Dancing with the big boys in the sunny south

Paul Smith
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Over the Victoria Day weekend, 58 cm of snow fell on Gander. There was no accumulation here on the Avalon, but I did see some sloppy snow driven sideways by the wind while I was driving home from my in-law’s cabin.

It was cold enough to freeze the butt of an Arctic explorer. A friend of mine who went camping in central had to shovel out his campsite twice. Before he evacuated he had to scrape over a foot of snow off the roof of the family trailer. Such are the joys of May 24 camping on The Rock.

While some of us embrace the elements and overcome weather adversities, others choose to run and hide.

The sunny south is oh so beckoning. Air travel is more affordable than in past decades and many folks are collecting credit card points to redeem for free travel. Would May be a good month to visit a sunshine destination?

Most of us visit the tropics in February or March, when winter winds howl and temperatures are bitter cold.

The problem is, I like winter. I would seriously find myself lying on a beach and daydreaming about snowshoeing in the crisp cold winter air.

Some say I need professional help for that, but such is my nature. I much rather visit Florida in May. Winter and all its snowy glory is past and salmon have not yet entered our rivers. It’s a great time to escape the rain, drizzle, and fog, before summer blooms. I’m not a fan of the old RDF.

May is also prime time for tarpon fishing on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

If you think hooking an Atlantic salmon is the ultimate thrill, hold on to your shorts if a tarpon bites your fly. There is nothing I’ve ever experienced quite like a tarpon strike.

My first time was in Belize, August 2008, at Turneffe Atoll. My guide, nicknamed Captain, spotted some big tarpon rolling in a channel between two small mangrove islands.

He stopped the skiff abruptly, and with expert dexterity that only comes from real life experience, he poled us into position. I was fully engaged in the moment, casting and stripping hard with a 12-weight fly rod and sinking line.

About 30 feet from the boat I saw a silver flash around my fly. The line went tight and I instinctively struck hard by stripping with my line hand. The hook pierced the fish’s hard bony mouth and it reacted with ferocity and violence like I had never witnessed in any creature.

Tarpon are known as the Silver King, the grand prize and Holy Grail of saltwater fly fishing. There is very good reason for such accolades.

Although gigantic in both length and girth, tarpon are agile and perform acrobatically, like a nimble MIG 17, with dexterity and eloquence that rivals a salmon’s.

My first fish, on full afterburners, rocketed his massive silver body into the air, an easy eight feet, and hit the water with a tidal splash that sent droplets flying into the bright tropical sun.

He almost soaked me, a sign of utter contempt for his tormentor. He was not intimidated or afraid. Then the fish screamed away from us at top speed, faster than a salmon, hell yes, with quicker acceleration than a 911 Porsche, and with freight train momentum compounded by a mass in excess of 100 lbs. Line zipped off the deck and whistled through my rod guides with blinding speed.

I was so happy and relieved to hear the reel clicking and my drag engaged. Clearing slack line with a tarpon can nip a finger with nastiness worthy of an emergency room visit.

And a solid tangle on toe or foot could take you off the boat and into the drink. You most definitely will lose in the tarpon’s own element.

I ended up losing the fish. I battled hard, to and fro for about

45 minutes in 100 degree heat and drenching humidity. I felt drained but optimistic, in spite of sweat stinging my eyes.

Then my most worthy adversary threw the hook in mid-air. I ‘m convinced the tarpon sneered at me before spitting out my hook.

Captain didn’t buy it. He believes that stuff sometimes just happens, trusts skill and statistics, and has no suspicion of vindictive tarpon. I was dejected and blaming the fish for my own inexperience.

But not many anglers land their first tarpon. I have learned much about tarpon fishing since that day and I discovered my many mistakes and shortcomings.

You don’t have to go off the beaten path to get a shot at tarpon. The St. Pete’s area is a prime tarpon location, particularly from early May to mid-June. In fact, all along that sunny coast, from Fort Myers and on up past Clearwater, there’s amazing tarpon water.

Last summer, although very late in the season, I booked my first charter out of St. Pete’s, and I had a fantastic day on the water. I wasn’t expecting much tarpon action but I wanted to see the lay of the land and water, reconnaissance for a May visit.

As it turned out, I got a couple of good shots and learned heaps of tarpon knowledge from a captain who takes educating his clients very seriously.

Capt. Russ Shirley offers his guests Tarpon 101 on the water. Although I’d messed with a few tarpon, I opted for the instruction at no extra charge. Too often, novice anglers are left to their own devices with nothing under their belts but a few brook trout and a salmon or two. Battling a three-digit raging tarpon is just slightly different.

In case you run from the sloppy snow and take the family south in May, and decide to treat yourself to a day on the water, I’ll give you an excerpt of Tarpon 101.

This is the Readers Digest version. The full course is a bit too long and technical for casual interest and present entertainment. And some of it means nothing without actual physical demonstration. It goes something like this:

You have to place the fly right in the tarpon’s face. This is true for most fish that you angle while they are on the move. You will not have much time between seeing the fish and, hopefully, placing the fly.

You will need to practise for both speed and accuracy. If your fly is eaten you need to quickly pierce that hard bony mouth with a 2/0 stainless steel hook. Lifting the rod, like you do on a salmon and trout, will not get the job done.

You need to strip strike hard, really hard, and forcefully with gusto, to get the hook in past the barb. And then, if you can, before Mr. Tarpon explodes into action, hit him again for good measure.

This is nothing like catching a few trout for the frying pan. There’s much more to the tarpon dance, like braking with a gloved hand, bowing to the king when he jumps, breaking rolls, playing down and dirty, and so on. If the fight goes over an hour, you are likely to lose. There’s more still.

If you are serious about dancing with a tarpon, drop me a line and I’ll recommend some great reading on the subject. You can learn from my mistakes.


Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted

at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.

Organizations: Porsche, Readers Digest

Geographic location: Arctic, Florida, Gulf Coast Belize Fort Myers Clearwater

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