May in Southwest Florida is one of my favorite months since it’s the real start of our tarpon season. The big migratory schools, which usually show up in early April, are still here but their numbers are really picking up as they move north from the Keys. The little resident fish, and by “little” I mean any tarpon under 30 pounds, will start sliding out of their hiding spots and become a regular sight on the inshore flats and residential canals all along the coast.
If you’re a fly angler, these are the ultimate saltwater gamefish no matter what their size. You can target them with an easy casting 8-weight for the juveniles and up to a beefy 12-weight for the full grown ones. Tarpon will eat a variety of relatively simple patterns, and with the right leader you can have them whipped in a lot less time than most folks realize. So let’s talk about that leader system for both juvenile and adult fish.
When I first started guiding two decades ago, back in the Monofilament Era, tarpon leaders were remarkably complex creations of several 12 to 80lb test line segments held together by a mix of Bimini Twists, Homer Rhode loops, and Huffnagal knots. I would start tying these in December and each leader usually took a quarter of Monday Night Football to construct before they were attached to their designated fly and snapped into something called a stretcher box. Once there, they would wait in straightened silence for springtime.
Fluorocarbon, which is effortless to keep straight compared to mono, changed all of that. Tarpon leaders can now be tied while motoring away from the ramp on the boat and I definitely don’t miss those mind-numbing leader building sessions at all.
For small tarpon I use Seaguar Red Label fluorocarbon to create a 10’ leader I call a “4-3-2-1.” That simply means 4’ of 40lb, 3’ of 30lb, 2’ of 20lb which is the class tippet, and just over 1’ of 40lb for a shock tippet. If you think you’ll encounter larger fish then bump that last part up to 60lb, which will withstand a big tarpon’s rough jaw even better. All these lengths are joined together by double surgeon’s knots which are effortless and hold at nearly 100% of the line’s strength. The fly is attached to the shock tippet with a perfection loop, which I also use for all my spinning lures, and that’s it.
If you tie your knots properly, and test them afterwards, they won’t let you down. These leaders are more than strong enough to beat a 3’ tarpon into submission in less than 5 minutes on an 8-weight. Hook up with a 100 pounder on a 12-weight and you should have it boatside in no more than half an hour. Homemade leaders are simple, effective, and very inexpensive compared to prepackaged ones which can cost up to $10 each. Give it a try and be thankful that you don’t have to fill up a stretcher box anymore.