First Tarpon on a Fly*
I have tried before, several times, three, maybe five times, to catch a tarpon. First was off Marco Island on a charter with bait back in the late 80’s. The wind and tide were wrong and the sky cloudy making it impossible to see so we moved back into the mangrove and caught sea trout which we lunched on dock side.
The next time was while bone fishing off Ocean Reef on Key Largo as they cruised by, but the wrong gear, wrong fly and lack of concentration led to no hookups although both Sue and I took some nice bones. I think there was another time with a guide named Dick out of the Moorings on Islamorada in the 90’s. Two days – no tarpon.
Then about 3 years ago I spent two days on the water off Cheeca Lodge focused on the big silvers and worked hard to present flies with line piled around my ankles on the fore deck of a 16 foot flats boat (once owned by Flip Pallot) with a rolling surf and good wind working us over. We saw them, lots of them, maybe 100 or more. All day, at least as long as the light held high. I flailed away trying to launch a 60 foot cast from that deck in that wind and more often than not failed to reach the target. The few times I did it was either behind them or, a couple of times, right where it should be only to be ignored. I recall about 2 fish that day taking the time to look toward my fly but none had the courtesy to take it or bite.
So I have put in some time. They say tarpon on a fly is tough and up until this point I was living proof.
Wednesday morning I met Brett at the La Siesta Marina just across from the resort of the same name where we were staying, enjoying the warm sun, cool breeze and soaking in the pool in between grouper sandwiches and dolphin shows. Around mile marker 81 or so, as the Keys are marked. The wind was what they call freshening, straightening out the flags on the ocean side of the Key. I sensed another day of failed casts to fast moving targets was upon me but fought off such negativity in the hope that a positive attitude would make whatever was to happen a great experience.
We motored out the back side and were soon on a drift aided by the long pole just south and west of the marina. Brett discussed the mechanics of the strategy: You want to put it in front of him, maybe 10-15 feet and slow smooth strip unless I say strip-strip-strip which of course means strip faster. When he bites (so positive was Brett that I agreed and nodded my head, okay, when he bites…) strip strike him. That is, point the rod tip at the fish and pull with your stripping hand. Don’t use the rod tip to lift into a strike as with trout. It won’t penetrate the boney jaw – the flex of the tip will not provide enough power. Okay, got that. Now, he says, once he bites and you strike, start reeling in the line, and get him on the reel. Okay, makes sense. Next he will run and let the drag do the work. Okay. Once he is running, he is going to jump and when he does he will throw the fly. In order to prevent that you need to bow to him, give him the line and the rod. Just thrust it all toward him as you anticipate the jump. Okay, but how will I know when he is going to jump? You’ll know. Once all that happens we settle in for a 30 – 45 minute fight of more runs, jumps and pumps. Got it? Sure, I think so. Maybe. Okay.
Fish on the right, 2 o’clock. Get up there. (Did I mention the little platform on the front of this tiny boat? It is about a 2 foot square although it is not 2 foot and not square. It is about 12 inches higher than the deck. It helps in the sighting of the fish and launching of the cast. There is also a tall can into which you place your line which you have taken off the reel in preparation for the cast – so I no longer had to deal with wrapping line around my ankles.) Get up there. I hop up, somewhat unsteady. I normally have steady sea legs from years rocking on the Grady at home but age and a long winter have conspired to weaken those muscles that have served me so well for so long. But up I go. I see the fish. At least I see his tail. It is huge. He is huge. Brett says he’s sleeping. We pole into position and I launch my cast. Honestly I don’t recall how good or bad it was but I got a second one and woke him up. He glided away to quieter waters. Wow – not an hour out and a shot at a monster. I was feeling good, if untested.
Brett got on the phone to check some other locations, to see if they were taken or how they were fishing. We went out to the ocean side and found some choice spots already filled. The honor code of these guides not to dump on one another was impressive. We ended up east of an island anchored at the edge of brilliant white sand, a clearing in the water. It was like looking at a bright TV screen as the dark shapes moved across it in pairs and small groups as well as a few singles. They came from several directions and we took shots at a bunch. Nothing but a few looks.
We witnessed one group doing the daisy chain which is a merry go round affair of tarpon nose to tail circling around and around while progressing in no particular direction, only to suddenly straighten out into a train of beautiful fish heading right at you. They say it is part of their mating ritual but I am not sure anyone knows for sure. The waves and wind were making it pretty uncomfortable and I abandoned the tower, casting from the deck and using the stripping barrel as a leaning post. After a bit we moved on. So far my record was immaculate – still no tarpon had fouled my fly.
We ran about a half hour to the west and came upon a spot where there was a long reef-like structure that seemed to go for miles. We staked the boat near the reef and faced southwest along the edge. Tarpon Highway Brett said. They will be coming along any minute now. The tide, or what there is of one, was about two hours away from the peak. The wind was blowing but the back water offered a more stable platform as I climbed back on to my parapet. I cast out my line and stripped it back into the bucket as before, holding the fly in my left and rod in my right. The rod was an 8.5 foot G Loomis 12 weight. The fly a Tarpon Toad – green and yellow rabbit strips with a muddler-like head of green hair. The hook was big on a short shank and the barb was in place.
We began to talk as you do when waiting for the action, about work and life and family. Brett is a pleasant guy to spend time with. Before too long he calls from his position, which is high above the engine, Tarpon approaching, way out there, maybe 300 feet. I point my rod and he offers corrections like a “sighter” to the gunner. More left, up a bit, there! Do you see him?
No, not yet, not yet, not yet. Got him. He is at 100 feet and closing at a good clip. I am ready. I wait a bit more. 15 feet off his nose, says Brett. I launch, load and fire. Short. Reload, re-fire, shorter. He has passed. I take a few more casts and we determine my range. Brett adjusts the boat accordingly. We wait for the next one…
*Previously published in Florida Fly Fishing Magazine
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