Tarpon…. What can I say?? No other fish stirs the imagination or excitement more than this silver-plated behemoth. Pick up any fly fishing magazine any month of the year and somewhere inside, someone qualified or not will be yapping about tarpon. Well, true to every other magazine, I’m going to do just that. Except I’m going to write specifically about my favorite type of tarpon. What kind is that you might ask? Laid up tarpon.
Every year I field phone call after phone call wanting May and June dates for the tarpon migration. Sure, it is a fascinating spectacle to watch schools of a dozen to as many as a couple hundred fish march down an oceanside flat (many times over white sand), then working yourself into position to present your fly to said platoon of fish. I guess I would have been more suited to fight in the octagon in the UFC because in I prefer the one-on-one competition. There’s nothing like poling a backcountry flat and seeing 100+ lbs of sheer strength and wild instinct suspended in gin-clear water. Laying in wait to ambush an unsuspecting baitfish, crab or shrimp. Upon spotting a laid-up tarpon, the sequence of events that follows is a chess match of fly angler versus fish that can’t compare to any other type of fly fishing. Your opponent? A “chess master” who possesses sheer instinct and up to 50 years of experience. Make a wrong move—too long a cast, too short a cast, land the fly too close—and checkmate. Game over. All you can do is flounder in a pool of frustration as he waves goodbye with a powerful thrust of his tail.
However, make a perfect cast, strip the fly to get the instinct to switch in your favor and the result will be a memory that brands into your brain forever. As the fish turns and approaches your fly, it’s unbelievable how everything slows down to a crawl. Your senses, if allowed, start to betray you. The feelings in your legs disappear. All you hear is a slight buzz and what sounds like a test of the Emergency Broadcast System ringing in your ears. All you can focus in on is the biggest fish that the majority of fly anglers will ever see zero in on your fly. Then,as the mouth opens, gills flare and you watch your fly disappear into a black abyss, don’t freeze. Striiipp… As the line tightens, you get a jolting bitch slap of adrenaline that for most is too intense to bear. To this day, I can still hear the gills rattle on the first large tarpon I ever jumped in my life. As I said before, it is seared into my memory forever.
One of the greatest parts about fishing for these dinosaurs is that unlike fly fishing for other species of big game, it all happens in less than eight feet of water. It’s all visual. From the time you spot the fish ‘til the time he succumbs to the fight and lays up next to the boat, you see everything. If you pay attention, you can even see the expression on his face and know what he’s thinking. The best times to fish for laid-up tarpon is mid-February through the first week or two of May. Of course this can change by a couple weeks either way depending on the type of weather the good Lord above is dealing out that year. For the past couple of years, I have been fishing for tarpon as early as late January. Keep in mind though that these fish are highly in tune with what goes on with the weather, especially at the first of the season. Cold fronts that rumble through will knock them in the head for a few days, so come with an open mind and a lot of patience if you ever decide to fish early in the season. Most of all, come with a humble attitude because you will get humbled. Quickly. When you do get humbled (and I promise you will), always have a short memory, because when the fishing is hot, your next shot at the greatest game fish on the fly will be just a few short yards down the flat.