This is the fourth article in a four-part series that explains how to catch Florida tarpon without hiring guides or staying in expensive lodges. In case you missed them, here are part one, part two and part three of the series.
Tarpon were everywhere but they wouldn’t touch live crabs. Strings of 10 to 20 fish rolled into the tide, slow and lazy. All along a shallow grass flat, singles and doubles laid up beneath the surface—sleeping silver giants. Some tarpon daisy chained in tight circles while others floated with their tail tips above water. There must have been 200 fish along the bank that morning between two major bridges near Islamorada. A squall had chased off all the other skiffs at daybreak, so it was just my father and me in our rental boat. After a few unsuccessful drifts with live bait, we knew we had to change tactics.
I idled the skiff away from the rolling tarpon, mindful not to spook them. I rigged a medium-heavy spinning rod with a 2-foot, 60-pound fluorocarbon leader, then pulled a 10-inch bone-colored Hogy from the tackle box. I rigged the tapered soft plastic by screwing the bait’s head into the hook’s stainless steel bait keeper. Then I pushed the hook point up through the bait so it would swim streamlined near the surface. I tied it to the leader with a loop knot to maximize movement and handed the rig to my father.
Then I pulled my 12-weight fly rod from under the gunwale, rigged with a clear floating line, 9-foot leader with 40-pound fluorocarbon shock tippet rigged and a 2/0 black-and-purple bunny and fox fur fly.
Locating Targets with Artificials
Finding migrating tarpon in the Keys each spring is not particularly difficult: they swim oceanside edges with the tides, following bottom contours like roadmaps in 4 to 8 feet of water. Staking out along an oceanside sand hole near a flat or channel is a good way to spot fish; their dark backs will stick out when they cross sand. Ocean swimmers in hyper-clear water are notoriously tough to convince, so it becomes a game of numbers.
Tarpon use deep channels to move freely from ocean to bay and back again, rolling in the early morning and late evening on a tide switch, especially in light winds. Slow-rolling fish are good targets for spin and fly anglers. They’ll stop rolling when the sun gets high, so early morning is best. If you hit the jackpot with overcast skies paired with no precipitation and light winds, tarpon might roll all day.
In the Florida backcountry, tarpon cruise channels and wander the myriad grass flats and lagoons. While backcountry tarpon eat well-presented flies and lures more willingly than oceanside swimmers, navigating backcountry hummocks and flats takes years to master. Navigation is tricky, even with onboard GPS. This is territory best covered with a local guide.
Once you’ve found tarpon—as we had that May morning, not far from two big bridges—lining up your presentation is vital to success.
After repositioning the boat, I poled us from the shallow bank toward a string of rolling fish. My father stood on the bow, spinning rod in hand, Hogy dangling from his leader. I approached the rolling fish so we’d intercept them at a perpendicular angle instead of head on, so the Hogy could land in their path and sweep with the current, mimicking a struggling baitfish.
A large tarpon rolled, 80 feet away, swimming right to left across our bow. My father landed the Hogy about 6 feet in front of the roll. The unweighted bait rested high in the water. Then Dad reeled and gave a slight twitch, rod tip at 10 o’clock. From the poling platform I watched the lure dart in the current. I anticipated a bite, but nothing happened.
Another tarpon rolled in the same string further to our right. I turned the bow slightly with the push pole. My father reeled in and cast 5 feet ahead of where the tarpon rolled. He twitched the Hogy once, let it sit, then twitched again. A tarpon flashed sideways and took the lure from the surface. Dad set the hook. The 60-pounder backflipped and the Hogy flew loose from its hard mouth.
“What a bite!” Dad said.
When sight-casting, remember that tarpon are opportunistic feeders. If a fly or lure is presented naturally—to mimic prey crossing the tarpon’s path—your chances of a bite skyrocket. This means your fly or lure must be in the tarpon’s line of sight, moving naturally, when the tarpon spots it. If tarpon are slow-rolling, anticipate their trajectory and speed and try to land a fly or lure 5 or 6 feet ahead of them. That allows enough time for the presentation to land and sink slightly before the retrieve. Novice tarpon anglers often land their lure too close to swimming fish. Natural bait never drops from the sky, so nothing spooks clear-water tarpon faster than a lure landing on their head.
Bait also doesn’t swim toward a predator. If your lure swims toward a tarpon’s giant eye you can forget about it. When prey sense a tarpon approaching, their instinct is to flee. The key takeaway is that you need to think about where the fish is, where it’s going and the angle of your retrieve. Don’t just fire casts at fish; figure out where they’re going and how you can put your lure in a position to entice them, not scare them. This can be a difficult concept for new tarpon anglers: try to make your lure or fly irresistible, as if it’s unsuccessfully trying to escape. But make it fairly easy for the tarpon because they won’t stray far to eat.
With an unweighted soft plastic, try a twitch-and-pause retrieve, imitating a wounded baitfish flailing helplessly in the current. With a fly, most seasoned anglers prefer long, slow strips. If you’re not getting any looks, try out different retrieves. Sometimes short, fast, 1-inch strips or pumps will get a fish excited. It’s the angler’s job to make the best possible presentation, impart action to the lure or fly, and adjust to the tarpon’s reaction.
Sight fishing for tarpon is effective and popular (don’t forget your polarized sunglasses) but blind casting can work as well. Seven or 10-inch Hogys or similar soft plastics and swimbaits in bone, bubble gum and black work very well for tarpon in backcountry channels. Around bridges, drop the same the same lures on jig heads or drift them on the current. I really like DOA’s TerrorEyz swimbaits in root beer color and white bucktail jigs paired with a paddle tail for fishing slow and steady around pylons and other structure in the middle of the day.
Choosing and Presenting Flies
These are the general rules for Keys’ tarpon fly selection: small, sparse flies on the ocean, and larger flies for the backcountry. I’ve had luck tossing size 1 or 1/0 palolo worm flies, red tails and olive heads, leading oceanside swimmers by 10 feet and imparting short strips to mimic a worm darting at the surface. This can be accomplished with tiny, one-handed strips or a two-handed retrieve.
Find a spot where you can swing your fly in current and you’ll get more bites. Moving water animates even the smallest fibers. Small flies are stealthier, allowing the angler multiple shots at tarpon in the same string without spooking the group. Strings of tarpon behave much like geese—spook the lead fish and the entire string follows as it veers from your skiff. Instead, let the lead fish pass and target trailing tarpon. The fish in back often have their guard down, so they’re more likely to eat.
Black and purple, all black, and brown/olive flies work well in backcountry murk or low-light conditions. Nothing fancy: bunny strip or ostrich herl tails on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks with modest flash get tarpon’s attention.
After Dad jumped the tarpon with the Hogy, he encouraged me to take some fly shots. Under a higher sun, the tarpon had stopped rolling, so I poled the bank looking for laid-up fish. I left the 12-weight ready on the bow, since Dad’s bad knees didn’t allow him to stand comfortably on the poling platform.
Up ahead, a single tarpon slid across a grassy flat, angling toward us. I drove the push pole into the grass and tied it off to the poling platform. I hopped down and walked quietly to the bow. The tide was sweeping hard. A few false casts and I slung a 70-foot shot, landing my fly 10 feet up-current of the fish. The current bowed my line so I made a long, slow strip, which pulsed the bunny and fox fur to life. The fly swung downstream—imagine a steelheader swinging a fly through a riffle—and crossed the tarpon’s path. At the moment of intersection, the tarpon stuck its head out of the bay and ate. With a tight line I strip-set, the tarpon launching into the late morning air.