No other fish can match a tarpon for the show it puts on when it’s trying to throw the hook. Whether they’re 3 pounds or 200, they jump the same: violent head shaking, backflips, turning, greyhounding. They swim through the air, upside down and right side up. If there’s a jump a fish can possibly make, a tarpon will make it. They’re just crazy, and crazy-looking — prehistoric, like dinosaurs.
I caught tarpon fever in 1990 while fishing the flats off Miami with Capt. Bill Curtis. We got up at zero-dark-thirty, ran across Biscayne Bay in the pitch black and set up off Elliott Key. At daylight, schools of tarpon started showing up on the flats. I saw a 5- or 6-foot fish rise up, swing over and open its mouth, then suck in my fly. Just that alone was fantastic to watch. It shut its mouth, turned its head.
That’s when I strip-struck and set the hook. The fish went nuts. And, needless to say, I became a changed man. I caught three or four tarpon that day, one of them 80 pounds on a 10-weight. I was hooked. The fish were right in my backyard in Biscayne Bay. They were huge. And I was a goner. Big tarpon became my quest.
These fish are very big. They easily range from 40 to 160 pounds. I’ve caught a couple 170-pounders on a fly rod, and a fish over 200 pounds — my biggest — on a spinning rod. It jumped just like the 80-pounders. Because you hook them up in shallow water, you can actually land them with a fly rod. If you hooked a fish that size with a fly in 50 feet of water, you might fight it for hours. But because the tarpon are in the shallows, they jump instead of dive, and the jumping tires them out. I’ve caught really big tarpon on a fly in 15 to 20 minutes.
The tarpon show up on the flats off Miami and in the Florida Keys in February, when the water warms to 74 degrees. After a couple of warm days in February, the tarpon head for the flats, but as soon as a cold front moves in and the temperature drops, they move back into the Gulf of Mexico and deeper water.
So from February through March they keep moving back and forth, but if you fish the two or three days between the cold fronts, you can have some fantastic fishing. The fish are there, they’re fresh, and no one’s been beating them up throwing flies at them or running around them with boats. They fight a lot better. In April the fishing gets more consistent. By May and June it is full-on tarpon season, and in mid-July the tarpon become pretty scarce again.
Before meeting Curtis, I would go tarpon fishing with friends in the Keys, but I didn’t catch enough to get excited about it. You need a guide. Tarpon fishing is a team effort. Someone has to pole the boat while you cast from the bow, someone who knows where the fish were yesterday, not three weeks ago.
Fishing the backcountry flats for tarpon is different than fishing the ocean flats. A friend of mine says the schools of tarpon migrating down the ocean flats are like cars driving on the interstate at 65 mph. “You’re not going to go out of your way to stop at a hot dog stand,” he said. Neither are the fish. When you present your fly, you’ve got to lead the fish by 15 or 20 feet so it swings into their feeding zone. It’s got to be where the fish can move a foot or so either way and eat it.
In the Florida Bay backcountry, you’re fishing laid-up fish. They’re just sitting there, so you’ve got to put the fly two feet in front of the fish and work it slowly. If you cast the fly too close, you’re going to spook it. Cast it too far, and the fish is not going to see it. Presentation there is different than on the ocean.
In either case, once that tarpon takes the fly, you’ve got to control yourself and wait for it to shut its mouth and turn its head. If you try to set the fly right away, it’ll just pop out of the tarpon’s big bucket mouth.
I like fishing for laid-up tarpon in Florida Bay, near Flamingo. I may only see a dozen fish a day, but four of them will bite if I put the fly in the right spot. In the ocean you see schools of 50 going by, but unless you place that fly perfectly they’re going to laugh at you. Those fish are strange. I threw a live crab to a big school once, and they swam right around it. It split the school in half. Go figure.