I have just boarded my flight from Florida to Oregon (home).My adventure started Saturday morning in Orlando, Florida where we all met up for our trip. Seven of us gathered in the lobby where we awaited our replacement rental car, the eighth member of our team Andy would meet us the next night at the house. We were supposed to have a suburban, but the rental car company had mixed up and rented our suburban to someone else.
This trip was a mix of guys from all over the US and Canada. Other than myself there was Andy, Ebon, Sam, Scott, Steve, Tom and Whitey. Some I knew and some I did not. So we spent the time talking,getting to know each other. Meanwhile our fearless leader Whitey found our replacement car. Things didn't look to good, the new car was a Chrysler Town and Country minivan. First of all, there is seven of us. Secondly all of our gear. And lastly we had a 5 to 6 hour trip to our destination. None of us thought the Town and Country was going to work. Whitey loaded our luggage with precision proving us all wrong. We piled in the van, it was tight, but we made it work and on the road we went.
Stories started flowing about last year's tarpon trip. I am now more ready than ever for my first big tarpon trip. I could tell that this was going to be a really great group of guys and a absolute blast of a trip. AC/DC blasting on the stereo, rolling in the T&C, tarponland here we come! Several hours of travel later, one awesome BBQ place later we were getting close to tarponland.
We eventually arrived at the house that Whitey had rented. A nice pad for the 8 of us for the next 5 days. I quickly tossed my bag on a bed to stake claim and rushed out back to the dock to join the rest. The dock went out into the shallow bay behind the house. From there we could see what we believed were speckled trout busting on bait all around the dock. There was lots of talk about trying to go catch whatever was busting bait around the dock, but after a few more cold beers it was just talk.
After dinner Whitey gave us the lineup for the next day. I would be fishing with Ebon and our guide would be Travis. This got me all wound up with excitement of my first day of giant tarpon fishing. It was getting late now so I hit the sack.
Morning came quickly, awakened by the others excited voices getting ready to go meet the guides. Sam had made everyone a hearty breakfast casserole. We ate quickly, raced out the door, piled in the T&C and we were off. A little AC/DC to wake us up on the way to the marina. A few minutes later we pulled into the marina where our guides were waiting. We all split up to board our guides flats skiffs.
Ebon and I met our guide Travis, boarded the skiff and Travis quickly speeded the skiff out of the bay. As we sped along the coast line I could not help scanning the water for signs of tarpon rolling. To my surprise I thought I saw a big fish roll on the horizon, it looked like a tarpon. Then another, was I just dreaming or was it really tarpon. About that time Travis shut down the motor and said "we will try to catch one of these fish here".
That is when Ebon and I realized that we were surrounded by big tarpon rolling, splashing and crushing bait fish for as far as we could see. It was like a dream, giant tarpon everywhere. The water was quite muddy on this flat due to the wind and tide. Travis said that this was not going to be easy fishing in this spot due to the water color. Hard for us to see the fish and hard for the fish to see the fly. He said that it was worth a shot until the sun got a little higher so we could see fish in the next flat and travel lane he wanted to fish.
I was first up to the front to fish. I could hardly control my excitement as I stepped up on the casting platform, never fishing for giant tarpon, I was trying to think of all the things I had to do if I hooked one. The most important steps, get the hook bared and then make sure the line clears the deck as the fish screams line across the sea. Travis instructed me that he wanted me to wait to cast until I see a fish roll in range. Once a fish rolls try to cast in front of the fish, let the fly sink a few seconds then start my retrieve.
The first fish rolled with in range, I launched my cast, let the fly sink, then started my retrieve. Nothing! Travis said this would not be easy in these conditions, so I got ready for the next one. The next fish boiled I could not see which way he was going. So I bombed a cast to the center of the boil, let the fly sink and started stripping. One strip, two strip, three strips, my fly gets hammered. I kept the rod low, strip set several times as hard as I could waiting for the line to go flying off the deck as the tarpon exploded, but that did not happen. Travis told me to tighten up on it and see if I could move it. What are you crazy I thought, this tarpon is way to big, but I did what he said. To my amazement I could start moving it towards us. Travis, said it is a catfish. Catfish what are you talking about??? There are no catfish on saltwater flats are there I thought. Sure enough it was the oddest looking catfish I had ever seen. Travis quickly got the catfish free from the hook.
I cast to another tarpon, stripped the fly all the way to the boat right at the boat I had another hard hit. Then a huge boil of a tarpon as I set the hook. I quickly realized it was another catfish, my heart sunk. Travis said “ the tarpon chased it, but the catfish beat it to the fly. That was the tarpon making the huge boil”. Once again Travis got the catfish off the hook quickly so we could continue to fish. Travis said that the flat was covered with catfish and if we hook anymore we were going to move on. The cats just do nothing but get in the way and waste our time. So a few minutes later it happened again another catfish.
Travis said the light should be up enough that we could hopefully see fish cruising in another flat close by. The water should be clearer there so we could see them and make better cast to them. So we moved on.
It was now Ebon’s turn up to cast. Travis moved the boat over to a sand bar where the water was much clearer. He positioned the boat on the edge of the sand bar. He explained that the tarpon would run into the shallow bar near the beach. Then they would travel up the edge of the bar right to us. We had some overcast conditions so being able to see the tarpon a ways out would be tough. "So be ready for a short cast" Travis said.
A few minutes went by and then Travis yelled "tarpon ten o'clock forty feet cast now!" Ebon cast without being able to see the tarpon. Travis said "you were just behind him, cast to twelve o'clock". That is when we both saw the monster, it was big! Ebon made the cast, but the tarpon ignored the fly.
Ebon had a few more shots over the next hour, but no hook ups. I was up and had about the same results. Conditions seemed to be making it tough to see the tarpon until they were right on top of us.
I also realized that making 15 to 20 foot cast with a 12 weight rod was very difficult. I had outfitted myself with a Sage SALT 9' 12 wt., Nautilus CCF-X2 Silver King Fly Reel, lined with Hatch backing and a RIO Tarpon Quickshooter line. This outfit was well balanced. I cast it with ease at home in the yard, but with super short cast I was struggling.
We did not hook any tarpon this first day, but had a blast. Ebon was a very funny guy and kept us well entertained. We headed back to the house to meet up with the rest of the crew. Travis dropped us off at the dock in front of the house. It was hot and a ice cold beer was in order.
Slowly the rest of the crew returned. Scotty and Steve both hooked some fish. They had some pretty good pictures of them jumping. Whitey the "Tarponator" hooked I believe 3 and landed 2. This is the way most of the week went for Whitey.
We all stayed up to late having cocktails and telling fishing stories. Once I went to bed, morning came way to soon, but the thought of tarpon quickly gets the blood a flowing.
On the second day I was paired up with my buddy Tom and our guide Greg. Same as the day before we set off to meet our guides at the marina where they were all waiting. We met up with Greg, got in the boat and quickly head out on a 45 minute ride to his favorite flat at the edge of a bay. He explained to us how the tide would drop then the tarpon would hit a shallow bar which direct them right to us. He positioned us on the edge of a white sand area about 50 feet by 50 feet. The idea was that the tarpon would cross over this making it easier for us to see them. Greg did warn us that we might see tarpon come in from straight in front of the boat. These fish would be over grass and hard to see.
I was first up and right away Greg spotted a tarpon crossing in front of the boat 30 feet away. At first I did not see it, he said "cast to 12 o'clock 30 feet". I failed a cast and Greg said "more right! More right!". I missed again. I just kept telling myself to calm down, but easier said than done. A few minutes later Greg said "I see one coming in right down the bar, do you see it". "No I don't see it" I replied.
"It is at about 100 feet, it is going to disappear on the grass. Then it will appear again at the edge of the sand about 50 feet. Be ready! " Greg said. The tarpon appeared. I made the cast, right on target! "Long strip, long strip" Greg said. "strip, strip, faster, short strip, strip" Greg said. The tarpon turned away. Greg said " you were not listening to the speed and change of speed I was asking you to do"
I knew he was right, I could hear him but my mind and eyes were just locked on the tarpon. Just too excited and no control. It was now Tom's turn up, he handed the rod to Greg and asked him to show us how it is down. Greg said "no! it is your trip, I can't fish". Tom said "please we will learn more watching". " besides we won't tip you if you don't make some cast" Tom said jokingly.
So Greg got up on the front of the boat, right away he said "I see one coming in about 100 feet away do you guys see the wake from the tarpon?". I was sitting on the pulling platform and could see it. Greg talked us through what he was doing.
"The tarpon is going to appear about 40 feet 9 o'clock. There it is" he explained. Greg made his cast about 30 feet from the boat. "Long strip to get the fly in front of the tarpon. Now short strips" Greg informed us. The tarpon inhaled the fly. Greg set the hook, as the tarpon exploded on the surface of the water. Then before you could blink was gone like a missile. Take a rats nest of line with it, the tangled line about ripping every guide off the rod. Greg turned to us "do one of you guys want to fight this fish?" We both said "it is all yours Greg". Greg quickly broke the fish off, to our amazement the line broke in half where the rats nest was.
Greg turned to us as Tom and I said " that looks easy". We just laughed.
Tom got up to the front and had about the same luck I did. A few shots, a few mistakes. It just is not as easy as Greg made it look.
It was now my turn backup. I used Tom's G. Lomis NRX 1290 loaded with Airflo Bruce Chard Tropical Punch line. This was a much easier short range combo for me. I no longer got to the front of the boat and Greg said " tarpon coming in at 8 o'clock. Do you see it, 40 feet".
I could see it, I started to cast when Greg said "that is good lay your cast down". I did 5 feet in front of the tarpon. Greg said "good, long strip, short strip, short strip"
The massive tarpon opened it's mouth inhaling the fly. I set the hook hard several times as the tarpon exploded out of the water. Line flew off the reel as Greg fired the motor. The tarpon jumped again about 250 yards away. Greg put the boat in gear to take chase. He told me to reel as fast as I could. For the first few minutes the tarpon continued to run jumping several times, I gained little line as we followed. Greg told me to try to get the fly line back on the reel. By keeping the fly line on the reel I could really start applying the pressure to the tarpon.
Greg told me "give it everything you got, don't rest or it will take much longer."
So I put as much pressure on the tarpon as my 12 weight fly rod could handle. After about 15 minutes I got the tarpon to the leader for the first time. It rolled where we could get a chance to see this giant up close. She did not give us much of a look, before taking a quick run and jump.
Greg said "that fish is easily 150 pounds plus"!
I am now hitting the point of all out exhaustion, my arms, shoulders and back are all burning. After a few minutes I had her back to the front of the boat, leader in the rod guides. I pulled as hard as I could trying to get her to the side of the boat.
Greg told me " if she is hooked inside the mouth it is only a few minutes until she wears through the leader. If she is hooked in the lip we can get her up so I can grab her by the lip for a photo".
I kept as much pressure on her as I could keeping her most of the time right in front of the boat with the leader in the rod. She made a couple of short runs, but I could quickly pull her back to me.
Just as I thought I could not go anymore the rod snapped back limp. The leader had wore through. I didn't know whether I should be glad or sad. I do know there was a little relief.
Greg looked at me and said "don't be upset, be glad, you can battle those monsters for another 20 minutes before they will be calm enough to lip them and get photos". "Besides a tarpon counts as caught if you touch the leader. We could have done that almost any time over the last 5 minutes".
The word is the 70 to 80 pounders are the ones to land for the lip and grin photos.
We all high fived, it was now Tom's turn back up. Greg returned the boat back to the spot where the battle began. I climbed up on the pulling platform to watch Tom and think about the tarpon.
I realized at that moment I had to come back down to Florida and do this again!
The next day brought windy stormy conditions. So there was not much action from any of the boats.
The fourth and final day I fished with Sam and our guide was Greg. Conditions once again were not great, I had a few follows, but no eats. Sam had two tarpon eat, but they quickly threw the hook.
Once again fishing was slower for most the boats this last day. All though we were at the tail end of the migration, water temperatures were getting warm and we had bad weather, I was very happy with my first big tarpon trip. Sad to see it coming to an end.
That night we had a excellent dinner with the guides at a local restaurant. We told lots of stories, jokes and more. We talked about the hardest part of this giant tarpon fishing was controlling our nerves. All of us had the skills to do this, but our excitement would take over and we would mess up our chance. I guess it would not be so much fun if we did not get excited.
Here's to Next Year, but sadly tarpon trip 2015 has come to an end.
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