The truth about tarpon
  |  First Published: April 2014

While our local tarpon won’t ever grow to the proportions of their north American cousins (our biggest are around 80cm, while theirs are twice that size) they still have a great following here in Australia. They are a definite flyfishing species and pack a punch well above their weight.

They also have a mystique about them that makes them very special to fly angler – much as our native bass were a couple of decades back. Those anglers who caught them kept the information very closely guarded.

Tarpon habitat

Tarpon are not found in every waterway on the east coast but they can turn up in some surprising places. I’ve seen them in small schools on tropical beaches but while they inhabit creeks of all sizes they will also happily thrive in brackish or even freshwater. Lagoons, housing and canal estates, the upper reaches of most waterways, even within certain sections of estuaries where there’s some nearby brackish or even freshwater – these are all likely tarpon habitats. There must be tidal influence or access to saltwater even if only on the highest tides, as tarpon are estuarine fish just like bream, jacks and trevally. A good indicator is the humble mullet: if the water holds a healthy population of mullet it may well also be inhabited by tarpon.

Suspecting the fish are there is one thing, confirming that suspicion is another matter. In the angler’s favour are a couple of things. Firstly, tarpon have a habit of surfacing to gulp a bit of air and then moving off to leave a bubble trail.. As they surface you’ll get a glimpse of a long dorsal fin, sometimes followed by the tip of the tail as well.

The only drawback to these signature clues is timing; tarpon love to surface before the sun is on the water or just as it’s heading behind the hills of an evening. Still, this is no biggie as we anglers love to rise early or stay out late, don’t we?

The best time to spot tarpon rolling is very early in morning when the wind is down to zero. Once fish are found (and we might expect things to taper off a bit as the water cools in late May), the idea is to use the right tackle to connect with these silver-sided jumping fools!


Bearing in mind that a big tarpon is a 1kg fish (tarpon are deep but skinny) you might think that light fly tackle would be ideal. However, the reality is that these are hard hitting and strong fighting fish that will pop overly light tackle with ease. A 6wt outfit is a minimum where larger tarpon are likely to be encountered. In tropical creeks I use an 8wt outfit and still expect some break-offs from time to time.

Choice of fly line comes down to sink tip or floating. Feeding or rolling tarpon that are leaving bubble trails are usually close to the surface, so a full sinking fly line won’t keep the fly in the strike zone for long. Also, tarpon don’t seem to like flies that are deliberately retrieved too rapidly, so a floating or sink tip line allows plenty of latitude with a slower retrieve style.

Tippet size needs to cater for a sudden strike that will occur as a fish takes the fly on turning away. There will usually be no warning, just a sudden jolt that sees the fly and leader part company if the tippet is too light. I recommend nothing less than 4kg tippet for tarpon if you want to keep your fly for another fish.

Flies and tactics

Flies should resemble the baitfish predominant in the area. Size 1 or 2 flies are great, with small Lefty’s Deceivers or similar style flies being ideal for subsurface work and for surface action, which is one of the really great attractions with our tarpon. Poppers such as Dahlberg Divers, Gartside or Grabham’s Gurglers (hop on Google for tying details) also on size 1 or size 2 hooks are also very good.

Tarpon are more active of a late afternoon or early morning so the idea is to start the day with a dry fly on the tippet and a floating line in use. If not surface rolling these fish are sure to be around any sort of cover, so the clue is to cast the fly near some and retrieve it very gently with frequent stops. The stops will trip their wire and they will slurp down a Gurgler with great deliberation. The key is the slow strip; make it too fast and all they will do is look.

Once the sun is up and on the water, any surface rolling will usually slow down. This is the time to exchange floating flies for sinking ones and maintain the slow strip, stop, start, retrieve. Do expect a jolt as a fish takes the fly, and keep the rod tip to the side to prevent a break-off on the strip/strike.

Once hooked a tarpon will usually jump and often throw the hook. These fellows have the hardest mouths in the business and hooks need to be extra sharp to stay connected.

Are tarpon a table proposition? Not at any table I’ve dined at. They pong and are very bony! Their speciality is sport, and that’s something fly anglers are always on the lookout for.

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