Tarpon Quest (Part-2)


MA-9 Beach Stalker
In May 2012 I went on my first fly fishing trip for tarpon down on the Florida gulf coast, and I briefly hooked up with a nice fish that gave me a big jump after breaking the leader. I've been dreaming about doing it again ever since that day. Last week I returned to Boca Grande with my older brother Mike for 3 full days of tarpon fishing on the fly rod and I hooked up again:

I met Mike in Ft Myers and sped off to Boca Grande for some 11-12wt casting instructions with Dusty Sprague. Dusty gave us instructions on loading a heavy fly rod (much tougher than with an 8wt) and tips on hook setting and fighting tarpon. Dusty is a very good instructor and I wish I had his casting skills. Practicing your double haul and casting stroke with a 11-12wt rod before your trip is very important before you fish tarpon. Casting on the bow of a boat with wind and a rolling deck is so much harder than on terra firma though!
We met Captain Skip Zink at the dock at 9am and were bummed to see solid grey clouds and a stiff wind on the horizon. It looked like Puget Sound in September. A long bumpy boat ride towards Pine Island put us into the tarpon zone. Late April is early for Boca Grande tarpon fishing, but the water temp was 80-81 degrees and the fish showed up a few days before we arrived. Without direct sunlight we struggled to spot tarpon on the flats, and the wind waves were putting the tarpon 3-6 feet below the surface. Finally the sun came out sporadically and we were seeing more and more tarpon around the boat. I had some good follows and near takes that got me excited, but the wind made casting tough and the sun was in and out of the clouds making it hard to track the fish. Mike was on the bow when multiple groups of tarpon started to converge on the boat. During a 45 minute period, we had >100 tarpon swim within casting distance. He came close to hooking up a couple of times, but no takers. Our lack of casting skill with the 11wt in the wind really hurt our chances, we should have hooked at least one.
No clouds, lots of sun, and a light breeze (perfect conditions). We motored out to the same location hoping the tarpon hadn't moved out. In the first hour we only saw a few tarpon and struggled to find their "line" of travel. We knew it was a matter of time before the tide brought the fish onto the flats though. I was on the bow casting when they really showed up and I was quickly casting to small groups of tarpon 3-5 feet below the surface. I had to lead them by 15 feet to give the blue Enrico Puglisi fly enough time to sink down to their travel depth. Then it happened: three groups of tarpon converged on the boat at the same time. Captain Skip and Mike were yelling instructions and I'm trying to decide the best spot to lay out my cast. I put out a decent cast in front of a newly arriving group of fish and they saw it and started tracking behind as I slowly bumped and stripped the fly. Multiple tarpon rejected the fly, then another bolted up behind it and gills flaired. "He took it!!!" I pointed the rod at the fish and strip set hard and immediately felt the tarpon. To my surprise she didn't pull out much line at first and I still had slack at my feet (the tarpon was hanging out with the other tarpon near the boat for security). I increased pressure on the tarpon and it made a nice run, line hit the reel, and it exploded out of the water and crashed down with a SPLASH.

She was hooked solidly and the fight was on. Captain Skip jumped up onto the bow gave pointers on fighting the tarpon (apply side pressure and keep the angle low, keep the leader over its back, don't let it surface to gulp air, BOW to the tarpon when it jumps, fight the fish from the base of the rod). Another big run away from the boat and it was JUMP-SPLASH, JUMP-SPLASH, JUMP-SPLASH



When is this thing going to get tired? Another big jump near the boat.

Now its under the boat. I circumnavigated the boat at least 4 times with the rod tip in the water chasing this tarpon from one side to the other. Then I started getting the advantage. Captain Skip patiently worked it close to the boat, grabbing the leader. Another half jump near the boat (not ready yet). Then we get her to lay over on her side briefly next to the boat. A nice tarpon of ~120 pounds. We released her without grabbing the lip or hauling it onto the boat for a bear hug.

Mike got some good action the rest of the day after we landed mine. So many times we saw tarpon track his fly to the boat and turn away. A couple of times they would really zip in behind the fly, and one big tarpon appeared to eat it but no tension on the line. Casting the fly to tarpon forming a daisy chain circle was really interesting. Sometimes one would leave the circle to look at the fly, or they would just move away. The wind died and the tide changed, leaving us on a beautiful flat with no more tarpon to chase. Later in the day, I caught my first blue fish by accident. I thought the blue fish school was a tarpon and cast to them, then one nailed the fly before I could strip it away. Those things have sharp teeth!
Great weather, motored to the same spot. But...... the tarpon never showed up. Where did they go?? After a few hours we moved over to the back country mangroves to look for laid-up (resting) tarpon. We found a couple laid-up fish, but there were a lot of googans motoring around the area spooking them. Then we got a report of fish near Cayo Costa Island, but we arrived there too late. The day ended quietly having looked hard but found only a few tarpon. On the other hand we saw some amazing things. Tons of sting rays, manatees feeding, a sawfish, porpoises, eagle rays jumping, osprey, frigate birds, a big bull shark, blue fish, baitfish schools getting worked, egrets, sea turtles, and amazing mangrove back country.

Captain Skip.jpg

Before heading to the airport we took our 8wt rods to the beach near the hotel before sunrise to beach fish for snook (or whatever else might be in the area). I had a nice snook track my fly right up to the beach before turning away (just like salmon do). Later I had a jolting strike that pulled the line out of my had, but no hook-up. Close but no cigar.

Captain Skip Zink did a great job and is quite a character. He give us a ton of shots at early season tarpon, and it was much more than I was expecting for late April. I highly recommend him to anyone who wants to make the trip.
Thats awesome. Im going down to florida for 7 days of tarpon fishing the first week of June and am very excited to give it a shot. Thanks for the cool report.


Not to be confused with Freestone
I know how you felt...once bitten by the tarpon bug. I went in 2006 and hooked one blind casting under 7 mile bridge...wow, what an adrenalin rush! Very cool story, thanks for sharing.


"Chasing Riseforms"
Nice report Tim! Our fly club had a presentation tonight about tarpon in the Keys. The man and woman used to live there and Billy Pate was a good friend. I'm all "pumped" now after hearing their presentation and yours!!!!! Awesome! Glad you had a great time. My turn!!