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This angler’s guide will give you a good introduction about fly fishing for tarpon. I’ve been fly fishing for 22 years and have caught some spectacular fish. But none, dare I say not even the giant trevally, come close to tarpon.
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The size, the endurance, the jumps, and the fight set them apart from anything else swimming in the sea. They are in a league of their own. The anglers who have been fortunate enough to dance with these creatures keep coming back for more.
I have hosted trips, guided, and fished for tarpon myself. In this article, I’ll share with you where to start, what equipment works, and some tips and tricks to increase your learning curve.
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What is Tarpon Fishing?
There are two species of tarpon in the world. The Indo-Pacific tarpon (Megalops cyprinoides) and the Atlantic tarpon (Megalops atlanticus). The former is a relatively small fish that resembles its bigger brother.
By far the most popular and targeted species is the Atlantic tarpon. According to IGFA (International Game Fish Association), the current all-tackle record is just over 286lb.
Tarpon are large, eat flies readily and offer a relatively clean fight. After they are hooked, they give an incredible aerial display, sometimes jumping more than 10-feet in the air. This is what makes them one of the most pursued game fish on fly in the world.
Best Tarpon Flies
The choice of tarpon flies, similar to any fly intended to be presented for any fish, is a personal preference. Every guide and angler has their own little “secrets”. This section will go through some of the most popular tarpon flies of all time.
The EP Baitfish was developed by Enrico Puglisi using his popular EP fibers. These synthetic fibers allow the tier to sculpt and trim the fly to any desired shape or form. The fibers do not absorb water, making for an easy to cast the fly.
The synthetic fibers are very durable. This attribute ensures that the stick-on eyes will remain secure. The EP baitfish also sinks much slower than other natural material flies. This will allow you to present the fly much farther ahead of the fish as it stays in the zone much longer.
EP Baitfish for tarpon may be tied on hook sizes ranging from 1/0 to 4/0. Use dark-colored flies in low light conditions and dirty water. Good color combinations for dark flies include black and purple, black and red, and brown.
For clean water and sunny days, stick to natural colored flies resembling real baitfish, shrimp, or squid. In this case, I prefer chartreuse and white, yellow and white, and olive and white.
Fly Fishing for Tarpon with the EP Baitfish
As mentioned earlier, the slow sink rates make it possible to present the fly well in advance of the incoming fish. This gives you some time to adjust the positioning of the fly and take up any slack.
If you’re fishing to laid up tarpon (tarpon just sitting still high up in the water), the EP brush works well as it lands quite softly.
Once the fish is relatively close to the fly, long slow strips are required until the fish notices the fly. If the fish’ body language changes and charges the fly, move the fly faster, mimicking a fleeing baitfish.
The Tarpon Mouse, or Tarpon Slider as it’s also known, is an excellent fly if the fish are feeding near or on the surface. The inclusion of a deer hair collar and head ensures that the fly remains buoyant.
On these flies, I recommend using a wide gape hook. The larger gape will increase the hookup rates when fish come from underneath and eat the fly. Good hook choices include the Gamakatsu SL12s and the Owner Aki. The latter is an expensive hook, but very sharp and strong.
Good colors to keep in your tarpon box are black and red, black and purple, and black and chartreuse for off-colored water. For clean water, tan and white and, olive and white, and chartreuse and white work well.
On light-colored flies, bar the tail with a permanent marker to resemble the barring on a baitfish’s back or the segments of a prawn. You can also include some flash material in the tail, especially in the dark-colored flies.
Fly Fishing for Tarpon with the Mouse
The Tarpon Mouse is a great fly if tarpon is smashing bait or cruising below the surface of the water. I like fishing the Mouse with a sinking fly line. Every strip will allow the fly to dive downwards.
In his book High Rollers, Bill Bishop describes his favorite method to retrieve the Mouse. He prefers using short subtle strips.
This classic tarpon fly is still as relevant today as it was in the past. Its lightweight makes it easy to cast. The natural materials used in the fly with the splayed-out technique to secure the tail, give the Cockroach incredible movement in the water.
This fly is generally tied on small size 1/0 and 2/0 hooks. I recommend Owner Aki, Gamakatsu SC15 or SC17, and TMC 600SP. A wide range of colors can be tied including black, brown, tan, and chartreuse.
Fly Fishing for Tarpon with the Cockroach
These flies can be cast at sighted fish or blind cast in murky water. Once the cast is made, the fly is retrieved quite slow. The natural fibers and look of the fly resembles a shrimp or squid.
The Tarpon Bunny closely resembles the Cockroach. The tying process is basically the same, however, the materials used are different. The Tarpon Bunny includes a proper piece of zonker strip as the tail.
This tail gives the fly incredible movement. In essence, the Tarpon Bunny is a large version of the Bunny Leech freshwater fly.
The best sizes include 1/0 and 2/0, but I have had great success on this fly in Costa Rica using 6/0 hooks. The fish in that system seemed less picky and having the wider gape on the hook ensured I had good, solid hookups.
Fly Fishing for Tarpon with the Tarpon Bunny
The retrieve for the Tarpon Bunny may be varied. Long, slow strips will allow the zonker strip to move naturally imitating a small bait fish or squid swimming along. Short, jerky strips will allow the fly to dart erratically mimicking an injured baitfish.
The Tarpon Toad is a highly modified Merkin. The Toad uses the same technique for creating the flat body, but it’s trimmed slightly narrower. The Toad also includes either a zonker strip or marabou tail.
As with most of the flies in this section, the Toad has been around for over 50 years. It still produces fish. What makes the Toad so unique is the flat synthetic material body. It allows the fly to swim in a straight plane hovering in the water between strips.
The wide head also resembles a toadfish which tarpon often prey on. The fly is best tied in hook sizes ranging from 2/0 to 4/0. Good colors include white and chartreuse, tan and white, and brown.
Fly Fishing for Tarpon with the Tarpon Toad
The Tarpon Toad’s flat head makes it hover in the water between strips. Similarly to the EP baitfish, this could buy you some time when you’re waiting for the fish to approach the fly.
Use this fly in conjunction with long strips. Allow the fly to rest and suspend freely in the water between strips. Once the fish reacts to the fly, speed the retrieve up with no pause in between.
Best Gear for Tarpon Fly Fishing
Tarpon size can vary quite drastically. Targeting a 200lber requires completely different gear and setups than casting to 20lb fish in the mangroves. This section will cover most of the popular gear choices for tarpon and share some of my experiences.
For most smaller Tarpon applications (sub 100lb fish), a 10 or 11-weight rod is ideal. These rods work particularly well if you’re fishing IGFA compliant leaders with light breaking strain shock tippets (16 or 20lb). A 10-weight rod, in conjunction with the two Bimini twists, protects these light tippets sizes.
When you’re targeting larger fish a 12-weight rod is necessary. Now, a 12 is by no means an easy casting rod. However, once you hook into a sizable fish, you’ll be happy to have the extra backbone. It also makes the fight shorter which, at the end of the day, is better for the fish.
In some areas, you find a high concentration of extremely large fish. Areas such as Costa Rica in Central America and Gabon in Western Africa. Hooking into 180lb+ fish is almost guaranteed. In these cases, it might even be better using a 14-weight rod.
Whatever weight rod you end up choosing, make sure to practice with it as much as you can. Being able to cast a fly 90-feet with 3 backcasts will greatly increase your chances and make your guide’s life easier. At the end of the day, you’ll catch more fish.
If you’re unsure of which rods to look for, head over to the article I wrote on the 5 Best Saltwater Fly Rods. In the article, I cover some considerations to be kept in mind when selecting a good saltwater stick.
Some of the best rods for Tarpon include:
In my experience, tarpon are quite clean fighters. Unlike giant trevally that heads for the nearest piece of coral or structure, tarpon can be allowed to run. For this reason, the perfect tarpon reel should have good backing capacity and an incredibly smooth drag.
If you’re fishing with IGFA leaders, smooth drag is even more important. A slight increase in drag tension will cause the class tippet to pop. This is not something you’ll be happy about, especially when you’ve been looking for tarpon most of the day.
Match the weight and size of the reel to the rod weight you’re using. For large tarpon, ensure that the reel can accommodate at least 300 yards of the chosen backing. If you’re looking for more information on selecting the best saltwater reel, head over to my article about the Top 5 Best Saltwater Reels (2020 Buyer’s Guide).
In my opinion, the best tarpon reels are:
- Shilton SL7 or SL8 (the latter for extremely large specimens)
- Mako 9600B or 9700B
- Nautilus NV Monster
- Hatch Finatic 12 Plus Gen 2
- Tibor Pacific
As mentioned above, the backing capacity of the reel should be at least 300 yards. There are many different backing materials and manufacturers on the market. To keep my saltwater kit simple, I use 80lb casting braid on my 11-weights and up.
The reason I choose 80lb braid is that it is relatively thin, it has good abrasion resistance, and you can pull like mad on it. In most cases, the fly line or leader will break before the backing does.
Make sure the backing is wound onto the reel really tight. This will prevent the backing from cutting into itself when a fish is running.
Backing that I’ve used and feel comfortable recommending are:
There are many great tarpon lines on the market. For a flats scenario, I recommend fishing with either a floating or intermediate line. For river mouths and blind casting for tarpon, I recommend using a fast sinking line. Especially when the water is off-color.
Match the weighted line rating of the fly line to the rod you are using. Also, make sure that after you’ve spooled the backing and fly line on the reel, the line doesn’t rub against the cage of the reel. This will damage the line and probably lose you a fish.
Some of the best lines in the business include:
- Scientific Anglers Amplitude Tarpon (floating line)
- Scientific Anglers Sonar Titan Big Water Taper Max Sink (sinking line)
- Cortland Tarpon Taper Liquid Crystal (floating)
- Rio Tarpon Quick Shooter
Leader and Tippet
Leader construction for tarpon can be as complex as you want it to be. There are two main sides of the camp. The first are anglers who fish IGFA compliant tarpon leaders and the other are anglers who simply fish leaders that catch fish.
In both cases, the bite leader can be made from fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon has superior abrasion resistance when compared to monofilament.
IGFA compliant leaders are made from a 7-foot butt section (usually 50lb monofilament or fluorocarbon). Attached to the butt section is a minimum of 15 inches of class tippet. The class tippet usually has a breaking strain of 16 or 20lb and is protected by two Bimini twists.
The leader is finished off with a bite leader of 80lb with a maximum length of 12-inches. The purpose of the bite leader is to provide abrasion resistance. Tarpon have hard mouths that are tough on leaders.
If you’re fishing in dirty runoffs after a rain spell, the water clarity will help you shroud the leader. In these cases, especially when targeting really big fish, it is possible to fish a straight leader of 80lb or more.
Tarpon Fly Fishing Conditions
Tarpon may be successfully targeted in many different locations. They can be found in pristine clear blue water cruising over white sand flats and turtle grass. Often, they can be found in river mouths or dirty water.
Tarpon are able to cope with very low salinity water. There are locations where they can be found in completely freshwater miles and miles from the sea. Here are some of the most exciting scenarios to target tarpon.
Fly Fishing for Tarpon in Mangroves
Targeting small tarpon in the mangrove is probably one of the most exhilarating fishing scenarios. These juvenile fish can be found in openings in mangrove forests where they congregate and target bait.
Accurate casts and light rods are the order of the day. The fish have little place to move, so they give an incredible aerial display once hooked.
Fly Fishing for Tarpon on Shallow Flats
As a kid, I had a VHS cassette of tarpon being caught on white sand flats. Thinking back to it, this image is what drew me to fly fishing in the first place. An angler, standing on the bow of a skiff, hooking into a giant tarpon with sand flats as far as the eye can see.
Can’t get any better than that.
When targeting tarpon in this scenario, a skiff is essential for success. The guide is standing on the platform above the motor and poling the skiff around. His eyes are constantly on the lookout for cruising tarpon.
The angler, hopefully you, is standing on the bow of the skiff, line stripped out, rod in hand, and ready to make the shot. The guide will give you the direction and length of the cast required. Keep your ears focused on the guide at all times. As soon as the fly lands, the guide will tell you how to strip and when to set.
Fishing from a skiff can be very rewarding as each fish landed is the result of good teamwork and communication.
Fly Fishing for Tarpon in River Mouths
The river mouths of West Africa and Central America are home to some of the world’s largest tarpon. In most cases, these fish are found in and around river mouths. The fish congregate in these areas due to the abundance of bait and life that the river draws.
In large rivers, and during the rainy season, the runoff looks like chocolate milk. However, do not think that this water can’t hold tarpon.
Freshwater has a lower relative density than saltwater. This means that the off-colored freshwater will ride on top of the saltwater. Very often, just a couple of feet below the off-colored water, you’ll find clear saltwater.
If you’re looking for tarpon in these scenarios, use a fast sinking line and make a long cast. Strip in any slack generated after the cast, then, allow the fly to sink maintaining tension at all times. Once the fly has reached the desired depth, strip the fly back relatively slowly.
As you can’t see the fly, the takes can catch you completely by surprise. Make sure that you’re ready and that the fly line is free from any tangles and snags
Best Time for Fly Fishing for Tarpon
As with many predatory fish, I have found the best time of the day to target tarpon is at the crack of dawn, and just after the sun has set. Obviously, that doesn’t mean they’re not feeding during the rest of the day.
Each location will have tarpon dialed into a specific rhythm. Whether it’s the light (time of day), tide, water salinity, wind, or barometric pressure. The guides and locals of each location will be able to give you the correct advice.
Tarpon Fly Fishing Tips & Tricks
The following tips I’ve come by the hard way. I’ve learned many lessons by making mistakes and wanted to share them with you, so you don’t have to step into the same holes. Some of these might seem very obvious.
Fly line loops
I’ve seen many fish of a lifetime lost due to poor preparation of fly line loops. For any large fish requiring an 11-weight rod and up, I recommend you replace the welded loops. They might last you on or two fish, but they will let you down at some point.
Taking the correct measures and re-doing the loops properly makes a world of difference. In Costa Rica, I hosted a trip where we landed over 50 150lb+ tarpon in a week. We made quality loops and at the end of the week, the loops on all the rods were as good as new.
The hookup versus landing ratio of tarpon can be pretty poor at times. One of the reasons is that they have extremely hard mouths. Getting good hook penetration will increase your chances.
Sharpen your hook every time you replace a fly and after you’ve hooked or landed a fish. This ritual will help you with all large predators.
Check your leader
Inspect the leader after every hookup or landed fish. Tarpon are hard on leaders. Even if a leader looks fine, run your fingers over it. If there are any rough or abraded sections, replace the leader with a new one.
Low rod angle
Maintain a low rod angle when fighting a tarpon. The rod has no power if you lift it up high as you would when fighting a trout.
Bow to the king
One of the reasons we love catching tarpon is their incredible jumps. However, during these jumps, they very often shake the fly.
To prevent this from happening, to some degree, bow to the king. With this, we mean that if the fish jumps, drop the rod tip downward to maintain an angle on the fish. You’ll also see many anglers actually bending their knees while dropping the rod.
Best Destinations for Tarpon Fishing
Here is a shortlist of my favorite tarpon destinations in the world.
Costa Rica will forever hold a dear place in my heart. This is where I caught my first and largest tarpon ever. The most popular area to target these fish in is Barra del Colorado. There are good fishing lodges with good guides and boats.
The fishing will take place in the Barra del Colorado river mouth. The tarpon hare are huge and plentiful. Jack Crevalle are also prevalent in the area.
If you would like more information about fishing in Costa Rica, please read the article I wrote about Fly Fishing in Costa Rica.
The home of tarpon fishing. The Keys is the birthplace of tarpon, and most saltwater, fly fishing. The area is large and very accessible. Although there are many anglers and guides in the Keys, it still offers some of the best tarpon fishing in the world.
West Africa might seem like one of the more extreme fly fishing destinations to visit. The most popular country for fishing is Gabon. Similar to the tarpon in Costa Rica, these fish are big, really big. During the nighttime, tarpon can be targeted from the beach. They’re not easy to land, but it is possible.
One of the best things to visit Gabon is the sheer amount of fish species you can target on fly. And, I’m not talking about little reef species. Proper, sizable fish. These include Jack Crevalle, Longfin Jack, Cubera Snapper, and Giant Threadfin.
That’s How to Fly Fish for Tarpon
I hope that you guys enjoyed this angler’s guide on fly fishing for tarpon. If at the very least, it has excited you and sparked some interest in these spectacular species, I am happy.
What I have shared with you are my own observations and thoughts and may differ from other guides and anglers who target these fish regularly. What I do know is that once you’ve caught a tarpon yourself, you’ll develop a deep love and appreciation for them.
Please share this article with your fellow anglers and friends. Leave any comments or questions at the bottom of the page.
Until next time.
Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock, while others are by the post author, Pierre.
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