Thanks to the inescapable heat and oppressive humidity, August is 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 pop up on 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 these fish must do in order to survive.
The very prehistoric tarpon has a highly evolved internal air bladder lined with red blood cells that also functions as a rudimentary lung. It extracts oxygen from above the water which 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” 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 just fine with me.
Juvenile tarpon are usually an early morning species and they eat the best at sunrise. Almost any basin around Pine Island can hold them this time of year provided the water is at least 3’ or deeper. Calm conditions are essential for spotting them. Once the wind kicks up these small tarpon roll far less frequently 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 frequent rains, 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, our tannic stained 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 understand 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, usually works best for my anglers.
Since you’re not going to set any world records with these fish, skip the ultra-light leaders. A couple feet of 15# tippet and a 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” 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 small tarpon have a very long life ahead of them, maybe 50 years or more in some cases, so fight them hard and release them quickly and you can meet them again in a few decades when they’ve put on a couple hundred pounds.