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Best Flies And Techniques for Laid-Up Tarpon
Armed with these patterns and the right intel, you can have some serious success on fish that often don’t want to eat.
By Robert Tomes

Photo by Pat Ford.

When it comes to tarpon flies, it’s easy to become fixated on one pattern, size or color based on past experience and, no doubt, a little bit of luck. It’s human nature, and we all do it no matter what species we’re after. But as a crusty, old Keys guide once chided me when I foolishly insisted on using my favorite, hand-tied tarpon fly: “It ain’t the damn ball kid, it’s the batter.”

On the other hand, not so long ago, somewhere deep in the Florida, Everglades with longtime guide, Capt. Kevin Mihailoff, we came across a bay literally stacked with laid-up, adult tarpon. For as far as the eye could see we had floaters, rollers and tails glistening in the morning sun.

I was already rigged up that morning with a generic, shrimp-ish colored, “search” pattern—the kind we often use before the sun gets up—when I stepped on deck and promptly spotted an 80-pounder floating just off my rod tip. With no time to switch, I simply roll-cast the fly off the tarpon’s nose and it ate like a big brown eats a hopper, the instant the fly hit the water. After landing that fish, we both laughed out loud and took a moment to relish our good luck . . . and consider other fly options.

Spotting laid-up tarpon can be difficult. When you spot a fish like this take a moment to determine where you want to cast. Don’t throw at the tail! Photo by Pat Ford

On a normal day we might have opened one of our many well-stocked fly boxes and switched to something less bold and more stealthy. But having watched that first fish annihilate my fly at close range, we assumed we had it right.

Turned out we hit the jackpot that day, landing an unheard-of dozen large tarpon and jumping just as many, all in the same bay on the same pattern.

This unique situation gave us a rare chance to test one of the age-old mysteries in all of fishing: was it really the fly? On this particular day, in this particular bay, with this particular group of fish, it was!

How do we know? Just for fun we tested a dozen patterns, in various sizes and colors, ranging from classics to the bizarre, and not once moved a fish or induced an eat, other than one half-assed tarpon head-fake. But whenever we went back to the “fly du jour,” those tarpon ate like it was their last meal.

Of course, in the days that followed we tied up a bunch of flies just like it and fished the heck out of them in our favorite spots with only limited success. That prompted Capt. Mihailoff to say, “When it comes to laid-up ‘poons, or any ‘poons for that matter, don’t use the word always. Give everything a try.”

That said, there are proven flies and techniques to entice laid-up tarpon, and these might help the next time you encounter the coveted silver king.

Robert Tomes with a nice Glades tarpon.

Best flies for laid-up tarpon

Obvious differences between time-honored, classic tarpon patterns (Cockroach, Black Death, Tarpon Tapas, etc.) and a selection of favorite laid-up flies are length, weight, hook size, and the amount of materials used in their construction.

Unlike traditional, slim-profile tarpon flies that often need to be cast and stripped fast in open water for migrating strings of ocean fish, laid-up flies are quite bulky and may seem over-dressed. That bulk allows for stealthy presentations that land softly, sink slowly and offer tantalizing action at slow speeds.

Capt. Mihailoff said, “Laid-up tarpon flies are all pretty generic, with the exception that the best ones all incorporate lots of action-inducing materials, like ostrich herl, deer hair, marabou, Craftfur and rabbit strips. They can be fished super slow to entice lazy tarpon just floating around looking for an easy meal.”

Hook choice is also critical. A larger, heavy-gauge hook, like the 3/0 Gamakatsu SC 17, often spooks a laid-up fish when it lands, or causes the fly to sink too quickly out of the tarpon’s feeding zone. A 2/0 or smaller Gamakatsu SL 12S 1X short is a “go-to” hook that’s preferred by many guides for laid-up tarpon, although the Owner Aki is another good option.

While most laid-up tarpon flies are unweighted, there are times when the addition of bead-chain eyes helps get the fly down quickly to the tarpon’s level. This is critical for those fish suspended just off the bottom that may not notice a fly floating over their heads.

Color combinations for laid-ups trend fairly generic; darker brown, purple and black flies early and late in the day and more neutral tan, light pink and grey when the sun is highest. The brackish, stained water typically found in Florida’s Everglades backcountry also means that brighter colors, such as chartreuse, orange and hot pink, can be effective, too.

Fly size for laid-ups is usually in the three to four-inch range. However, if the fish are super spooky or simply reject what you’re throwing, it’s always worth trying a smaller pattern by either changing flies or cutting down the tail or body material on what you’ve already got on the end of your line.

Cracking the code

Finesse is about the last thing most saltwater anglers think about when confronting Magalops atlanticus, aka tarpon. Poling a flat with the preferred arsenal of pool-cue stiff, 12-weight rods coupled with winch-like, large-arbor fly reels and heavy, fluorocarbon shock-tippets seems a perfectly acceptable way of doing battle with the silver king. Yet, when it comes to fooling laid-up tarpon, finesse is exactly what’s needed for success, from your fly choice right down to your presentation.

First off, whether you’re on the flats of Jardines de la Reina, Cuba, Florida’s Marquesas Keys, or deep in the Everglades, it’s important to recognize that laid-up tarpon all share some common if frustrating traits. Most notable, there are times when you’d swear the fish are fast asleep, comatose or just don’t give a damn. Cast all you want and they won’t budge an inch other than sinking out of sight as soon as you or your fly gets too close. At the opposite extreme are times when a perfectly executed cast to a giant tarpon, with an itsy-bitsy 3-inch long fly, prompts nothing other than an immediate, violent, boat-rocking spook the moment the fly hits the water. It’s embarrassingly laughable how often this happens and always brings to mind that hilarious killer rabbit scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail: “Run away, run away!”

Laid-up tarpon can happen anytime of the year provided you’ve got warm water temperatures (over 75 Fahrenheit) and relatively calm, stable conditions. When this happens, the ideal location is a protected, often secluded spot with little or no boat traffic, on a calm-to light-chop day with consistent, midday sunlight. The tarpon are either clearly visible, high-floating “happy fish” or less-visible, harder-to-see beasts holding in deeper, stained water. As you might have guessed, windy days are normally less productive for laid-up tarpon due to a lack of visibility, combined with the challenges of controlling a boat. Depending on the light, some floating fish might stand out like a sore thumb while others appear like large, green or brown slabs suspended against the bottom. Multiple targets are great if you’ve got them, but normally we’re talking about a couple fish laid-up on a flat in a bay, or along a protected bank tight to structure.

Tarpon typically lay-up facing the tide and float best on weaker tides but there are days when they eat better on stronger tides. Likewise, tarpon lay-up the same way on high or low tides depending on the location. Longtime Everglades Guide and featured fly tyer Capt. McNichols said, “Some spots just have that ‘secret sauce’, the perfect elements that laid-up tarpon love to use, year after year. If you find one, keep it to yourself and enjoy it because the one thing that’ll destroy a laid-up spot quicker than anything is traffic.”

Pick the correct fly and you can turn this tranquil scene into 10 seconds of madness real quick. Photo by Pat Ford.

Reading the fish

Once you’ve spotted a laid-up tarpon, the real game begins. For starters, there’s really no need for “Hail Mary” long casts when fishing to laid-up tarpon. In fact, making long casts for laid-up tarpon significantly reduces your odds by spooking fish you haven’t seen. This is especially true in the Everglades’ brackish water where fish are notoriously hard to see. Several times we’ve thought we covered a spot thoroughly only to crank up the engine and find we were surrounded by fish that hadn’t decided to float yet. “It’s all about distance and accuracy so don’t jump the gun; take your time, pick your targets and always listen to your guide for direction,” Capt. McNichols said. With a stealthy approach, most days you can pole surprisingly close to these fish without spooking them. In fact, it’s entirely possible to entice and hook a laid-up tarpon a boat length or less away from the bow.

Note: This proximity to the fish means it’s worth considering a 9 or 10-weight rod instead of a 12 for a more stealthy presentation.

Assuming you’ve got your fish located, there’s one more crucial consideration before launching your fly: make darn sure you’re casting to the fish’s head and not the tail! As funny as this may sound, it’s quite common to mistake one for the other, especially in the brackish water. Laid-up tarpon typically face into the tide but not by rule, so look carefully for the telltale (no pun intended) white tip on the tail before you cast.

When making your cast to a laid-up tarpon, try to avoid lining the fish and aim for a target zone in front of, or just past the fish, but close the head. Your goal is to present the fly with enough finesse and stealth that the fish has no idea how your fly got there, but also close enough that it sees it, takes notice and decides to eat. Using the tide current to float the fly into the tarpon’s grill is often a deadly tactic. Capt. McNichols said, “If the fish doesn’t spook or get cagey, sometimes you’ve just got to feed these fish, even several times, right on the noggin to wake them up and remind them it’s dinner time.”

Whether the fish decides to eat or not is the next piece of the laid-up puzzle. As already noted, sometimes they’ll spook right away and other times they’ll “hoover” the fly as soon as they see it. More often than not, though, it’s a slow and exciting game of cat and mouse.

Your retrieve is going to be slow and steady all the way back to the boat. We’re talking a couple-inches or less, wrist pulls and twitches, not the full-length arm pulls as are commonly used for open water fish. As Connor McNichols’ dad and long time Everglades guide Capt. Joe McNichols said, “Pain-full-ly slow!”

If the water is clear you may actually see the fish follow; more likely the fish will simply disappear and, hopefully, begin to stalk the fly. To know whether this is happening, you’ll need to watch the fish’s response the moment the fly moves.

Capt. McNichols said, “Once you begin your retrieve, you’ve got to have eyes on how the fish reacts. If the fish hasn’t spooked, but shows any kind of interest, like wobbling, or moving or spinning towards the fly, you’ve got a player. Sometimes it’s even just a puff of mud. Ideally you’ll see the tarpon’s tail wagging like the family Labrador’s at dinner time, meaning it likes what it sees and is gonna follow and likely go for it.”

This tarpon “tell” also means the fish is likely following the fly from below—looking up from underneath as it stalks the fly just out of sight—tarpon often eat as soon as the fly rises towards the surface, sometimes next to the boat and right off your rod tip! It’s probably one of the most exciting moments in tarpon fly fishing—or any fly fishing for that matter—and often results in an immediate jump and a challenging hookset.

Note: If you’ve got a visible follower at the boat that still doesn’t eat, try sweeping the rod tip and fly in the same direction without stripping. This classic, muskie-style tactic occasionally works, but you’ll need a lot of luck on your side as the hooksets are almost impossible at such close range.

One final key to success when fishing lazy, laid-ups is to find a single, active player within a group of fish and make it eat. Capt. McNichols said, “Some fish just aren’t worth throwing at. You want a potentially hot fish, an eater that’s shown some recent signs of life, like a roll or swirl or crush.”

Find that fish and the laid up tarpon equation may seem simple one day. Then, the next, you’ve got a new set of questions to answer. But that’s the game, whether you’re playing for laid up tarpon in the Glades or the Gulf or wherever else they are found.

Here are several proven laid-up tarpon flies, all hand-crafted by Everglades guide Capt. Connor McNichols. These represent the best qualities and materials proven to work for these notoriously finicky fish.

Tarpon Tantrum (purple/black combo)

Overall length: 3-4”

Hook: 3/0 Gamakatsu SL 12S 1x short (larger/heavier hook to help sink buoyant, deer hair fly)

Thread: Danville Flymaster Plus 210 Denier thread

Wing/body: Alternating black & purple ostrich hurl clumps tied on top and sides of shank (Combos of Ostrich, marabou and Craftfur all work as well—tyer’s choice)

Collar/head: Purple or black dyed deer belly hair spun moderately tight and bullet-shaped cut to suit for slider head and collar on top. Trimmed tight along bottom to keep point & gap clear for hook ups.

Finish: Whip finish thread—no eyes, glues or epoxy

Note: Black/purple, brown and tan most effective color combos. Bulky, muddler or slider-like deer hair design is perfect for a soft landing and slow sink rate into a floating tarpon’s strike zone. Ostrich or marabou offers lots of tantalizing action at slow speeds, and can easily be trimmed to suit.

Tarpon Guide Bunny Fly (purple/white/black combo)

Overall length: 3-4”

Hook: #2-2/0 Gamakatsu SL 12S 1x short or Owner Aki 5180

Thread: Danville Flymaster Plus 210 Denier thread

Tail: Magnum cut, bunny Zonker strip tied in hide up

Tail support: Clear mono anti-foul guard looped through hide with knot to prevent slippage

Collar: Palmered bunny (off hide) to match using dubbing loop

Head: Senyo’s Laser Dub colors to match, 3-4 clumps tied sparsely on top (to keep point & gap clear for hook ups!)

Finish: Whip finish thread—no eyes, glues or epoxy

Note: Great profile for both floating and deeper fish. Lots of enticing action at slow and faster speeds. If rejected or conditions warrant, bunny strip easy to cut down on the spot for a more subtle presentation.

Laid-Up Tarpon Toad (deep version, black/purple with bead eyes)

Overall length: 3-4”

Hook: #2-2/0 Gamakatsu SL 12S 1x short (1/0-2/0 most common)

Thread: Danville Flymaster Plus 210 Denier thread

Tail: black/purple alternating Craftfur tail

Collar: Palmered bunny (off hide) to match using dubbing loop

Head: Merkin-style, crab head using EP Fibers in alternating colors to match

Eyes: black bead chain

Finish: Whip finish—no glue or epoxy

Note: A tarpon classic, also works great for laid-up tarpon using Craftfur and bunny strip to enhance action at slower speeds. Heavier, bead-chain eyes get this deeper version into suspended tarpon’s feeding zone quickly. Crabby head always on the tarpon’s list of easy edibles.

Laid-Up Tarpon Toad (lighter tan/green version with mono eyes)

Overall length: 3-4”

Hook: #2-2/0 Gamakatsu SL 12S 1x short

Thread: Danville Flymaster Plus 210 Denier thread

Tail: Magnum bunny, Zonker strip in colors to match

Tail support: Clear mono anti-foul guard looped through hide using knot to prevent slippage

Color: Palmered bunny (off hide) to match using dubbing loop

Head: Merkin-style, crab head using EP Fibers in alternating colors to match

Eye: Large, black mono eyes

Finish: Whip finish—no glue or epoxy

Note: The lighter Toad version is perfect for floating fish. Can be fished super slow yet has plenty of action. If rejected or conditions warrant, the bunny strip is easy to cut down on the spot for more subtle presentation.

Robert Tomes
Nationally recognized flyfishing author, speaker and educator Robert Tomes was born and raised in the Windy City where tight loops are a definite requirement. Since working as a guide in the remote Alaskan wilderness, he’s traveled the globe from New Zealand to Bhutan and beyond in search of the next bite. His writing has been featured in numerous flyfishing publications, websites and podcasts over the years; Tomes’ ground-breaking first book, Muskie on the Fly, was published by Wild River Press in 2008. When he’s not slinging a ridiculously large fly for toothy critters, he can be found deep in Florida’s Everglades or on Chicago’s historic North Pond Casting Pier teaching the next generation the art and joy of fly casting and fishing.