|Key West, 1996|
It’s been almost twenty years since I guided my first client to a tarpon on a fly and, remarkably, a lot has changed with the sport in that relatively short time.
Tarpon fishing was born right here in Southwest Florida on March 25th, 1885, when the first one was caught on a rod and reel off Punta Rassa. The angler’s name was William Wood and he used a five foot bamboo rod and a solid steel reel holding just over 200 yards of spun linen line. His guide was Capt. John Smith from St. James City whose boat was a ten foot wooden skiff that he rowed after the fish with a pair of oars. He didn’t use an outboard motor because those didn’t exist back then.
Here are a few other things that also didn’t exist back then: sunblock, sunglasses, bug spray, clothes made of something lighter than wool or heavy cotton, cameras that weighed less than thirty pounds, cameras that took less than thirty seconds to take a photo, and any method of communicating with someone on another boat or the shore except shouting.
In other words, William Wood and Capt. Smith’s first tarpon didn’t happen all that easily.
So let’s fast forward to my first tarpon 111 years later. I was poling a fiberglass hulled Maverick Mirage powered by a Johnson 70hp two-stroke outboard. It could hit 30mph and float in just under a foot of water fully loaded. (Sorry Maverick, but you were exaggerating a bit in your brochure about this boat’s alleged six inch draft.) This was the state of the art fly fishing skiff back in 1996 and it put me on a pile of tarpon over the next ten years.
My angler was casting his 12-weight Sage RPLX fly rod mounted with a Billy Pate anti-reverse reel, also state of the art for the time and horribly expensive. The entire outfit cost over $1200. His fly was a 4/0 Cockroach pattern that I selected from a stretcher box of a dozen flies pre-tied to monofilament leaders that took me almost an hour each to assemble. Before I handed him his rod I double checked all five of the different knots that made up the entire ten foot leader system and then sharpened the hook with a small file. A lot of thought and effort still went into catching these fish in the late 20th century.
The tarpon my angler caught that day wasn’t even close to a record setter, perhaps fifty pounds at the most, but I still hauled it up on the deck and marveled at it like it was the Lost Ark. I pulled out my Cannon Eos and snapped off an entire roll of Fuji 100 film, which cost me $12 to develop and only two of the pictures turned out nice enough to keep. That fish did swim away after a lot of reviving but I’m sure we didn’t do it any favors during that two minute photo session.
So let’s jump ahead to Tarpon Season 2014 and talk about how things have become even easier guides like me and our anglers. My current boat is a Beavertail BT3 which is larger, lighter, and faster with the same amount of power as my old Maverick. Its four-stroke Yamaha even burns less fuel and no oil. When I’m fishing in the deeper water off the beach I use a remote controlled Minn Kota trolling motor to get me on the fish quicker than I ever could with a push pole.
I still own a few of those older $1200 fly rod and reel combos but the most recent tarpon rod I purchased last year was a 12-weight Temple Fork BVK that retails for only $250. Advanced graphite is easier than ever to produce and these rods cast as well as anything else at three times the price. I also picked up a matching BVK reel for the same price. This machined aluminum fly reel weighs almost half as much as those legendary Billy Pates and is just as capable when it comes to taking down a full size tarpon, and you don’t have to skip a mortgage payment to own one.
That big stretcher box full of flies and pre-tied leaders has disappeared thanks to the arrival of fluorocarbon. I ditched the stretcher box ten years ago and now just keep a few spools of Seaguar in my tackle bag to whip up leaders as needed. And my tarpon flies are tied on amazingly sharp Owner hooks which never need touched before you rig them. This is a huge time saver both at home before the trip and on the water.
Documenting your catch has also never been easier. My current cameras are a pair of Nikon digital SLRs that allow me to capture an almost unlimited amount of images each day, all basically free of charge and stored on memory cards the size of my thumbnail. And these cameras are no more expensive than their film consuming older brothers from a few decades ago. Even more amazing are the smart phones that we all carry with us. Most are capable of taking not only fantastic still photos but they can also shoot high-definition video that a $70,000 broadcast camera couldn’t match back in the 1990’s. Throw in a couple of apps like GPS and real-time radar and you’ve got something in your tackle bag that Star Trek never even predicted.
So for those of you who think that fly fishing for tarpon has only gotten more difficult, I disagree. Yes, there are more folks out there doing it but the gear has never been better and the learning curve has never been smaller. It still takes time on the water to get really good at it but all the cost barriers to chasing silver kings on fly have been knocked completely down in the last decade. It’s never been easier to become part of a sport that was born a century ago right here in Southwest Florida, and you don’t have to climb into a wooden rowboat to do it.