Stick with these basic fly styles wherever you fish for tarpon.
Don’t look now, but there are nearly as many tarpon fly patterns as there are bonefish fly patterns, or redfish fly patterns. All of which are catching up in number to trout stream fly patterns, which might just someday surpass the number of trout in streams.
Wow! Such innovation and imagination, but how to choose?
Let’s boil it down to basics for tarpon both in Florida and abroad. Here in the states, the trend has been smaller and smaller patterns, for three reasons primarily. One, smaller flies are easier to cast. Two, smaller flies on smaller hooks are easier to set in a poon’s bony jaw. And three, the consensus among experienced fly fishers is that tarpon for some reason eat them better than the bigger standards we have fished over the years. Reasons one and two are no-brainers. Number three continues to be debated over beers.
Tarpon eat various prey over their lifetime. Babies love little minnows and shrimp. As they grow they go to bigger baitfish of all sorts, and crabs. But in general, flies should imitate baitfish, shrimp and crabs. A few of the old standards work well because they can be mistaken, by the fish, for all three food types, depending on how the angler strips them in the water.
No fly (with the exception of the Cockroach) in the annals of tarpon fly fishing has made such an impact. Originally the Tasty Toad, it was devised for big bonefish by legendary Florida Keys guide Harry Spear. Is was then tweaked and popularized for big tarpon by long-time Atlanta fly shop owner Gary Merriman. It is a neutral buoyancy fly that works especially well for slow-moving or “laid-up” fish. Black mono eyes complete it, and black bead chain can be substituted when you want a bit faster sink rate.
Its horizontally orientated, clipped poly yard head holds the thing up in the water and also lends profile, and the pattern’s lively action, its “breathability,” comes from its undulating marabou tail (though Merriman’s first versions had a rabbit strip (zonker) tail tied in fur side down for softer landings. Reportedly, it was Keys guide Tim Hoover who started fishing the pattern with an all-marabou tail. The version was somewhat easier to cast, and it fed especially finicky ocean tarpon quite well.
The original color combo is yellow-and-chartreuse, though all black, purple-and-black, rusty orange, and tan-and-orange are popular in the backcountry. Dark colored, heavily dressed versions fish well at night for fly fishers dredging Keys bridges, and during the daytime in turbid or muddy water.
Most popular hook size is a 2/0 for giant fish, though 1/0 hooks are becoming mainstream in South Florida waters. Incidentally, this fly is also great for cobia, tripletail, and others that fancy crabs.
More a pattern size thing than a specific forage imitator, these smallish, simple patterns are being tied on 1/0 hooks in the Florida Keys for the wariest of oceanside migrating tarpon. When I first saw these in commercial fly catalogs and fly shops, I thought, heck, I tied and fish these little guys for baby tarpon in Everglades canals years ago, on No. 1 and No. 2 hooks.
They are indeed simple—most have a simple tail of Craft Fur (though I like natural hairs such as Arctic fox or a small zonker strip) for optimum action in the water, and a palmered collar of badger or hen hackle feather finishes it. Add some flash to the tail if the water is stained or muddy. This one is tied at the rear of the hook like most tarpon flies to cut down on the chance of material fouling in the hook gap. Color combinations run the gamut. White-and-yellow suggests a white baitfish, and black, purple, or brown-and-orange suggest crustaceans. High-grade hooks are used. Some of the best include the Gamakatsu S-17 Tarpon Fly Hook (a heavy gauge hook), the company’s SC-15, Owner Aki, and Eagle Claw 254. Whichever you use, you might consider squeezing down the barb a bit, just as you would with larger tarpon fly hooks. They will penetrate better, and hold surprisingly well despite the lack of the sharp barb.
EP Tarpon Streamer
The age of synthetic materials has brought about many deadly flies, and the Enrico Puglisi fiber has allowed tyers to produce baitfish-shaped flies that hold that shape in water. Tarpon fly fishers have had great success with this simple, tapered baitfish pattern, in every color imaginable. The head-to-tail taper, achieved by trimming with sharp scissors, reminds one of the profile of yesteryear’s classic hackle collared and winged patterns. The main difference is these patterns don’t readily foul like feathers do—the EP material is stiff. Black-and-purple, black-and-red, tan-and-orange, and natural-looking grey-backed white versions (suggesting a pilchard or finger mullet) all catch fish.
This fly’s material drinks in permanent marker quite well, allowing tyers to make vertical bars that add contrast to the fly. Most tyers tie the collar (head) well back on the hook shank, to further decrease the chance of material fouling. Add an eye of choice to this fly for more realism.
Some flies go out of style, but the tarpon just don’t know it. Of all the Splayed-wing style Keys streamers that the fish have supposedly seen too many of, this shrimpy looking swimmer holds its own, particularly in backcountry waters of Florida Bay. Tarpon big and small eat this one, wherever shrimp are on the menu. Splayed (tied outboard) grizzly hackles (two to three per side) and a collar of wither black bear hair or squirrel tail fur make this look like a shrimp. A simple black thread head tied in about mid-shank finishes it.
Tarpon Mouse (a.k.a. Tarpon Slider)
When tarpon are lazily rolling at the surface and gulping air at daybreak, or laid-up in stationary mode, you need a fly that fishes well without sinking below their position in the water. Deer Hair-head flies are the ticket, and this one has become more popular, particularly in backcountry waters.
It elicits explosive strikes, and can be cast to sighted fish, or fished blindly along the surface, waking right on top, for fish unseen. Strikes can be explosive. Many tyers use Craft Fur or similar synthetic fibers for the tail, and the head is made of deer belly hair or elk belly hair, spun and packed tightly and clipped to a bullet shape. Be sure to leave a collar of longer deer hair at the rear of the clipped head for extra profile and buoyancy. Because this fly stays just under the surface, it is wise to tie in a two-prong mono weedguard to ward off floating bits of grass that may be present.