Fly Fishing for Tarpon

Tarpon are one of those fish that will mesmerize you with their graceful rolls and how they slide across a grass lined flat. They are the dinosaurs of the sea – or at least they look like one. Their scientific name just wants to say they are gigantic, “Megalops Atlanticus” – now doesn’t that sound big. Well… they are.

Tarpon the swim the flats of the Florida Keys are big. Especially the groups that travel through during the annual tarpon migration in April, May and June. There have been so many articles written about tarpon and the epic battle an angler can have with one. On conventional tackle a fight with a fairly large tarpon can last an hour easily. On a fly rod, well it depends on how well you play your moves.

Bowing to the King

If you don’t know already, tarpon are also known as “The Silver King” – so popular there’s a television series called ‘Silver Kings’ that is devoted to showing off the sport of fly fishing for tarpon in some of the most prestigious tarpon tournaments on the planet. Islamorada hosts the Golden Fly, The Gold Cup and The Don Hawley Tarpon Tournaments annually. These tournaments are intense fly fishing events and attract anglers from all over the world.

These tournament draw a lot of attention to the sport of fly fishing for tarpon but they also have such respect for the fish that they are all released.  The days of killing a tarpon just to hang it up and take a photo have been over for quite some time. If an angler wishes to pursue a world record tarpon catch they must invest in a $50 tarpon tag (verify this at in order to kill the fish to qualify a world record.

Fly rodding for tarpon is a very popular sport. So famed in Key West that if you want a good fishing guide for flats fishing for these beasts you better book it way in advance. Like a year in advance if possible.

I guarantee that once you’ve hooked your first tarpon on a fly rod you will sincerely be hooked forever. These fish have a talent all their own. They tug the line like no other and they launch themselves into the air with gill-rattling authority.

Beating a tarpon quickly on a flyrod takes some tactics. You’ll hear anglers remind you to “Bow to the King,” which means that as the fish launches itself into the air throw your body forward pointing the rod at the fish – but only for just a second until the fish is back where it belongs, in the water. Then the fight continues.

I can tell you from my own experience that if you don’t bow, you might loose the fish. A tarpon’s mouth is has hard as a cinder block. Driving a hook into it takes a sharp hook and a good hook-set. But without that give in the line when the fish leaves the water, the hook can very easily pop right out.

But if you do manage to get through the initial craziness of jumping and bowing then settle in and get on the fish quick. Landing a tarpon the easy way is to get up on the fish, even if you have to start the motor. In fact, it can be beneficial to have the motor running as it will most likely deter sharks from coming around.

Once you are up on the fish play him with the direction of your fly rod. If he’s swimming right, put the tip of the fly rod to the left, or vice versa. You want to always create an opposing pressure to tire the fish and land him as fast as you can.

Landing Tarpon in the Florida Keys

Tarpon have become a species of fish that are sought after as a gamefish, not an eating fish. The awareness of caring for these fish in their environment is much greater than it used to be. With that said, you can consider it a caught fish if the leader is inside the rod tip. Perfect! You can break the fish off if you think you are satisfied. Anglers that have fought many a tarpon with decide to break the fish off most times just to ensure he is strong enough to swim away. If you require a photo, know the rules. Taking tarpon of any size out of the water for a photo is frowned upon these days. If you absolutely need a photo and are fishing with a guide, ask the guide to handle the fish for a photo. Large fish should not be taken from the water. It’s just not good for their survival after a fish fight. The smaller ones may be able to be taken out of the water quickly for a photo but they must be handled with the utmost care and cradled and held by the jaw. Please check the website for details on tarpon restrictions.

Tarpon fishing in the Keys can be epic at nearly any time of the year. The most important factor is water temperature and 75 degrees seems to be the breaking point according to some of the long time flats guides.