Anglers fish tarpon in a variety of scenarios, but to achieve the flats slam, we’re talking about targeting them in relatively shallow water. And the quintessential experience is to sight fish these brutes on the flats. While this is by far the most difficult scenario, it is also the most rewarding. Unlike permit, most tarpon are quite willing to eat a well presented fly, and while accuracy is very important, you are casting to more of an area, trying to intercept a fish, rather than casting directly to it. The farther you cast the more opportunities you’ll get. Being able to launch a fly 60 feet, with Hoolahoop accuracy, is adequate in most situations. If the fish are heavily pressured, say in the Florida Keys, accuracy and distance become more important. Quickly delivering the fly is important too, so try to limit false casts to one or two.
Generally, you’ll fish deeper flats, channels and holes when looking for cruising, laid up or rolling tarpon. Cruising fish are my favorite because they are the most aggressive. When you spot a cruising fish, visualize its trajectory and cross this path at 90 degrees with your leader, making sure your fly line remains out of sight. I’ll generally lead a fish five-to 10 feet, depending on current and conditions. After making the cast, I slow my strips so that the fly crosses the tarpon’s path within two to three feet of its nose. Most important, remember that tarpon are predators. When presenting a fly, make sure the fly isn’t headed at a tarpon. You want to make the fly flee away from a tarpon, encouraging that fish to chase.
Once you’ve got a tarpon’s attention, medium to long strips usually do the trick. If the fish doesn’t respond, a couple sharp short strips, or “taps,” get the fish’s attention. Keep a tight grip on your fly line—when you get the eat, it will be hard and fast. Once that happens, point your rod at the fish and strip set like you’re trying to drive your hook point into concrete. Then do it again and again. Clear your line and hold on tight—it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
When fighting tarpon try to maintain side pressure opposite of the fish’s direction. Fight the fish from the butt section and the reel rather than the tip. This means dig your fighting butt into your gut and keep your rod tip at a low angle. If you’re doing it right, the bend in your rod should be closer to the butt section than the tip. If you find this confusing, search “Andy Mill fighting tarpon” on Youtube and you’ll get a much more detailed explanation.
While tarpon aren’t dirty fighters, you need to always be prepared for them to jump. When the fish begins to break the surface, point your rod tip at the fish to reduce tension and the likelihood of the hook being spat. This might sound counterintuitive, as anglers are always told to maintain tension, but there are exceptions to every rule. Once the fish lands back in the water, immediately tighten up again. This is called “bowing to the king.” With proper fish fighting technique, you should be able to land the largest fish within a half-hour to 45 minutes.
Laid-up or holding tarpon can be a bit more difficult than cruising fish, and may require a bit more enticing. Make sure you know which direction the fish is facing and try to cast 18 inches in front, and 18 inches past the fish’s head, while never allowing your fly to swim towards it. Keep in mind you may have to adjust based on the current. Use short, sharp strips or “taps” to get the fish’s interest and increase the length the strips once the fish starts moving on the fly. If the fish has any interest, you should get the eat quickly.
Rolling fish on the flats are generally found in deeper holes and small channels. You can try and sight-cast rolling fish with an intermediate line, but you should be prepared to blind-cast the water column working a three-axis grid. I generally start by sight-casting the fish with an intermediate line before fan casting the area. I’ll then switch to a full-sinking line, and count down five seconds before retrieving. Once I’ve covered the area with a five-second count, I’ll start at the top and add 10 seconds to my count. I’ll continue to do so until I’ve covered the entire water column. Sometimes these fish are actually holding close to bottom.
If targeting tarpon on the flats is not an option or has been unproductive, blind-casting channels, bridges, and pressure points can pay dividends. Work these as a grid, in the same manner you would work rolling tarpon. Backcountry, mangrove-lined estuaries hold large numbers of juvenile tarpon and often a handful of larger ones as well. Most guides have “tarpon holes” where they can consistently put clients on smaller fish. While some anglers would consider this cheating, these can be good spots to put a tarpon in the boat quickly. Generally, the techniques mentioned above work just as well in the backcountry.
I prefer a fast-action 11-weight rod over a 12-weight rod when targeting adult tarpon on the flats. When sight fishing I use a floating line with a clear 10-foot intermediate tip. I use the Rio Tarpon Taper for this, but many other brands offer equally effective lines. A tapered 9- or 10-foot leader with a 40-pound class tippet and 18 inches of 80-pound abrasion resistant bite tippet works well.
For blind-casting I use an Outbound Short line with an intermediate head. For deeper water I switch to a 500-grain Leviathan, which has a fast-sinking head and intermediate running line. I’ll usually run eight feet of 40-to 60-pound fluoro leader all the way to the fly, but if big fish are present I add 18 inches of 80-pound bite tippet.
For juvenile and backcountry tarpon I generally use a nine or 10-weight rod with the same lines as mentioned previously, but in a 9/10 weight. I run a standard 9-foot long 20-pound test tapered fluoro leader with 40-to 60-pound bite tippet.
Flies are very guide and destination specific, but generally my boxes are full of the classics. Tarpon Toads, Bunny Leeches, Cockroaches and Black Deaths, as well a few modern synthetic baitfish patterns, work well. Most of my flies are tied on 2/0-4/0 Gamakatsu Sl12 hooks. For backcountry and juvenile tarpon I’ll throw smaller patterns, including Clousers and white Muddler-style minnow patterns.