If you have not gathered from my previous posts, this was my first time fly fishing for tarpon. In all actuality, this was my first true saltwater fly fishing trip (I wouldn’t count casting into the Southern California surf for a few hours a true saltwater fly fishing “trip”).
After 5 days on the flats of the Florida Keys, hunting for tarpon, there are a few lessons I learned that I felt worth sharing.
• Get a guide. The ocean is huge and we are very, very small. Without a guide I probably would have not even seen a tarpon.
• Being able to cast a fly line 100 feet is not nearly as important as being able to cast a fly line with extreme accuracy at 60 feet.
• Tarpon spook easily. Maybe easier than trout. Cast low if necessary and be a predator.
• Watch for color and movement. You won’t see the fish if you don’t see that color. Seeing fish is paramount to success with tarpon. If you can’t see them, you can’t cast to them. If you don’t have polarized sunglasses, you are probably doomed to failure.
• Gauge the tarpon’s path and cast ahead of it. It is similar to trout fishing in a river in that, with trout, you cast upstream from the fish and let the current carry your fly to them; with tarpon, they are the ones moving to your fly. Make a good guess as to the path of the tarpon and cast along that path. 10 feet ahead of a migrating tarpon was the average but it can range anywhere from 2 feet to 20 feet ahead.
• Invest in your gear. If you are going to spend on travel and a guide, you don’t want to be put out of the game with a broken rod or reel. Buying a tarpon reel at the cost of a lower end trout reel could go south quick. Same goes with a rod. While a cheap rod may work well with your budget, you could also be gambling on the durability of that rod. You are also not casting a 4 weight. Your arm will notice a difference with a rig that weights a few ounces less than a cheaper options. I used a Sage Salt 11 wt and it casts like a dream for such a big rod.
• Bring a backup. Again, a broken rod or reel or a lost fly line will put you out of the game. This happens often with big game species, and at the worst times. Big fish are hard on gear.
• Bring long sleeve shirts and long pants with a good UPF rating. I am a big fan of Simms Solarflex shirts. I also wore one pair of Howler Brothers Horizon Hybrid Pants the whole week (I know, gross right?)
• Wear deck shoes. I got an amazing pair of shoes from K-mart that had a mix of non marking rubber and hard felt soles. The best $14.99 I have spent. Plus they look just like Vans slip-ons. Or go barefoot if you are not afraid to get sun on your feet.
• Pack light. I know I just went through a whole litany of items to bring, but these all can be packed into a moderate carry-on bag. A good guide will have all the terminal tackle (flies, leaders, tippet) you will need. Don’t bring a full fly shop’s worth of gear with you unless you really know what you are doing.
• Learn the knots of the tarpon game and learn them well. More likely than not, your guide will be doing all the tying. But it helps if something comes up and you need to re-tie quickly. Knots including the Bimini twist, homer road, Non-slip mono loop, perfection loop, clinch knot with weed guard, and nail knot.
• Get good food for lunch. Bring lots of water, Gatoraide, etc. Stay hydrated. Bring extra for the guide.
• Don’t bring a DSLR camera unless you really know what you are doing with it. A big, bulky camera with multiple lenses just gets in the way and it is another thing for your line to tangle on (which will cost you the fish or even worse, your camera). Bring a good, pocket sized waterproof digital camera. Camera technology is just getting better and a good point-and-shoot waterproof camera will take great photos and videos. Keep it in your pocket and be ready to pull it out quickly when that big school shows up (if you are not casting that is). A GoPro is also a great option. You don’t want to be scrambling to get your $2500 DSLR back in a waterproof bag when it starts to rain; especially if you are missing good shots at fish.
• Out on a boat, in the ocean (even if it is a flats skiff no further than a quarter mile from shore); small and seemingly insignificant things can become big things real fast. Go with a trustworthy guide who knows the water and the area. If you have any health conditions, let the guide know ahead of time and bring the necessary medical items in case of an emergency.
• Calm down and relax. Being tense and jittery will cause you to blow more shots than you realize. Have fun.
• Practice your cast before you go. Practice a lot. Find a good spot of grass and find different spots to cast to. Use paper plates for targets at differing distances. Before I left, I practiced a lot making long casts with an 11 wt rod. I got pretty good. One thing I did not do was make practice casts at 25 feet and under. My first day, for whatever reason, I had a hell of a time turning over the fly with quick one shot casts at around 20 feet. Some of my casts crumpled right in front of me. I had all the confidence in myself at longer casts, but my short game sucked. I blew a lot of shots and spooked a good amount of tarpon. It was disheartening because 20 feet is an easy cast even for trout. Again, don’t kill yourself to try and cast the whole fly line. If you can cast 60 feet with accuracy, you will greatly increase your odds. My first fish ate at 20 feet away.
All said and done: in 4 1/2 days I had lots of shots, a good many follows, a handful of eats, a few tarpon jumped, and 3 fish caught. All on palolo worm flies…
It was a trip fit for Hemingway (Hemingway popularized tarpon after all). Arriving back in Durango with runoff in full effect, my close friend who grew up in Florida said it best:
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