Half of you will stop reading after this: I did not land a poon on my recent trip to the Tampa area. For the rest of you, I’ll explain why this trip was still a huge success and also why I would never suggest that any of you ever try fly fishing for tarpon.
I’ve been watching other people catch tarpon on the fly since I was a little kid; my brother and I sitting in the sofa on Saturday mornings in the fall watching Jose Wejebe make it look so simple, yet, so exciting. The real draw of these fish is not just that they’re huge, or that they look awesome, or that they’re they’re the most violent fighting fish in the water. It’s the method. The hunt. The chase. That’s the sickness that I had, and now the sickness has become so strong that I was trying to figure out how to justify another tarpon trip just halfway in to this one. It’s that hard-to-explain notion of casting to a fish that I’m afraid to hook up with.
It didn’t take long to catch on to how to approach tarpon…just wait on one to wander by. Capt. Nick positioned his Hell’s Bay skiff around a sandy flat at the exit of a near shore channel. The idea is fish swimming up and down the beach get funneled into this skinny water where it’s easy to see them and then cast to them. Before we saw any tarpon we had dolphins go under the boat, then some good-sized rays skated past, then we saw a shark, then manatees. No shortage of things for a boy from the Flatland to gaze at. Then we heard a little curl in the water behind the boat. I looked just in time to see the dorsal of a 100+ pound fish before she took a dive into water too deep forums to see where she went. Time to go a little shallower.
In 3-4 feet of water we quickly found some fish to cast to. Now, let me explain that I’ve been casting heavy rods in the yard at home, working on distance, accuracy, and getting a strip going before the fly hits the surface. I could hit a tree stump from 50′ no problem. All of that practice and simple common sense goes right out the window when you are casting at is that’s as long as you are tall. I’m flailing the rod around like a maniac, slacking the water left and right with no discernible rhythm whatsoever. As more fish swam by I was able to recompose myself a little.
I had two amazing encounters with these fish that I’ll never forget. A big girl darted in fast over my right shoulder so I had to back cast to her. First cast missed but she turned toward the boat. Second cast was right on, she gave chase, but then she got so close to the boat that she got spooked and calmly turned her head and went on her way.
Tarpon fishing is a lot like fishing a rising trout in current, except that it’s completely different. Everything has to be just right: angle of the fly, position of the fly, the current, the presentation, just like you have to create a natural presentation to a trout, mend line, keep up slack, etc. This time, I got it as good as I could. This fish slowly gave chase to my fly and she was no more than 20′ away from the bow of the boat when I witnessed her gaping mouth drop open and the fly disappeared. Oh, did I also mention that setting a hook on a tarpon was completely different from raising the rod on a trout? Capt. Nick gave me fair warning of how to do it properly by stripping the line until it’s tight, and keeping the rod tip low until the fish is on the reel. Yeah…I lifted the rod. I felt a tight line for a matter of seconds and then it was all over. One amazingly powerful shake of her head and she darted away.
I had to take a seat. I wasn’t disappointed by any stretch of the imagination. I was exhausted. Seriously, I didn’t breathe during any of the 15-20 close calls that I had with these tarpon. I was grateful for having such a close encounter with such an amazing creature. I got to see mouths open on my fly twice, got fish to chase close enough to the boat that I was able to see individual scales on at least seven fish. None of these fish were any less than 75lbs. And this all took place in just a half day of fishing and a month out of the “prime season.”
So, I’m addicted. I’m not the type of guy that can afford to do trips like this. Not sure that I ever will get to do this again. But the sickness will thrive inside me, and I fear that actually putting my hands on a tarpon will only make it worse. My advice: Don’t do it.
The term “soak” a tarpon is a tasteless phrase that the salty fly guides in Tampa have come up with to denote a fish that wasn’t hooked properly. It’s based on an old Mormon trick where young unwed couples could have intimate encounters without actually “doing it.” Y’all can prolly connect the dots.