Right at the start of my flyfishing career I read that few fish would take flies as readily as tarpon, if they were in the mood. As always, the devil is in the detail, which is where tarpon differ to a lot of other fly rod challenges. Some days they feed, some days they don’t. The good days at least make up for the bad because these blokes pull like crazy on light fly tackle, jump like few other fish of their size and are equipped with a rock hard mouth which is hard to sink a fly into – they’re truly a great adversary.
Tarpon have one endearing trait that anglers love: they show themselves from time to time. Their primary habitat appears to be the brackish upper reaches of rivers, larger creeks or their back waters and lagoons. Anglers can sometimes travel to one of these locations in late afternoon or first light in the morning and see tarpon rolling on the surface.
A bubble trail will show where the fish is heading which makes it easy to flick a fly straight in that direction and start a slow twitch/strip retrieve. All going well a savage snatching strike indicates that a tarpon has taken the fly as it turns away. Tarpon hit far harder than their modest size might indicate and the result is often a broken leader. The way around this problem is to upgrade leader strength and keep the rod pointed a little away from the direction of the fly line at all times.
Like all fish that seek a bit of airtime when being played, tarpon make demands on the angler that need to be remembered. Once the angle of the fly line starts head rapidly towards the surface you need to be ready for the fish to come out of the water. The rod tip should be leaning somewhat towards the fish as it does so. The idea is to provide some give without allowing too much slack, which usually causes the fly to drop out.
All going well the tarpon will throw in a few jumps, a couple of spirited runs when seeing the boat, then lay on its side for release. Trust me on this, tarpon don’t eat well: lots of bones and a swampy taste are the norm.
Tarpon will often show themselves as they roll on the surface, usually around change of light time, but just because they aren’t showing does not mean they aren’t present.
Tarpon can be caught at a lot of other times simply by working areas of cover within their habitat. Under overhanging branches, besides fallen timber or the like, any single snag or groups of snags, these are great places for tarpon to hang around without much indication at all of their presence. The clue is to work all likely spots and be ready for the hit when it occurs. When working the bank side cover there is every chance that a few bream will keep things interesting. Bream become quite accustomed to feeding on the insects of summer like cicadas that fall into the drink and will hammer a small popper just as hard as a tarpon would.
Our tarpon don’t grow as large as their overseas counterparts but they are still great sportfish. A big up river or lagoon tarpon in our country would be a 1.5kg fish, not 50kg+ like they are in Florida. A 6 or maybe 8 weight outfit with a floating line will be fine, as will a sink tip line delivering the fly. I use a floating line with a sink tip leader is what I usually use and I have had a lot of recent success with a combination of a Rio Grand weight forward line (6 weight) and 3kg breaking strain Siglon Sinking tapered fluorocarbon leader. The very slick pale green Rio line features a prominent front taper designed to load modern rods quickly plus the coating on the line does not seem to pick up foreign matter when fishing in brackish water, which can be an annoying occurrence as it restricts casting distance quite a bit.
You can use the trusty trout or bass reel for these fish, just remember to give it a thorough wash after fishing in brackish water or some corrosion will be the reward for your negligence.
The tarpon flies that I normally use are based on small minnow patterns although I have also taken these fish on clousers and surface flies such as Dahlbergs and small cork poppers. Make sure all flies are tied on smaller hooks (size 2 or 3) that are as sharp as possible or the first decent jump from the silvery sided battler will see the fly losing its hold. Another clue is to tie the fly on a loop so it can swim somewhat as it’s retrieved: the loop will also assist in maintaining contact with a lively fish as it allows the leader to move around without levering the fly out.Reads: 913