A Trout Angler Goes After Tarpon
By Joseph Meyer
I had done most of it but not all. Armed with a fly rod and a handcrafted fly, I pursued all the finned creatures with trout being my favorite quarry. I loved trout fishing, pastoral and relaxing, the contemplative nature of it all made my heart sing. No pressure build up, a pressure relief valve this trout fishing is.
I’ve been blessed to be able to fish for trout from Alaska to Argentina and I loved every little brown or brookie that took my fly. The basses and the sunnies and the anadromous fish were sure a lot of fun and I giggled when I’ve had my rod bent by more than a few porcine carp but I have never gone after Tarpon. One fishes for
Trout, one goes after Tarpon.
I heard a presentation by Donald Larmouth, author of Tarpon on Fly. Intelligent, thoughtful Donald is in his sixties, cursed with Parkinson’s and unsteady in his gait. A great story teller, we sat captivated when Donald told of standing on the deck of a Florida flats boat near dawn, Cockroach in hand and waiting for the Tarpon to show themselves, drifting and waiting. Donald leans towards us and whispers, “At dawn, you can hear them coming” We lean towards Donald so as not to miss a single whispered bit of advice as he continued; “these are the big migratory Tarpon, just back from Africa”.
To the rest of us, the longest migration we knew about were Steelhead coming up the Pere Marquette, but Africa!
White-haired and avuncular, Donald continued with his stories and I’m sure I was not the only angler at the seminar that thought if this old guy can double haul a 12 weight and sling a fly to a Tarpon, whip it’s ass and get him to the boat to be photographed before the hammerheads eat him then we sure as hell could, too.
So, I studied. Read up on what I could, memorized Donald’s book, Lefty’s book and drifted off to sleep watching every video out there on the Megalops Atlanticus. I calloused each palm learning to tie a respectable Bimini Twist, and I could finally snell 80# mono with the best of ‘em. Had A.K. Best’s Cockroach pattern down, I mean absolutely wired.
There are flies that you are convinced will work and this was the fly, confidence was high. Booked a trip with a guide friend in Florida. Got great rates on my airfare and cheap, clean lodging, too. This was coming together way too smoothly.
After a long week fishing off of the Gulf coast of Florida, this is what I learned:
Forget about reading up on and practicing saltwater knots, take your knot books and throw them out the window. Go ahead, I'll wait while you find them and throw them away. O.K., are they gone now? Good, the guides will clip yours off and tie their own, they tie all of those knots better than you ever will.
Forget about tying up a bunch of Tarpon flies in all of the colors and sizes. The guides have what you need and theirs always work better than yours.
The above two paragraphs are the two least important facets of going after Tarpon. Take all of the time and energy that you would have wasted learning to tie Hufnaegle knots, Bimini Twists and Tarpon flies and use that time to practice your cast!!! Get better at making that shot; you'll need plenty of steady nerves.
It's all about the cast; if you can't deliver the fly right now to a moving target at 60+ feet, you will be as unsuccessful as I was. Everything about casting in saltwater seems to diminish your landlocked casting skills. If you think you can cast 70 feet on dry land, it will become a 60 footer on the water. Fish you think are 100 feet away are actually 300 feet away. The tendency to fling a fly at something is great and more often than not you cast too early. Casting too late is just as bad and if you look at which end of the fish he eats with, that’s the end to cast to.
Listen to and trust the guide, they know your casting skills (and limitations) and will give you the nod when its time.
Spotting feeding trout with polarized optics is a dream compared to scanning the horizon and trying to differentiate between wind blown whitecaps and breaching Tarpon. You look like Babe Ruth calling his shot every time you erroneously point out a whitecap to the guide by shoving your rod out on the horizon and screaming, ”there’s one!” The guides are so patient with Midwestern anglers; they are a calming influence on the poling platform and ignore you as you wave your rod meaninglessly as they scan the water for glimpses of silver, true indicators that something is coming.
And come they do, not every day and certainly not all at once. Trout fishing is to duck hunting as Tarpon fishing is to deer hunting. This is deer hunting; you sit in your floating blind and wait, one might come by and you can take your shot.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore”. This is the thought that leaps to mind the first time you see a pod of Tarpon. Yep, you’re out of your element with these critters.
That much biomass swimming with an amazing percentage of their bodies out of the water makes a pre-dawn racket that is un-nerving. Even moving Chinooks don’t create the bulge in the water like Tarpon do and Donald was right, you can hear them coming. There is an onrushing feeling that something will show themselves and this feeling can best be described as an awareness, sudden and powerful. You have an awareness that something is about to happen and it does. Tarpon and lots of them.
And big. Damn big moving targets, always moving.
We saw plenty of Tarpon in the 120#-150# class, great start. We saw Tarpon on the move as well as those that were Daisy Chaining. Chaining Tarpon are Happy Tarpon and are more willing to eat. We got close enough to them to present and lead them with a fly (remember, nothing in a Tarpon's life ever swims at them, always away).
Wind, rolling seas, sweaty palms, a wet deck on a 19 foot flats boat and adrenalin rushing through your bloodstream all combine to make a 60 foot cast right now to a moving target kind of tough for someone who has never done this kind of casting before.
Trout swim still, easy targets. If you put them down with an errant cast, they’ll be back, fining and waiting for you to compose yourself; these are the lovely little fish that I’m used to.
The old guy back at the fly shop was shaky with Parkinson’s and he could do this, calm down!
Then you remember the advice of an old friend, “you can’t shoot the whole covey”. Not being a hunter has its amusing disadvantages and you were once the butt of an old joke but not this time, you pick one and go after it.
The guide is helping, the boat is in position, “ Steady, ….steady, waaaait” You take your shot, right direction, right distance and watch your fly fall near where it should.
You are going after Tarpon.
Once you get a follow, more adrenalin kicks in. The guide's yelling "She coming, keep stripping" 50 feet, then 42 feet then 30 feet (did I mention the adrenalin?)
"She's coming, get ready!"
The you see the maw of a 120# Tarpon open under your fly and you put a hook set on this beast that would work beautifully on a Brook trout taking your size 18 dry fly on a 6X tippet but these flies are tied (by the guide, they always tie their own knots) to an 80# shock tippet and you have to drive the hook point into solid bone with multiple strip strikes "BANG, BANG, hit her again!"
Then,......quiet. A few bubbles and a swirl but maddening, roaring, ............deafening, ...............heart crushing...............................................quiet.
You have to remind yourself to breathe, to re-inflate the hollow space in your chest that once was filled with life-giving air but now is rapidly filling with suffocating despair. Turning around to face the guide and his wrath is the last thing you want to do right now, but he’s gasping as well.
No one to blame, the guide found the fish, a fish of a lifetime to be exact; a fish almost as big as you and perhaps twice as old as you. A 120# Tarpon is estimated to be at least 75 years old and she had seen plenty of flies in her annual migration but she chose to eat yours. A fish that migrated thousands of miles back from Africa to
the sunny Gulf and she was swimming at you, for God's sakes! You could see her eyes clearly, each as large as an orange; each scale gleaming as shiny as and as large as the CD-ROM in your computer.
This is not a game of inches; it’s smaller in scale than that. Football is a game of inches played on a 100-yard field. You needed to play with just one lousy Tarpon in the entire Gulf of Mexico, put your fly in front of her and then move the hook point about one half of one inch into her jaw. I probably moved it a quarter of an inch.
Right place, right time, right fly, lousy hook set.
You contemplate breaking the 12 weight down and running the butt section through one of your own eye sockets to feel,....... well, to feel anything but the heavy disappointment in the implosion of your own angling ability. The expression "to rub salt in a wound" takes on another connotation, what irony.
You look North over the bow of the flats skiff and the school of Tarpon that you just shamed yourself in front of is now 150 yards away, breaching every once in a while and silver, so very shiny silver. The color silver that is burned into your brain, you will never, ever forget that silver. Blessedly beautiful silver, slack-jawed with awe kind of silver, cursed silver,..................waking up in a sweat silver.
I'm back at my desk, here in the stormy suburbs of Chicago and chomping at the bit, waiting out the lightening so I can go practice my 12 weight cast. I have to get better; after all, it's just 362 days until I get back to Florida to put another fly in front of that Tarpon.
Joseph Meyer, Tarpon Hunter
Copyright by Joseph Meyer. No part of this essay may be copied or used for any other purpose without written permission from the author.