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Tarpon 101 // How to Fly Fish for Tarpon - The Basics

Tarpon 101 // How to Fly Fish for Tarpon - The Basics

Entire books, films, and likely someday a 10 season Netflix series will likely be produced on "How to Fly Fish for Tarpon".  That's a joke, but the point is that this topic has been well covered.  My goal is to give you down to earth advice on the basics so you aren't going into a trip blind.  I have fished for Tarpon in Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico, Florida, and Cuba. My successful experiences have primarily been with Baby Tarpon in the mangrove lagoons and canals these juvenile fish call home. They are aggressive and the game is all about sight casting! It's quite a rush.

Big Tarpon for Mike
Every angler's dream Tarpon, here is Mike with a gorgeous specimen.

Tarpon are the most celebrated gamefish on earth for the fly fisher.  Just read the book "Passion for Tarpon", if you can find a copy it will be about $400, and you'll read testimonials from die-hard Tarpon fisherman on just how addictive angling for the Silver King can be.

Tarpon for Tony in Belize

Tony with a fabulous Tarpon, these are the fish most of us lose sleep over.

The allure of Tarpon isn't just pure size, most anglers will never land a 100# fish, I've personally never landed one over 40#'s. I've hooked them, jumped them, and fought them but can't seem to close the deal. I'll be fishing in the Florida Keys next month so I'm looking to finally conquer my white whale.  Am I still addicted?  ABSOLUTELY. I love a good challenge and wouldn't have it any other way. The manner in which these fish move through the water, attack flies near the surface, jump like crazy, and their beauty is unmatched. These are special fish and I hope that the information shared here aids in your success.

Tarpon Habitat and Strategy

Baby Tarpon in a Small Lagoon

Jumping a Baby Tarpon in the Mangroves is as fun as it gets!

You will find Tarpon in a huge variety of habitat depending on the location, age of fish, and season. With a coastal range on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Americas from Brazil to Virginia, they fill various habitat niches all along the way. Baby Tarpon are the most commonly pursued on the fly, and these fish tend to favor the rich food sources of shallow water mangrove lagoons and channels. Large migratory Tarpon will flood the shallows in the spring seeking warm water. The Florida Everglades are famous in the early spring when big mature fish flood in from the Gulf of Mexico to enjoy the warmer water.  So you can certainly find big bruiser Tarpon in shore, in the shallows. Typically however, when a Tarpon reaches a certain age it begins to become more nomadic and pursue larger food sources and moves off-shore. Fisheries like Costa Rica where schools of monster Tarpon prowl the off shore areas along the coast are famous for the big Tarpon that school up bait balls in deep water. I've been there a couple of times and it can be hit or miss.  For me it's been a miss. 0 for 2 on big Tarpon for me. They were great adventures but it's a high stakes game there.

My fondest experiences Tarpon fishing have been in the lagoons and channels of Ascension Bay, Mexico. It's a great mix of other species combined with a couple of days of fishing for 10-20# Tarpon in situations that require some good casting skill to place flies along the mangroves. To me, this is a great place to start if you are looking for your first Tarpon.

The Tarpon Boat

Tarpon Fishing Skiff

It would be extremely rare to fish Tarpon on foot, although I have caught several while out stalking Snook and happened to bump into a small Tarpon. The reason is that Tarpon often live in the estuaries where the bottom is quite soft, and unlike Bonefish for instance, they might be living in water that is simply too deep to wade.

Plan to be fishing from the deck of either a flats skiff or a Panga style boat. Both are effective, but nothing compares to the fine skiffs that a well compensated Florida guide has. Tip these guides well if you can see that they are putting money back into angler comfort and boat effectiveness.  Electric motors to help anchor, spider cages on the deck, and line management nipples along the edges are all find accessories to help you connect with your fish of a lifetime.

What Do Tarpon Eat?

Tarpon Fly for the Everglades

Tarpon eat Mullet, Pinfish, Atlantic Needlefish, Sardines, Palalo Worms, shrimp, and crabs. They are pretty resourceful and prey on a variety of food sources. Tarpon feed during both day and night, and in the Florida Keys there are folks that will fish for Tarpon at night. I've never tried this but it sounds like a blast although you won't get that adrenaline rush of seeing a school of jumbo sized Tarpon coming your way!

Flies for Tarpon

Flies for Tarpon Fishing

Hook sizes will vary from a Size 1 to a 4/0, it all depends on the fishery, water clarity, and the situation. In the Everglades when the water is off colored, we fished very large 4/0 brush fly style Mullet patterns. We did tons of blind casting toward rolling fish and need a fly that pushed some water so the Tarpon could locate their prey.

Inversely, on the Florida Keys trip that I'm going on next month. The Captain suggested Size 1 flies because the water is ultra clear, the fish are spooky, and the Tarpon tend to trust smaller flies and avoid the big stuff. 

Colors and fly style will vary as well, but here are a few tips. Black and Purple seems to be the most universally "hot" pattern out of everywhere I've been. Flies should be unweighted, and light enough to set it on a Tarpon's nose without spooking them. If you need depth, use a sinking line and not a sinking fly.

Fly Line Selection for Tarpon

Fly Lines for Tarpon Fishing

There are a variety of lines that will suffice. The biggest question is whether you want an Intermediate or a Floating Line for Tarpon. Ideally, you have a spare spool and carry both lines. In the wind, a sink tip line will get your line down under the choppy water so that it isn't affected by random surface currents and chop. The downside is that even a slow sinking clear tip line can be more challenging to lift back up out of the water and recast, so there's that. I personally like a line with a +/- 40' head with a short intermediate sinking tip.  This gives me fabulous distance control but loads easy for a quick 30' cast.

Based on my Captain's input, I'll be fishing the RIO Flats Pro with a clear Stealth Tip on my next Tarpon trip to the Florida Keys. In the mangrove lagoons and canals for Baby Tarpon however, a floating version similar to this line would be preferred for delicacy and control.


RIO Flats Pro for Tarpon Fishing

Leaders for Tarpon Fishing

Leaders and Tippet Materials for Tarpon

Captain Lee Handling a Big Everglades Tarpon

Captain D. Lee handling a monster Everglades Tarpon

Your leader will need to include a section of "shock tippet" to protect it from being cut by the extremely sharp edges of the Tarpon's gills, and their rough sandpaper like mouths. The shock tippet provides abrasion resistance more-so than "shock" protection. In the Florida Keys, most guides want you to have a section of 20-30# IGFA class tippet as a natural breaking point in the leader. It's a good idea to bring some leaders so that you are ready, but most guides are happy and typically prefer to tie the leaders so they know exactly what their players are working with. Having the 20# class leader allows the angler to break off a fish intentionally if a shark is looming, or if shit hits the fan, like the line gets around your ankle, their is a breaking point ready to protect you.  80# Fluorocarbon is not very forgiving so working in a breaking point is wise. In other parts of the world, you may not be contending with 100+ pound fish and sharks. Many guides will suggest you run a single piece of shock tippet from fly line to fly. This is what I do.  I like 60# Fluorocarbon and I run it at 7' to start, and will replace it when I get down to about a 5' leader remaining. After a few fish have abraded the tippet I'll need to replace it.

Essential Knots

There are probably (12) knots that most Tarpon guides will call essential. I say there are two. The only knots you absolutely HAVE to know is a Homer Rhodes Loop Knot and a Perfection Loop. I finish the Homer Rhodes knot with a Steve Huff Double Figure 8. It's not a difficult knot and you need to know this. You have to be able to change your own flies, outside of that your guide can handle it.


Hooking and Fighting Tarpon

The video included in this blog will give you the best visual on how to fight a Tarpon, but the number one mistake I see new Tarpon anglers make while sharing a boat with me is the rod gets too high, too soon, too much. Keep your rod down and strip line after the hook set until you force the fish to turn away, at this point the fish will turn and finish setting the hook for you. If you raise the rod at all, even after the set, you'll miss out on the opportunity for the fish to use it's own bodyweight to finish the set. If you keep the rod tip low, bring the butt of the rod into your abdomen, and resist it slight during it's initial turn to flee then it will bury that hook deep. You can raise the rod a bit prior to any jumps, just so that you can give the rod tip back during the jump and soften up the line while it vigorously jumps and shakes its head.

There is a lot to this!  Remember in the heat of the moment however, high rods lose fish. A high rod loses fish. I could type that 50 more times and it still wouldn't be enough.

Additional Tips for Tarpon Fishing

Tarpon Fishing in Costa Rica

Tarpon fishing in a big water Panga in Costa Rica

My hope is that you now have some background and feel confident enough to embark on this journey. Catching your first Tarpon is so exciting! From the moment you see your first one you'll be in love.

To prepare as best you can, develop a strong and efficient cast.  Learn to Double Haul, cast tight loops, and practice with 10-12 weight rods A LOT. Flicking Caddis flies around with your 5 weight isn't going to do the trick.  

You don't have a chance in hell if you can't get your fly to the fish, practice, practice, practice.




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Ian Treadaway - July 22, 2023

Hi, can you help. Two of us are ( guys) coming to Florida in May to fish mainly fly but could be spinners too. We are looking for a guide and boat etc. for 5 days. We haven’t done much salt water fly fishing but will do some training on double hauling etc. before coming out. We like to mix things up a bit on our trips where we fish and specie so Tarpon would be great but doesn’t need to be exclusive. If you are able to help could you give me an idea of what you suggest and rough costs. Thanks Ian

Craig Rucker - December 16, 2022

Hi Joe, thanks for the article. I’m going to Florida in august (‘23) for my 1st salt trip, targeting bones, permit,& tarpon. I’ve just about settled on a guide that offers a 3 day trip with a slight discount. Any thoughts about putting all my eggs in one basket vs. starting a new relationship each time…. Also 1 of those days we would go to the Marquesas islands…or do you have a “fav” guide or two I could look into…. Thank you… Craig

chase - November 23, 2022

Nice discussion. Juvenile tarpon in the lower keys really don’t require much shock tippet, at least in cooler months of the year. I have gotten by with 12-16# tippet on a simple short leader. Landing a fly softly from way out is the biggest challenge(most casts under mangroves being “blind”).
The biggest threat to losing your fly comes from being cutoff by a cuda or small shark. I have yet to try a very short piece of light wire(Surflon,etc.)as a bite tippet.
A small tarpon exploding on a popper is a beautiful and thrilling event!

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