Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Recent Catches

George from New Jersey with and upper-slot red caught on a live shrimp.

Spinner shark on fly for Aiden from Maine.  Amazing fight on an 8-weight.

My Mom, Karen McKee, with a 32" snook caught from their dock on Matlacha. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Live Bait Rules!

Every once in a while I get a few guys who just want to bend rods and feed the family, and I'm all about that.  This week it was Randy, Ryan, and their dad Frank from Ohio, and we brought home this net full of meat caught on live shrimp and Berkely Gulps.  Their fish dinner tomorrow night will be epic for all ten people down here on vacation.  Nice job out there, guys. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Cobia On The Flats

For some strange reason, the flats of Matlacha Pass are currently home to a lot more cobia than I've ever seen before  I'm not questioning this at all since it's a very good thing and I hope it continues for the rest of the time I'm alive.  I absolutely love Cobia.  They're easily one of my favorite inshore fish to catch and eat, once they hit the 33" slot legal size.  The one in the photo was just under that at but still put up a hell of a fight on an 8-weight fly rod.  This was the first cobia I brought to the boat on a fly this year but we usually get quite a few in Charlotte Harbor once the tarpon start moving through. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Key West Flashback: Barracuda On The Flats

This picture was taken in early March, 2014, after I dropped off my buddy Capt. Mike Bartlett's new Beavertail Vengeance to him on Key West.  I agreed to make the 390 mile drive from their factory in Bradenton since I knew that I'd get at least two days on the bow of Mike's new skiff in exchange for my drive.  I had grand plans of throwing flies at tailing permit and maybe even some early season tarpon.  Those plans were quickly demolished by the weather. 

As you can see, Mike was bundled up like he was running a smallmouth trip on the Susquehanna River instead of a flats trip at the south end of Florida.  A cold front dropped on us the night I arrived and the temps were in the 50's the next morning.  That's frigid for Key West.  The skies were also overcast with high clouds and the winds was pushing 20 knots.  I knew I was never going to be warm at any point during the day, let along catch a permit, bonefish or tarpon with anything other than dynamite and a gill net. 

But fortunately, for all the cold and frustrated anglers who hit the Keys at the wrong time of year, barracuda exist.  I'm not exaggerating when I say that they might be the greatest light tackle species you can chase with a spinning rod.  Barracuda love to eat when it gets cold and sloppy in the shallows.  In fact, they get remarkably aggressive.  Just tossing a foot-long tube lure and retrieving it at top speed across the flats is enough to draw an insane strike. 

We caught the 3-foot fish in this photo that same morning just a hundred yards outside the Oceanside Marina.  The clouds never parted and the wind stayed steady, but the big barracuda were right where Mike new they'd be and didn't disappoint. 

I loved chasing these scary predators when I used to guide in Key West and it was a blast to get reacquainted to them on a cruddy day.  Unfortunately, we don't have barracuda on the flats around Pine Island and I miss them terribly. 

This past week in SW Florida was nothing but wind, some clouds, and a little too much cold.  I've had all fly anglers on the schedule and have been lucky to land some nice trout along with a few undersize snook and reds.  It'll get back to normal in a few days but a big barracuda or two, like we used to catch off Key West, would have made this month a lot more tolerable. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Sharks On The Fly

Tim from Boston took a break from his duties with the Red Sox to hit the Matlacha flats this week and landed an excellent bonnethead shark with an 8-weight fly rod.  These small hammerheads are a common sight in the shallow from Tampa Bay to Key West and make longer runs than most bonefish.  They rarely hit anything artificial but I've had great luck tossing crawfish orange bunny fur flies at them.  They don't have very good eyesight so the secret with these sharks is to hit them right on the nose.  The one that Tim caught in this photo ate the fly less than ten feet from the boat. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

My Favorite Tarpon Fly

March means that tarpon season is just getting started here in SW Florida.  Over the past 20 years I’ve caught these fish on a variety of different flies but my go-to pattern for most of that time is the very simple red and black Tarpon Bunny.  This fly has worked for me in all depths of both dark and clear water from Puerto Rico to Tampa Bay.  I estimate that 80% of the silver kings hooked on my boat over the last decade ate a Tarpon Bunny. 

The history of this fly is a bit unclear but it’s been around since the mid-1970s.  The Tarpon Bunny is nearly identical to some of the rabbit fur leech patterns used by fresh water salmon anglers for over a century.  It’s a fair bet that the prototype came to Florida by way of an Alaskan fly box.  The Bunny’s success on our fish was almost a sure thing, given the way rabbit fur undulates through the water in a near perfect imitation of a palolo worm, the tarpon’s favorite food. 

As with most saltwater patterns, color choices for these flies are almost unlimited.  Red and black was the first combination I saw and was thrilled by how easily visible it appeared in the water.  I’d been using mostly natural colored shrimp imitations, like the famous Cockroach pattern, that tended vanish below the surface.  With my anglers casting darker Tarpon Bunnies, I could keep track of the fly the entire time and more accurately help them get it in front of the fish.  Over the years I’ve used this pattern in dozens of different color schemes but red and black remains my first choice, with red and purple a close second. 

The other thing that attracted me to the Tarpon Bunny was how easy it is to tie.  It’s basically two pieces of rabbit fur on a hook.  The darker colored tail is 3” of Zonker strip and the collar is the same length of cross-cut rabbit fur wrapped toward the hook eye.  A few dozen wraps of flat waxed nylon thread is enough to finish off the head.  Some folks like to bulk that up a bit more to add painted or glued-on eyes, and they’ll also put some Krystal flash into the tail.  I rarely add either because I’m a bit lazy but it certainly won’t hurt the fly’s appeal to a hungry fish.  As with every other pattern known to man, you’ll find several videos on YouTube showing you exactly how to tie a perfect Tarpon Bunny.

On a final note, the only hook I use for these flies is the the Owner SSW Cutting Point in size 2/0 or 3/0.  These are sold as a live bait hook but are perfect for this fly.  As most anglers know, a tarpon’s mouth is about as soft as a cinder block.  It’s basically skin over solid bone with lips that feel like 120 grit sand paper.  It takes an extremely sharp hook to penetrate that and the chemically treated Owners are weapons when fresh out of the pack.  More importantly, they’re made of non-stainless steel and will corrode after a few days of saltwater exposure.  This is VERY important since we break off a lot of flies when tarpon fishing.  A stainless steel hook will stay in their mouth or throat forever and could eventually kill the fish.

 Tarpon are a very tough animal; they were in the ocean back when the Tyrannosaur was on the land.  They can also live as long as a human and as the old saying goes, “They’re too valuable to only be caught once.”  Fight them hard and let them go unharmed.  Hope this helps and good luck out there. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Charlotte Harbor Flats

I took this shot almost two weeks ago on my buddy Capt. Eric Wrenn's boat when we decided to go looking for tarpon in late February.  We found quite a few big fish cruising in 69 degree water but didn't hook any.  What was most impressive was the clarity of the water all over the northern end of Pine Island Sound and the south part of Charlotte Harbor.  I'd been spending the winter just off Matlacha chasing redfish by the hundreds and was happy to be reminded how much our deeper water can look just like the Keys this time of year and how productive it can be. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

March On Pine Island

March means that tarpon season is right around the corner here on Pine Island and this is an article I’ve published before aimed at those of you who are new to the sport and hoping to land your first silver king with a fly rod.  Here are five things I’ve learned over the past 21 years of chasing these fish for a living that will both increase your odds and hopefully simplify the process. 

1. Use a lighter fly rod. You really don't need anything heavier than a 10-weight to catch the majority of tarpon you'll encounter off Pine Island.   Mid-range saltwater rods are not only easier to cast but their lines hit the water with less impact.  This is less likely to spook fish, especially given our calm conditions most of year.  Yes, there are some true monster tarpon that swim along the Gulf beaches, but concentrate on the smaller ones before you work your way up to the 12-weight . 

2. Use a heavier leader.  If you’re not trying to set a world record then there's no reason to use anything less than 20# test for your class tippet, and I’ll even go up to 30# on occasion.  That’s more than strong enough to let you muscle any tarpon to the boat quickly.  This is important since a long battle, especially in the hot summertime water, is a sure way to kill these fish.  Get them in fast and they’re less likely to become shark food after you release them.

3. Use a lighter shock leader.  The 20 to 30# tippet is great but I still like to tie in 18” of 40# fluorocarbon as a shock leader.  Even small tarpon have a mouth that feels like a cinder block so something a little heavier at the hook stops them from rubbing through the leader.  In the spring and early summer, when the seriously big fish are around I'll bump it up to 60# fluorocarbon.  I've only had a handful of tarpon wear through that size shock leader.  Use anything heavier and the fish is more likely to see it and less likely to eat the fly.

4. Use sharper hooks.  It's hard to find tarpon flies these days that are not tied on pre-sharpened, cutting edged hooks.  If you’re tying your own flies then spend the extra money and get the best hooks possible.  My favorites are the SSW style Owner Cutting Point in size 2/0. They're wickedly sharp and penetrate the tarpon's mouth better than anything I’ve seen.  They also have a small barb that holds beautifully but is still easily removed from the fish.  A package of eight costs around $6 but they're well worth it.

5. Use your drag.  This is the most important thing of all.  When I was guiding down in Key West my buddies and I had a rule that three jumps from a tarpon counted as a caught fish.  After the third jump, getting it up to the boat was just a formality.  Everyone should consider this since it’s easier on both the fish and the angler.

As a beginner I lost way too many tarpon because I babied them during the fight.  I'd give them too much slack and barely pull on them for fear of breaking the light tippets.  In other words, I was so afraid of losing the fish that I'd eventually lose the fish.

That changed one summer when I had a client nearly pass out from heat exhaustion while fighting a really big tarpon.  He actually dropped to his knees on my deck but managed to hang on to his rod.  It scared the hell out of me since I thought he was having a heart attack.  While he chugged some ice water I took his rod and cranked down the drag all the way down on his Tibor reel, hoping the fish would break itself off before the guy dropped dead on my bow.  Instead of that happening, when my angler recovered he quickly found himself in complete control of the tarpon for the first time in over an hour.  Five minutes later we had the 100 pounder next to the boat and both angler and fish survived the ordeal.  Start off with a light drag but right after that third jump is the time to really beat on them.  Since you’re not going to keep any tarpon so don’t be afraid of losing one.  Best of luck out there and hope this helps.