GIANT TARPON IN KEY WEST / BY CAPT ARTHUR SCHMIDT / 2004

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. 

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.

FLY FISHING GUIDE ON THE FLATS
FOR TARPON, REDFISH, SNOOK, PERMIT, COBIA IN MATLACHA, PINE ISLAND SOUND, CAYO COSTA, SANIBEL, CAPTIVA, CABBAGE KEY, USEPPA ISLAND, NORTH CAPTIVA