I had already landed two tarpon that morning, and I figured it was time to give Stilwell the opportunity to do something he rarely gets a chance to do -hook and battle a monster silver king.
"Kelly," I said, "how does it feel to know that as soon as that fly hits the water it's going to be inhaled."
He quietly said, "Awesome."
It had been a good day in the Gulf of Mexico just off Casey Key, a barrier island between Sarasota and Venice. The tarpon were plentiful and very cooperative. And it appeared the day was going to get even better.
When in casting range, Stilwell made a couple of false casts, then sent the white tarpon fly on a 4/0 hook toward the school. It landed softly just ahead of the fish. Using an intermediate line, Stilwell let the fly sink for a moment before he began retrieving it in slow strips.
He had made four strips when a silvery tarpon rolled on the fly, inhaling it as it performed an underwater gulf somersault. Stilwell waited until he felt the tarpon's weight, then set the hook with his line hand and drove it home some more by sweeping the rod to his right several times. And when the tarpon took off, he cleared the line and settled in for the battle.
This time, Stilwell was the master, defeating the tarpon one hour and six jumps later. I slipped the release gaff into the fish's mouth, then snapped a couple of photos of Stilwell and his prize. After that, we worked some water through the fish's gills, then released it and watched it swim away.
Unbeknownst to many, the inshore Gulf of Mexico off Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties along Florida's west coast offers perhaps the finest tarpon fishing you've never heard of. When people think of tarpon, they envision the Florida Keys, Boca Grande or Homosassa. Yet, the inshore gulf in our area is about as good as it gets.
The tarpon show up in mid to late May, and they remain into July. They'll school along the beaches until they spawn; then they'll split apart, hang around for a week or so before they move north.
The fishing really is pretty simple. Anglers hang out in known tarpon areas and wait for the schools to roll on the surface. When they find a school, they'll maneuver into position with an electric trolling motor. The trick is to get close enough to the school to make a cast. Favored local spots include Bean Point off Anna Maria Island, off old Midnight Pass on Siesta Key, Grassy Point off Casey Key, just south of the Venice Pier and off Stump Pass.
Live bait, lures and flies all will take tarpon. Live-baiters use stout, 7 1/2- to 8-foot spinning rods, large reels and 30-pound monofilament. In addition, they'll employ a 3-foot length of 80- or 100-pound test mono as shock leader. Owner hooks (5/0) are a good choice.
There's little doubt that small live crabs are the top bait. However, pinfish, finger mullet, Spanish sardines, threadfin herring and cigar minnows work well. All (except mullet and crabs) can be caught on Sabiki rigs. The mullet must be netted. You can purchase crabs at local bait shops for about $18 a dozen.
Top lure choices include jigs, MirrOlures, jumbo DOA Shrimp and a variety of topwater plugs.
Tarpon eat flies like candy. Top patterns include Black Death, Purple Death, Cockroach and white Deceiver.
For tarpon, a 12-weight fly rod is a must. Gulf tarpon are large and mean, and you need a tool that's up to the task. Intermediate or sinktip lines help get the fly down. Your reel should have a smooth drag.
Most of the action takes place in 12 to 30 feet of water. Even though it's deep, you'll find the fish on the surface on most occasions. Schools usually are found when the fish roll on the surface to gulp air (they have primitive air bladders). And it's good to know that not all of the fish will be on the surface. There will be plenty of tarpon below those fish on the surface. However, there are times when they show up simply as dark masses in the Gulf. That's where a quality pair of polarized sunglasses and long-billed cap come into play.
I do seminars throughout Florida, and I've told hundreds of anglers that tarpon are perhaps the easiest of all saltwater fish to fool with a fly. But, I always emphasize that I didn't say they were the easiest to defeat. When you hook up, be prepared to do battle for 40 minutes or more.
Be advised, though, some tarpon you'll never land. The late Joe Brooks called them rogue fish in his great book, Saltwater Game Fishing. Doesn't matter if they're 70 or 170 pounds, you won't land them.
That happened to me one day off Englewood, when I hooked a tarpon on a fly. I fought the fish for about a half hour, then turned it over to guide Roy String so that I could snap a few photos. String, who is strong as a bull, leaned hard on that fish, but couldn't make any headway. After nearly two hours, he broke that tarpon off.
Four years ago, while fishing with guide Rick Grassett, I hooked a tarpon at 8:05 a.m. on spinning tackle and fought it for a little more than 8 hours before the leader broke. I never would have subjected the tarpon to that type of battle, but I was in a tournament and that fish was the winner. I'm sure that fish was better off than me when the ordeal ended some 7 miles offshore. The trick is to find the tarpon schools. Some anglers rely on others to find their fish for them. They'll wait until another boat finds a school, then move in on it. This just isn't the way it's done. Some anglers will simply crank up their engines and run through the school when that happens.
The best area to fish is between Sarasota and Venice off Casey Key. And that's where you find most of the boats. So, in recent years, I've found that by moving away from the pack I have more success. I've fished the area from Longboat Pass to Anna Maria Island and have done extremely well. There doesn't seem to be as many fish, but there's a whole lot less pressure. Nearly all tarpon are released. In Florida, you must have a tarpon tag ($50 from the state) in order to keep one. However, if you want a mount, most taxidermists would be more than happy to provide you with a fiberglass reproduction. Just supply him with the fish's length and girth.
Catching a trophy tarpon is no big deal in the local inshore Gulf of Mexico. On most occasions, it's almost guaranteed.
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