Archille Valenciennes, 1847
“Then the water split with a hissing sound to let out a great tarpon, long as a door, seemingly as wide, who shot up and up into the air … Five times he sprang toward the blue sky, and as many he plunged down with a thunderous crash. The reel screamed. The line sang. The rod, which I thought stiff as a tree, bent like a willow wand. The silver king came up far astern and sheered to the right in a long, wide curve, leaving behind a white wake.”
– Zane Grey, “Byme-by-tarpon.”
The tarpon is a giant among saltwater game fish. Although it is not the largest game fish a fly angler can catch and release, it’s known as “the silver king” throughout the warm lagoons, estuaries, thick mangrove swamps, and saltwater flats of southeastern North America, the Caribbean, and northeastern coast of South America. The tarpon: saltwater royalty. Adult tarpon can easily reach 6 or 7 feet in length and can weigh well over 150 pounds. The Megalops atlanticus is astonishingly powerful and is famous among anglers as the mythological silver beast that can walk on water. Tarpon, once hooked, are known for jumping and thrashing about, sometimes longer than 3 hours, their tails skitting across the flat.
The silver king, although caught by indigenous tribes in the Florida Keys probably as early as the 1700s, was officially discovered and named in 1847 by the French parasitologist Archille Valenciennes during his work with Georges Cuvier on their Natural History of Fish, a whopping 22-volume work published between 1828 and 1848. Valenciennes placed the tarpon within the genus Megalops (Greek for “large eye”) because of its prominent and daunting black eyes. Since the turn of the century, a great body of literature, historical and otherwise, has been developed on the subject of tarpon. Fly fishing for tarpon is now a wildly popular sporting pursuit among anglers from Georgia to the Florida Keys, and tarpon are also highly sought after throughout the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Recently, giant tarpon in the 300 pound class have been caught on fly tackle off the southwestern coast of Africa. Tarpon have been so popular in the Gulf region of the United States that in 1955, by act no. 564 of the Alabama state legislature, the “fighting tarpon” became the state’s official saltwater fish.
Rolling and dashing through skinny saltwater flats and estuaries tarpon inhabit a range of 49°N – 44°s, 99°w – 14°e, but they have been recorded as far north as Nova Scotia, along the Atlantic coast of Southern France, and as far south as Argentina. The tarpon uses the thin water of the saltwater flats to feed on smaller baitfish and crustaceans. The deeper water of the open ocean is the tarpon’s spawning grounds. The tarpon does have a counterpart native to the Pacific Ocean (Megalops cyprinoids or Indo-Pacific tarpon), but this tarpon is a much smaller fish and not prized among fly anglers.
Tarpon are an ancient fish that has survived 125 million years of evolutionary tumult. One of the oldest living species in the ocean, the tarpon carries an almost otherworldly presence. Just catching a glimpse of a rolling school of giant tarpon is an intimidating sight even to the most confident fly angler. The tarpon’s huge bucket-like jaws and large black eyes compliment its thick, powerful body. When tarpon clear the top water during a jump, their massive set of mirror-polished scales clatter and clack audibly with the tremendous force of the maneuver. The tarpon’s fins are a dark, steely gray and the tail is deeply forked, providing the silver king with a tremendous amount of underwater leverage and speed.
According to historical accounts dating from the late 1800s, anglers have been able to catch tarpon on artificial flies with reasonable success. Since then fly fishing for tarpon has steadily increased in popularity owing to rousing tales of madly fighting fish from such popular authors as Zane Grey and, more recently, Lefty Kreh. The rising interest in saltwater fly fishing, coupled with tarpon-specific articles and books by other fly fishing greats have fueled the rush to master tarpon on a fly. Today, there is now an extensive network of guides fly fishing exclusively for tarpon from Florida to South America, and a number of tournaments and other competitions celebrating fly fishing for tarpon have also cropped up in recent years.
Fly anglers should understand that there are three classes or sizes of tarpon: baby tarpon, midsize tarpon, and giant tarpon. Baby tarpon range from 5 to 40 pounds, midsize tarpon fill the 50 to 80 pound class, and the giant tarpon weighs in at an astonishing 100+ pounds. Anglers looking to chase tarpon on the fly should think seriously about which weight class they are after before they gear up and head on that tarpon trip of a lifetime. Smaller tarpon are often found cruising on the edges of saltwater flats and in brackish inland estuaries and mangrove swamps. Larger tarpon are usually found cruising and rolling in saltwater flats.
Baby and midsize tarpon offer quite a fighting challenge on an 8 weight or 9 weight outfit. Giant tarpon, however, require much heavier 11 or 12 weight outfits. Fast action fly fishing rods are popular among tarpon anglers for their ability to assist the caster in creating the long, accurate casts (often into heavy wind) required when sight casting for tarpon. It’s important to have top-notch fishing tools when stalking tarpon of any size in the saltwater flats; an angler, even on the best day, may only get 3 or 4 good casts at fish!
As with any saltwater flats game fish, spotting a tarpon can be a challenge. Sunny conditions on saltwater flats can produce some of the world’s most visually taxing conditions, and the sheer brightness of the glare on the water can be overwhelming. A good pair of polarized sunglasses with copper photochromatic lenses can – on some days – be considered the saltwater fly angler’s most useful fishing tool. Yellow photochromatic lenses can be useful for morning light conditions, so if you plan to fish from dawn until dusk, consider two pairs of shades. (Experience in spotting tarpon, or a guide perched atop the polling platform of a specialized flats skiff will also help!)
There is a recent movement among saltwater fly anglers who chase tarpon to “dredge” deeper channels and estuaries for tarpon of all size classes. This dredging method is anchored in common blind casting techniques familiar to striped bass fly anglers of the North American coasts. Dredging for tarpon with a sinking line can be productive, but remains a relatively new and unproven tactic in the quiver of tarpon fly fishers.
Perhaps the easiest way to recognize the location of a single, pair, or school of tarpon is by the characteristic “rolling” action the species exhibits. The tarpon is equipped with a swim bladder, allowing them to survive and thrive in brackish swamps and saltwater flats as well as the open ocean. Tarpon will periodically appear at the water’s surface to take in a breath, filling their swim bladder before rolling back into the salty depths. This process, although graceful, can cause quite a stir. Fly anglers should be on the lookout for large boils and bubbles in the top water accompanied by a silvery flash – this is likely a rolling tarpon.
Large tarpon in saltwater flats will aggressively chase and take a well-presented fly, adding to the species’ storied place in saltwater game fish mythology. Tarpon will respond energetically to a fly moving directly away from them. Creating this effect can be achieved with a hook cast or a reach cast, both practiced techniques used by freshwater fly anglers. Saltwater flats can offer a fly angler some of the most challenging casting conditions on earth. Long, tuned, and accurate casts of 60 to 70 feet are often necessary. Once the fly is properly presented to the tarpon, the stripping game is on. Anglers will invariably disagree on which are the most effective methods for retrieving the fly when fly fishing for tarpon in the saltwater flats. In one conversation on the subject, one might hear “fast, slow, smooth, jerky” … often in the same breath. Never fear, a local guide will often know just how to play and move a fly to produce results; listen to what they have to say! Be patient though, as tarpon have been known to chase a well-presented and retrieved fly all the way to the boat before striking!
Brackish inland estuaries and mangrove swamps offer saltwater fly anglers amazing chances to cast to, catch and release baby tarpon. Some canal systems – especially in southwest Florida – provide excellent shelter for juvenile tarpon, even through the slow winter months. When fishing these environments, work streamers as close to the mangrove roots as possible. As the tide goes out, more and more of these mangrove roots will be exposed, leaving behind an excellent feeding shelf for baby tarpon. Remember: well-presented flies will move silver kings!
Simply hooking a tarpon can be an operatic experience in itself. The tarpon’s mouth is extremely hard and has been likened to tough construction-grade concrete. Subsequently, successful hook sets are almost more challenging than actually getting an aggressive tarpon to take a well-presented fly. Practice in firm and confident strip setting techniques is extremely important when fly fishing for tarpon. When a tarpon finally chomps the fly, and the hook is set, the fish will put on an impressive aerial acrobatics show. Seasoned tarpon anglers, when trading notes on a day’s work, will often proudly include the number of “fish jumped” as well as the number of fish landed. Tarpon are consistently observed jumping 3 or 4 feet above the water after a hook up. During this aggressive jumping and thrashing, fly, fly line, and tippet are at their most vulnerable point. It is extremely important to protect rigging and tackle by keeping the rod tip as low as possible during the initial few jumps. This process is called “bowing” to the fish, and it’s no secret, bowing to the silver king will minimize the chance of losing a tarpon to a snapped line or leader.
Tarpon fly anglers presented with the challenge of keeping a tail-walking silver king on the line have developed a number of rigging techniques designed to stand up to what many think are the toughest and wildest fighters in the salt. Taking a nod from the rigging standards employed by bill fish and tuna anglers, anglers in hot pursuit of monster tarpon have experimented with extremely complex, heavy rigs. The standard 9 foot tarpon leader, however, consists of a heavy 60 pound butt section, a section of 16 to 20 class tippet, and finally a short, one foot section of 60 to 100 pound mono shock tippet. This rig is the standard for many medium to large tarpon, but there are other options for the really large fish. Be sure to ask your local fly shop about the leaders you should have ready to go before you board the plane for your chosen tropical tarpon destination. Keeping this general rigging rule for tarpon fishing can be helpful: When traveling to far-flung destinations, bring your rigging with you. When traveling to the Florida Keys, a good guide should provide all you need to jump and land the tarpon of your dreams.
Do not head to the saltwater flats in search of tarpon armed with a sub-standard fly reel. The stress a tarpon can place on even the strongest rods, lines, and leaders is truly impressive – to say the very least. The fly reel is the mechanical link for your connection to the fish and if it goes south, so does your time on the water. Be sure to find a reel with an iron-clad drag system and a large arbor for easy line pick up. The reel should also be large enough to store between 200 and 250 yards of backing; if you find yourself connected to a rolling fish, you’ll use it.
When at home along the saltwater flats, tarpon will hunt and feed mostly on baitfish. When migrating and spawning, tarpon are more likely to feed instinctively on smaller crustaceans. Regardless of the situation, however, tarpon will aggressively chase a well-presented fly. Large streamer patterns are the most effective flies for tarpon of all sizes, but some smaller crab and shrimp patterns will yield good results on days when the silver kings are on the move or in a more selective mood.
A favorite classic tarpon fly from Florida to the Bahamas is the Cockroach, developed by saltwater fly fishing legend Lefty Kreh. Other proven tarpon flies include Lefty’s Deceiver, the Clouser Minnow, and the Sea Habit. When tarpon are migrating or on the spawn, the Tarpon Shrimp, Tarpon Crab, and the Seaducer are another trio of useful tarpon flies to have on hand, and the Campeche Special is a brilliant fly for baby tarpon in the mangroves of Mexico’s Gulf Coast.
Tarpon offer fly anglers a unique challenge; discovering the proper blend of power, strategy, concentration, and finesse is crucial when on the flats or in the brackish water in search of rolling tarpon. The majesty of the tarpon survives in a heap of literature from Grey to Kreh, and with good reason. Holding court, the tarpon truly is the silver king of the flats, offering excited anglers throughout the tropics the sport, the drama, the epic struggle, and the joy of the great kings of mythology.
– Evan P. LeBon