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.
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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.
Leaders for Tarpon Fishing
Captain D. Lee handling a monster Everglades Tarpon
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 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.