Tarpon, Man, Tarpon

Tarpon, Man, Tarpon

Thoughts on why thye're so mesmerizing.

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
  • , Louis Cahill
  • and Jeff Edvalds
Man Vs. Tarpon

That I ever ended up in the Florida Keys at all was happenstance. Catching a tarpon on the second cast I ever made to those fish, from the bow of a 28-foot cabin cruiser called the Water Lilly, no less, was pure miracle.

But that’s getting ahead of myself. First about the Keys—to be honest, in my 20s I had no interest in saltwater fish, aside from the Northwest’s salmon. I was fixed instead on the northern Rockies and learning those waters better than any trout-bumming author on the planet. My thought process was this: There are too many great trout streams in the Rockies, and too many varied hatches and water conditions, to understand many of them well, let alone to know a few completely. So, why stray?

I wasn’t alone in that opinion—even this magazine’s most popular writer, John Gierach, prefers freshwater to salt and has little desire to throw a line for tarpon or any other sea creature. And I’ve spoken to numerous trout anglers who feel the same way. They’ve mastered some element of the trout game and find success on waters close to their homes. Why, they ask, would they shoot for tarpon when playing that sport requires new equipment, knowledge and patience? Isn’t life difficult enough? Who wants to sweat it out with a 100-pound fish?

That was my mentality, too. But one late-spring evening, when I was living in Ketchum, Idaho and fishing the Wood and Silver Creek on a daily basis, my father, Fred, called and asked, “Hey, do you want to go to the Florida Keys?” I told him about the brown drakes on Silver Creek, but a month later we were seated in first class, taking the red-eye from Seattle to Marathon, answering the flight attendant with, “Yes, yes, I believe we will have a couple more Crown Royals.” We were already sinking into a Caribbean mindset. Fred’s publisher met us at the Marathon airport and skipped the formalities. He said, “Boat’s loaded. Let’s fish.”

Shortly, I had the 8-weight strung and a green Cockroach tied to the leader, and was taking a swig off a gallon of water, when here come two fish across a grass flat toward a channel we were motoring out of.

Fred and the publisher were on the flying bridge (yes, a flying bridge) saying, “They’re tarpon. Cast!” I cast. One tarpon angled toward the fly and ate. A few minutes later I was holding a 50 or 60-pounder. Being a trout guy I thought, That was frickin’ awesome, and wondered, Good God why didn’t I try this tarpon game earlier? Obviously, all you had to do was secure a boat, any boat, then place a fly in front of a fish and those famished beasts would eat. Alas, two years and at least 20,000 casts went by before I brought another tarpon to the boat.

Tarpon aren’t easy. i’ve learned that. Sometimes they’ll eat anything. Other times they’ll abstain, as if an easy, injured meal swimming a foot or two out of their travel lane is too much effort. Sometimes they spook from 50 yards away. Other times they swim right up to the boat like Flipper barking for a mullet. Some people say the fly pattern is everything, but I think it’s more about finding a fish that’s willing to eat.

The latter opinion sank in while I was on my back in Marathon’s Fisherman’s Hospital after 12 days on the water with a blown-out appendix. A local doctor missed the diagnosis and it wasn’t until a neighbor said, “I don’t like your color, I’m calling a doctor friend of mine,” that I was admitted to the emergency room and carved on shortly after. Peritonitis big time.

My nurse was this knockout blonde with a reassuring smile who changed my IV bags and told me about her daily pursuit of tarpon. That first day I managed to ask, condescendingly, “So, which cut are you fishing with bait?” and she said, “Oh, I don’t do that. I’m on the flats with a fly rod.” Talk about love. I was ready to say goodbye to my home in Idaho, abandon my belongings and move in with her. But she flashed a ring. After my release from Fisherman’s, she and her husband invited me over to talk tarpon. They were moving to New Zealand for trout and asked if I wanted a variety of their belongings. I passed on all but a moody photograph of two permit, and a basic, dark-green bucktail fly. Why the fly? Because that dude claimed it would be the only pattern I’d need—he’d crushed tarpon on it from Florida to Belize and all the way back again. And he said, “If they’re eating, they’ll eat this every time. If they’re not, they don’t eat anything.”

The only time I’ve really seen tarpon eat “everything” was during the palolo worm hatch, which occurs throughout the Florida Keys in late spring. It’s a difficult hatch to predict and it’s localized, meaning those worms may emerge in one place, but not anywhere else and the locale may change daily. Luck has a lot to do with finding this hatch, although the top guides are pretty good at predicting its occurrence.

Palolo worms measure a few inches long and swim on or just below the surface. Tarpon target them like crazy and crash the surface as they eat them. Several years ago I interviewed a top tarpon biologist and he thought there may be a substance in those worms that make tarpon “drunk.” If so, that explains their enthusiasm.

When fishing tarpon it’s cool to see them “daisy-chaining,” a behavior where 10, 15, even 20 or more fish turn in a circle, each with its nose almost touching another’s tail. And it’s cool to see a big pack of giant tarpon swimming straight at the boat, a black mass blotting out the white sand bottom. But there’s nothing like watching an area go from freaky dead to alive with tarpon in minutes. That’s what happens during the worm hatch—the fish are nonexistent and then it seems like every tarpon on earth is crashing worms, swimming right up to the boat, not the least concerned with poor casts or imperfect retrieves. While it lasts, typically a couple hours, there may not be a more supercharged fly-fishing experience and there isn’t a better situation to hook your first fish.

I’ve hit that hatch a few times and it’s always an amazing natural event. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the most productive fishing for me. The first time I found tarpon feeding on worms, just north of the Bahia Honda Bridge, I hooked up on a beastly fish, but my rod snapped in half after a five-minute fight. Game over. Another time, the worms came off in modest numbers and the publisher hooked and landed a nice fish. We expected the whole sea to explode with worms the following night and we planned to fish an overlooked spot that locals hadn’t discovered. The fish and the worms would be ours alone. Unfortunately, I began my extended stay in the hospital the next evening, instead of fishing what turned out to be a worm- and tarpon-infested flat. Fred and one of his friends reported that they jumped a couple, lost both. Yet another time we got into the worms and some bite-happy tarpon at Bahia Honda, but those fish broke me off on bridge pilings before I could get my hands on them. Frustrating beyond despair.

You don’t have to go to the florida Keys during spring to find tarpon. And you don’t have to hit the palolo worm hatch to hook them. In fact, tarpon are more widespread than most people believe, with good options occurring nearly year round from Miami to Marathon, south to Cuba, across the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and throughout Central America including, it’s important to note, Belize.

That’s where I hooked the largest tarpon I’ve ever seen, reinforced when my leader snapped and legendary Belizean guide Pops Cabral said, “Beeg. One-ninety, maybe 200 pounds.” I collapsed on a bench with rod over knees, 200 yards of backing and fly line still drifting in the Caribbean. I was regaining strength and trying to make sense of something unbelievable, an event that felt physically overwhelming and psychologically catastrophic.

Time had passed with the clarity people identify in car wrecks, when mere seconds elapse but the mind recalls details as if occurring in slow motion, some sort of time-warp. That big tarpon took in a dark cut, maybe 20 feet from the boat. I had 100 feet of fly line wound around my toes. That fish felt the sting and stripped line out of my hand at an alarming clip before leaping from the water, appearing at the apex as a six-foot-tall stainless-steel sculpture. Somehow I remembered to bow and point the rod at that beast. And I followed Pops’ orders when he said, “Seet ’da hook again! Seet ’da hook!” I was seeting ’da hook and also shaking my left hand, trying to free an index finger from a loop of textured line that could have deeply cut, if not severed, that appendage. But that line wasn’t freeing and coils at my feet rapidly disappeared. The line would come completely taught in an instant. I missed the second jump as I watched a genuine miracle: The last coil ripped away from my toes and the loop of line around my finger relaxed for a millisecond. I looked up and saw deeply angled line in front of the boat. Then I heard another splash and saw my line 80 yards to the left. The tarpon was paralleling a shoreline and heading to oblivion. Wads of backing seemed to free-spool from the reel even though the drag should have stopped a 50hp Merc. I panicked and shouted, “Pops! I’m losing all the line. Pull the anchor!” Pops looked at me calmly, quizzically and said, “Tighten ’da drag. I’m not chasing ’dat one.” I tightened. The fish kept going. With only a few wraps of backing left the leader parted.

Of all the fish I’ve lost in my life—and there are many to choose from—that tarpon stands out, partly because of its size, partly because of the tropical, palm-tree-laden environment where I hooked it, and partly because the whole event was so unexpected—it was August in Belize, hotter than hell, and I was there to chase bonefish and permit. But upon arrival at Turneffe Flats Lodge, owner Craig Hayes told me, “The big tarpon are here right now.” I changed focus and grabbed the 12-weight rod. No doubt I was devastated when I lost that giant tarpon, but later that day I landed a 75-pounder and over the next two days my friend, Dan Summerfield, got his hands on a couple 125-pounders, what he calls his greatest angling achievement. That from a guy who’s caught, oh, maybe 20,000 trout in his life.

To this day I understand why some anglers have no interest in pursuing the silver king, and I forgive myself for being so wound up in trout that I didn’t discover the saltwater fishes until I was almost 30. As they say, what you don’t know can’t hurt you, and that certainly applies to tarpon. Now knowing what I do about tarpon, there’s not another fish I’d rather pursue, and no greater prize to land.

Maybe that’s why our legs tremble when giant tarpon approach, as if fatigued from playing every minute of a three-overtime basketball game. Maybe that’s why we become so flappable and often launch delinquent casts that land 10 feet short or 10 feet too far and blow our targets right off the flats. Maybe that’s why those first moments of a tarpon fight, when it’s all on the line and the outcome is so uncertain—and you’ve never wanted anything as badly as to touch that fish on the end of your line—make us such pathetic wrecks. Maybe that’s why we feel so deflated after losing a tarpon we’ve invested so much in to hook. Maybe that’s why broken tippets, sharks, outboard props, coral, lobster buoys, bridge pilings—all the imaginable ways we could and most often do lose tarpon—are regarded with such condemnation. Maybe we just want tarpon too badly. And that’s why we go back for more pain.

One of these days, I swear, I’m going to throw in the towel and live at least half of the year in an expatriate lifestyle in the Keys or Mexico or Belize. My life will revolve around hucking big for tarpon and catching a few yellowtails or dorado for dinner, to be washed down with Coronas and lime in quantity. This won’t happen tomorrow, maybe never. But it’s a dream coming from a guy who once thought tarpon were overrated and couldn’t see opportunity beyond trout.

Greg Thomas is this magazine’s editor, and he owns the edgy Web site Angler’s Tonic. He lives in Missoula, Montana.