Catching Your First Giant Tarpon On A Fly!
The fish rolled lazily. A large head emerged and disappeared followed by the caudal and tail fin. Its eye showed a vacant timeless stare. I counted six or seven knowing the school probably held twice that number beneath the slate-blue surface. They appeared spring fly fishing packages Missoula dark while submerged, but as they rose and broke water, they took on an iridescent gold and green hue.
The cruising school interrupted their stalwart journey north and broke into a circular pattern. In this way, tarpon follow each other, head to tail, for five to ten minutes in a supposed pre-spawn behavior known as a “daisy chain”. This formation is what makes the strong of heart quiver at the knees.
They ranged from eighty to over one hundred fifty pounds. Fish in this “ring” configuration are perhaps the ultimate target for the fly angler. If your target fish does not take, your fly can still attract subsequent interlopers bringing up the rear. It’s like trying to get a date from a merry-go-round full of women, just keep trying and you might get lucky! Fish in a daisy chain are unfettered, relaxed and often ready for a quick appetizer made of feathers.
The sun descended to the endless horizon over the Gulf of Mexico. A light wind broke the surface. I figured another 45 minutes and we’d be done for the day. The tropical tranquility masked the schizophrenic drama topside. Our guide madly triangulated the flats skiff to head off the brooding armada of silver kings. We readied ourselves with the giddy fervor of high schoolers – looking for trouble on a Friday night.
“There chaining!”, exclaimed our guide. The school undulated in the slow circular dance of which dreams are made. The daisy chain was twenty feet in diameter. Fish took turns rolling on the surface and lazily dropping down six or eight feet while replacements rose from the depths to gulp the hot moist Gulf air.
Tarpon (megalops atlantica) are primitive fish capable of getting oxygen from water (through gills) and air (gulping). This aids juvenile fish growing up in brackish channels with low oxygen levels. They can simply resort to an amphibian approach to breathing, if needed. Tarpon also gulp air during a battle to gain strength and wear out their combatant.
“Get ready!” he said, eyes riveted on the ring of giant tarpon engrossed in a primordial mating ritual performed as such for thousands of years.
“Alright, gimme’ a fifty footer ten feet ahead of the lead fish”, he whispered with his right arm outstretched pointing in case the fish were eavesdropping.
Coiled line vanished from the front deck below me as a quick false cast, aided by a sharp double haul, shot sixty feet of slime line fifteen feet in front of the last visible tarpon.
“Let it sink”, he said as the weighted streamer fell slowly. The pattern was large globs of purple and black saddle hackle known adoringly as “Blue Death”. I held up for an eight count and sent the fly to a depth of around six feet.
“OK strip”, he said and I stripped in short bursts praying one of the fish in this weird oceanic square dance had a hankering for an hors d’oeuvre. . .
March 15, 1991 Ten years earlier Belize, Caribbean Ocean
I dumped a wimpy cast in front of an on-coming six pack of Belize tarpon. The weight forward #10 floating line caught a puff of wind and collapsed in an awful heap. Belize silver kings are generally smaller than the giants found in Florida. These tarpon will run forty to eighty pounds. A seventy pounder rushed the fly, somehow seeing it beneath the pitiful coils of flyline languishing above. The fish attacked, mouth agape as I stripped wildly to recover from my “deer in the headlights” presentation. I gasped and beheld a great open mouth about to crush my pitiful offering. I spasmodically set the hook, skillfully rescuing the fly unscathed as a welder’s helmet jaw slammed shut on nothing but salt water. My first shot at a big tarpon was lost to the premature hook-set we northerners know so well.
Since then I have run the gauntlet of tarpon boondoggles. Few hapless anglers have blown more chances to engage this: the most spectacular creature ever created for a fly fisherman. I will to help you avoid common mistakes repeated over and over by countless “tarponman” wannabes. Let’s begin by dispelling some myths related to tarpon fishing.
Myth #1: Tarpon fishing is prohibitively expensive.
Fact: Tarpon fishing is expensive, especially if you fly off to some far flung destination after the promise of guides for $125.00 a day (this is considered cheap) or some package deal including bonefish and permit. The money you save on guide fees, you easily replace with other travel expenses and medications for gastrointestinal disorders. Most Caribbean flats packages are really a bonefishing trip with a few shots at accidental permit thrown in if your lucky. And since permit rarely eat flies, it’s largely a hoax. Tarpon are regarded as the lesser of the three since they are difficult to pattern and therefore disregarded as a prime target. A tarpon trip is usually a first light assault on a known school of rolling fish that rarely take. Ask anyone who’s been to Belize lately.
Suggestion: If you want to catch a tarpon, go tarpon fishing exclusively. Save time, money, and hair follicles and fish Florida tarpon in May or June. Guides are expensive ($450 – $650), but split between two people, may be manageable. Figure about four days on the water. Two will probably be a wash owing to bad weather or bad luck. This will leave one or two days of decent conditions. Morning and evenings are sometimes best. Ask if the guide will do a split day: four hours in the morning, break time from 10:00am to 3:00pm, and four hours in the late afternoon until dusk.