Jack is casting to six tarpon. This was one of those high visibility days. We could see them coming from several hundred feet away. After we spotted them it could take 5 minutes for the fish to get within casting range. That is the longest five minutes in your life.

Twelve years ago Doug Cole asked Paula and I to go tarpon fishing with him.  Doug lives near Tallahassee, Florida. Doug’s goal was to become a tarpon guide and he wanted us novices to be his test clients.  We gladly obliged.  For a couple of years we fished with Doug as he learned to be a guide.  And an excellent guide he did become.  After that we started paying him like any client would. We made two trips per year down to the gulf coast to fish with him.  Jack Gregory got enthused about the idea and the two of us made an additional trip each year to fish with Doug. So, I ended up spending nine days per year tarpon fishing.  Paula and I also fished with Drew Delashmit near Key West, Florida.  Fly Fishing for tarpon became our primary summer vacation sport.

It was not easy at first and it still is not. But it did get easier as the years went by.  You don’t just go out and fling your fly out there and catch a few tarpon.  I’ve seen one day when you could but usually you can’t.  Then there is the “fear factor”.  That is something I suffered from.  My knees became weak and I started shaking when I saw a tarpon.  I got over that.  You have to be able to make a cast a 12 weight rod in the wind.  That is an acquired skill.  You have to be able to see the tarpon.  I had trouble with that for years until I consulted with a good eye doctor, got contacts just for fishing and bought the best sunglasses made.  There is also the weather.  If the sun is not shining it is hard to see the fish.  Wind, storms and waterspouts can keep you sitting around in the condo. And, some days the tarpon are not moving and you don’t see hardly any.  We’ve had days like that.  But, if you go enough with a guide who knows what he is doing you can get a hundred shots at tarpon in a day.  We have had days where we saw several hundred fish within casting range.  One day we estimated 600.  Other good days we think maybe 300.  On the slow days maybe 20.

On a typical day with Doug we would leave the marina at 5:30 am.  We would return at 5:00 pm.  The sun is brutal.  The times of no action seem long.  Then all of a sudden there are fish coming to you from everywhere.  Then it is over for a while.  Maybe it will be a long while.  Someone once compared it to battle in World War II.  You wait for hours with nothing going on then all hell breaks loose.

Like most saltwater fly fishing in shallow water, tides have an effect on the fish’s activity.  Certain places are great on a dropping tide, some are best on a rising tide.  Hardly anything happens on a slack tide.  So the guide is constantly making decisions on where you should be at a particular tide.  “In two hours the tide will be right so we need to stay here and wait it out”. 

When the fish start coming in and you are casting to them you are having the time of your life.  Sometimes you see maybe 30 tarpon at once and you try to pick out one and make the right cast.  Sometimes they ignore your fly.  Other times they eat it.  When that happens you have scored and then you really have to think fast.

(Above) This tarpon is on his way to the Gulf taking my line and backing as he goes. I fought this fish for 45 minutes until he finally threw the hook. We use barbless hooks and we lose a lot of fish because of that. But, since we break a lot of fish off we don't want them swimming around with a fly in their mouth for very long. We think a barbless fly will work it's way out quickly.

Doug is about to release Jack's tarpon. This is a good fish. Jack landed this one quickly. The secret to fighting a tarpon is trying to break down his will and make him give up. One trick is to continuously change their direction. If they want to go right, make them go left. If they want to dive, pull them up. Don't let them gulp air. That increases their stamina and the fight will last much longer. You can tell when a tarpon is coming up to gulp air. Try to turn them and make them dive down deeper.


A tarpon has a huge mouth.  Think of it as a 2 gallon bucket.  Your little fly is floating around in there.  What you have to do is tighten up and hope your sharp hook grabs something in his mouth.  When it does, you have to strip strike.  That means you have to jerk with your non-rod hand by pulling on the line hard to set the hook while pointing the rod tip at the tarpon.  If you lift your rod like you would when trout fishing you will almost always pull the fly out of the tarpon’s mouth.  That is called tipping the rod.  Your rod bends and there is not enough direct contact and strength to pull the hook deeply into the tarpon’s hard jaw.  This reaction is very hard for trout fishermen.  Trout fishermen have learned to set the hook by lifting the rod.  It won’t work.  You might get lucky but usually you don’t.

When the tarpon figures out he is hooked he goes crazy.  They usually jump out of the water, sometimes ten feet in the air on the first jump.  I’ve had that happen ten feet from the boat.  That is something you will never forget.  Then they take off fast jumping over and over.  You will have line laying on the casting platform at your feet.  You have to make sure it does not wrap around something like your toe for instance.  Are you standing on your line?  You hold your line out away from the rod so it doesn’t grab your reel.  This is called clearing our line. 

The fish is running away fast and you are in your backing in seconds. By the time your guide jumps down from the poling platform and starts the engine to chase down the fish you are 200 yards from your tarpon and he is still running and jumping.  At this point you are overcome with excitement.  There is nothing like it.  Your heart is pumping, your brain is on overdrive and your body is weak.  You can barely hear everyone else on the boat screaming out instructions and laughing.  It’s you and this big fish battling it out.  Your guide is happy, your fishing buddy or wife is happy and you are in panic mode

Most of the tarpon we fish for are between 75 and 140 pounds.  Sometimes a 100 pound plus tarpon can take an hour or more to land.  Fighting a fish that size is very strenuous work.  That takes all the strength I have.  I’m usually worn completely out in an hour.  We have also hooked tarpon that would have taken longer than that to land.  If they don’t jump during that first run you are in for a long battle.  We have brought several tarpon to the boat.  But after a few of those I began to realize that the long fight was not worth the effort.  I started breaking them off on purpose.  Now why would I do that?

For one thing you are out there wrestling around with this fish and you are missing the prime fishing time.  The most exciting moment in fly fishing for tarpon is when they eat your fly.  You watch them open that huge mouth and grab your small baitfish pattern. 

The second most exciting moment is when you tighten up, set the hook and they jump.  Third is watching them take off while stripping a couple of hundred yards of line and backing from your reel.  Getting your fly line back into the guides of your rod is a good feeling.  The boat is moving toward them and you finally accomplish that task.  But most times they just take off again.  That is when it becomes work.

Maybe I’m different from you.  I’m satisfied with the eat, jump and first run.  Then after a few minutes I’m ready to do that again. The sport is not for everyone.  It is expensive and you can take a trip to Florida and be weathered out every day.  But, when that magic moment arrives and you see a tarpon eat your fly, you feel like it was worth everything, the money and the time.


Paula had this tarpon whipped and at the boat. Doug reached out to grab the leader to release the fish and the tarpon decided he was not ready.
Look in the tarpon's mouth to the right and about haflway down. That is an orange bunny fly.

This rarely happens. Jack landed this tarpon in shallow water. Doug lip gaffed the fish and both guys jumped in so I could take this picture. Most of the time the tarpon are landed in deep water. We have never pulled a tarpon up for a photo. It is hard on the fish and if it happens to flop into the boat everything on board including the anglers legs would be broken or completely destroyed.
We think this tarpon weighed about 60 pounds. When I took this photo I reminded the guys about the 15 foot hammerhead shark spotted in the area. Notice the smile on their faces.

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