Tarpon on the Fly: 10 Rookie Mistakes

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You’ll never forget the sight of your first tarpon jumping. Photo Louis Cahill

I’ll never forget heading down to the Florida Keys for my first fishing trip for tarpon on the fly.

Cruise control set and adrenaline pumping through my veins, that fifteen hour drive south only felt like it took four hours. My rookie confidence was overflowing, leaving me zero doubt that I had the necessary fishing skills to step up to the challenge of landing a tarpon on the fly. After my first trip was completed and I played it all back in my head, I realized I could have been a whole lot more prepared. My guide Capt. Joel Dickey did his job. He put me on plenty of fish, I hooked up with a couple nice tarpon, but I never landed one because I made too many rookie mistakes on the bow. Below are 10 common mistakes I wished I would have taken the time to read over before I made my first tarpon outing. 

1. Don’t expect to get the job done in one or two days.

It’s always possible to land a tarpon on your first or second day on the water, but it usually takes many more days than that for most. If you want to increase your chances, most guides recommend you book four to seven days. This is mainly for two reasons. The first is that you usually make a lot of mistakes the first day out and that costs you tarpon. Just remember that since you don’t fly fish in saltwater regularly, your first day on the water will be far from your best day during your trip. By booking extra days, you’ll allow yourself to work out the kinks and bring your A-game for the remaining days. Secondly, optimal weather is a key element in success. Just about every time I’ve traveled down for tarpon, we’ve had to cancel one or two days because of foul weather. By booking a couple extra days for tarpon, even if you get a bad weather spell that takes up one or two days of your trip, you’ll still have a day or two leftover to get in some great tarpon fishing.

2. Without a strong backhand cast, you’re cutting your success in half.

When I look back at all shots I’ve had at tarpon on the fly, more than half of them have required a backhand presentation to present my fly to them. For rookie poon heads, this can be a humbling experience if you’ve not taken the time to develop a strong backhand cast. Before you head out on your tarpon trip, make sure you spend significant time practicing this cast so you’ll be better prepared when you get down to tarpon country. Lastly, a strong backhand presentation into the wind is mostly about good technique. A lot of novice fly casters try to use extra power to get the distance needed. Unfortunately, most of the time extra power ends up working against you by opening your casting loops and keeping your rod tip from traveling in a straight line path. Good timing, good form, and a strong double-haul is the key to quality backhand presentations.

3. Strip set, strip set, strip set. No trout set

Tarpon mouths are boney and super tough. Tarpon have proven to be one of the toughest fish for me to get a good hook set on. Like many anglers out there, I blew my first couple tarpon eats because I trout set on the fish. It was painful and I caught hell for it, but like it or not, for many of us it’s just part of the learning process. If you fly fish for trout more than any other fish be ready for this issue to come up during your first tarpon trip. Begin preparing yourself ahead of time by visualizing a correct strip set during your travel down, and it wouldn’t hurt for you to be chanting in your head “no trout set, no trout set”, the first couple of days on the water. Timing the strip set is very important as well. Most anglers would agree you should strip set until you feel the tension of the fish. This will ensure you have zero slack in your line and will be able to get maximum power during the setting process. Furthermore, don’t just strip set once. Hit the tarpon hard, two or three times, until you feel you’ve buried the hook or the tarpon begins screaming off on a powerful run.

4. Fight the tarpon like it slapped your momma

One comment I hear from Joel Dickey is that many of his clients don’t fight the tarpon hard enough after a hook up. I recommend fighting the tarpon like it just slapped your momma. You have to take charge and use the power of your high-end fly tackle to gain the edge if you want to increase your chances at landing these powerful fish. I’d suggest visiting YouTube and watching some of the big name tarpon anglers fighting tarpon so you can better understand what I’m talking about. And by all means, fight the tarpon with butt section of your fly rod for maximum power and crank down your drag tight. My first trip out, I had my drag set far too light and I lost a big tarpon because of it. Try to keep your rod tip pointed at the fish during the fight and don’t be afraid to crank like hell on the reel to bring in line. Listen to your guide, he will be telling you exactly what to do.

5. Don’t be afraid of the wind.

Don’t expect for your tarpon fishing to be on windless days. When you’re fly fishing on the flats you almost always will have windy conditions. Take advantage of windy days prior to your trip and get out in the yard and practice casting. This will help you get more comfortable casting in the wind. Whatever you do, don’t let the wind destroy your confidence. You’ve got to believe in yourself and you’ve got to believe in your fly casting technique. After a while, you’ll learn that wind is just part of the game. The more comfortable you get with it, the more success you’ll find on the flats.

6. Get comfortable Casting your big game fly rods.

So many anglers head down on their first tarpon trip without ever picking up and casting a 10 or 12 weight rod. They get on the saltwater with only fly casting experience with trout rods. Believe me when I tell you that a ten weight rod in your hand feels a whole lot different then a five weight. Spend the necessary time getting your muscles used to casting the heavier rods and reels and you’ll be much more prepared when you get on the flats.

7. Don’t booze too much the night before. 

Fly fishing for tarpon the first time is hard enough with a clear head. The last thing you want to do is show up at the boat ramp with a raging headache and a brain floating in alcohol. Now, you’d think this tip wouldn’t need to be mentioned in this post but tons of anglers get so excited the night before their first tarpon outing, that they suck down far too many alcoholic beverages. Before you booze too much think about how much money you’re spending on your tarpon fishing trip. Even if you can function with a hangover, chances are you’re going to make extra mistakes on the water because of it. Celebrate after you’ve landed your first tarpon, and if the wait is too long to handle, push yourself to drink conservatively. Lastly, showing up with a hangover is looked at by many guides to be an insult, like a slap to the face. If you want them to bring their A-game, you need to bring it as well.

8. Be ready for tarpon fever.

The sight of a 100 plus pound tarpon in the water has been known to fluster the best of fly fisherman. I heard several stories of some phenomenal anglers falling apart on the bow of a big poon heading in their direction. Being prepared for the adrenaline that follows after sighting one of these behemoths will go a long way for keeping you focused and collective on the bow. It’s extremely hard to make accurate presentations if you’ve got tarpon fever. Stay relaxed and keep your confidence. Take a couple deep breaths and listen to the coaching of your guide. This will help you maintain your composure when the shit hits the fan.

9. Pick your guide’s brain on the how to’s of tarpon fishing

Tell your guide a head of time that this is your first tarpon trip. Request a few extra minutes over the phone with him to ask him about things that you can do to help prepare for the upcoming trip. Make a point to have your guide go over situations that you’ll likely see on the water during your tarpon fishing. A good time to do this is during breakfast, the drive to the boat ramp, or the boat ride out to the first flat you’ll be fishing. I’d also strongly suggest that you ask your guide if it would be all right for you to make a few practice casts before you begin the days fishing. This will allow you to get your confidence up, get accustom to the fly rod you’ll be fishing and learn how to get in the proper ready position.

10. Expect flies to be thrown

Tarpon are famous for throwing flies shortly after being hooked on fly. If I remember correctly, I had five tarpon throw my fly before I finally landed one. When this happens to you, don’t let it destroy your morale. Be happy that you made a good cast and got a hook up. That’s more than most fly fisherman will ever be able to say. When it happens, take a minute to ask your guide if you did anything wrong that may have caused it. Then, let it roll off your back and get ready for your next shot at a tarpon. Losing tarpon during jumps is part of the game. The sooner you accept it the better off you’ll be.

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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5 thoughts on “Tarpon on the Fly: 10 Rookie Mistakes

  1. Sounds like Tarpon fishing is a lot like Muskie fishing. Not exactly the same but throwing flies at big toothies sounds like it can get you in the right mindset for chasing the Silver King.

  2. Ha! Tarpon fever! I would be the owner of that one. I have only ever seen one tarpon. It was while bonefishing in Belize, I have never actually targeted tarpon. I was standing on the bow of the panga and the guide and I were just scanning the flat and chatting a little. We looked directly in front of us and about 70 feet out was a tarpon, cruising rather slowly, right toward our bow. The guide began urging me to prepare for a cast. Not a chance. I was mesmerized and paralyzed. As a result, the fish veered a little and swam right down the starboard side of our boat and on its way. We could have reached out and touched it, no exaggeration. I expected a serious tail chewing from the guide and I surely deserved one, but he couldn’t stop laughing.

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