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On the Trail of the Tarpon

Driven by migratory instincts, tarpon show up in more places than you may realize.

The sun's fiery circumference was spreading over the horizon as I eased into position. It had been a few weeks short of a year since I'd watched the glistening backs of tarpon break the surface as fish took turns gulping air. I was immersed in the memory, when I spotted the first school of the new season coming toward me. The fish milled leisurely, rolling languidly, and I could hear them blow in the still morning air as they moved across the shallows.

I watched them, and when they were within range I dropped a purple-and-black streamer 10 feet ahead of the school. Though it wasn't more than a few seconds, I fought to steady my shaking knees as the fly sank and the fish closed on it. Then, slow, short strips caught the eye of a lead fish. My stripping was interrupted by a light tap, then heavy resistance. I struck hard, and my first silver king of the new season went airborne.

That scenario took place in Biscayne Bay just as the southbound migration got underway this year. It's also a scene that has been repeated every year in the Keys, for decades.

But wait--before those of you who don't live near these fabled tarpon grounds grab your fly rods and head south, you should know that there is excellent tarpon fishing found close to you--no matter where you live.

Fly anglers off both Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Florida have for years been catching poons, even hundreds of miles from the Keys. And every year, more and more areas are discovered that provide excellent fly fishing for tarpon.

Boca Grande Pass and Homosassa, of course, are also legendary hotspots. But why compete with bait-soaking mega yachts and TV stars when there's fishing that can be just as rewarding--and certainly less stressful--in your own backyard?

Most tarpon encounters around the state will differ a bit from those in the shallows of Dade and Monroe counties, but fly anglers willing to do a little exploring and adjust tactics can easily tap into some terrific fly fishing.

In Northwest Florida, for instance, tarpon are regular visitors to the flats off St. Marks and the shallows around St. George Island. For some outrageous action, fly rodders hit Mud Cove in the Alligator Peninsula, where the fish show up in droves to feed on shrimp and menhaden. In June, when the baitfish are most abundant, tarpon from 40 to over 100 pounds can often be spotted tearing into schools of menhaden, particularly during an early morning high tide.

When you find these conditions, a baitfish imitation, such as a weighted Lefty's Deceiver, MirrOlure fly or even a slider in green-and-white, can bring explosive results.

From the Big Bend through the southwest, some of the best fly rodding for tarpon takes place along the beaches and deep, outside grassflats. Numerous productive spots lie from Anna Maria Island down to Marco Island and, unlike the more famous passes, it is still quite possible to find more tarpon than fishing boats along this stretch of coastline.

A few areas like Passage Key at Tampa Bay's southwestern end, Bean Point off the west tip of Anna Maria Island, and Charlotte Harbor's Johnson Shoals, offer fly anglers a shallow-water environment reminiscent of the Keys. Tarpon here are stalked by staking out or poling.

But, there also are many other west coast areas, like Longboat, Siesta and Casey Keys, Sarasota's Point of Rocks, Casperson, Manasota, Cayo Costa, Sanibel Island, Bonita, Estero Island, Naples, Marco, Keewaydin, Kive and Cape Romano islands, where the best fly rodding for tarpon takes place along the beaches and over deep grassflats, as anglers idle slowly along the shore in 10 to 20 feet of water, looking for signs of fish.

When they spot a school they switch from outboards to quieter electric power to position their boats in the path of the school, and let the fish come to them. Because the fish travel deeper here than in other parts of the coast, anglers count on calm water to locate the tarpon, thus early mornings, when breezes are gentler and boat traffic is light, often produce the best action.

From the Ten Thousand Islands to Cape Sable, tarpon fishing varies a bit. Some schools of silver kings will still run the beaches, but others will travel across grassflats and even temporarily move in and out of rivers and bays. Here, as in the Keys, tides have a stronger influence on the movement path of fish. It's critical to understand the tides if you are to score on tarpon here.

High falling water, for instance, can send fish inside rivers and creeks, or push them to travel right along the inshore edge of outside grassflats, where baitfish and crustaceans washed out by the tide will be most abundant. A low incoming tide will often congregate fish outside the mouth of the same rivers and creeks, or drive them out to the deeper edges of the flats. In addition, it is also possible to find laid-up fish in protected coves, mangrove shorelines, depressions surrounding oyster bars or even in spots inside rivers and creeks where submerged structure slows the current.

Opportunities for fly anglers in this region are diverse, and while places like Round, Indian, Rabbit and Pavilion keys, Highland Beach, the Broad and Harney Rivers, and Ponce de Leon Bay will all host their share of silver kings, the area is too large and complex to pinpoint where the fish will be at any given tide. Be alert to the geography, and try to think like a traveling tarpon.

From Flamingo to Key West, fly enthusiasts will find the classic tarpon flats fishing. This vast region is full of flats, banks and channels where tarpon can be targeted by either poling or by staking out at strategic points along travel routes. Ideally, the average water depth is four to eight feet, but the fish may at times cruise flats only a couple of feet deep, or travel through the deep channels that bisect the flats or separate mangrove islands.

Very fond of running along seams and borders, tarpon love to follow ledges parallel to shorelines where the bottom drops slightly, as well as edges that divide grassy areas from sand strips. And as it happens with tarpon on the west coast, tide changes will push the fish closer in or farther off the shallows to depths where they feel more comfortable. As was the case with the Ten Thousand Islands region, good tarpon spots in this extensive area are far too numerous to list in full, but surely those who pursue tarpon with a fly rod are familiar with names like Buchanan, Oxfoot and Ninemile banks, Sandy Key Basin, the Contents and Sawyer Key, Johnston Key Channel, Snipe Point,

Boca Grande, Man and Woman Keys, and the Marquesas, all on the west side of the Keys.

Of course, the east side of the Keys has many excellent spots, too. Headed back up to Biscayne Bay, anglers will run into favorite tarpon stops like Boca Chica, Pelican and Sugarloaf keys, Loggerhead Key, Coupon Bight and Bahia Honda, Long Key and Tavernier, El Radabob and Rattlesnake, Elliott and the Ragged Keys.

Lip gaffing is a safe way to control a big fish for hook removal and release.

North of there, unfortunately, opportunities for fly devotees to target tarpon get a little scarce, with only a few areas affording anglers reliable action.

Florida's East Central area of Brevard and Indian River counties is perhaps one of the top options, as every spring and summer pods of tarpon in the 20- to 60-pound class cruise the stretch between Melbourne and Vero Beach, often congregating in fairly large numbers in the Sebastian River. Shallower and lined by mangrove shorelines, the South Fork of the Sebastian is perfect for stalking fish by poling. The North Fork, however, has been dredged and channeled for flood control, therefore, the fish must be targeted by drifting or the use of trolling motors.

Despite the diversity of terrain where tarpon are found throughout the state, one bait seems almost universal: crabs. Not surprisingly, most successful fly patterns resemble crabs, if only remotely.

When it comes to colors, a good rule of thumb is to choose dark flies. Black, purple and red combined with each other, or with a bit of chartreuse, orange or yellow for contrast, are the top choices during low-light hours. The Purple People Eater, Bloody Mary, Black Death and the Scarlet Pimpernel are some of the more popular examples.

When the water is murky or muddy, bright colors like orange, yellow, hot pink or chartreuse add visibility to the flies, so flies like the Original Apte, Chartreuse Caboose, Golden Rita and the Tangerine Dream pay off then.

When the water is clear and visibility is good, it's time to go with natural browns and tans, perhaps with a bit of blue, orange or yellow for accent. The infamous Cockroach heads a lineup of popular natural patterns that also include the Orange Grizzly, Apte Too, Tarpon Bunny and Lenny's Tarpon Shrimp, among others.

Keep in mind, however, that when tarpon are actively feeding on baitfish or worms, the flies of choice are those which imitate specific natural food.

Ordinarily tarpon are opportunistic feeders, but during worm hatches or baitfish runs they may turn selective. And you won't hang too many fish if you can offer them what they want.

Weighted flies, like the Whistlers, come in handy in deep water such as the passes and the beaches, where the fish may break the surface but immediately go back down eight or 10 feet to rejoin the school.

When it comes to tackle, a 12-weight fly rod with matching reel is the standard, though anglers chasing the giants of Homosassa or fishing in deep water sometimes opt for the extra backbone of a 13-weight.

For plenty of tarpon fishermen in Biscayne Bay, the Upper Keys and the Everglades, a lighter 11-weight outfit is the weapon of choice. Regardless of the outfit you select to tackle tarpon, your fly lines and leaders remain critical and deserve close attention.

Quick casts are a must, so weight-forward fly lines with their weight spread along a short 30- to 38-foot head will allow fast deliveries with minimal false casting. Overloading the rod slightly with a line one weight heavier than it calls for can launch quick casts with a minimum of false casting.

West coast fly rodders rely on a full fast-sink or sink-tip line to deliver flies to the fish along the beaches and in the passes. With sinking lines, leaders should be fairly short--five to seven feet depending on the sink rate of the line and fly. This keeps the fly from riding higher than the line, which creates a pronounced belly in the line.

In the Ten Thousand Islands and the Keys, anglers often carry a second rig with sinking line just in case the fish are running deep in rivers or channels, but they use floating line setups primarily, typically with longer leaders.

Most start with a standard 9-footer but, under clear and still conditions, leaders as long as 12 or 13 feet could be necessary for softer presentations and to keep the fish from seeing the fly line. Yes, long leaders are tougher to cast--but a soft nylon butt section making up at least 60 percent of the total leader, transfers energy from the line smoothly and turns over amazingly well.

Wind is a constant on the flats, and one way to combat it is by using monocore lines. They are smaller in diameter and cut the wind well. Because they are clear, they also permit you to shorten the leader a bit, as they are fairly invisible in the water.

Until recently, all monocores were intermediate sink lines, so they were used over deeper flats and in instances when floating grass interfered with floating lines.

Because you lose the fast pick-ups possible only with floating lines, I fashion a clear, sink-tip line by splicing the front 15 feet of a 12-weight monocore to an 11-weight floating tarpon taper (minus the front 15 feet) to give me the best of both worlds.

However, recently on the market is the Monic line, a floating version of monocore, that offers the stealth of a monocore with the attributes of a floater.

Considering that most tarpon anglers are fairly well equipped, the difference between success and uneventful outings usually comes from the casters ability to deliver the fly, set the hook, and fight the fish properly. While there are many variations, usually dictated by the behavior of the fish, there are guidelines that can help you increase your catch ratio.

Your presentations, for starters, should be on target. Tarpon hardly ever stray out of their path to take a fly, so the fly must be in front of the fish when the tarpon meets up with it.

The fly also needs to be at the right depth, either level with the fish or slightly above him, since tarpon are physically better equipped--and more willing--to rise to a fly than they are to dive for one. Given enough time to react, you can strip the fly into position without disturbing the fish, should you overshoot your cast. But remember that the worst thing you can do is strip the fly toward the fish. Tarpon are not used to being attacked by small critters and will clear the area in a hurry when a fly comes at them.

Take into account the speed at which the fish are traveling to figure out how far you need to lead them, and consider the direction and speed of the current and the wind before you cast. Not only will these things affect the direction of your shot, they'll also affect your drift and the speed of your retrieve.

You'll have to strip pretty fast to impart any action on the fly if you are drifting toward it, but you may need to do little if you are being pushed away from the fly. If the fish are rolling in a pass or channel, the way they flip their tails will tell you whether they are staying near the surface or going down immediately after they gulp air. If they kick their tails high, be sure to use a sinking line, a weighted fly, or both to get down to the fish.

When it comes to setting the hook, don't let your eyes fool you into striking early. Too many fish are lost because the fly is pulled out of their mouths. Tarpon often turn after the take, so capitalize on that and set the hook when the fish turns.

Pick up the slack in the line, and continue stripping until you come tight, then sweep the rod back parallel to the water. If you strike upward, you'll yank the fly out of the water if you miss the hookset, and there will be no second chances. Believe it or not, tarpon will sometimes take a fly two or three times before the hook sticks or the fish spooks. And once you set the hook, forget about everything and concentrate on clearing the line.

You'll have plenty of time to enjoy the fight once the fish is on the reel. Should you get a knot in the fly line at that critical moment, point the rod at the fish and turn the guides upward. That allows the line to slide down the blank and the knot often goes through without catching on the snake guides.

You've probably heard the expression, "bow to the king." It's a common one used by guides to remind their anglers to stab their rods at the fish when it jumps. This creates slack and prevents the fish falling on a tight line, which snaps the leader.

When a fish is getting tired, it usually begins to circle the boat, coming up for gulps of air every so often. Keep him from gulping that precious air and you'll win the battle much faster. Dip the rod in the water and pull down to keep the fish from breaking the surface. That move is known as the "down and dirty" and it's very effective in the late stages of the fight when the fish is close.

Loosen the drag a bit as the fish nears the boat. A lot of fish are lost at this time, so be ready for a surge and a short run.

Too many things to remember? Maybe, but when they all come together there are few experiences in fly fishing that match tarpon fishing. The basics are the same, and so is the thrill, no matter where you pursue them. And just about anywhere around the state right now, there's a tarpon waiting for you to pick a fight with a fly rod.


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