK: Tiemco 811S
THREAD: White monocord.
TAIL: White bucktail and silver Krystal Flash.
BODY: White Icelandic sheep hair.
WING: Icelandic sheep hair, white under, followed by silver Fluorofibre
and three shades of gray Icelandic on top.
THROAT: Red Fluorofibre tied in to simulate gills.
EYES: 3D plastic. Pearl colored with black pupil.
HEAD: Color the top of the thread with a marker to match top layer of
- Start by tying in a small clump of white bucktail at the bend of the hook. Add a
few strands of silver Krystal flash over bucktail.
- Add a small (1/8") clump of white Icelandic sheep hair on the top of the
hook shank just ahead of the bucktail. The hair should reach just past the bucktail. Add a
small clump of the same hair to the bottom of the hook. Continue adding small clumps of
white sheep hair on the top and bottom of the hook, until only about 1/3 of the hook shank
remains exposed. Each clump of hair should be a bit shorter than the previous one to
create the tapered body look.
- With 2/3 of the hook shank covered, tie in 3 or 4 strands of silver Krystal Flash
on each side of the body. Cover the Krystal Flash with a very small clump of white sheep
- Tie in a medium sized clump of gray fluorofibre on the back of the fly to add
color and shine. Add in a small clump of light gray Icelandic sheep hair followed by a
slightly darker clump on the back of the fly. The final clump of hair should be darker
gray, almost black. Tie in one more smaller bunch of white Icelandic sheep hair on the
bottom of the hook shank.
- Tie is a small bunch of red fluorofibre on each cheek to simulate gills.
Whip-finish the head and color the top portion of the thread with black marker to match
the last bunch of hair. Add head cement and clip thread.
- Add the eyes with a dab of Goop and you're all done. As a tying tip: dress this
fly lightly. Do not add too much hair as it will create a rather large, cumbersome fly
that is more difficult to cast. Success Flies sells the Fluorofibre material. If this is
not available, almost any properly colored synthetic fiber should work fine.
HOOK: Tiemco 800S 3/0-#2.
THREAD: Red floss.
TAIL: Yellow, white, or red bucktail and grizzly hackle.
BODY: Red chenille.
COLLAR: Red marabou.
EYES: Silver bead chain.
HEAD: Black thread tapered and coated with epoxy.
- Tie in Bucktail color of your choice in the middle rear of the hook,
- Tie in grizzly hackle artistically surrounding the bucktail, trim
- Wrap a small body of chenille forward, tie off.
- Tie in 3-4 plumes of marabou and wind like a dry fly hackle
- Add eyes if desired and taper head and whip finish.