Gerald Almy: How to fight a tarpon

Gerald Almy

If you like your fishing laid-back and mellow, rod-in-forked-stick style, don’t go after tarpon. Few other kinds of fishing are as mentally intense or physically exhausting as hooking and battling these muscular 50-150 pound silver fish on lines and tippets testing 12-20 pounds. On the other hand, few other kinds of angling are as fulfilling.

One of the most appealing fish to go after if you head south for a break from winter this year is the tarpon. These silver gamefish can weigh over 100 pounds, and most experienced anglers would rate catching one on a fly as the ultimate fishing experience.

There are many things you should learn before you book a trip and head to the Florida Keys, Costa Rica or another destination to catch this challenging quarry. And actually, some tarpon are caught in Virginia’s saltwater fisheries each year when waters warm up, so these tips will be valid for our home waters as well.

Learning to cast a heavy fly 60 feet in the teeth of a wind, choosing the right pattern, finding fish, seeing their hulking gray forms cruising up to six feet deep through the glare of the sun, leading them just the right distance with your fly…. those are all worthy skills to master.

But for this column, let’s focus on how to land a tarpon with a quick victory once you connect with a firm hook set. Most of these techniques are also useful if you decide to fish with lures or bait and spin tackle.

To succeed, you must fight the fish aggressively, yet intelligently. Sheer muscle won’t do the trick. You’ll just break the leader. You must, instead, combine application of the maximum force the line will bear with a fighting strategy that constantly counters what the tarpon wants to do. Confuse the fish and you’ll be able to land it quickly and release it in a healthy condition.

“Start off with a good hook set,” says veteran flats guide Mike Vaughn, past president of the Marathon Guides Association and secretary of the Florida Keys Guides Association. “But don’t strike too quickly or you might pull the fly out of its mouth. Hesitate one to two seconds after you see him take it.”

“After the tarpon comes tight on the line, set up as if you were double-hauling, using a series of jabs. Pull back with the rod hand, down and forward with the line in the other hand. Hammer the fly in there.”

Chances are you will have extra fly line on the deck when you hook a fish. The first thing you must do is clear that line. Hold the rod high so it can feed smoothly through the guides and you can get the fish on the reel.

At this point some fish will streak towards Cuba and others may sulk deep. The majority, though, will react a third way. They’ll explode violently on the surface. That’s the next key point in the battle.

“A 100-pound tarpon weighs only about 10 pounds in the water,” says Vaughn. “But when he comes out, he weighs his full 100 pounds. You must bow to him with the rod and your body or he’ll snap a 15-pound tippet-like thread. As soon as he starts to come out of the water, lean forward, bend at the waist and give all the controlled slack you can. When he falls back in, immediately come up tight again.”

Pumping is the only way to tire a tarpon. When the fish lunges or streaks away, let him have free rein. Whenever he eases up, apply pressure to him. “Always pull the opposite way from the direction the fish wants to go,” counsels Vaughn.

If you lighten the pressure, the fish will rest and the battle will be prolonged. That’s not only tiring to you, it wears the fish out more, reducing chances for releasing the fish in good condition. Similarly, if you give a tarpon a chance to gulp air, his stamina increases and the battle drags on.

“Put your rod tip low, even in the water, if he tries this. Pull him down when he tries to get air. If he does gulp oxygen, pressure him and make him burp it out.”

When you’re forcing a tarpon constantly, never letting him rest, always confusing him by turning him one way when he tries to go another, keeping him from gulping air and giving slack line only during jumps, you are close to victory.

Pump as hard as the line or tippet will stand, don’t let the fish rest and you’ll eventually achieve it.

Then release him and collapse on the deck with a cold soda or bottled water. You’ll need it.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.