Tarpon On The Fringe

These fish are on the edge of civilization in Southwest Florida!

On The Fly Saltwater

March 2022

by Polly Dean

Photos by Jimmy Jacobs

As one drives south on the west coast of Florida, solid ground begins to give way to a labyrinth of mangroves and water known as the Ten Thousand Islands. The traffic congestion and high-rises of Florida fade into tiny pools of civilization – refugees from the shine and glitz of the mainland.

The beaches and high rises of Marco Island provide a jumping off point for the Ten Thousand Islands.

The “silver kings” that inhabit the shallow waters meandering through this maze of islands are a major reason anglers from all over the world converge on these remote waters. Tarpon of from 60 to well over 150 pounds can be found within yards of the white sand beaches and throughout the winding mangrove channels.

Easing along the shoreline we scanned the surface for the appearance of the distinct dorsal fins breaking the surface, or dark shadows beneath the shallow water that give the presence of the species away. Standing on the deck of the boat with fly rod in one hand and fly in the other, we “hunt” the fish.

The tarpon often appear as dark shadows in these shallow waters.

A tarpon we estimate to be about 80 pounds rolls, giving away his location. It is out of reach for a cast, so we ease the boat closer. My blood is pumping while preparing to make the cast. Then, the fish is gone. This scenario plays out several more times. These silver giants are so close, yet so elusive.

Captain Ken Chambers grew up fishing on nearby Marco Island and has been guiding since 2000. As a teenager he picked up a fly rod for the extra challenge.

“The beauty of tarpon fishing is that it is mostly sight-fishing,” Capt. Chambers said. “Fly fishing in saltwater is awesome, but there’s nothing that compares to sight-fishing with a fly. The whole process is more exciting. Rather than trolling or blind-casting, you are actually stalking the fish.

Once hooked, tarpon immediately take to the air.

 “The draw to the sport is the adrenaline rush when you go from boredom to chaos in about a second,” he added. “You make a cast to something that weighs as much as the angler – it erupts on a fly that is 2 inches long and made out of feathers. There’s a heck of a lot of power right there!”

But, finding the fish is the first order of business. “Calm, clean water is the No. 1 thing to look for. That is where the fish seem more active near the surface,” Capt. Chambers explained. “And if you’re fly fishing, you’re generally not doing it in deep water. In this area if conditions are murky, one can generally move to another island or channel and find clear water.”

The author following the captain’s instructions to locate the silver king.

High tides aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but in the mangroves, it can make a difference. It is more difficult to see the tarpon, as they have more places to hide. The fish are easier to see when the tide is low. Move only 100 yards out towards the Gulf, and the tides are irrelevant, according to the captain.

The migration of tarpon peaks in the months of March through June with a number of resident fish remaining in the area year-round. If fishing outside the peak months, it is a hit-or-miss fishery, but can be as good as any spring day, if conditions are right. Captain Chambers recalled a week in mid-December where the tarpon fishing was outstanding because of unseasonably warm temperatures and calm winds.

The captain recommends throwing a 10- or 11-weight rod. The heavier rod is better for fighting the fish, but if it is too heavy to cast, go with the 10-weight. In these waters, Chambers also leans towards the smaller flies. A favorite fly is a 2 ½-inch black and purple Tarpon Toad, tied on a 2/0 or 3/0 short shank hook. If the water is especially clear he goes with a lighter tan pattern. He keeps the flies light-weight for easier casting.

A 2 1/2-inch Tarpon Toad is Capt. Chambers’ go-to fly.

These tarpon aren’t feeding on shrimp or crabs as much as those in other locations. They are feeding on mullet, sardines and herring.

If there is anything one can do to better prepare themselves for a successful tarpon outing, it would be to practice before hitting the water. “It’s all about presentation and putting the fly in exactly the right spot and doing it quickly,” Capt. Chambers pointed out. “When the fish rolls at the 10 o’clock position at 30 yards out, every second that you lose because your fly is in the air – whether it’s false casting or whatever – your odds are going down, down, down.

“So practice double hauling and practice in the wind. The best tarpon fishing takes place in the spring and in Florida there’s going to be wind,” he concluded.

Capt. Ken Chambers can be contacted at Backcounty Guide Service.

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