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.