For beginners and experts alike, just the idea of hooking a tarpon on fly sends the mind racing. Once that idea becomes a reality, the desire to repeat the process consumes all. But it’s the mental images these great fish provide that make us obsess over them–freeze frames that only anglers can fully appreciate, such as the instant a tarpon hones in on a fly or the moment a freshly hooked fish breaches. No matter how many times you see them, these images never get old. No two are the same, and each captivates our imagination.
__Fly Fishing in Salt Waters_ talked in depth with tarpon scholars **Bill Bishop, Capt. Bruce Chard** and **Capt. Bob LeMay** to extract some of their wisdom. Follow their advice, and with some luck, your catch numbers will increase this season. More importantly, you’ll acquire a lot more mental images to obsess over in the years to come. Each interview is printed in full in the following pages:_
**Boca Grande, Florida
Author of_ High Rollers: Fly Fishing for Giant Tarpon
FFSW: Along beaches, tarpon often run specific lines. Is there a way to determine where those lines are, and if there is, what’s the best way to position yourself?
Bishop: The lines tarpon run on the beach are determined by contours on the bottom. During the winter months, when the water is extra clear, I’ll run the beaches just to see how the bars and contours from the previous season have changed, and I also look for new bars and contours.
Once you establish where these are, you simply position your boat in a way that allows you to make close to head-on shots at fish running that contour. Be flexible about where you stake up. Sometimes a move as short as 15 feet makes all the difference in the world.
FFSW: What’s the ethical way to approach a lineup of tarpon boats on the beach?
Bishop: Well, my feeling is that there are plenty of lines tarpon run on the beach, and I always prefer to find my own. However, if you do want to get in the lineup, as a general rule, approach from a good distance – at least a couple of hundred yards – from the outside. Before you enter a lineup, take some time and study the boats. If you do, it’s normally pretty easy to determine where the fish are running and which way they are running. Once you figure that out, as long as you approach from a distance, either by poling or using a trolling motor, and put yourself at the end of the lineup, you won’t be stepping on any toes.
FFSW: Can you still catch fish if you are at the end of the line?
Bishop: Well, you’ve got to remember that even though the end of the line is the D spot, when the tide changes, the D spot often turns into the A spot.
FFSW: Do you fish only the strings of fish, or do you focus on the singles, doubles and triples?
Bishop: Seeing a string of 40 fish is exciting. However, I’d rather fish the singles, doubles and triples. A large string of fish has a central nervous system, and all I mean by that is that if you make a presentation to the lead fish in a large string and it doesn’t like your fly, the odds of the 39th fish in the string eating is extremely low. However, when you cast to singles, doubles and triples, they have the tendency to be more competitive when it comes to an easy meal.
FFSW: What is the most common mistake anglers make fishing off the beach?
Bishop: I see anglers casting too early all the time. They believe that by making an 80-foot presentation, they will have wiggle room to make a couple of shots if the fish doesn’t eat on the first cast. You always want the mentality of, “I’m going to hook this fish in one shot.” It’s one thing to say that, but in order to do it, you have to study the fish. The most important thing you must learn is where that fish is going to be. Once that’s determined, take your eyes off the fish, focus on the spot where it will be and drop your fly right there.
FFSW: It’s generally agreed that in order to be a good tarpon angler, you’ve got to know how to feed fish. While that sounds like a simple concept, it’s not. How should anglers think about feeding tarpon on the beach?
Bishop: In my book, High Rollers, I compare feeding tarpon to playing with a cat in your living room. Say you are holding a piece of string that’s stretched out across your living room floor, with a feather attached to the opposite end. Suddenly your cat enters the room as it normally would. It doesn’t see the feather because it’s too far away, but when it gets close enough, you ever so slightly tug on the string to make the feather move. If you tug too much, the cat will probably spook and run to another room. But if you move it just right, the cat will notice the feather, crouch down and watch it intently, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on it. That is precisely how you should go about feeding a tarpon.
FFSW: Speaking of High Rollers, in it you talk about how important it is to always target the lead fish in a string. If the lead fish doesn’t eat, is it worth casting at successive fish?
Bishop: Yes and no. If the lead fish doesn’t eat, resist the urge to pick up and cast again. Instead, try and feed the second fish on the same cast, and so forth.
FFSW: Do you have a particular go-to fly for beach fishing?
Bishop: You know, I used to, but I honestly couldn’t say that I have a go-to. I tend to lean toward long, thin and sparsely dressed patterns in light colors, especially when the water on the beach is really clear. Basically, I want to be able to read a newspaper through my beach flies.
_**Capt. Bruce Chard
**Lower Florida Keys
FFSW: What is good “tarpon water”? In other words, are there pieces of water you can simply look at and be pretty sure that tarpon will be there?
Chard: What I look for is an area of water that has some sort of deepwater access to and from the wide-open gulf or ocean. Without this access, fish can’t get to wherever they are laying up.
FFSW: How do wind, water depth and temperature affect where tarpon might be in the Keys?
Chard: The fish will lie in shallow water, say four feet or less high in the water column, when water is calm and warm. If it’s windy and cool, it’s a good bet that the tarpon will be in deeper water.
FFSW: Fishing for laid-up tarpon is a specialty of yours. What’s your ideal presentation for laid-up fish?
Chard: When it comes to making presentations to laid-up tarpon, anglers need to be mindful of the light conditions and the water depth the fish are in. Tarpon can’t see very good into the glare of the sun. Therefore, if a fish is lying facing the sun, I prefer using a dark-colored fly and presenting it a good distance away from the fish. This decreases the odds of the fish spooking, especially when winds are down, but it also gives the fish a chance to see the silhouette of the fly even in a glare. If it’s windy and the fish is still looking into the glare, then that calls for a quicker, more difficult cast. For this situation, it’s better to use a light-colored fly that you can cast really close to the fish’s head. Since the fly is lighter in color, the fish will have a harder time seeing it, which is why it should be presented closer to the fish. If you were to present that same light-colored fly on a calm day from a distance with a fish looking into a glare, the fish would never see it.
FFSW: So is there a general rule of thumb for presenting to laid-up fish?
Chard: Basically, my philosophy is that I want to give the tarpon a chance to believe that he will not be wasting his time exerting energy to leave his still position and come over to munch the fly. Stripping the fly slowly allows it to appear noninvasive. If a bait looks like it is skittish and hard to catch, tarpon will rarely waste their time trying to track it down. I want the tarpon to have confidence that when it eats, it will be making a surprise attack.
FFSW: You are known to be pretty dialed in to the worm hatch that takes place in the Florida Keys. Do you have any tips as to how anglers might predict when the hatch will happen?
Chard: In my opinion, the worms like to hatch on days that have a lot of water movement. Most of the time they will hatch on an evening that has a hard falling tide that drops all the way out to the reef well after dark.
FFSW: What is significant about a falling tide during the evening hours?
Chard: I think the worms like to use the low light of the evening hours to increase their odds of making it safely to the reef. Why they are going to the reef, I don’t really know. I personally feel that they are traveling to the reef for breeding purposes.
FFSW: Do the weather conditions and moon phases come into play?
Chard: Yes, I believe weather can definitely affect whether or not a hatch takes place. In my experience, hatches are more common on calm nights. However, that’s not always the case, as I have seen strong worm hatches in 35-mile-per-hour winds. As for the moon phases, well, the full moon and new moon offer the massive water-depth changes and the huge falling evening tides that the worms seem to like.
Capt. Bob LeMay
FFSW: The Florida Everglades have an interesting tarpon season – can you tell us a little about why it’s so unique?
LeMay: We actually have two seasons in the Everglades, depending on the water temperature. If we have a mild winter, the big tarpon from the Gulf of Mexico will come into the Everglades in late December or early February looking for warmth. By the second week of May, all these fish start on their migration pattern. However, as the spawning season ends toward the latter part of June, the fish move back into the Everglades, and that can go on all the way through September.
FFSW: Are there any resident fish that hang around all year?
LeMay: Oh yeah, small and medium-size tarpon are there all year. However, finding them can be a challenge.
FFSW: In your opinion, what is the ideal presentation for a backcountry tarpon?
LeMay: Because the water is stained, you can get much closer to the fish.
If a fish is laid up, the tough part is seeing it in the stained water. Once you spot it, the trick is simply getting the fly in front of the end that eats without it knowing of your presence. However, it’s quite a bit different when fish are in rivers. First and foremost, you never want to fish against the current; every fish in the area will know you are there. Really, I fish tarpon in rivers kind of like salmon. I know the places where they hang out, and I cast my fly across and up-current on an intermediate line. Once the fly has reached where I think the fish are holding, that’s when I start my retrieve.
FFSW: Does your fly selection differ from the backcountry to the rivers?
LeMay: Not particularly. I’m a big fan of fishing big dark flies. I’m also a believer of using flies with larger hooks, at least a 3/0.
FFSW: What is it about an area that tells you fish might be holding there?
LeMay: I particularly look for places in the rivers where there’s a bend, a small creek joining a large river, or a fork in the river. I’m basically looking for some kind of feature that would allow a big fish to stay out of the current but be close enough to grab whatever prey species comes by. Once I find an area like this, all I’m doing is looking for signs of fish.
FFSW: How do you position yourself in these areas?
LeMay: I move into the area but stay a healthy distance away from the places where I think fish are holding. My goal is to shut down where I can see maybe 100 or 200 yards away from a river bend or a fork in a river. And in the first couple of minutes, I’m simply looking for any sign of a tarpon. When I do see one, I’m always convinced that if there’s one, it’s likely that there are many more that I’m not seeing. All it takes for me to move in is one sign.
FFSW: Do you mean signs like rolling fish?
FFSW: Are rollers worth casting to?
LeMay: Oh yeah! The reason people think casting to rolling fish is a low-percentage game is because they don’t really know where the fish are going when they head under the water. However, when a fish rolls, it’s gulping in air. If you are patient and wait five to 10 seconds, the fish will release the air it gulped and you will see a stream of bubbles on the surface. These bubbles show exactly where the fish is. So if you spot the bubbles and make a cast up-current that will drift back and down to where the bubbles are, don’t be surprised if your fly starts pulling back.
FFSW: Interesting. Are there any other tips for finding fish that aren’t visible?
LeMay: Because of the stained water in the backcountry, spotting fish is definitely a challenge. Besides fishing the bubbles, you can also get clued in on a tarpon’s whereabouts by fishing slime trails. Tarpon have an extremely heavy layer of slime covering their body, and every time they come up to the surface and go back down, they will leave a faint sheen of slime on the surface. Now a “slick” won’t stay there long, so if you see one, it’s likely that a tarpon is nearby.