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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14 thoughts on “Tarpon on the Fly: 10 Rookie Mistakes

  1. Yes Kent, you have it clear… most important is to learn from them, correct and keep fishing!
    You made me remember a couple of funny stories…

  2. Great advice for any fishing for large SW fish! A good friend offered similar advice to me when I was preparing for a GT trip. Very glad I followed it. He actually goes to a gym to strengthen his arms and core. Great tip for lots of us and easy to do in the winter. Pays off big time when casting a 12- weight rod.

  3. Some great, useful tips kent. If it all works out, I’ll be in Florida at the end of the month for a couple days chucking flies at poon. I smirked a little bit when I read the first tip “don’t expect to get it done in one or two days”. I know it’s gonna be tough, but that’s all I got so hopefully I’ve got some good fishing karma that I can cash in. I’ve pretty much got my mind set though. My goal for that trip is to at least jump a tarpon. Anything else is just icing on the cake.

    • Justin,

      You’ve got pretty high fish karma so that’s in your favor. Its smart of you to have realistic expectations for your first trip. Hope you get good weather.


  4. Ahhh, the silver king.

    Once you see one engulf your bug, come tight, go airborne, and feel and see the strength of that initial run your mind is blown for the rest of time.

    Been working on my backhand presentation during my casting practice for the last five months with my 12wt. I have found when I try to add additional power through the casting stroke, not only do my loops get wonky and big, sometimes I will tail.

    When I stay calm, let the rod do the work for me, and do not overpower my forward stroke it amazes me at how much more efficient the cast completes. Stay cool and things are good. Great point Kent.

    The only thing I would add is to get a feel of what your tackle is capable of strength wise.
    Test your rod, reel, and leader setup as to for hard you can pull on it.
    Test your reel at different drag settings to get a feel for what you can do as far a pressure is concerned.
    Feel the power from the but of your rod and test your knots on your leaders.

    Besides that, remember it is almost impossible to keep your cool when you pursue a school of big rolling fish or first see a big ‘poon you want to present to. Even if you miss your shot, calm your nerves down and remember that missed shot and getting used to the adrenaline surge will lead an angler to later success.

    You can learn from failure, and not being afraid of it, than you can from easy success.

    Great post, Belize at the end of July (migratory fish hopefully waiting for me), favorite fly fishing blog in the game.


    • LilBuddah,

      Fantastic comment man. Very happy you took the time to leave that comment on this post. Thats the kind of comment that helps out anglers wanting to improve and it strengthened the post.


  5. Good advice on getting used to the heavier rods. I was in belize last month for bones, my first ever cast with a 10wt was at a baby tarpon, needless to say I fluffed it and hooked up with the mangrove!

    Casting the big flies also takes some getting used to. A #6 Christmas island special isn’t that different to many freshwater flies. But casting that 2/0 Black Death was like i was waving a kitten round on the end of the leader.

  6. Awesome articles. In one year, I will be chasing tarpon in Belize. Needless to say, I am pumped.

    I am wanting to get a rod and reel so that I can start practicing my casting.

    Any suggestions?

    • Forgot to add that I am looking at the Nautilus CCF-X2 8/10 on a 10 Wt Scott Tidal, but I am open to suggestions.

      Would a 10 wt be too much for bonefish, redfish, and permit?

      I am open to getting an 8 wt rod if needed.

  7. how should i fish for tarpon if its like a harbor/ lagoon i’m going to st.martin and close to the hotel is a harbor where i think tarpon swim in during the night or morning. so im going to go out when its darker and try to fly fish for tarpon any suggestions

  8. Planning a trip to Tarponville april 2019 looking for all the advice on the do’s and dont’s and tackle selection . This article was great and will be worthy of many rereads before I go .

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