|Key West, 1995|
It’s been 20 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 short 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 10 foot wooden skiff that he rowed after the fish with a pair of oars. They didn’t have 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 30 pounds, cameras that took less than 30 seconds to take a photograph, and any method of communicating with someone on another boat or the shore except shouting at the top of their lungs.
In other words, William Wood and Capt. Smith’s first tarpon didn’t happen easily.
So let’s fast forward to my first client’s tarpon 110 years later in 1995. I was poling a fiberglass hulled Maverick Mirage powered by a 70hp two-stroke outboard. That 16 foot skiff could cruise at 30mph and float in just under a foot of water fully loaded. This was the state of the art fly fishing skiff back in the early 90’s and it put me on a pile of fish over the following years.
My angler was casting his 12-weight Sage RPLXi rod mounted with a Billy Pate anti-reverse reel, both state of the art for the time and horribly expensive. The entire outfit easily cost over $1000 at the time. His fly was a 4/0 Cockroach that I selected from my handmade stretcher box of a dozen patterns pre-tied to monofilament leaders that each took me almost an hour to assemble.
Before I handed him his rod I double checked all five of the different knots that made up the ten foot leader system and then sharpened the Mustad hook with a small file. This was just part of effort that still went into chasing these fish in the late 20th century.
The tarpon my angler caught that day wasn’t even close to a record setter, perhaps 50 pounds at most, but I still hauled it up on my skiff's deck and marveled at it like it was the Lost Ark. Then I pulled out my Cannon AE-1 and snapped off an entire $7 roll of 35mm Fuji 100 film, which cost me another $8 to develop and only two of the pictures turned out decent 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 its two minute photo session.
So let’s jump ahead to Tarpon Season 2015 and talk about how things have become easier for guides, our anglers, and the fish we chase.
My current boat is an 18' Beavertail BT3 which is larger, lighter, and faster with the same amount of horsepower as my old 16' Maverick. Its new 4-stroke Yamaha even burns less fuel and no oil. When I’m fishing the deeper water off Cayo Costa 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 in the Keys.
My tackle has changed just a little. I still own a few of those older $1200 Sage fly rod and reel combos but the most recent tarpon rod I purchased just last year was a 10-weight Temple Fork BVK that retails for only $250. Advanced graphite is easier than ever to produce and these new rods cast as well as anything else at triple the price.
I paired this rod with a matching BVK reel. It's solid aluminum frame weighs half as much as those legendary Billy Pates and is just as capable when it comes to taking down a full size tarpon. Best of all, 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 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 sharpened with a file before you rig them.
Documenting the 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, basically free of charge and stored on memory cards the size of my thumbnail. These new digital cameras are no more expensive than their 35mm 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 fantastic stills 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 pocket that Star Trek never even predicted.
So for those of you who think that fly fishing for tarpon has only gotten more difficult, I seriously disagree. Yes, there are more folks out there doing it, but the gear has never been better and the learning curve has never been shorter. It still takes time on the water, 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 born a century ago right here in Southwest Florida, And you don’t have to climb into a wooden rowboat to do it.