Gary Meyer | Tuesday, 16 June 2020

It seemed like months since I had a real fishing trip… and essentially it had been. After multiple rain events, and their associated heat and humidity, finally a decent day of dry weather appeared on my radar screen. The problem was, I had some issues with the van and I was afraid to drive upon the highways. What was I to do? Call a fishing buddy, make some improbable predictions, and suggest we go fishing, of course.

My first inclination was to hit a certain backcountry lake, as I suspected the small tarpon fishing would be good. That last non-fishing exploration to the Park had me thinking, after all the recent rains, the stagnant puddles amongst all the deteriorating trees would be weeping out into the open waters. Those anoxic waters would induce the tarpon to roll, while the lake itself might be full of early summer weeds, which would further concentrate the fish. But, for some reason fishing buddy seemed hesitant to go there (the sissy). So, instead, I suggested a trip to a remote open water bay to look for slightly bigger tarpon.


While pulling all the necessary stuff together, I spent a good amount of time debating which flyrods to bring. It was a tough decision. Two anglers in a canoe, with all their gear and a cooler does not leave room for multiple rods. I wanted to test a 12wt rod I got from Paul, but if the larger tarpon did not show I would be down to one small rod. Eventually I settled on a 6wt (NRX) and an 8 (Orvis). The lighter one would be good for all the little stuff. The 8 was the real tough decision: I wanted a heavier rod in case we got lucky and the tarpon were actually in the bay, but I also wanted to beta a new 8 wt floating line. With the latter line I envisioned tossing small pencil poppers into the mangroves. And, if, by any luck, the tarpon were actually there, well then I would just have to cast the tarpon flies with the 8.


The pessimist in me whispered, “Heat, bugs and difficult creeks”, and he turned out to be almost right – except for, surprisingly, the bugs! Of course I was completely over-prepared for them, and accordingly their concentration was near the minimum for an early summer after quite a bit of rain. True, the day turned out to be hot, but not unbearably hot. Both of us would comment upon the milder than expected weather during the day. Not that I didn’t sweat eventually, but the relatively minor winds and the patchwork of clouds later in the morning worked in tandem to moderate the heat. The day was actually very tolerable.


In turned out my canoe partner was not willing to attempt reaching our destination the old fashion way: through the creeks. And he was right. In the creeks, the sobering reality of tree mortality after the hurricane of 2017 is still evident. Despite a lot of regrowth, which could possibly be fueled by the increase in nutrients from all the decomposition, the old-growth larger trees that succumbed continue to fall across the path, and will likely due so for many years to come. Those that do not directly inhibit passage are ominously leaning widow-makers with their inherent pucker factor. They promise doubtless future problems.


So we opted for a more friendly route, longer for sure, but with few obstacles other than the boredom of a long slow ride… if you could call a trip through the ‘glades boring. Along the way we stopped at a few obvious spots and enjoyed releasing small snook and seatrout from our lighter rods. Ignoring pleas to work some flats and sight fish, I pushed on (I was driving) with the glimmer of hope we would find some better tarpon.


As soon as we could see the promised land we could tell there were some porpoise rolling, and maybe, just maybe, tarpon. The further up we got, the better things looked, and eventually it became apparent that we really had found some nice backcountry tarpon. Actually we found more tarpon than I had seen there in many, many years. The place is accessible by boat, but the captain better know his stuff, and most boats have to get out before low tide or plan on staying through the tide change. Being deeper than most all the surrounding waters, the tarpon concentrate there at the bottom of the tide. And, of course, all I had to fish for them was the 8wt.


We rigged up and quietly paddled the canoe into place, just up current from the largest concentration of rolling fish. Few people realize it, but a canoe is the possibly the best platform for just this type of fishing. Tarpon get a lot of attention, especially the “local” fish that remain in the area instead of migrating. They are quite sensitive to electric motors or the hull slap of flats boats. Wiley old-timer tarpon nuts go as far as replacing the hard tips of their push poles with the wooden crotch cut from a guava tree. The wood makes much less noise when it contacts a hard bottom.


The first nip and swirl next to the canoe brought a smile. The next two tentative eats were further encouraging, but then I had to deal with a slime cat. But, eventually it happened. The fish ate and went on a series of quick jumps. It was an impressive fish but not a monster, I would say a bit above 50#s. After another series of three jumps in a row my line went slack, having sling-shotted back at me after a close jump (see photo). I was not at all disappointed. It is not uncommon for the hook to pull or the leader to break on jumps. I proclaimed the fish was gone. However, as I reeled in, I realized I was still attached to the fish, it had just run toward and under the canoe. The fight was still on! That fish put on a very showy fight. Running and going into sets of multiple jumps in a row, and many quite near the canoe. My partner apologized for what he thought were poor photos, but the truth is, it is hard to catch one in flight. The bummer is I had my video camera and hat strap with me. I just did not think to get it out. Despite the 8wt rod, I brought the fish to canoe side in respectable time where I deemed it caught and broke it off.


After that I essentially played guide. I paddled into the vicinity of rolling fish and let the other angler cast. Soon, he too had a fish in the air, and after a much longer fight, it too came to the side. I suspect it was his first decent tarpon on fly, although he never admitted to it. Nor did he mention that it was bigger or smaller than any other he had landed… the tell.


If you look at the attached photos, the guy in the blue shirt is your’s truly. Looking closely, you will see the dimples the tarpon had made on the surface when it jumped, and that my rod is perfectly straight. I don’t know if it will show, but you might also see that the rod (and I) are draped in slack flyline. The fish had originally run straight away, but suddenly doubled back and jumped three times in quick succession, each jump getting closer to the canoe. On the last jump, all the line that was in the belly created by the U-turn came flying out of the water. When a tarpon is dancing toward you like that, if you had time to think, you would have to choose between, “Wow!” and “Oh Shit!, but you don’t have that much time.


If you look at the other angler you will see someone fighting a tarpon the way most novices do at first, but it is completely wrong. That high deeply bent rod put very little strain on the fish. Tarpon have pectoral and anal fins that are essentially small wings. All they have to do is tilt them down a bit and wag their tail, and that high rod might as well be trying to pull up a large planar. Now, if the angler were to drop that rod down to the surface, and pull directly back, instead of trying to lift the fish, the force is concentrated on stopping forward movement. If you use some basic trigonometry you can see that, with a high rod, only a small portion of that minimal bent-rod pressure is working against the fish’s forward motion. The majority is attempting to lift the fish. This is one reason why so many anglers fight tarpon for much longer than is necessary.


In the less clear photo of the fish in the water, one thing that stands out is the white scar on the fish’s “shoulder”. That scar was caused by the fight. It indicates a leader that was laid back along the top and side of the fish, actually picking scales off during the fight. That fish was “landed” in about ¼ the time as the other.