June 13, 2008
You know what tarpon fishing really is? It’s a sliding scale of victories beginning with getting the fish to see your fly in the first place . This begins with the guy on the pole, and poling most tarpon flats is no easy task. The water is often deep, the fish are constantly moving, and setting up the skiff at just the right angle is of paramount importance. Tarpon season in the Keys runs from roughly May to July, give or take a few weeks on either end, and this means you’re almost always expecting a good breeze. This is especially true Oceanside, where finding migrating fish seems to be easiest .
It doesn’t help that the fish run deeper nowadays, avoiding the shallow sand-patches that were the traditional stake-out points for guides to intercept the migration. The tarpon have apparently learned a few things, which comes as no surprise when you consider they can live for sixty years or so. That means some of these very fish we’re casting to today might have been around in the seventies when legends like Thomas McGuane and Stu Apte were casting giant 3/0 flies at them. The upshot is if you really want to be in the fish these days, you’re poling deeper water along the edges of flats where the fish are both harder to see and pole to. You have to wield a twenty-one-foot pole to even have a chance .
Begin Interpolation: Tarpon Migration
The idea of a migration can be misleading. One thinks of geese heading north or salmon swimming upstream. Standard lore is that the tarpon come from points south, Mexico maybe or deep in the Gulf. The islands of the Marquesas off Key West are the first point of intercept for Keys’ anglers in spring. I’ve been lead to understand that every year thousands of tarpon choose that exact point to begin contact with the North American continent in a run that takes them as far north as the Carolinas. So, you’d think the fish would be moving west to east (or south to north as the Key’s folk call it) and that would be that. You could pole a flat in the morning with the sun and wind at your back and get all your shots and poling downwind. Yeah, it’s not quite like that.
I can’t say I understand what’s going on exactly, but it appears the tarpon use the many passes between the keys to move from Oceanside to Bayside, and back again. So, on a falling tide they’ll pour out of the passes and move with the current in the expected direction. As the tide changes, however, they’ll seemingly turn around (though these may be different fish altogether) and ride the tide Bayside back through the passes. This means that at some point on a typical day you’ll be poling and casting into the wind. If you’re poling a 30-some-thousand-dollar Hell’s Bay technical poling skiff, no worries, but if you’re atop a second-hand “aircraft carrier” of a Dolphin Skiff, you’re in a world of hurt. If you let up for half a minute the breeze will spin the bow downwind and turning back around with an angler on the bow acting like a sail is no fun, trust me.
Of course, it’s not all up to the guy on the platform. The dude on the bow with the rod has his work cut out too. Simply casting a tarpon rod isn’t exactly second nature to most of us, and casting into the breeze can be a very tough scenario. I mean, with a 12-weight rod you’ll have the muscle. Nevertheless, turning over wind-resistant tarpon flies on (the necessarily) long leaders into a breeze can give even experienced casters a nervous breakdown. When you take into account that most anglers typically fish with 5-8 weight rods, the odds of a perfect presentation with a 12-weight go down considerably. Remember, these fish have probably seen flies before, lots of flies. They’ve also faced inexperienced anglers before, so they likely know (as much as a tarpon can know anything) that the splash of your leader arriving in a heap after a bungled cast means nothing good for them. Nine times out of ten, if you blow that first shot the lead fish will simply duck around the fly, taking the rest of the string with her.
Pull something like that once too often, and the dude with the pole will be tempted to use it to beat some fishing sense into you.
Actually, get the fly anywhere near the fish and they’ll see it. Tarpon are not only hyper-alert, they can really see. Even their name suggests it — megalops: big eye. They are aware of anything sinking through the water around them. Getting the fish to see the fly in the right way is a victory. It all has to do with angles and distances, you see. If you land the fly too far out of the tarpon’s line of travel: no sale. They just won’t swim that far out of their way for a little morsel. Also, even if you land the fly in the line of travel, but you’re positioned at such an angle that when you strip the fly it forces the fish to change course to catch it, same thing. What you want is to land the fly not so far away that the fish has to expend too much effort to catch it, nor so close that it spooks the fish by landing on it’s head, but just far enough away that it’s an easy bite. You have to feed the fish… which is probably the hardest thing in tarpon fishing. [back]
Ok, yes, finding them there is pretty easy, but just because you can see a fish coming from 200 yards away doesn’t mean you’ll get it to eat your fly. A hard lesson learned. Mostly, these are show-and-tell fish, as in, “dude check out those fish” and “dude, we saw like 200 today. Lots of shots”. Yes, lots of shots is good, but if they don’t translate into bites then really what you’re doing is something more akin to bird-watching than fishing, as in, “wow, look at all the big fishies. Pretty.” [back]
This is important. The longer a push pole is, the more efficient it is. Say you’re in 6 feet of water with an 18-foot pole. Well, you’re also standing about 3 feet above the deck (which is probably close to another foot off the water). Given an average human height of 6-foot, that only leaves about 2 feet of pole to push with. Effective poling means that you get more pushes — actually “walking” your hands down the pole — per each placement of the pole. Poling is actually quite easy, it’s taking the pole out of the water and placing it back down at the correct angle that’s hard. [back]