Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus), also known as the silver king or poon, can be caught in the Florida Keys year-round. Schools of tarpon generally arrive in Miami's Government Cut and Biscayne Bay area in January, and sometimes as early as Christmas if the winter has been mild. Their arrival in the Miami area coincides with a time of year when there are strong tides that carry a lot of shrimp (their favorite food) along with the tidal current. If the winter weather has also been mild in the Florida Keys, other schools of tarpon will arrive in and around Key West as early as the first part of February, and a month or so later the Miami fish will begin to migrate south, while some of the tarpon that arrive in Key West do the same, heading north a month or so after they arrive in Key West. Most fly rod action in the Miami area takes place on the flats of Biscayne Bay from an area known as Stiltsville, south to Elliott Key, while the Key West tarpon fishery covers a much larger area, all reachable only by shallow draft boat. By March, the Miami tarpon can often be found from Biscayne Bay south along Key Largo, while more are continually arriving in Key West and spreading out north into the middle Keys and Marathon. Sometime during the month of April, tarpon will be abundant throughout the Florida Keys from Biscayne Bay at the northern extreme, all the way to the Marquesas, 15 miles west of Key West. With the tarpon fishing season in the Florida Keys peaking during the months of May and June, many tarpon anglers who have been bitten by the tarpon bug will book a guide for a solid week during this period. By booking a week's worth of fishing, they help minimize the possibility of getting weathered out if they have a couple of bad days. Preparation is the key word when pursuing any large, hard-to-catch fish. With proper preparation, and good weather, your chances of landing a tarpon are excellent. Without preparation, your chances are poor at the best of times. I often see anglers coming to the Florida Keys to fly fish for tarpon for the first time, toting their own rod, reel, line, and leader, full of enthusiasm and ready to fish, only to find that the tarpon outfit they were so proud of, is set up all wrong. Usually a guide can make up for these shortcomings, but it's better to start off on the right foot and come prepared. The only similarity between how a trout fly rod is rigged and set up, and how a tarpon rod is rigged and set up, is the fact that they both have fly lines. I've seen guides refuse to let anglers use their own rods and reels when the guide felt the outfit was not capable of landing a tarpon. Problems such as bad or wrong knots between the leader and line or line and backing, too small or not enough backing, can all lead to the tarpon breaking off with the leader or line still attached to the hook, a potentially deadly situation for the tarpon. In defense of a guide who may refuse to let you use your own rod or reel, anglers have to realize that chasing and enabling you to catch a silver king is how they earn their income, and understandably they are very protective of these fish. The absolute best advice I could give a first time Florida Keys tarpon angler is to not bring any rods or reels with you. Hire a guide and use his equipment. From your guide you'll learn about what rods are best suited for tarpon fishing, why you should use one reel and not another, what lines you need for actual fishing situations, what type and amount of backing you should have, and how to properly construct a tarpon leader.
You're paying him for the day, you may as well use the opportunity to pick his brain. If you must fish with your own rod, wait until you get to Florida to rig your rod. Stop in one of the friendly fly shops in the keys and ask them for advice on what line and backing to use and how to install it. Purchase your line and backing there, and they'll probably even rig your rod for you. If you have a few tarpon under your belt, and you are very good at tying knots and following instructions, you may be ready to set up your own rod and reel. Follow the instructions in the Rods and Reels and Building a Leader sections of this article and you won't go wrong. The recommendations there have accounted for thousands of tarpon, including most of the current world fly rod records Florida Keys tarpon range in size from 20 up to 175 pounds, with the average fish weighing in the 70- to 90-pound range. Although I know anglers who fish for tarpon with 10-weight rods, you never know what size fish is going to eat your fly, and a 12weight is recommended for all tarpon fishing unless you are specifically targeting small fish. In body construction, tarpon are somewhat like humans--some are skinny, some are fat, some are tall (long), and some are short, but more important is the fact that some are strong and some are not. Can you use a smaller rod? Sure, but with a smaller rod, you may find yourself under gunned at the most inopportune moment. Unlike most freshwater applications where your rod is your most important piece of equipment, your reel is your most important piece of tackle when fishing in the Florida Keys. Your tarpon reel should be large--4 inches or so in diameter, and capable of holding a 12-weight fly line plus 300 yards of 30-pound backing. In recent years, manufacturers have produced fly reels much larger than 4 inches, and many anglers who fish for tarpon and other large, fast fish on a regular basis have begun using the largest diameter reels they can afford. The reasoning behind the use of these larger diameter reels is two-fold. First, you're not casting or false casting as much for large fish as often as you might for smaller fish, so the added weight of larger reels is not as much of a factor as some anglers might think. Second, the large-diameter reels that hold 500, 600, or even 800 yards of backing are a real asset when a big fish pulls off 200 or 300 yards of backing, and you discover you still have enough spool diameter left to recover more than a couple of inches of line with each crank of the reel handle. The current trend of large arbor reels accomplishes the same result, but without the weight of the extra backing. A smooth, strong drag should be your primary concern, and certainly will be once you realize the power, strength, and stamina of a tarpon. While there are several materials used in manufacturing fly reel drag washers, cork is the most prevalent in the high end reels due to its proven ability to resist heat, as well as compress and expand throughout the pressure range of a reel's drag setting. There are many areas in the Florida Keys where tarpon will be in water shallow enough to use a floating fly line. When the tarpon are in water six feet deep, or deeper, you will need an intermediate sinking line. Scientific Angler's Floating Tarpon Taper, Cortland's Tropic Plus Lazerline, and Orvis's Saltwater Weight
Forward are the three floating lines of choice when the poons are in shallow water, while Scientific Angler's Tarpon Taper Clear, Cortland's Tropic Plus Lazerline intermediate, and Orvis's Intermediate Sink are the choices when a fly sinking from a floating line won't reach those deeper fish. Most fly rodders adhere to International Game Fish Association (IGFA) rules that allow only 12 inches of heavy material next to the hook to counter the tarpon's bony, abrasive mouth, and a maximum of 20-pound test line (called class tippet) connecting this abrasion tippet to the rest of the leader and fly line. The leader itself must be tapered in order for the 12-weight line to turn over the big flies used in tarpon fishing. The end result is a leader with seven or more knots--some of them quite complicated. With so many knots involved, a fly rodder is extremely vulnerable to knot and leader failure. To be consistently successful in catching big, strong fish like tarpon, you must either rely on a good guide and his knot-tying ability, or master leader construction yourself. Your guide, who will be on a platform on the rear of the boat approximately two feet higher than where you are standing and has years of experience spotting fish, will see the tarpon first. When he does, he will often use the positions of a clock to guide you to where to look for the tarpon. Twelve o'clock is straight ahead of the boat, three o'clock is 90 degrees to the right, 9 o'clock is 90 degrees to the left. I find it's a good idea as soon as the guide spots a fish to point your rod tip to where he says he sees the tarpon. When he sees where your rod tip is pointed, he can fine-tune where you're pointing. Big as they are, you'll have a great amount of difficulty seeing the tarpon unless you are wearing polarized glasses, and even if it's an overcast day, polarized glasses will still allow you to see further into the water. When the guide sees the tarpon, you must be prepared to present the fly immediately. If you are staked out, the tarpon will be moving past your position, and you'll often have just one shot at a particular fish. If you are poling across the flats, looking for laid up tarpon, you have to get the fly there before the fish sees you and vacates the area. Whatever the situation, you always need to be ready cast. This means holding the fly in your stripping hand, with about 20 feet of slack line hanging from the tip of your rod. (You need your leader and some line out of your rod hanging free to allow you to load your rod and cast quickly--just don't pull so much out that it drags in the water or catches on anything.) You should also have about 60 feet of line pulled off your reel, lying in loose, neat coils at your feet. (Not under your feet.) If you are prepared in this manner, you should be able to make up to an 80-foot cast without a moment's hesitation, and with only one false cast. I can't stress enough how different this type of fishing is from trout fishing. On your home river you may find some trout rising, string up your rod, choose and tie on a fly, and work your way up slowly on the fish from behind. When you are tarpon fishing, you very often get only one shot at a fish. If you aren't ready or capable of casting when and where the guide tells you, you won't be getting into many fish. Just as your guide directs your casts, he will very often tell you what to do after your fly hits the water. If you lead the fish too much, you may have to wait for the tarpon to get to your fly before you begin your retrieve. If your cast was too far ahead of the fish, the tarpon may change course, and you'll have to pick up and cast again. If the fish is deep, your guide may advise you to wait and let the fly sink. Your guide will also tell you how to adjust your retrieval speed based on what he sees the fish doing. The important thing is that he will see much more than you from his vantage point,
and you should follow his instructions meticulously. When the tarpon grabs your fly, you'll need to drive your large-diameter hook deep into its hard, bony mouth. This doesn't mean lifting rod as you would when striking most other species. To set the hook into a tarpon, point the rod tip at the fish and draw the line tight with your other hand, driving the hook into the fish. A bend in your rod will only reduce the amount of force you can apply to the hook, and you'll need everything you can get. Most guides will get you to set the hook two or three times, drawing the line tighter each time, until the hook is buried and the fish is running away with your line. Hopefully you've kept the coils of line at your feet away from anything that might cause a tangle. Put the point of your index finger and thumb together, forming a circle for the line to run through. Keep that arm extended away from your body, so the line is less likely to wrap around anything as it jumps from the deck of the skiff and whistles through the rod guides. If the fish jumps, you must get slack into the line quickly. A 100-pound tarpon freefalling on the end of a tight line with a 20-pound-test weak spot will almost always break off. To counter his jump, you must throw your arm straight out toward the fish, point the rod at the fish, and bend at the waist. "Bowing" to a tarpon is the quickest way to give him slack. Once he's back in the water, you can stand back up and lean on the rod. One note about jumping tarpon: These fish can jump quite high, and a flats skiff rides quite low on the water. Every once in a while, a freshly hooked tarpon ends up in a boat with the guide and anglers. If this happens to you, don't try to tackle the fish. A tarpon is just one huge slab of muscle. Not only can a green tarpon completely vandalize a skiff, he can also break bones and cause other serious injuries. The best thing you can do is stay out of his way. Some guides will even tell you that if the tarpon jumps in the boat, you jump out. It's not something that happens very often, and you'll probably never have to deal with it, but it's good to know what kind of an adversary you are dealing with in case he demands your respect. As soon as the fish is on the reel, and you've survived the first jump, the most dangerous part of the encounter is over. From here on in it's matter of strength and endurance--yours against that of the Silver King. Near the end of the fight, things can get dicey because you have a very large fish on a very short line that doesn't allow for any stretch. But if you have a good reel, follow the guides instructions, and the fish is a tired as he should be, you'll be able to get the boat alongside the fish and the guide will slip a gaff through the fish's lower lip and pin him against the side of the boat. Schools of tarpon generally arrive in Miami's Government Cut and Biscayne Bay area in January, and sometimes as early as Christmas if the winter has been mild. Their arrival in the Miami area coincides with a time of year when there are strong tides that carry a lot of shrimp (their favorite food) along with the tidal current. If the winter weather has also been mild in the Florida Keys, other schools of tarpon will arrive in and around Key West as early as the first part of February, and a month or so later the Miami fish will begin to migrate south, while some of the tarpon that arrive in Key West do the same, heading north a month or so after they arrive in Key
West. Most fly rod action in the Miami area takes place on the flats of Biscayne Bay from an area known as Stiltsville, south to Elliott Key, while the Key West tarpon fishery covers a much larger area, all reachable only by shallow draft boat. By March, the Miami tarpon can often be found from Biscayne Bay south along Key Largo, while more are continually arriving in Key West and spreading out north into the middle Keys and Marathon. Sometime during the month of April, tarpon will be abundant throughout the Florida Keys from Biscayne Bay at the northern extreme, all the way to the Marquesas, 15 miles west of Key West. With the tarpon fishing season in the Florida Keys peaking during the months of May and June, many tarpon anglers who have been bitten by the tarpon bug will book a guide for a solid week during this period. By booking a week's worth of fishing, they help minimize the possibility of getting weathered out if they have a couple of bad days.