When I caught my first tarpon back in the late ‘80s, I was amazed to say the least. I just couldn’t believe its size (about 70 pounds); the way it took the fly; its athletic ability; its acrobatic ability, strength, stamina and power; the size of its eyes, scales, mouth and tail … shall I go on?
Truthfully, I was in awe. Some 35 years and hundreds of tarpon later, I’m still amazed. Whether I’m on the bow or on the poling platform, the adrenaline still starts to flow whenever I see a string of those big fish — or even just a cruising single — headed toward the boat.
It’s pretty much August and migration numbers of the giant tarpon have dwindled. Now it’s on to part two of tarpon season — the “after July 4th” tarpon. We’ll have plenty of catchable adults on the beaches, in the backcountry, and up the rivers until October and beyond. But there will not be quite so many people out fishing them, so enjoy.
We also have the youngsters, tarpon ranging from 7 inches (which is my smallest fly-caught tarpon) to maybe 50 pounds. These smaller tarpon are very interesting. In one respect, they are totally tarpon in every way, shape and form, beautifully prehistoric to look at. Their mouths are as hard as the adults’ are, making setting a hook more like jackhammering concrete. They catch more air than the Blue Angels or the American women’s Olympic gymnastics team. They fight like they are in a WFC cage battle. They are tarpon through and through.
On the flip side, they are very different than those giant antisocial sulkers you may find cruising the beaches. They are normally more aggressive and willing to play. They like the fly moved more quickly. Competition amongst themselves is keen. They will try to beat their buddies to the take. Often they create such a disturbance fighting for the fly that both fish miss it, but it will usually be eaten by the first one to turn on it. They will sometimes crush a fly that was poorly cast right on their nose or spin around and eat one that landed on their tail.
I have personally caught baby tarpon from the St. Marks River in the Florida Panhandle all the way around the peninsula to Amelia Island on the northeast coast. The places to look are pretty much all the same. Florida’s estuarine waters — brackish creeks, river mouths with adjacent shallow grass flats, retention ponds and residential canals — seem to be the nurseries and playgrounds for these smaller fish.
Locating them is not hard, but you may have to spend time exploring. Kayaks, walking pond shores or canal banks (when possible), and of course, flats boats are your best bets for exploration. When you find them, you will see the typical tarpon roll: First the mouth will breach the water (and you will hear that familiar “blurp”), then the dorsal fin, then the tail. It’s just a smaller version of what big tarpon do. Just writing about it is getting my juices going.
When you finally find them, gear down appropriately. Use a rod that is light enough to really enjoy the fight but has enough backbone to land them as quickly as possible. The water is hot and is low in dissolved oxygen for the fish to breathe. Yes, tarpon are also mouth-breathers, but don’t stress them any more than necessary. My rods of choice are 5 or 6 weights for the little creek dwellers and 8 weights for everything else.
The roll is the key. When you see a fish roll, you have to act quickly. You have to decide which way the fish is going and make a cast 3 to 4 feet ahead of him immediately (if not sooner). The longer you wait, the greater the chance that fish will change directions and slide away — unspooked, but never seeing your fly.
As you’re stripping the fly back toward you waiting for the strike, look for bubbles the fish may blow. A tarpon will gulp oxygen-rich air off the surface, then exhale and expel oxygen-depleted air through its gills, leaving a telltale sign of its direction. If you see the bubbles, pick up and make a cast in front of where the bubbles came up. If you don’t get a take, just wait for the next roller. You can blind-cast if you have fish in the area but there is always a chance of spooking them with your line. Be patient.
In creeks and canals, tarpon will travel in small schools looking for food and staying safe from predators. You may find them and start casting, then notice them rolling 20 feet from where you started, and then 40 feet. Just try staying in front of them if you can. If you can’t, again, be patient — they will often turn around and come back to the same area you found them. These guys can really turn on and be aggressive. Pull the fish quickly from the school when you hook up and fight hard and fast. Release the fish, and chances are good you can get one or two more.
The flies that I use for baby tarpon are basically just smaller versions of the flies I use for the big guys. Puglisi-style flies, Clouser minnows, shrimp patterns and a few topwater gurglers make up the arsenal. When they are on topwater it can be a great show! My hook sizes for these flies are from No. 4 up to 1/0. My leaders are still 10 to 12 feet long (you can go shorter in your small creeks and canals). I will use a 30-pound bite tippet for the bigger babies and rarely go below 20-pound (except for the real tiny guys in the creeks).
While these little silver beauties look more like overgrown threadfins than Boca Grande giants, remember they’ll be our 200-pounders in 40 to 60 years, so take good care of them. They are just babies, after all.
Capt. Rex Gudgel is a fly fishing guide in the Boca Grande area and an International Federation of Fly Fishers Master Certified casting instructor. If you’d like to get casting lessons, book a trip or just need more fly fishing info, contact him at 706-254-3504 or visit BocaGrandeSlamFlyFishing.com or CastWithRex.com.