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Article About Fly Fishing Giant Tarpon in Key West

Tribute to Daddy Mac Miller



Giant Tarpon in Key West / by Capt Art Schmidt


     4:30 AM, the weather is balmy and calm as I load the rods, cooler and other necessities for fly fishing on my flats skiff. I’m eager to get going, anticipating the day to come. I am thinking to myself as I go about my work, already sweating, that this looks like a good morning for tarpon, one where the fish will be happy and the chances for fooling one with a small hook with some feathers tied on it are good, it just feels right.  Finally, when everything is ready, we cast off from the dock on a canal in Key West near Garrison Bight and idle out. Once clear of the idle zone, I push forward on the throttle of Mood Indigo, my sweet 16 foot Silver King skiff custom made for me by the legendary Mark Scott.  In the predawn darkness, a gentle easterly breeze flows across the bay.  The boat planes smoothly, and we head out with the hope of finding happy tarpon in the still water of the dawn.  My longtime friend and fishing client “Daddy Mac” Miller is beside me in the skiff.  As we motor across the shallow water on the way to our first stop of the day, we share a laugh about being out on “dawn patrol” yet again.  This is our favorite time of the day -- the heady anticipation of a beautiful sunrise and best of all, finding calm, laid-up tarpon. Happy tarpon are fish that we dream about, high in the water column, moving about slowly, perhaps daisy chaining, these are the fish you want to find – They tend to eat a well placed fly.    


     We approach a promising area where I know tarpon to hole up overnight and shut down a half mile away so the motor noise will not spook these fish that are just beginning to move. As a guide, I look for tarpon in out of the way places, ones where they are likely to be happy, not as pressured, and where there is not much boat traffic. These off the beaten path locations are often well worth the time it takes to find them as everyone knows that tarpon

are under a lot of fishing pressure and are getting harder to feed all the time. Spend some time hunting in the backcountry and you too will find great rewards in fishing these hidey hole locations. Stopping at distance of a half mile away from the flat you intend to fish is important. Run the boat with the engine to close and the fish will likely be nervous and spooky. Pole the boat in quietly and you will find happy fish that are undisturbed.


     Mood Indigo is rigged with two stern mounted trolling motors that I control from the poling platform. I hit the footswitch for the electric motors to quietly ease our way into the shallow basin, and from my vantage point on the platform, I can see 50 to 75 of these enormous fish milling about in the distance.  I shut down the electrics and pole silently forward.  As we are nearing casting distance, I stop poling, and we slowly drift with the tide towards the fish that all appear to be well over 100 pounds.  I wonder about what must be in their genetic code that brings these giant tarpon in such numbers to a shallow area so close to downtown Key West that I can see the outline of the buildings in the darkness.


     The early morning light is coloring the eastern sky subtle shades of pink and orange.  Mac sits on the casting platform.  He ties on a small green fly, his own variation of the toad, a popular tarpon fly. This version is very light green in color with some crystal flash and small lead eyes. Mac also ties the rabbit strip upside down figuring that the tarpon will most likely be looking slightly upward when it sees the fly as it is stripped. He stretches the fly line, coiling it just so on the deck.  Daddy Mac is one of my favorite clients.  An accomplished angler, Mac held the 12-lb. fly rod world record for tarpon in 1964.   In fact, that fish was caught just a few islands north of us in Coupon Bight with Capt. George Hommel, one of the early pioneers of fly fishing in the Florida Keys. 


World Record Tarpon Florida Keys 1964


     When I get Mood Indigo in position, I know Daddy Mac can make the delicate presentation required for laid up fish and tease a tarpon into eating it. My heart begins to race as the excitement builds.


      Mac is ready, with the hammer cocked, to take a shot at the beautiful giants, megalops atlanticus, commonly known as tarpon.   These fish date from prehistoric times and have remained relatively unchanged for millions of years.  Though not much research has been done on these incredible game fish, the Florida Marine Research Institute is currently conducting DNA sampling in order to learn more about these magnificent fish, which have such a huge economic impact on the state of Florida.


Somebody once asked Drew Moret in Islamorada what it takes to catch a 100-pound tarpon on fly tackle. His answer: $30,000. That's about right. But then again, like his dad, Sandy, says: "If it was easy, it wouldn't be any fun."

(from Fly Fishing in Saltwaters Magazine – “Fly Fishing Editors Blog.”  Thursday, April 19, 2007, Chasing Tarpon)


     $30,000 …..sounds like a lot of money to catch a fish, but when you stop and think about it, at $25,000 or so for the guides boat, the guides investment in tackle, the cost of hiring a guide, your travel and accommodations - - fly fishing for tarpon is not cheap.


     Guides like me who make a living pursuing tarpon make it our business to know their habits, and we can predict well where they will be and the best fly to use based on the conditions of the day.  Watching 165 pound fish bobbing around nearly motionless with their fins sticking up out of the water will get your heart pounding and adrenaline flowing.  At this moment, it is imperative to remain focused, choose your target, concentrate on that fish, cast so the fly lands softly in front of her so she will respond to a slight twitch. (most 150lb + tarpon are females)


     We’re in perfect position, and Mac makes his first cast.  The fly rolls out of the soft, wide loop and lands with a gentle plop three feet in front of several fish.  A couple of twitches of the fly, and we see a huge fish light up.  With one swift motion of her massive tail, she takes the fly so quickly Mac gasps.  It doesn’t matter how many of these fish you’ve ever caught.  It always takes your breath away.   Mac instantly collects himself and waits a second or two - until he can feel the connection between rod and fish – to set the hook.  Many an angler has lost the chance to land a prize by trying to set the hook too quickly.  The inside of a tarpon’s mouth resembles the texture of a cinder block, getting a hook to penetrate and hold tight requires a strong strike and a little bit of luck,    


     The fish turns swiftly and comes tight, and Mac strip strikes with the fly line hard so that the razor-sharp hook locks into the tarpon’s bony jaw, landing square in the corner of her mouth.   The tarpon leaps six feet in the air, crashes down and takes off for deep water.  The reel screams as the fly line disappears into the dark, and the game is on.  It is just now 6:10 AM, and the sun has just barely begun to brighten the horizon. The wild fish slows and Mac strikes hard with the fly rod several times to be sure the hook is set well, and the battle begins.


    Tarpon season is my favorite time of the year, beginning in spring and lasting for several months as these fish migrate along the coast and move into the backcountry.


     The first few seconds with a tarpon on fly tackle are the most exciting.  The reel is nearly smoking as the line peels away with lightning speed.  I quickly crank up the electrics on high to try to keep up with her, and we both hope she decides to turn before we reach the end of the spool.  I rig my tackle with 300 yards of backing, enough for almost any fish, but there’s always a rogue that will teach you a hard lesson.  But today the Fates are with us, the wild fish slows and we close the distance getting the fly line back on the reel.  She makes another quick run and leaps again, wildly shaking, trying to free herself from the sharp hook in her mouth.  We get close, and Mac applies pressure and uses the down and dirty pulling hard.  With all the strength he can muster, he uses the fly rod to turn the fish over twice in the first 15 minutes. I believe in pressuring these fish hard right from the beginning.  Having a tarpon hooked for an hour or more does no good for the fish and can compromise her chances for survival.  Victory is within our grasp.  Another five minutes, and she’s given up the fight.  As we pull this beauty boat-side, we get our first good look at our catch.  At nearly half the length of the boat, we estimate she’d tip the scales at close to 160 pounds.  Not bad for the first cast of the day!  It pays to start early!  


     With this giant laying calmly beside the boat, we unhook the fly and take a couple of quick photos.  I then steady the tarpon in the water as Mac turns the electrics on, and we take great care to revive her.  We’re prepared to give her the time she needs, and within a couple of minutes, she regains her strength, quivers, shakes, and swims away.  It’s a great start to the day, and we sit quietly for awhile, as the crimson sky gives way to the brilliant morning sun, contemplating how lucky we are to be here and to be close to a truly remarkable wild creature, the giant tarpon.