Thanks to the inescapable heat and oppressive humidity, August is almost nobody’s favorite month in Southwest Florida. But if you’re like me, and love chasing juvenile tarpon with a fly rod, these intensely hot summer days are the best time of the year.
As far as I’m concerned there is nothing better than jumping the 10 to 20 pounders that invade the flats just after sunrise this time of year. The slick calm mornings and 90 degree water temps, especially in Matlacha Pass, force these small tarpon to gulp air from the surface several times an hour. This behavior is called rolling, and it’s something all tarpon must do in order to survive.
The prehistoric tarpon actually has a highly evolved air bladder lined with red blood cells that functions as a primitive lung. It extracts additional oxygen from above the water and supplements the O2 that they draw through their gills. This allows tarpon to live in both fresh and saltwater and the juveniles can thrive in places where few predators dwell.
These are the ultimate light tackle fish. They hit hard, jump dozens of times during the fight, and can be landed and safely released in a relatively short time. Any freshwater angler who thinks that largemouth bass are tough will be blown away by the compact violence of a 36 inch tarpon. They’re nothing short of a nuclear bomb on the end of an 8-weight fly rod.
For those of you non-snowbirds stuck here in the August heat, right now is your best shot at a tarpon on fly. These smaller fish are mostly unpressured, especially during the weekdays. The majority of charter captains concentrate on the really big tarpon that congregate off the Gulf Beaches and Boca Grande Pass in the late summer. Most recreational anglers around here also seem to ignore these smaller, inedible fish in favor of the reds and trout that inhabit the same flats, and that’s all just fine with me.
Juvenile tarpon are usually an early morning species and they eat the best just after sunrise. Almost any basin around Pine Island can hold them this time of year provided the water’s depth is around 3 feet or more. Calm conditions are essential for spotting them. Once the wind kicks up these small tarpon roll infrequently and the chop provides extra camouflage. On a perfectly flat morning you’ll not only spot them easily but also hear them gulping air from a good distance. It’s a quiet but unmistakable sound and can lead you right towards a pod of hungry fish.
The biggest drawback to chasing juvenile tarpon this time of year is the water itself. Thanks to the heat and freshwater runoff from the Caloosahatchee River, Matlacha Pass looks like a freshly brewed cup of coffee right now and Pine Island Sound isn’t much better. Once the rolling tarpon drop back below the surface, the tannic water makes it impossible to determine where they’re going. The best way to get a hook up is to actually hit them with a fly during the very brief moment their heads are above the water. If you’ve ever played the old arcade game Whack-A-Mole, you’ll enjoy this kind of fishing. Unless you’re quick you’ll do a lot of blind casting when you find these tarpon. Throwing bushy white flies like Seaducers or deer hair Sliders will also help you out here.
Since you’re not going to set any world records with these fish, skip the ultra-light leaders. Some 15# tippet and 40# shock leader will let you muscle a 20 pound tarpon to the boat in just a few minutes. In this hot summer water, that’s crucial to their survival.
Finally, and most importantly, the days of dragging these fish onto the deck for a photograph are over. In fact, it’s actually against the law right now to completely remove any tarpon over 40 inches long from the water. Hold them like you see in the photos on this page and you’ll be following the rules and not hurting the fish at the same time. These fish have a long life ahead of them, maybe 50 years or more, so fight them hard and release them quickly and you can meet them again once they’ve put on a couple hundred pounds.