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Tarpon are found on Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts, but finding them on any given day—and getting them to eat a palolo worm—is what it’s all about.

If you want to catch tarpon it helps to cast like Andy Mill. Unfortunately, no one casts like Andy Mill . . . except Andy Mill.

Fly fishing for tarpon is unpredictable, often frustrating, usually super challenging, and always mucho expensive. It’s also addictive.

            In my mind, it is the perfect combination of all things that make fly fishing magical—sight-fishing to huge animals in shallow water; when in the mood tarpon eat flies with abandon; this fish is scary-strong, hard to keep on the hook, and when hooked they put on breathtaking arial displays. Summary: casting to a 100-plus pound tarpon, getting the bite, setting the hook and experiencing an immediate series of gill rattling jumps and line simply burning off your reel, is the best 90 seconds in fly fishing.

            Migratory tarpon first appear in South Florida in December. They hang out in North Biscayne Bay and Government Cut in Miami, and they frequent the mouths of rivers leading in from the Gulf and in Whitewater Bay on Florida’s west coast.

Just before a worm hatch, huge schools of tarpon leave the 7 Mile Bridge area and cruise down to Bahia Honda Bridge. Hooking a fish from these giant schools is not as easy as you would think. All you can do is cast and pray, then cast again.

             As far as I know, these are separate strains of fish. They appear when the weather calms and warms, then disappear when temperatures drop. Some of the best tarpon fishing I’ve experienced has arrived in February. If you are lucky enough to be on the water when conditions aline, the tarpon fishing can be spectacular. But, planning a late winter trip is easier said than done . . . you can’t predict when all the elements might fall together, and the good days are few and far between.

            Weather and wind continue to be problematic through March, but come April things begin to settle down. The tarpon migrate south along the eastern Atlantic and Gulf coasts, through the flats of Florida Bay, all the way down to the Marquesas Keys, west of Key West. They travel in huge schools or in singles and pairs. They cruise the edges of flats and prefer a certain water depth, which varies depending on wind and tides. The trick is to find what Captain Bill Curtis calls the “tarpon highway” and then pick a spot to ambush those fish as they cruise by. Ambush points are areas where the bottom contour forces tarpon to swim around a shallow bank. The first sign of an oncoming school can be rolling fish or just a faint surface disturbance. Once detected, a guide will pole you into position for the cast.

Today 90 percent of anglers use worm flies when fishing Keys tarpon. It doesn’t seem to matter if there’s a hatch going on or not— a worm fly gets more strikes than any other pattern.

            Bahia Honda channel, in the Middle Keys near Marathon, is the deepest cut connecting the Atlantic and Gulf waters, and the location of the famous palolo worm hatch. The hatch occurs three or four days after the new and full moons in May and June, but you also need an outgoing tide and calm winds at sunset. Lesser hatches occur throughout the Keys, within days of each other, and some channels are more active than others for no apparent reason. The palolo worms swim with the current towards nearby reefs and the tarpon take advantage of this opportunity for an easy meal. The sight is amazing; hundreds, if not thousands, of tarpon going ballistic, rolling and “sipping” worms from the surface. The frenzy starts around 6 p.m., and continues until shortly after sunset.

            As June arrives the tarpon’s migration pattern stays the same, except the direction they travel reverses from south and west, to north.

This is what a bad cast does to a school of tarpon in the Atlantic. If one fish panics, the whole school blows up.

           There are major differences between fishing tarpon on the Atlantic side versus the Gulf side. In the Atlantic you may see huge schools of tarpon, long “strings” or single fish. You may cast at over a hundred or more fish a day and be lucky to get two bites. Many times I’ve thrown a live crab on a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader, ahead of and right through the middle of a school of 30 or more tarpon, only to have them swim right around it. Atlantic tarpon are tough! Still, strange as it may seem, tarpon on the flats respond to flies better than live baits. The fly of choice these days is an imitation of the palolo worm. It takes about 30 seconds to tie and consists of two inches of red Zonker strip with the hair cut off, and a chenille head on a small, short-shank hook. Years ago we only used worm flies during hatches. Now palolo worm imitations are used almost exclusively on the oceanside, all season long.

Tarpon in deeper water tend to roll fast and then head straight back down to the bottom. These are not happy fish and rarely bite.

            The tarpon in Florida Bay and up Florida’s west coast are different. There are very few schools of tarpon. Typically, anglers see a few short strings of fish and many singles just laid up in water so muddy it would make a catfish uncomfortable. But . . . tarpon on the Gulf side eat. You may only get to throw at a dozen fish a day, but half of them will eat the fly, if you put it in the right place. If the tarpon are moving along either coast, the fly needs to land ahead of them so that it seems to be fleeing. Sometimes you can let the lead fish swim past the fly so it appears that the first fish flushed the worm, and the following fish may jump on it. The rule of thumb is, as long as you can reach the school, keep casting. I’ve had lots of bites from the last fish in a school.

            By definition, a laid up tarpon is a fish that’s not moving somewhere or feeding. For all we know, a laid up tarpon may be asleep. When casting to these tarpon, presentation is everything. The fly needs to be gently stripped in front of a tarpon’s nose. These fish are often found in muddy water and if the fly is moving towards the fish, or if it is moving too fast, that tarpon likely spooks. When the presentation is perfect, and the fish responds, the strike can be spectacular.

To the left, you can barely make out a school of tarpon, one rolling fish giving away their location.

              You can fish tarpon on your own, if you have a boat, but it’s next to impossible to do it effectively without a guide. A guide trailers their skiff up and down the Keys, basically following fish. They’ll know whether tarpon are moving along the oceanside or if they are in the backcountry. That knowledge pays—it’s advantageous to know where the fish were yesterday. There are times when the Gulf side is dead, and other times when it’s on fire. Some days when fishing the oceanside you might see a thousand fish. Other days you may only get a couple shots. Guides know what’s going on, so your money invested in them pays off.

A right angle shot, like this, is the most difficult presentation. Tarpon follow the rule that food runs away. A fly “charging” them gives reason to spook.

           I prefer fishing Florida Bay. I find the oceanside fish to be extremely difficult. On the oceanside you need to lead fish by 12-to 15-feet. In the backcountry you can put it within three-to four feet of them. I’ve spent so much time in the backcountry that I habitually fail to lead the oceanside fish enough. On the other hand, the guys who spend most of their time on the Atlantic side have difficulty in the back because, subconsciously, they lead fish too much. Everything depends on where the fish will be the day you are on the water.

Not all tarpon are gigantic. The babies are plentiful around Big Pine Key and are great fun on a 9-weight rod.

             You got to be where the tarpon are. It’s as simple as that. When I ran the LOOP Golden Fly Tournament, everyone launched out of Lorelei Marina at Islamorada. From that central point, anglers ran south to Sugarloaf Key, north to Shark River on the Gulf, and even all the way to south Biscayne Bay. Others fished 10 minutes away from the dock. Everyone had their spot and expected fish to be there. They put in their time and paid their dues for that knowledge, which is why, again, your best bet for tarpon is to find a really good guide.

Pat Ford

Pat Ford

Pat Ford honed his sports photography skills at Notre Dame. His first article for Saltwater Sportsman appeared in 1969, and he has shot and written for every major fishing publication since that time. He has held more than two dozen IGFA line class records and now, as a retired Miami trial attorney, spends his time writing books and traveling to exotic locales. See more of his work at patfordphotos.com