For most of us serious fly fisherman there is nothing more exhilarating in this world than chasing silver, chrome fish that bite a fly and jump like hell. I can’t say a day on the ocean can match a day swinging flies for wild steelhead, however I am hard pressed to remember anything that caused the type of adrenaline rush that occurs when you see giant tarpon surfacing. There are many unbelievable places to satisfy the tarpon urge but for us, heading to Pine Key in Florida was an easy choice.
It has been the landing point for many guides I cut my teeth with in Alaska. It was in many ways going to be as much as a reunion with great friends as a fishing trip. Old school Alaska Rainbow Lodge alum Ryan Phinney and Brandon Sharp have both been guiding in the keys for many years now and live year round in Big Pine. My other good friend from our Alaskan Guide hay day Chris Coyne has been hitting this fishery for a decade and I was finally going to see it along with all of them for myself. Although I didn't get to spend a day fishing with Coyne we had one hell of a great time when we got to hang out.
Tarpon Weight: 40-100lbs are really common and can reach over 250lbs.
Tarpon are some of the most sought-after inshore, big-game fish in the world. They put up a stubborn and spectacular fight, often leaping up over 6 feet out of the water. They are difficult to hook because of their hard, bony mouths but they do like to bite if you feed them correctly with a well presented fly.
Tarpon populate a wide variety of habitats, but are primarily found in coastal waters, bays, estuaries, and mangrove-lined lagoons. One very cool thing about Tarpon is that they can tolerate oxygen-poor environments due to an air bladder that allows them to inhale oxygen. One day on slack tide we had them rising to gulp air all around us. It was quite surreal as it sounded like that first breath someone makes after being saved by CPR, rescued from a drowning.
The only variable that seems to limit their choice of habitat is temperature. Rapid decreases in temperature have been known to cause large tarpon kills. During big temperature drops, tarpon usually take refuge in warmer deeper waters. This is a killer if it happens while you are on a trip. They just literally disappear.
For steelheaders that think they may like tarpon fishing let me stop you right there…..you will! It is similar, although you really need to have your single hand game wired. Accurate 60 foot casts, and the ability to get the fly out in a hurry are the key factors. Watching huge meatballs of tarpon head towards you while your guide poles you into position is very cool, but watching the tarpon eat is what it’s all about. You can tell immediately when your fly lands and you hit that first strip if the silver king is into it. They perk up and kick out while there big gills seem to flare as they calmly follow your fly. If you can stay focused you can often see that enormous mouth open up and chomp down on your fly mere feet from the boat.
After I saw that happen to me I lost interest in everything else. It was like swinging dries for steelhead where you could see it all happen at the end of your line. Casting to tarpon you can’t see is fun but it robs you of the very best part of the sport.
There were guys around that would go out in the middle of the night to cast at tarpon under the bridges with great success but this isn't really fishing. I guess it’s neat if you want to feel what it’s like to have a big fish on the end of your line but if you are a steelheader you will want to be sight casting, looking for that magical boat side eat. Getting skunked is just another day in the life of a steelheader so you just have to put your days in on the water and success will come.
The crew of guides at Big Pine are a close knit group and it was great to see all the similarities between that lifestyle and us BC Steelheaders. We had some epic nights eating incredible seafood, drinking beer and laughing endlessly with the Spanish Fly gang. Huge props to the Jose Wejebe Spanish Fly Memorial Foundation who do an amazing job of allowing fishing dreams to come true to those that truly need and deserve a day on the water. If you are interested in learning more check them out here http://www.josewejebefoundation.org
My longtime friend Brandon Sharp was guiding all week but we made sure to catch up at the Tikki bars each night for some old school guide talk. It was Ryan Phinney that we ended up fishing with all week. Fishing along side me in the Keys was Epic Waters Manager Joel Gourley who was the only one of many that actually made it down. Joel had struck out miserably on his last several attempts at Tarpon fishing due to weather events. However this time we were in for some Epic conditions and a tarpon trip you only dream of.
Phinney worked under me in Alaska for 6 years on the Kvichak river when I was managing a lodge, and his ability to find fish has clearly translated from trout to tarpon. He has a quiet confidence that all guests learn to love after spending some time with him. Now he has nearly 15 years guiding in Bristol Bay and I guarantee, you will be hard pressed to find a better guide to target those huge Kvichak rainbows in Bristol Bay. He knows that river better than anyone on the water and if you want to know who he is, look for the boat with a double header on rowing by you time and time again.
Phinney is still considered the new guy in the Florida Keys but make no mistake, he will continuously end up in the right place at the right time. We showed up to see the famous worm hatch under the Bridge at Big Pine and it was well worth it. We saw copious amounts of Tarpon and hooked fish every day. Late nights, early mornings, hog fish, lion fish, and happy hour peel and eat shrimp. In the end we probably fed 20 tarpon over our 9 days fishing. The craziest thing we did for laughs was dead drifting a foam worm pattern under the bridge during the worm hatch and going 1 for 3 on rolling takes.
We will be going back for 2017 and are organizing anglers to fish with Ryan Phinney and Brandon Sharp so if you want to join us shoot us an email. Now that we know the lay of the land we can make sure the trip goes perfectly, and you can focus on those incredible fish rather than logistics.
The Tarpon world is very similar to our BC steelhead scene, and I look forward to hanging out with the guides at Big Pine once again. A few of them will be fishing with us in BC this fall which is going to be a lot of fun to show them our world. Steelheaders and Tarpon anglers are the same breed with the same mind set. If you haven't done it, it’s time to check it out.