Nutrient rich freshwater from a 20,000 square-mile drainage flows south through west Georgia and across the Florida Panhandle. It flushes out at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, where, guarded by a series of slim barrier islands, it churns with waters from the Gulf of Mexico into the fecund, brackish stew that is Apalachicola Bay.
Vast grass flats and long sandy points on the backsides of the barrier islands give way to deeper channels and strong tidal currents. It is the perfect habitat for some of the world’s finest oysters. And where there are oyster bars, grass flats and tidally influenced creeks, there are redfish. Apalachicola Bay has redfish in abundance, and plenty of trout to go along with them.
Even in less than 3 feet of water, the 200 square-mile expanse of the bay left me feeling alone and exposed, an insignificant speck in a 12-foot kayak. The flurry of action and diving birds that coincided with daybreak and an outgoing tide had slowed an hour ago. So I sat in the boat looking for some sign of life. A platform for viewing would have been very handy.
Then they appeared only 50 yards away, little translucent triangles darting on the surface. The school of reds appeared frantic as they fed in shallow water, skittering back and forth but ever closer to where I waited.
A few quiet paddle strokes were enough to put me in position. With probably 30 fish less than 50 feet away, I cast with a 7-weight fly rod. When my polar fiber minnow plopped down in the school, they jumped on it. One strip: a hard bump, but no hook-up. Second, third, fourth strip: they kicked up a wake behind the fly. Then a jarring thump ran up my arm as one took the bait and began a series of blistering runs.
It was a 28-inch red that I eventually brought to hand and released, one of many I tangled with over a week spent exploring the bay. Local guide Capt. Randy Peart said the fishing is always this good. He admitted, however, that sight fishing is not usually feasible. Most of the time the water is stained brown from tons of sediment washing in from the river, and a steady wind makes it tough to search out surface activity.
So the angler is left probing structure like docks, oyster bars and changes in bottom composition with spoons, jigs, soft plastics or live bait for conventional anglers, or obnoxious, loud flies like Rattle Rousers for the fly anglers.
An added bonus to targeting reds is you’ll occasionally hook up with big trout that hang in the same areas. If you want to specifically target trout, they school up in the spring and fall on the oyster bars and on the first drops off the flats.
Although trout and slot reds can be the year-round main event, Spanish mackerel, silver trout, giant 37-inch bull reds and tarpon show up in the bay at different times of the year.
By Capt. Kevin Dieter and John Radkins
My phone rang right after dinner. Captain Kevin Deiter’s name popped up on the ID. “Want to go for tarpon in the morning?”
Duh. I had more things to do tomorrow than I could count, but all work and no play will make anyone dull. There was only one answer; what time and where.
Dave Raymond and I had been hitting the sales bricks hard for the last few days and an early morning of pitching baits to monsters on the beach seemed like the ideal way convince us that putting out a fishing magazine really is a glamorous job.
We got to Marine Max in Venice, FL a bit early, but a few minutes early is way better than being late, especially when one of the area’s premier beach tarpon captains invites you out for a fun day. Kevin, who owns and operates Feeding Frenzy Sportfishing Academy, was just finishing up getting his 22’ Mako ready. Last to load up were our important companions; a dozen frisky crabs.
Our days have been nice and warm, but this early in the season it still gets a bit chilly overnight. The sun was just cracking the horizon as we started the run south from the Venice Jetty and I was really glad to have brought a fleece jacket along. Ten minutes later I was wishing I had thrown my beat up old khaki fishing pants in the bag as well.
When we stopped south of Caspersen Beach the water was flat, a very gentle east wind was blowing and there wasn’t another boat to be seen setting up. If there is a better way to spend the early daylight hours than on the water with friends, I haven’t found it yet. Peaceful, meditative and soothing are all adjectives that come to mind. Yeah, Kumbayah and all that. But today we were looking for less calming activities. Explosive you might say.
With Dave looking north, me looking south and Kevin getting a couple of rods set up we spent some time waiting for big fish on the move. Bait was everywhere and with Spanish macks blowing up near and far, my first tarpon trip of the year nerves had me making little fish big. If you’ve fished beach tarpon, you know how it is; you hope they will be there and hungry but you also know it could just be a morning of frustration. Sometimes, few or no fish and other times fish everywhere, but all with lockjaw.
We started seeing singles and pairs breaking the surface out of casting distance. Come on fishies, get closer!
Then, here come the big silver minnows. I turned when I heard Kevin say “I spy poonage!” At least 20 fish on the surface at any given time were moving slowly north. As they approached casting distance, another smaller group moving off the beach merged with the first. I cast out and within 20 seconds I was hit and spit. Kevin tossed his crab out and was hooked up just as fast. He handed me the rod and by the end of the initial jumps and the first reel screaming run I knew why he passed it off; this was a big, strong fish.
By the end of 25 minutes I was puffing like I’d run a marathon, wishing I had a bit of the cool air from the early morning run and thinking some unkind thoughts about my friend Kevin. He had leadered the fish 3 or 4 times, but she kept gulping air and I could not get her to roll over. It was up for grabs as to who was going to win. Eventually the fish came in and we got some quick shots in the water courtesy of John Jernigan who had motored up with his camera during the fight (Thank you sir!) and Dave idled us off to revive the fish. I am not a great judge of tarpon weights, but Kevin said it was an easy 150 pounds.
Dave Raymond was next up. He hooked up with an even bigger fish that gave some truly amazing jumps. How can fish that big get so far out of the water? Either this one tired more easily or Dave is a manlier man than I because he had the 180 +/- pound fish to the boat in 15 minutes. But when Kevin grabbed the leader the fish bolted and broke the circle hook just below the barb and swam away happy. Aw hell, if the hook hadn’t broken Dave would probably still be trying to bring that freaking monster in. Biggest tarpon I’ve ever seen hooked up.
I boated one more around 100 pounds, then Kevin put on a clinic in tarpon whupping for Dave and me. He hooked up with a 75 pounder and proceeded to bring the fish to boatside in just over 5 minutes. I guess practice makes perfect.
It was about noon when the wind shifted 180 to the west, the water was getting a little snotty and the ‘poons disappeared. We got the boat in shape with everything in its place and as Kevin was pulling up the trolling motor he said “Oh man…” Another pod was making towards us from the south. We looked at each other and decided we’d had an outstanding day. Leave those for next time.
Thanks Kevin. Call me anytime, day or night. Seriously.
John Radkins is the owner and publisher of the Sarasota/Bradenton/Englewood edition of Coastal Angler Magazine.
By Capt. Casey Allen
When my father approached me this past November with the idea of tarpon fishing in Florida, I was all ears. You see, a lifetime of angling (and a handful of forty and fifty pound stripers) has spawned within me an obsession to tangle with ever larger fish, and the tarpon holds a lofty position on the bucket list. Adding to the prospect, this was to be a three-day marathon expedition into the heart of the Everglades where world-class snook, redfish and tarpon lurk beneath the black waters that snake through a seemingly endless mangrove labyrinth. Our friend and guide, Capt. Joe LeClair of North Eastern Anglers, picked us up from the airport with his Action Craft flats skiff already in tow and loaded to the gunwales with tackle and gear that would sustain us and keep us comfortable in the remote reaches of the Florida back-country. As we drove from the airport to the boat ramp all chatter was drowned out as I envisioned what might be in store for us, but even my imagination couldn’t quite create what turned out to be the most unique angling experience of my life.
It was mid-afternoon, so after dousing ourselves in sunscreen we launched the boat and shoved off. The skiff nimbly and quickly slid through the mangrove-lined creeks, and as signs of civilization diminished to zero I gave up all attempts to decide which way was which. Joe knew these waters like the back of his hand, which is good because we could have been travelling in circles and I wouldn’t have known. We travelled for a few hours, stopping here and there to toss surface plugs to some snook and reds, when finally we arrived at our destination—a wooden platform constructed in the middle of the river with nothing but a flat roof over it and a Porta-John, which to our delight was clean. We arrived at sundown, granting ourselves enough time to set up tents, blow up the air mattresses, have a quick bit to eat and chat before getting to sleep. This was a truly wild frontier, unspoiled by the noise and lights of a civilization that was now more than seventy miles away. The peaceful silence was broken only by the haunting call of a great horned owl in the distance.
It was as if a common force drove each of us as we awoke in unison. The sky was still studded with stars as the first signs of light crept to the tops of the trees, so we quickly dressed and got underway. The water was alive with activity and my neck soon became sore from swiveling my head constantly to observe the birds, fish and the occasional dolphin. This place seemed magical, like somewhere no human had yet laid eyes on. We travelled for a short time before arriving at a point where the river widened to 100 yards or so and forked. Joe slowed the boat and we sat, staring intently upriver to where the first lights began to reflect on the surface, turning it fiery orange. Suddenly, a few hundred yards off I saw a body roll at the surface. Even at this distance I could see the fish was huge. Shortly after another silver body rolled lazily at the surface, so using the trolling motor we crept our way toward the group of fish, closing the gap slowly and carefully. Up ahead we could see a few tarpon had broken from the school and were coming straight for us. Wielding a fly rod I quickly shot a cast a few feet in front of the leading fish and slowly stripped the line. I could see the tarpon (60 pounds or so) make a distinct move toward the fly. It didn’t take, but my heart nearly exploded as I watched it and the others pass. Another opportunity came minutes later when my father expertly pitched a Slug-Go right to a beast of more than 100 pounds. The fish darted for the lure but managed to spit it before the hook could set into its jaw. By this point it was clear that the challenge was in the presentation, which we were executing precisely for the most part, so we were pleased with just getting a sniff.
After a few attempts and near hookups we pressed on, but nearing a bend in the river we saw what we were looking for when a school of monster tarpon appeared. The fish were numerous and holding steadily in this location, near enough to us that we could make out their massive figures below the surface, so we edged over to the bank where I held onto a mangrove branch to keep the boat in place. These fish were enormous, with many easily pushing the 200-pound mark. It was my dad’s turn now, and the three of us held our breath as he repeatedly tossed lures to the rolling leviathans. Just when we thought they all had a case of lockjaw, there was a flash as a fish hit the small crankbait. The line tightened instantly and my father set the hook, causing the tarpon to explode completely from the water’s surface with the fury of an angry bull that had been roped. That seven-foot chrome slab freed itself with a single leap and violent shake of its massive head but the feeling of disappointment was fleeting, replaced instead by wild excitement for the spectacle that had just taken place.
Other chances for tarpon arose and we landed many smaller ones up to 20 pounds, but the giants were giving us a run for our money. We then switched gears to snook and reds, plying narrow creeks and muddy flats in just inches of water. Casts frequently had to be placed over long distances and into very precise locations, so hook-ups were that much more rewarding. The last day of our trip I tied into a snook of at least 30 pounds that slammed my topwater lure and jumped clear of the water three times. I battled that trophy fish on a light setup for five minutes before it threw the hook at the side of the boat. I was truly in agony and thought I was going to puke! It took me a week or so to recover from the epic loss, but I swore to return for another chance at that fish and others like it. My dad and I recently decided to make our second trip in April and have since booked with Joe. Needless to say, I can’t wait to find myself in the middle of nowhere surrounded by untouched scenery and fish that make me weak in the knees.
For information on booking a charter with Capt. Joe LeCLair, visit www.flyfishsalt.com.
By Capt. Jim Klopfer
In the pre-dawn twilight it was difficult to see the fish, but they were there. Just barely perceptible was a little slick that just did not look right. “Get ready” the captain whispered, “they are going to pop up right in front of us.” Several anxious moments passed before the fins and tails of a couple dozen hundred pound tarpon broke the flat calm surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
“Cast out six feet in front of the fish, make sure you don’t throw on top of them,” the guide advised. The crab landed several feet in front of the pod—it was an excellent cast. Both watched in anticipation as the crab slowly sank. After several seconds, the line gradually became taut.
“Reel!” the guide hollered, unable to hide his excitement. The angler reeled as fast as he could while raising the rod tip high. The line angled towards the surface as the fish made ready to leave the Gulf. One hundred pounds of silver fury cleared the surface by a good four feet, crashed into the water, and ran off on another burst before leaping once again, this time throwing the hook. Disappointment soon turned to admiration—what a fish!
That is a commonly played out scenario off of Sarasota beaches from late spring through early summer. While saltwater fishing is very good all year long, there is something magical about tarpon fishing. This is truly world class angling. Very few places on earth offer anglers the opportunity to sight cast to fish this large using spinning or fly tackle. Many more tarpon are hooked than are actually landed. In fact, most Sarasota guides put more emphasis on stalking and hooking these behemoths than in actually landing them. The old saying, “It is the bite, not the fight,” certainly applies.
The fish generally show up in early May and are here in significant numbers by the third week in May. Early in the season the schools can be huge, numbering in the hundreds. Later in the season they break up into smaller pods. By late July the fish have thinned out considerably, but so has the fishing pressure. Fish late in the year don’t show as well but they bite better. These fish are here on their annual spawning run and that is their priority, not feeding. There are days when we are all over the fish and don’t get bit. The next day you might see a school and catch several out of it.
This is as much fish hunting as fishing and certainly requires patience along with the right mindset. It is truly big game fishing, and extremely challenging; there will be unsuccessful days. But, the thrill of hooking and landing a fish over one hundred pounds in clear water sitting just offshore of our pristine beaches makes the time invested worthwhile. Most trips result in at least a couple of fish jumped.
The vast majority of tarpon hooked off the Suncoast beaches are done so using heavy spinning tackle and live bait. A two-three-inch live de-clawed crab is the most popular bait. They cast well, live for quite a long time, and tarpon love them. Live baitfish such as pinfish, threadfin herring, large pilchards, cigar minnows, and blue runners are caught on Sabiki rigs and catch plenty of fish, too.
Boats arrive on-station just before first light and sit quietly a hundred yards off the beach. Clients and guides scan the calm Gulf waters intently, searching for signs of fish. Often times, it is just a subtle disturbance on the surface, and other times there is no mistaking it as a dozen huge fish roll and flash silver on top. Schools that are showing well and moving slowly are the best ones to target. Electric trolling motors are used to position the boat within casting range. The anticipation during these moments is incredibly exciting. If all goes well, the fish pop up within range and the baits are cast out ahead of the fish. When the line gets tight, the fun begins. Battles can last for a few minutes or a few hours.
Catching one of these behemoths is never easy, but getting one on fly is the ultimate angling challenge. Conditions must be just right and a fair amount of skill is required to cast and present the fly. Slow moving schools will take a fly early and mid-season. Later in the season, after the large schools have broken up, the fish are caught on shallow bars near the passes. These fish do not surface but instead are cast to “Keys style.” The dark shapes show up against the white sand and on a good day an angler can expect a couple dozen shots.
If the opportunity presents itself, don’t pass up the chance to experience the thrill of a lifetime—sight casting to giant tarpon!
Capt. Jim Klopfer owns Adventure Charters in Sarasota, FL and has been a fishing guide since 1991. He has a wide variety of angling experience and caters his charters to the experience level of his clients, from catching trout and Spanish mackerel on the flats to sight fishing for giant tarpon on fly. He also offers freshwater trips for bass, bluegill, and snook. He can be reached at (941) 371-1390 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Short version of "Tapâm – a flyfishing journey"
Winner of the 5th Annual Drake Video Awards 2010 "Best Fishing".
Produced by Daniel Göz and Jan Bach Kristensen.
Post production & Design by G+K Film Frankfurt.
Full film available on www.tapamthemovie.com
By Rene Hesse
“If you want to have fun, go to Disneyland,” said my friend and fly casting mentor Peter Lami. “Night fishing for tarpon is serious business, not some fun little fishing trip!” As always, his advice was true. It was time to go fly fishing after months of preparation tying flies, buying gear, day dreaming (and nightmares), planning every aspect, even casting in the dark to sharpen my skills.
It was June and I was ready. I flew in to Key West and drove up the Keys. I got to the house and took a nap; we could be up all night. Peter watched the tide; it was a strong outgoing tide that threatened to push us between the bridge pilings that night. We could be smashed against the bridge, and that could be the end of us. I started thinking that my inflatable life vest would just make me a ‘dry fly’ to a shark, but the tarpon were rolling at the bridge.
I made a cast behind a piling, let it drift, stripped it and boom—the rod shuddered and my body filled with adrenalin. The line was so tight, but I had to wait; don’t set the hook, wait. Line shot off the deck and it was going too fast to scissors strike, so I had to set it against the reel’s drag. As I did, the tarpon jumped and jumped again; she was too fat to get all air, and then all hell broke loose. We cleared the deck, and got a light to figure out where she was going; it was toward the other bridge. Steering the rod to the side is like trying to get a horse to change directions when it doesn’t want to; the fight is like a kids tug of war, arms straight, knees bent and fighting with your legs. Would she go around the piling, should we start the boat or not? The tarpon was starting a run, and I tried to decide whether to go against the drag or palm the reel? As I did, the handle rapped against my knuckles as I misjudged the timing of its acceleration.
After an hour we had the fish to the leader a few times, but as soon as I tried to reach for her she gave a few waves of the tail. I wanted to break off, I was beat, but Peter reminded me “it’s a fish of a lifetime on a fly rod, so hang in there!” It was 3 a.m., and I was face-to-face with a 125-pound beast that I wanted to lift for a photo. I wasn’t sure I had the strength to even lift her, and if I reached down into the black water, would a shark grab me? We were eye-to-eye, and the headlamp made her eye glow a deep amber and her gill plate shined like a mirror. Three miles out into the Atlantic on a full moon night and there wasn’t a ripple on the water. I took the hook from the corner of her mouth and she tilted her body away, as the headlamp made her light up and seem even larger as she swam away.
The best photo of that evening showed the angler soaked in sweat, arms dangling, with a smile that said it all. Hey Peter, secret be known—I had fun.
Now it’ summer and for the next month or so warming water temperatures will dictate changes in our fishing techniques. These changes will vary based upon our location relative to the Mason/Dixon line, but we will be making some tactical changes to accommodate the warmer water. (more…)
“I hooked a tarpon there,” Native guide Chino brags. “It was bigger than me.”
We’re driving south, through reforested teak groves. Workmen thin the trees, hacking, making charcoal—a dirty back-breaking process. After a few days in the wilderness of the Zapata Swamp, then isolated Lake Hanabanilla, Chino is for a return to civilization. For me, the transition needs to be gradual. (more…)
By Capt. Pier Milito
Time and accuracy (quick and accurate) are two components that can make it or break it for anglers when fishing for tarpon on the fly.
Time can be broken down by saying, “Get the fly out in front of the tarpon as quickly as possible,” but only after you have spotted the fish and know which direction, speed, and depth the fish is traveling.