Let’s look at some facts: It’s tax time. The grandkids were all just here raising havoc around the house. The weather and water are both trying to warm up. Our migrating painted buntings left the bird feeder to head back north. What do these things tell us? It must be spring. Except for two mornings of 47- to 50-degree temperatures two weeks ago, the spring patterns are starting to move into place.
Another sign of spring: My granddaughter Kendall put a big tarpon in the air while they were here. She was walking the dog with a topwater plug and it just got devoured. It was a short-lived but memorable show for her and me. The 100-pound fish went 6 feet in the air, shook its head, broke the line, spit the plug, crashed back into the water and it was done. Her eyes were as big around as a five-pound jack, but she just calmly said, “Tarpon are so cool.”
We live in such a wonderfully diverse area, and fishing is great here year-round. But springtime brings on a change from our bitter winter cold. We get about three days of moderate springlike temps, then hot humid summer weather for about five months. (I love it, though.)
As we hit this transition phase, the extra fish we so desperately seek are coming out of creeks, canals and deeper winter habitats to join the hardier species that stayed with us on the flats and in the bays all winter. These fish will roam from the backcountry to the beaches to find the fresh bait that is also starting to move in with the warmer water.
I throw a lot of topwater gurglers even through the winter, but if you haven’t been using them, it’s definitely time to break them out. We catch reds, snook, trout, jacks, ladyfish, mackerel, blues, tarpon and even cobia on these flies. With the fish getting more active, they will bust on it near the mangroves, over the grassflats and in open water.
I’ve said it many times before, but as I have had several clients on my boat recently that were all bitten by the same bug, I’ll say it one more time: As hard as it is to control yourself, don’t react to the fish blowing up on your popper by lifting the rod. Keep stripping until you feel the fish.
While I’m here in regurgitation mode, the same goes for fishing any fly. I don’t care what pattern you are fishing — a shrimp, a crab, a baitfish, a flip-flop — don’t lift the rod to set the hook. What do you do? You know the answer, so say it with me: Strip set! You will get lucky once in a while and stick a fish by “trout setting,” but it is proven daily that the strip set is much morel likely to lead to a harmonious outcome. Thank you.
While I’m on a roll, remember that three, four or more attempts to put a fly in the spot doesn’t get the job done. When we are fishing clear, shallow water, the first cast you make is your best chance to fool that fish into eating. The odds of catching that fish drops dramatically with each cast made. Around here recently, it’s been one and done!
And don’t make a bunch of false casts in preparation for your presentation. Make one, or two at the most. The more time that you spend flailing your rod around, the better chance you’ll have of spooking the fish. This is not theory; it’s fact. Put some yard time in and practice. Give me a call — I can help you.
Another springtime sign is the appearance of the Megalopticus alerticus butterflies. (Editor’s note: Rex, that’s cute, but it’s not what they’re called. They’re great southern whites, and the correct latin name is Ascia monuste.) When these little white butterflies are dancing over the Harbor and backcountry you know that hordes of tower boats will soon follow, migrating from the north to meet up with the tarpon migrating from the south.
And that’s why I say it’s time to dust off the 10, 11 and 12 weights — the Megalopticus alerticuses are flying! Tarpon are here or are soon to be making their way here by migration. Their happy little dances over vast spaces of water always make me wonder if they’re crazy or just lost. Either way, they’re usually right on the money with the arrival of the big silver fish.
A wives’ tale? Of course. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, at least to some extent. Besides Kendall’s fish, my clients and I have put a few other large tarpon in the air recently. My knuckles and thumb aren’t rubbed raw yet because (luckily for me) the fish all were able to throw the flies. But the time is coming soon when I’ll stick my hand into the cinder block-rough mouth of the year’s first big landed tarpon.
I know that spring technically began with the vernal equinox on March 20. But like many others, I’m all too aware the sky and calendar can lie. Instead, I look for fish and butterflies to keep me informed about the seasonal order of things. They’re better than any weatherman or almanac.
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 take 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.