Saturday, October 20, 2012

Tarpon Tips: Part One

This time of year, thoughts turn to the salt. As fall deepens and the leaves begin to fly, many anglers are eager to make plans to pursue tarpon, especially at the "baby" tarpon hotspots in Mexico and Central America. First time tarpon anglers are often very experienced with trout, bonefish and other species like stripers, but they are not experienced with tarpon. While excited at the prospect of pursuing this legendary fish, they are also aware of the tarpon's reputation for being difficult and a bit "bitchy". Being experienced anglers, they typically ask lots of good questions especially about the techniques and angling skills required to be successful. 
In an effort to answer their questions, I put these "tips" together. I wanted to organize some good "intel" for these anglers regarding tarpon techniques and the relative effort and skills required to pursue the beast.
I won't talk about flies or terminal tackle in this post as both terminal tackle and flies are much more size and destination specific. On the other hand, these tips will work wherever tarpon swim and on any size from 2-200 lbs. 
But first, let me answer, why tarpon?... What's all the hubbub about?... well that's a enjoyable question to try to  answer: 

Tarpon are one of the world's greatest gamefish. Some say THE greatest. I won't argue the point (FYI, I fall towards the greatest end of the spectrum), but these powerful creatures certainly stir the passions of those lucky enough to get the chance to pursue them.

On appearance only, tarpon are an absolutely spectacular creature. They come fully equipped with a bucket of a mouth, huge armored scales, a big broad tail and a long, filamentous dorsal fin ray that, in its delicate appearance, seems to be out of place on such an brutish beast. 

But tarpon are not just big-mouthed, armor-plated posers, because once hooked, tarpon reveal what's "under the hood" and it's more than enough horsepower to make them a legendary species. From twisting, backflips to marlinesque pirouettes to gravity defying vertical high jumps, tarpon earn their legendary status here and collect their fair share of oohs and ahhs from even the most jaded of anglers.

But tarpon are not easy. Their here today, gone tomorrow nature leaves even the most committed of anglers frustrated. Furthermore, the tarpon's finicky nature makes yesterday's victories no lock for today. But it is their hard, bony mouth that causes most beginning, and even many experienced, anglers their greatest problems. You can do everything right: a good presentation, a proper seductive retrieve and a good strong strip strike... and still fail. At times like this, you see the mouth gape wide creating a liquid canyon in the tannic waters followed by a heart stopping jump... and then the fly pulls and you are reduced to the "posture of the defeat"... head down, shoulders slumped, eyes shut.

At times like this, you should remind yourself that tarpon have a category of angling terminology reserved all to themselves. While some fish are caught and others are simply lost, tarpon are JUMPED! Tarpon fisherman created this category to massage bruised egos and comfort broken dreams. Some consider a jumped tarpon a half victory, while others think of it as only putting a good spin on a bad situation. Whatever it is, if you're gonna fish for tarpon, get used to it... for in this game, there will always be more tarpon jumped than boated.

And here's some more bad news... better fishermen put more tarpon in the boat. It's not luck. Tarpon fishing is a skill sport. To be successful you must learn to deliver the fly quickly and precisely. You must initiate a proper retrieve and convince your tarpon to eat a fly. You must always strip-strike and develop a feel for the hookset. Rarely is blind luck rewarded. In this game, skill wins the day and this pursuit of these necessary skills is the reason why many anglers form a lifetime relationship with the fish. For many anglers, tarpon are the ultimate and they return to their secret lagos, bays and hidey-holes time and time again, year after year. They suffer the frustrations and wonder at their perseverance.

But it is worth it! To see an enraged tarpon launch a leap that sends your eyes following into the sky, makes all the headaches worth it. You live for this moment when coils of line smash toward the stripping guide. Through the sizzling tropical heat, you watch mesmerized as a silver plated fish crashes back into the dark stained water. If this doesn't get you going, please put down your laptop, step away from the table and dial 1-800-GO BOWLING!

What follows are a few hints to help improve your tarpon hookup and boating rate. If you are an expert, we invite your suggestions and additions. If you are a novice, we will be happy to clarify or go into greater depth on any of these recommendations.

Let's start with the beginning... and that's before you make that first cast...

Lay a wet towel over any obstructions on the casting deck of your boat. Cleats and handles can easily snare your fly line and ruin a cast or worse, break off a fish. Some anglers purchase a cheap plastic laundry basket to stack their line in on the deck especially if they are using a boat without a casting deck cowling. This is also an especially good idea in windy conditions.

Don't strip out more line than you need to make your cast. Make a practice cast, then leave that measured amount of the line stacked carefully on deck. This will minimize the amount of line that can tangle on your feet or form knots. Do not pull line off your reel and stack it on the deck of the boat. If you do, the forward portion of your line is underneath the pile, then when you cast with the line stacked in this way, you will end up with a tangled bird's nest. Make sure you make a practice cast, then stack your line as you retrieve it.
If possible, take off your shoes. This will allow you to feel the fly line stacked on the deck and you can avoid stepping on it.

Tarpon have very abrasive mouths so check your leader regularly for abrasion and re-tie your fly after each fish.

Once you begin the hunt...
Scan the water constantly. Look for any surface disturbances... a tail, a fin, a subtle swirl. Tarpon typically "roll" especially at dawn and dusk when they surface to take air into swim bladders that allow them to respire. Tarpon seek oxygen-depleted waters especially when young. This gives them an advantage over predators that cannot breathe using surface air and therefore cannot tolerate poorly oxygenated waters.  Dead still water may not look good, but it is often good tarpon water. Don't be lulled to sleep by these still lagoons and torpid back bays. If you see no surface activity, try to look through the water to the bottom to see cruising fish, especially under and around mangrove bushes.

Literally, don't rock the boat. When you cast, try not to send out little wavelets that will alert the tarpon to your presence. 

Be quiet, don't drop the lid on the cooler, make a lot of noise against the boat hull or talk too loudly... especially if you are not "on the bow". Remember to remove shiny jewelry.  Tarpon are a fish with great vision especially in low light conditions. Their Latin name is megalops (big eye). They aren't called this by accident!

Also, don't hesitate to cast from your knees or crouch if fish come in very close. A sidearm cast from the knees has caught many a tarpon!

Next Part 2:  Casting to Tarpon and the Retrieve.


  1. I've taken to making pre-trip sacrifices to the whatever local diety or all-powerful being happens to be in charge. It's getting harder and harder to find vestial virgins though. And they get all flighty and angry when I try to carry them up to the top of volcanoes and Mayan pyramids.

  2. I didn't want to say it in this piece Doug, but your strategy, along with a good double haul, will work as well as any on tarpon!