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October 26, 2001

Taming Triple-Digit Tarpon

A fly-fishing legend shares tips on gear and techniques that whip giant silver.

I've caught and released many 100-plus-pound tarpon on fly during every month of the year. However, as a general rule, the best times occur when the water temperature is between 72 and 88 degrees, a big push of water is present - such as around new- or full-moon phases - and little or no wind exists.
In the Florida Keys, where I now live year-round and still pursue ol' Megalops atlanticus with as much excitement as ever, these favorable conditions most often come together in April, May and June. In warmer months, the best tarpon fishing usually occurs from daylight until about 10:30 a.m. and the last couple of hours before sundown. At midday, the water temperature is usually too warm. In cooler months, try to fish a promising flat late in the afternoon when the water's had a full day to warm up.
You can encounter big tarpon in many places, but here's my list of favorite Florida areas to hunt the triple-digit specimens: Key West, Bahia Honda in the lower Keys, Islamorada in the upper Keys, and on the Gulf Coast, Boca Grande and Homosassa. All of these places offer excellent sight-fishing opportunities - the only way I fish for tarpon.
A glance at the IGFA world records on fly reveals that Florida claims all but one record - Sierra Leone being the exception - with all 100-plus-pounders caught in April or May.
You can blind-cast to rolling giant tarpon in areas such as Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, Honduras, Maracaibo (Venezuela) and deep river mouths off Gabon and Sierra Leone in Africa. Keep in mind, however, that IGFA fly rules prohibit more than 120 feet of line being used to hook a fish in order to qualify for a world-record catch. This, in effect, discourages simply letting a line sink to the bottom of a deep hole where big tarpon may be holding instead of casting to them in a traditional sight-fishing manner.

Don't Get Ready - Be Ready
I cannot stress enough the importance of being properly rigged and ready. You should not be rigging lines and tying leaders when getting on the boat or, worse yet, when arriving where you want to fish. Sometimes your best opportunities occur that first moment you pole onto a promising flat, and if you're not standing ready on the bow, you don't deserve to catch a big tarpon.
The night before a trip, get everything rigged, tie on a leader and select a fly based on where you think you'll first be fishing. Have extra leaders tied with a variety of flies - preferably in a stretcher box - so they're within quick reach.
To have your best shot at catching a triple-digit tarpon, you must pay your dues by spending lots of on-the-water time keeping detailed notes on everything you see. Yeah, you can get lucky and score a big fish without doing your homework, but it's much more likely that success will come to those who do. If you simply can't put in that kind of time but still crave a battle with a giant silver king, hire a good guide who specializes in tarpon fishing.

Gear for Big Poons
You wouldn't go moose hunting with a slingshot or play golf with a hockey stick, yet I often see anglers with totally outmatched gear out on the water in pursuit of big tarpon. The following outlines what you'll need to stand a decent chance at fooling and fighting trophy fish.
Tarpon flies: A good selection and knowledge of when to use each fly is almost as important as the presentation. A good rule of thumb: Go with a light-colored fly over light bottom or in clear water, and try darker patterns over dark grass or in murky water.
Rods: Depending on the skill level, a 10-, 11- or 12-weight fly rod will do the job, but newcomers should stick with a 12-weight. I use a 9-foot Diamondback Saltwater model in various weights, although a multitude of good rods is available today.
Reels: In the past 10 years or so, more new fly reels have come into the marketplace than during all the previous years put together. It's important to purchase a good bar-stock-aluminum fly reel. They are expensive - $400 to $600 each - but with proper care they can be passed on for generations. I've been using the new Tibor fly reel since Ted Juracsik, with the help of Lefty Kreh and Flip Pallot, designed and started manufacturing it.
Fly lines: After years of tinkering around with various fly lines, I finally designed my own - the multi-tip fly line. I can cover any fishing situation that may arise because I can quickly change from a floating tip to a mono-type intermediate tip, a medium-sink tip or a fast-sink tip, making it unnecessary to carry extra spools or reels with different lines. The tips measure about 20 feet in length, depending on the density, and each line weight is color-coded so I can quickly identify it. I can change fly-line tips in much less time than it would take to re-rig. However, no matter what brand or type of line you use, it's a safe bet to go with the line weight that the rod manufacturer suggests.
Backing: A number of new lines on the market can be used for backing - a huge consideration when a 100- to 160-plus-pound tarpon makes a run. The backing goes on the reel first and is attached to the fly line. I usually cut a portion off the back end of the fly line so it'll end up about 80 feet long, allowing more backing on the reel rather than fly line that I would not cast. (My average tarpon leader is 12 feet long, and I'm certainly not going to make a 92-foot cast to a tarpon.) While Magibraid Dacron or any of the polyethylene super-braids can be used for backing, for the most part I stick with the old standby that's served me well for about 40 years: Gudebrod Dacron. The soft weave in Gudebrod Dacron packs well on the reel and is easy to splice.

Down and Dirty
When you see a school of tarpon, don't "flock-shoot" the school: Pick the biggest individual to cast to and put the fly in front of its mouth in order to retrieve in the direction it's moving. If you don't, smaller fish will usually grab the fly because they're more aggressive than bigger ones.
Don't look directly at the fish to which you're casting - instead, look at the spot where you want the fly to land, keeping tabs on the fish's position out of the corner of your eye.
When you do hook that monster poon, you don't stand much of a chance of getting more than a jump or two unless you use proper fish-fighting techniques.
The moment after I hook up a big fish, I immediately look to the bottom of the boat to keep track of the fly line. I hold the line lightly with the fingers of my left hand, making sure the line comes off the deck without wrapping or hanging on anything. After the fly line's out of the boat and coming off the reel, I get a left-hand cotton glove out of my back pocket and put it on. At this point you hang on and let the tarpon make its first run. Later, when it's time to start pressuring the fish, I weave the line through the fingers of my gloved hand to manipulate the drag on the line.
At the same time, it's very important for the person handling the boat to start moving toward the fish while I wind line as fast and furiously as possible. The goal is to quickly get eyeball to eyeball with the fish - within about 30 feet of it - so as much of the energy as possible that's expended pulling on the rod gets transmitted directly to the fish's mouth. This is accomplished by pulling down and back toward the tail of the fish - known as the "down and dirty" method. Keep the rod tip near or under the surface and place maximum pressure on the fish, switching from the left to right side as needed to keep the line coming back from the direction of the tail. Whenever a tarpon's near the boat, I try to roll its head down and flip its body over - a bewildering experience that quickly "tames" a panicking tarpon. With this technique, I can release 150-pound-class tarpon in less than 30 minutes on 12-pound tippet - I've done so with 35 tarpon of that size over the years.