This article will cover some of the best tarpon flies and when to use them. Most of the anglers who are planning to pursue these magnificent fish simply don’t have the time to figure which fly works best in what situation. And, why should you reinvent the wheel?
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I’ve been fortunate enough to catch many tarpon myself and guide clients into these amazing creatures. Fly selection plays an important role when fishing for tarpon. Knowing when to use what fly will turn your next tarpon trip into a great success.
I have written this article to help you in selecting the best flies for your trip so that you can make an informed choice. Knowing why you chose a fly, what it imitates, and when to change it will ultimately make you a better tarpon angler.
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What Makes a Great Tarpon Fly?
Many anglers who regularly, and successfully, target tarpon only have a handful of fly patterns they use. This proves my theory that this pattern isn’t necessarily better than that pattern. Instead, knowledge of how to use a fly plays a far more important role.
In Bill Bishop’s book High Rollers, he mentions that he mainly fishes with 3 patterns. That’s it. This “limitation” is, in actual fact, his strong point. He has a deep understanding and sense of how the flies will react, how to fish them, and when to use which one.
So, what makes a great tarpon fly? The answer is the amount of time you spend with it. Many fly patterns out there are capable of catching tarpon. What makes them produce consistently is the fly angler using the fly in the correct way.
For instance, many flies made from artificial fibers sink very slowly. If you are fishing for tarpon that spooks easily to the sound of a fly landing, these flies make it possible to present the fly far ahead of the fish. Due to the slow sinking rate, the fly will remain in the zone longer. Once the fish is close enough to the fly, you can start retrieving it.
Being familiar with these small attributes of a fly’s behavior will not only make the fly perform better, but it will make you a more accomplished angler.
10 Best Tarpon Flies
Most tarpon fly fishing techniques and flies were developed in the Florida Keys. Over the years, there have been many new flies developed, some became famous, others not. You’ll notice that most of the popular flies share the same profile, materials, or general tying techniques.
That is because these techniques work. They give the fly the most natural movement underwater yet can still be cast with relative ease. Here is a list of some of my favorite tarpon flies
The Tarpon Toad was developed from the popular permit fly, the Merkin. The Merkin is a crab imitation that utilizes synthetic fibers tied in perpendicular to the hook shank. These fibers are then trimmed to shape, and legs are attached to complete the great crab imitation.
The Merkin was modified by tying in a longer tail, removing the legs, and trimming the body slightly narrower. The effect is a baitfish imitation that hovers in water in between strips. The flat and long profile is similar to the toadfish that tarpon often prey on.
The best sizes for this fly are tied on 2/0 to 4/0 hooks. Some of the best colors include chartreuse and white, tan and white, and brown. Dark variants may be tied when fishing in murky and off-colored water.
The Lefty’s Deceiver was originally created by Lefty Kreh as a striped bass fly. This generic baitfish imitation can be varied, in size and color, to imitate any baitfish. This means that it can be used on, basically, any predatory fish in the world.
The Deceiver is so popular and well known, that the USPS (United States Postal Service) featured it on a fly fishing stamp series in the 1990s.
For tarpon, I like tying them relatively small, carrying them in sizes 1/0 to 3/0. I feel that there are better flies when it comes to large flies. However, the Deceiver makes an excellent small tarpon fly.
I recommend them in white and chartreuse, white and yellow, and black and red.
The Tarpon Bunny closely resembles the popular Cockroach fly. However, instead of using schlappen or grizzly feathers, the tail is made from a thick piece of zonker strip. The inclusion of zonker gives the fly a completely different action in the water.
Ensure that the shop or custom fly tier tying your flies uses high-quality zonker. These days, you get them in two-tone colors with a barred effect. All these little “improvements” make a difference at the end of the day.
I recommend having Tarpon Bunny flies in your box ranging from 2/0 to 4/0. Some of the best colors for dirty water include purple and black and red and black. A good dirty water variation is in the popular fire tiger coloration which includes red, orange, yellow, and green.
For clear water applications, I recommend tying them sparsely and in natural colors. These include tan and white, grey and white, and olive and white.
One of the oldest and most classic tarpon flies of all time is the Cockroach. It is easy to cast and the way the tail is constructed gives the fly incredible movement when retrieved.
This fly is generally tied in natural and dark colors. Use tan and grey for clean water and black, red, and purple for murky water. Some of the best hooks for this fly include the Gamakatsu SC15, Owner Aki, or TMC 600SP.
The Tarpon Mouse
The Tarpon Mouse is one of my favorite flies. The head and collar are made from stacked deer hair. This hair gives the fly a neutral buoyancy which makes it possible to fish it much slower without it sinking too much.
Tie or buy a range of sizes from 1/0 to 4/0. If you are tying your own flies or have a custom fly tier whipping you up some, tie half really sparse and the other half normal. Sparse flies, especially in clean water, seem to produce better results.
The best colors to have on hand are black and red, black and purple, black and gold, chartreuse and white, and tan and white. On dark-colored flies, which will mainly be used at night or in off-colored water, you can also add some flash.
The EP Baitfish is a great all-round predator pattern. No matter where you’re traveling to for your next fishing trip, having a bunch of these guys in your box is a must.
Compared to flies that include mostly natural fibers, the EP Baitfish has two distinct advantages. The first is that the fly lands relatively soft. Obviously, this is a function of you well you present the fly. This enables you to lay the fly down close to laid up tarpon.
The second advantage is that the fly sinks slowly. This means that you, or your client, can present the fly well ahead of a string of fish to ensure they aren’t spooked. By the time they reach the fly, it is still in the zone.
For dirty water situations, I recommend black and purple, black and red, and orange and red. These flies can be tied quite full to ensure they are visible and push a lot of water.
In clean water, I prefer to keep the fly tied sparsely. This can always be adjusted on the water, trimming away unnecessary material with a pair of scissors. Some of the best color combinations include chartreuse and white, yellow and white, and olive and white.
The Apte Too
The Apte Too was developed by fishing legend Stu Apte. If a Semper and a Cockroach fly had a baby, it would be the Apte Too. The fly is short and easy to cast. The feather tail and marabout collar give it incredible movement in the water.
The best sizes range from 1/0 to 4/0. Vary the size of the marabou feather used for the collar as the hook size changes.
They can be tied using all the most popular tarpon colors, including black and purple, chartreuse and white, red and black, etc. I like adding a little flash to the tail, if you see that the tarpon reacts in a negative manner toward the flash, simply trim it off on the water.
Chili Pepper Worm
The Chilli Pepper Worm has been developed by guides in Islamorada and Key West. In these areas, tarpon see many flies thrown at them during the open season. The Chilli Pepper Worm is an attempt to present the fish something they haven’t seen before.
During the palolo worm hatch in the Keys, tarpon feed selectively and profusely on these invertebrates. The Chilli Pepper Worm is an imitation of these worms that may be used during the hatch. The fly also works well during other times as well.
The fly is made by spinning alternating colors of red and orange EP fibers and then trimming it into a worm shape. The head is finished with some olive EP fiber. Once wet, the fly has incredible movement and resembles the natural very closely.
The total length of the fly is around 2 inches long and usually tied on a 1/0 or 2/0 hook. The Chilli Pepper Worm is a must for every Florida Key tarpon box.
Magnum’s Dragon Tail
Every now and then a new fly tying material is developed that changes this up. The Magnum Dragon Tail is almost like an ultra-large chenille that tapers to a very fine point. The material is mostly used to create tails on flies, giving them wonderful movement and making them quicker to tie.
The Magnum Dragon Tail fly produces well on tarpon. These flies may be tied from medium to large, on hooks ranging from 2/0 to 6/0. The best colors seem to be combinations of black and white.
These flies work great on all large predatory fish, even in freshwater. In South Africa, we tie a small version of the Magnum’s Dragon Tail to be used on the elusive largemouth yellowfish. The fly also works well on giant trevally.
On all my saltwater trips you’ll find a bunch of Sempers in my box. They are easy to tie, easy to cast, can be tied in a wide range of colors, and they just produce the goods. On my last trip to Costa Rica, I caught all my tarpon and jack crevalle on Sempers.
The tail is made from chicken feathers (either schlappen or long strung saddle hackle), bucktail, and flash and the body from palmered marabou. The tail may be tied splaying outwards, which gives it more movement, or folded together creating a pronounced profile.
The best size for most tarpon are 2/0 to 4/0, however, I used 6/0 Owner Aki hooks on the 150lb+ tarpon of Costa Rica with great success.
What Do Tarpon Flies Imitate?
Tarpon are opportunistic predatory fish. This means that they feed on numerous different types of bait if the opportunity presents itself. Their main food source, however, is baitfish, squid, and shrimp.
Most of the tarpon flies will imitate one or more of these food sources. When going to a new destination, get acquainted with the size, shape, and color of the bait most prevalent in the area. This will give you a good indication of what flies to use.
In some areas or during certain times of the year, tarpon may feed selectively on certain bait. A good example of this is the palolo worm in the Keys. The Chilli Pepper Worm has been specifically designed to target tarpon during this hatch.
Tarpon Fly Hooks
Many great articles have been written and many anglers and guides have their personal preference when it comes to hooks. For tarpon flies, the hook needs to be sharp and strong. The tier should also be aware of the weight of the fly used.
Regardless of the size of tarpon you’re targeting, having sharp hooks will greatly increase your landing rate. The inside of a tarpon’s mouth is hard bone. Having a sharp hook will ensure that the hook penetrates quickly and deep.
Ensure that you sharpen the fly’s hook every time you replace the fly and after you’ve hooked into, or landed a tarpon.
The hook is the primary connection between a tarpon and the angler. In most cases, the destinations where we target these fish are far away and cost a great deal of money, and time, to get to. Hook quality is not the place to hold off to save a buck or two.
Buy the best hooks to tie your flies on. If you’re buying flies from a shop or a custom tier, insist on only the best hooks and make a note of the hooks used. Knowing what hooks are used can help you make better choices in the future.
I have experience with the following hooks and have no problem recommending them to any tarpon angler:
- Gamakatsu SC15-2H (I’ve never seen one open or break)
- Owner Aki (one of the best hook points in the business)
- TMC 600SP
When to Change a Fly?
Knowing when to change the fly will require you to know when you got a solid refusal. If you cast to a tarpon and he didn’t eat it right away doesn’t mean you had a refusal. The fly needs to be in the zone, and you must see the fish almost consciously decide he doesn’t want to eat the fly.
The primary zone for tarpon is a small window in front and to the top of its head. Tarpon’s eyes are positioned slightly upward. This means that they feed in an upward direction.
Feeding the fly to the fish in this area, in front and slightly above the fish’s face should result in a take. If you’re confident that it was fed well, and the fly was refused, it’s time for a change.
Now, what fly do you change to? The first change I would make is using the same fly pattern but opting for a different color. Only once this fly has been refused again will I go to a different pattern.
Tarpon Flies Pre-Tied Assortments
Sometimes the best way to kit yourself out is to pick up a box of pre-tied flies. With Tarpon flies, you really have to make sure that whoever tied them has done so on high-quality hooks and with proper
There’s nothing in this world that makes my heartbeat as fast as casting to an incoming tarpon. I hope that you found this article helpful and that it will give you confidence in your fly selection when you’re standing on the bow, presenting a fly to a tarpon.
At the end of the day, as with all forms of fly fishing, having confidence in your fly is of paramount importance. If you found this article an interesting read, please share it with your fellow anglers and friends.
Also, leave any comments or questions at the bottom of the page. I would love to hear about your favorite flies and experiences while targeting tarpon.
Until next time.
Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock, most are by the author of the post, Pierre.
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