It’s often questioned by people not so enamored by fly fishing and its various techniques and species: what is the allure of catching a fish only to release it?
For a fly fisherman, this is not a hard question to answer. It’s the pure thrill of finding the fish, using the right fly and then tricking the fish into eating and more importantly, maybe seeing the fish eat your fly.
I’m on an airplane, not going anywhere overly glamorous. But the glamour and excitement of the species I will be hunting for the next ten days will keep me plenty occupied.
What species? Tarpon.
In my opinion, tarpon are the most addictive species you can fish for on the fly. I’ll be honest though, if it’s in the salt or a new place or species, all fly fishing can be quite addictive.
If you have ever had a “shot” at a tarpon, you might just have this addiction. Whether it was the perfect cast or one that wasn’t so perfect, you probably understand the feeling of the adrenaline rush. And most importantly, you were able to see the beast we call “the Silver King.” Just seeing one can give anyone anxiety or “buck fever.” Then, if one of these fish actually eats your fly…well your life as you know it, will be changed forever.
First off, let’s talk about gear. This gear is not your ordinary fishing gear. This gear needs to stand up to some serious beasts.
The fly rod needs to be a whuppin’ stick. Think of a ten to twelve weight fly rod. Some people are using ten weights, but I would recommend an eleven or twelve weight to help yourself and the fish. You don’t want to have to fight these fish longer than you have to.
Then pair this whuppin’ stick with a finely mechanically engineered piece of fish fighting gear -a machined fly reel to match your rod's weight and fly line. Think of a big game sealed drag system to keep out the salt water with lots of stopping power.
Match your fly line to your rod and reel and in most situations, a floating line is preferred. But if you have multiple fly rods, sometimes a sinking tip and or intermediate line can be used for certain situations.
Now we want to talk about the leader and tippet. There are a lot of pre-made leaders out there. And if you are going for world records or tippet class records those prefabricated leaders exist. That said, these options can be hard on tarpon for how long you may have to fight these fish to get them in without breaking the line. For myself and a lot of tarpon anglers, just using straight fluorocarbon is all you really need. Have a couple spools of sixty to eighty-pound fluorocarbon in your bag. My friends like to use eighty-pound and call it “straighty.” It’s literally just ten or so feet of eighty-pound fluorocarbon. Learn to tie the perfection loop and non-slip mono loop knot and now you have your connections down.
What flies to use?
There are a lot of options out there including cockroaches, toads, and traditional patterns - then add in all the different colors. In my experience, having a few tarpon toads in purple and black, red and black and pink and black should cover many situations. I like flies to not be too heavy or too light. Just heavy enough to sink a couple feet deep in a few seconds. Sure, heavier and lighter flies can have their place but most of the time something in the middle seems to work best.
Lastly, you need a good pair of polarized glasses. I like a blue mirrored glass lens with a grey tint. These seem to save my eyes some fatigue at the end of the day. Another good option is a glass lens with a green mirrored lens in a brown tint. These lenses are a good all-around and perform well in multiple light conditions.
Now, let’s talk about execution. Tarpon fishing is hard, uncomfortable, exhausting and time consuming. You will spend all day staring at the sea, literally staring at the sea, or shallow sandbars where you expect the fish to be swimming. You will see things, see illusions, you will see tarpon sea grass, and if you're lucky and in the right spot, you’ll see a fish – and sometimes many.
If you see fish, you may have to pole after them, or your guide or buddy may pole the boat to a better casting position. Then you take your shot. The trick is to be patient enough to not cast too soon as the fish may change direction. Then get the fly in the right position, let it soak for a few seconds before you give your strip and hope the beast is interested in your tiny offering.
This all sounds easy enough, but after hours staring at the sea and finally seeing one, this can be quite challenging with “buck fever” coming over you and the pure sight of this amazing creature. Oh, and did I mention you can’t be too patient and let the fish get too close. Or boom! ‘She gone!’
You might see large pods and groups of fish. These fish could be “daisy chaining” or cruising in large numbers. These large groups can be quite exciting to see but tend to be somewhat challenging to get to eat your fly. You literally might get ten casts at a group and not one will be interested. The hope is to get a fish to peel off and eat your fly. Any shot at a tarpon is cherished like gold, but I have only coaxed a few off these larger schools in my life.
What I am really looking for is the smaller groups. Groups of ten, five, three, two and singles. I’m looking for slower moving ‘happy fish.’ If you see these groups, you have a great chance of putting it all together. A funny thing in my experience and with many people who fish for tarpon, is you can literally see a fish or group coming down the bar and just know, ‘Oh these fish are eaters.’
Is this going to happen on your first and only tarpon trip? Maybe – if you have some good tarpon juju working for you. But the reality is that you have to put your time in for tarpon. The first time I visited Florida and was shown around by a good buddy, I saw fish, had shots at fish, but just could not find a happy fish. Even though I didn’t ‘jump’ a fish, I was hooked on tarpon fishing.
Over the years, I traveled to Florida many springs and early summers to fish with my buddy Mike. At the time this guy was doing stuff no one was doing. Mike was going after tarpon off the beach in canoes and setting ladders up on the sandbars at passes. This was a precursor to what most people are doing with skiffs and fly fishing in many parts of Florida. We jumped many fish using those unorthodox techniques and the addiction was there.
As life goes, it was quite a few years since I had been back to saltwater fishing. Then I had a couple invitations from Mike to visit the Everglades on a houseboat adventure. A year or so later, I found myself with an open winter and Mike invited me down to stay on the houseboat, get some sea time and get a captain's license.
I did just that with anticipation of the spring and early summer tarpon season. The addiction was back!
That winter in Florida pursuing an achievement and a creature I have always wanted to immerse myself in, was a dream come true. I learned so much, met great friends and cultivated an addiction for the salt and tarpon fishing.
Then next winter, I found myself with a year-round job with Trouts Fly Fishing. Now my addiction would have to be fed in small doses with meticulous timing.
This timing is usually late May and early June for me. The tarpon are getting fired up and there usually is a lull in the action back in Colorado during the spring runoff.
So, for a couple years now, that's what I have been able to do. It’s pretty hard to single out a couple of weeks and hope that the weather is good. It has to be good enough to have the sun out for a portion of the day. The real fun is seeing the fish cruising the bar, getting a cast to them and seeing them eat your fly.
Sounds easy right? Well expect some disappointment.
Somehow the last two trips have been nothing short of amazing. The first year, we probably fed twenty plus tarpon in a day. Don’t ever expect this! It just was one of those times you had to be there. My friends, who grew up in Florida, had never ever seen anything like this. This trip also broke three fly rods, two fly lines and a fly reel.
When I started writing this article on my flight to Florida, I was filled with trepidation and anticipation of what might - or might not - happen. It was nothing like the trip two years ago, but better in many ways. I managed to jump one fish a day and leader one in the first three days (to ‘leader’ a fish is to get one close to the boat to touch the leader before a fish releases itself). My friends were telling me that I had ‘the good juju’ as this season the fish had been tight lipped.
Good juju or not, in tarpon fishing that juju can disappear quickly. Or maybe it’s the self-doubt that appears quickly. I found myself on day four having four fish eat, but I could not come tight. This brings all kinds of questions to the mind. The first one: ‘Am I trying to trout-set a tarpon?’ This is the biggest saltwater no-no!
Then, more questions of self-doubt. ‘Do I need to let them eat and then wait to come tight? Did I pull it out of the fish's mouth? Am I stripping too fast?’
There are so many thoughts that just start messing with your head which can bring a serious turnaround in your confidence and potentially a case of bad juju.
Day four did a number on my confidence for sure and all of a sudden, I found myself on my last day tarpon fishing with my friends. I had already leadered a fish, jumped three and fed six. A huge victory in itself. But I was hoping to get my hands on a fish and the time was running out.
Kevin told me to bring the good juju and I said: “I’m not sure I have it anymore.”
The confidence I had from the year before was clearly shaken. Not long after that, what any seasoned tarpon fly fisherman likes to see - a single, kamikaze fish, that one hundred percent looks like an eater.
I was able to make the cast, she turned, she followed, so close to the boat, she ate, I set the hook, she jumped, she took off a couple hundred yards of line, the reel screamed, she jumped again, we chased her down, we fought her hard, we pulled her head, we got down and dirty, and we put hands on her to remove the fly.
Put your time in, take the defeats and the triumphs with grace, sprinkle in a dash of good juju and you’ll fortunately (and unfortunately) have a sickness for life.