The tarpon is a fish with so much history and legend that it nearly falls into a different category of fishing all together. Much of this is due to the silver king being a literal dinosaur, having remained largely unchanged for the last 100 million years. Growing to sizes of over 250 pounds and reaching lengths of 8 feet, this fish lives up to the legend with its blistering runs, excessive acrobatics, and brute strength. Despite being extremely difficult to catch on conventional tackle, a select group of potentially crazy anglers are dedicated to the even more difficult task of catching them on fly.
When someone mentions fly fishing for tarpon, one immediately thinks of the crystal clear flats of the Florida Keys. This is where the sport began, with the legends of old catching giant fish on bamboo rods and homemade reels while competing in events like the Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament in Key West. Here, anglers sight-fish strings of fish cruising the flats and often experience incredibly visual takes on the surface right before the fish empties their reel in a matter of seconds. Why would anglers employ fly tackle over sturdier, more manageable conventional gear? It is similar to the satisfaction of a chattering typewriter over a computer, or a driving enthusiast preferring the connection of a manual transmission. It poses a unique challenge, which makes the catch that more rewarding (and brag-worthy)!
One of the most important components of fly fishing for tarpon is having the correct gear. Tarpon are big, powerful fish that refuse to give up. Because of this, heavy fly tackle is required. Anglers typically use 12-weight fast action rods with enough backbone to muscle these fish in the later stages of the fight. These heavy rods also help anglers make long, accurate casts in the windy conditions that often occur on the flats.
Next, these rods must be paired with a quality reel, one that can endure the long, blistering runs made by tarpon in the beginning of the fight. Large arbor reels with a strong, durable drag system are a must when tackling these fish. These reels are then spooled with a 200-300 yards of 30 pound backing to ensure you are not spooled during the fish’s first run, as you would be surprised how quickly a tarpon can dump a reel in the time it takes you to get off the anchor and fire up the motor.
Fly line choices are of personal preference, and there are many great choices of floating fly lines rated for tarpon on the market. Continuing down the line, you must consider your leader. Again, leaders are up to your personal preference, with some anglers using pre-made leaders and others building their own. Regardless, leaders are typically around 10-11 feet and end in a shock tippet testing between 50 and 80 pounds, a necessity in guarding against the Tarpon’s extremely abrasive mouth.
Fly choice for tarpon can be situational, but there are several mainstays that prove effective season after season. Flies like the tarpon toad, black death, and the big eye tarpon fly can be found in every tarpon guide’s fly box and are extremely effective. In addition, certain conditions call for flies that specifically “match the hatch”. One example of this case is the palolo worm hatch in Florida Bay that puts Tarpon into a feeding frenzy and offers for some incredible fishing. Another example is a crab or shrimp flush. Here, tarpon stack up in passes and around bridges and feed on thousands of the crustaceans as they are sucked out on an outgoing tide.
Techniques for targeting tarpon are tailored to the location you are hunting them. In the keys, fly anglers will pole the flats searching for strings of fish, or simply anchor up on a flat and wait for groups of fish to cruise by. This typically takes place in late spring and summer as fish gear up to spawn. Further north on the west coast of Florida from Naples to Tampa, Tarpon can also be targeted on sandbars on the outskirts of inlets in a similar fashion.
Alternatively, the Everglades offer a very different way of targeting tarpon. Here, Tarpon will lay up near the surface in shallow bays and provide for a very difficult, but exciting, way of targeting the silver beasts. Shots at fish are often inside of 20 feet due to the poor water quality, causing the bites to be very up close and personal. These fish can be targeted year round, but the spring and summer months offer the best fishing.
Fighting tarpon on fly tackle is both an art and a test of endurance, as it is much like running a marathon while pulling a truck. The fight of a tarpon can be broken into four parts. First, when a fish eats your fly, you must strip set hard and aggressively in order to bury the hook in the fish’s extremely hard concrete-like-bucket of a mouth. Then you must clear your fly line and get it on the reel, all while the fish is running hard in the other direction and jumping 7 feet in the air.
Once you have the fish on the reel, you will likely chase the fish with the boat, providing you still have line left on the reel. Once you have the fish near the boat, you are only halfway done, as tarpon love to bulldog you, sometimes extending fight times an hour, all while you could nearly poke him with your rod. The battle is finally over when your partner gets hands on the fish, although sometimes the relentless creatures will give you one last jump while your buddy holds on for dear life.
Tarpon will leave both you and your gear battered and broken, and that’s if you're lucky enough to hook one. The rest of the time you are simply frustrated, angry, and confused as to why they won’t eat your fly or as to how on earth you missed another hookset. However, despite the mental and physical beating fly fishing for tarpon provides, the sight of the morning sun hitting that slab of silver while he backflips for the seventh time is indescribable, and those that have been fortunate enough to witness it all while being tethered to such an animal will be ruined for life.