Best flies for tarpon fishing.
 Picture of large tarpon as a header for a sellection of tarpon flies.

Fly Fishing For Tarpon

A collage of pictures of a fly angler battling and subduing a large tarpon.

In early April schools of giant tarpon start sneaking into "Back Country" ; that amorphous conglomeration of mangrove islands, reefs and flats on the Gulf side of the Florida Keys. In this early season the area around Marathon in the Middle Keys can be loaded with fresh, laid-up tarpon that haven't seen a fly. Many of these fish will weigh 100-200 pounds. You can get lots of shots, but don't expect these fish to be easy. They are shy and hard to hook and when you hook one they will be exceptionally powerful in the oxygen rich, cool water. 

You better pay close attention to details such as leader knots, backing knots and the durability of your reel. Big tarpon can dismantle tackle. And they can wear you out physically. Any tarpon of over a hundred pounds might take a couple hours to land. A tarpon over 150-ponds might take several hours. Billy Pate's 188-pound record tarpon took him nine hours and 35-miles. When it finally came to the boat, it jerked the muscular 275-pound guide overboard into harms way. But that is the attraction.

Hunters that pursue large carnivores look for the same kind of experience. If the game were easy, it might not have as much allure. My largest tarpon landed was hooked in the early season off Big Pine Key, Florida. It wasn't big by tarpon standards. The estimate was 135-pounds. It took 2 1/2 hours of pulling my guts out before it finally gave up. To this date it is the largest fish of any kind that I have landed and it is indelibly etched in my mind.

Tarpon are hard to see. Laid-up tarpon are the hardest. They look like black logs suspended lazily just below the choppy surface of the water. You have to see them clearly before you cast. There is only one end of a tarpon that will eat a fly. The fly must be cast to exactly the right place in front of his face. Casting gets harder with adrenalin pumping through your veins, but adrenalin is the whole reason for the hunt in the first place.

My first big tarpon took fly turning away with such force that the line burnt a groove in my hand. I struck back a couple of times. Then the fish went berserk; rocketing its seven foot long body high into the air several times as the line melted off the reel. There aren't words that can describe the helpless feeling. The twelve weight rod that felt like such a "stick" before I left Oregon now felt puny against such ferocious power. After ten minutes and several more sky walking jumps, the hook which had been driven so deep into the flesh pulled free. Twenty minutes later the second tarpon took my fly coming head on toward me and pushed enough slack into the line that I thought it missed the fly completely. Yet as it went on past me the line came tight and a couple of hard jabs buried the hook into the cartilage of her upper lip. Then the fish bolted a couple of hundred yards of backing off the reel without jumping. It stayed down and nearly half an hour passed before we saw the size of the this fish. Then it jumped twice. It was a little smaller than the first fish.

Tarpon are able to gulp air into their swim bladders and absorb oxygen from the atmosphere. This action enables tarpon to live in oxygen starved water or supercharge themselves as they are being played on a hook and line. The trick is to keep a fish from gulping air by pulling its head down by sticking your rod under water and giving it a "down and dirty". I wasn't able to keep my big tarpon from gulping and the fight went on for two and one half hours. Finally my guide grabbed the tarpon by the lower jaw with both hands and hoisted it across the bow of the boat for a quick length measurement and a picture. It was 78"; easily the largest tarpon I had ever landed. It was returned to the water where it revived instantly. I, however was exhausted.