Step One – Set up for An Ambush
My sons John, Bill and I fished in the Keys last week with tarpon specialist, guide Jeremy Fisher www.fisherguide.com . In the mornings we positioned ourselves in 6 to 8 feet of water on an outgoing tide on the ocean side of Islamorada within sight of clear sandy “lanes” between large shoals. As the Tarpon passed over the white sandy background we were able to spot them coming, going, and traversing the lanes. Jeremy was much better sighting the fish than us. He could spot them moving over the darker backgrounds and the sand and from much farther away. His job was to point them out, instruct us where to place the fly and then to coach each of us on tarpon “fly fishing technique”.
Placing the fly in the right place is easier said than done as it requires positioning it at an optimum angle in front of the fish then stripping it slowly with long slow pulls with the rod tip low and pointed at the fish. The idea is for the fish see it in front of him as it swims by. The reason for keeping the rod low and pointed towards the tarpon is so the fly will position itself correctly is the tarpons oddly shaped mouth when it strikes. Once the fish hits you need to strip set straight back with a couple of firm tugs or else the hook will not set properly. This requires a lot of finesse both in casting and timing it just right. It also seems the fish are either finicky or lazy as they won’t “eat “unless it’s done just right. Jeremy said 90% of the time they won’t turn to take the fly, although John had one that did. We had quite a few shots at fish but only a few strikes and hook ups. We successfully managed to get two to the boat on the fly and one on spinning gear. John’s, caught on the fly, was a real slab: estimated weight 115-120 lbs.
We were using 12 weight rods with 40lb leaders with the drag cranked way up on the reels. This allows you to put a lot of pressure on the fish during the fight but also creates a problem when the fish explodes out of the water for a tail walk while shaking its powerful head for all it’s worth. A hundred pound tarpon can snap a 40lb leader in a heartbeat so one has to “bow” while extending your arms toward the fish quickly to release a bit of tension on the line. It also helps to keep the reel tucked in tight during the fight so you can reach out even further (longer distance of travel) when the fish jumps, to take the pressure off of the line. During the fight you keep the rod at a low angle while pulling the fish left or right depending on its direction of travel. If it goes left you go right and vice versa. This keep the maximum pressure on by continually pulling the tarpon’s head in the opposite direction of its line of travel.
Lifting the rod or setting the hook in an upward motion will pull the fly out to the fish’s mouth, which John did once after having made a perfect cast and managing to get the strike. The fish turned and exploded on the fly and then jumped straight out of the water. John tried to set the hook by pulling up; a natural direction for most fish, but in this case was a no no. Big mama spit the fly. It was pretty quiet on the boat after that for a while. I’ve lost big fish too by pulling a rookie move so I knew just how John felt. . We’ve all been there, adrenaline spiked, fish on and then we make a mistake and its fish gone. Bummmmeeeer! Jeremy chastised him which he took very well. He was here to learn and had no problem taking direction from a pro.
John, Bill and I all did successfully catch our first tarpon. John and I on the fly and Bill on a crab on spinning gear. Once you’re hooked up it’s a battle to tire out the fish and get it to the boat for release. Especially the big one John caught. It’s a little like landing a big tuna. Getting it to the boat doesn’t mean it’s over. The big ones head for the bottom and pull the boat around. However you still want to keep the heat on, even increase it. You don’t want to release a fish that is totally exhausted. If you do they are susceptible to shark attack in their weakened condition. So once you hook up, fight the fish for all you’ve got to get I to the boat for a quick release. No matter how fast you land it you’re in for a real display of acrobatic leaps, tail walks, and huge splashes. These are power beautiful fish that put on quite a show and never seem to give up. Even at the boat they resist like hell while removing the hook. Then it’s a matter of a quick bit of revival and a successful release as in the photos below.
For such a large fish the flies are surprisingly small. All of the flies we used were less than about two inches long. Below in the photo on the left are the two we used most often. The black and purple being the most successful. The brown one resembles a sand worm but I’m clueless what the black and purple looks like other than providing good contrast with an overcast sky.
All in all we had a super time and now Bill, John and I all have a notch on our belts for a tarpon. After four days of tarpon fishing we did an offshore trip (see below), but that’s a story for another day.