So You Want a Tarpon on Fly?

So You Want a Tarpon on Fly?
Texas angler, Christian Harmonson, fighting his first tarpon on fly aboard my new tarpon sled.
Yep folks, it is that time of year and spring fever has overwhelmed and consumed me. And, by spring fever, I actually mean tarpon season in South Florida. It is all that I think about and do from March through July (weather permitting). I then, of course, get sick all over again for a couple of months when I get back to Texas. Unfortunately for me, I get to do very little tarpon fishing for myself anymore. However, I do get to share in the success of my anglers, which to me, is the ultimate reward, especially when it is their first tarpon on fly.

I can still remember all those years ago when I saw people tarpon fishing with fly rods on television and looked at my dad and said, "That is what I want to do." I guess neither of us could have ever, in our wildest dreams, imagined where that statement would take me. And, that is exactly what a tarpon is–a fisherman's wildest dream.

So what does it take to catch a tarpon on fly? Well, it takes skill, dedication, preparation, sometimes a little luck and probably, and most importantly, a whole lot of patience.

First, let us talk a little about skill. It is very important, before you go spending a bunch of money to go out and catch that first tarpon, to be prepared for the quest. By this I mean, there is a whole lot more to tarpon fishing than just going out and being able to cast a line. For one, you need to realize that you need to make every shot count and there is very little room for error. Sure, tarpon are like any other fish and there will be a couple of days a year that the fish just loose their minds but, what are the chances of YOU being there when that happens? The point is you need to not only practice your cast, but also your strip, hook-set and even bowing (dropping your rod tip when a fish jumps) to the fish. Also, take time to research and read about hooking and fighting a tarpon. I recommend getting the book High Rollers by Bill Bishop if you are serious about wanting to catch a tarpon on fly. There is a lot of really great information in there for the novice.

Now I am going to skip a few things and talk about the patience aspect. You see, on most days, tarpon fishing is hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of shear pandemonium. One of my customers, David Fleig, once said to me while fighting his first 100+ pounds of flying shad, "You know, this fishing for laid-up tarpon is one of the most boring things right up until it is not."

What he was conveying is that we had been poling and staring at the water for nearly six hours and had not had a single shot. When we spotted the fish it was only about twenty feet away from the boat. His first reaction was to try to cast to the fish at that range. Fortunately he heeded my instructions and held off while I slowly and methodically backed the boat away. His cast was perfect and he listened to my instructions and together, we put that fly in the fish's mouth, which brings me to another important aspect of tarpon fishing–teamwork.

I always tell people that I hate football and baseball. In fact, I pretty much despise all team sports except for one. You see, for the most part, tarpon fishing is a team effort between the guide and the angler. It boils down to being with someone who knows not only how to find the fish but who can also get you in position to make the cast. Then it takes an angler who can get the fly to the fish quickly and accurately at the required distance. Once the fly is in the water, it takes an angler who can read the fish's body language or a guide who can do it and instruct the angler, to make the fish eat.

Now that a fish has eaten, a whole new set of skills are required, and so is a whole lot of luck. The hook-set must be executed properly by stripping until the line stretches and then hitting the fish no less that two or three times with the butt of the rod. Then you have to clear the loose line from the deck all while "bowing to the king" every time the fish leaps from the water. And, it all has to be done in seconds without thinking about it. That is where the luck and preparation comes in. Not only do you have to have some luck but you also need to know that the drag of your reel has been maintained, your rod has no unseen damage to the blank, and that all of your knots hold. Good knots are very, very important in tarpon fishing.

Honestly, I cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the process of catching a tarpon on a fly in the short amount of space that I am allowed for this column. But I do want to touch on one more thing. While I mentioned above that tarpon fishing can be a very boring thing with long periods between shots or better described, opportunities. But here is where the dedication part comes in. Too many times I have had anglers tell me that they wanted to catch a tarpon on fly. I explain to them that they need to plan on fishing multiple days and have to be committed to the endeavor. They tell me they can do that and then half-way through the trip they look at me and ask, "Do you think there are any redfish that we could catch nearby?" Again, patience and dedication are a must.

Now for one final tip. It is important to not let your expectations overpower your abilities. Tarpon fishing with a fly rod is a very humbling experience for even the most skilled anglers. If you can only cast 30 feet and the majority of the shots are at 50 or 60, your chances of success are slim. Go practice and study the game and your chances of success increase. If catching a tarpon on fly is your dream you have to put in the time, make some mistakes, learn from them and stay dedicated. If you do all these your dream can become a reality.