‘Baby Tarpon’ or ‘Mangrove Tarpon’ are normally considered to be around 5 to 30 pounds but they can be much smaller (12″) or larger (50#) at times. They live in warm shallow waters along the coast of tropical areas on shallow grass flats, up jungle rivers, in tidal creeks, back in brackish lagoons and can be land-locked in brackish or fresh water lakes. They can survive in salt water, brackish water and fresh water because they can actually breath the air while rolling in the surface. This is how they survive in stagnant shallow water as youngsters.
They might be in ‘gin clear water’ where you can see them take your fly if the light is right or they can be in “dark water” stained almost black from the tannin of the mangrove roots. Here they are gold in color when you see them surface roll to take your fly. In the mornings, when they are more active and “happy”, small Tarpon cruise and roll in the surface which allows you to spot them more easily. They can be very difficult to catch on a fly in the day time in populated areas around cities but can also seem almost suicidal in remote places where they are seldom fished at all.
I have been chasing these exciting beautiful game fish for almost 30 years now and will try to give some information that will help you be more successful in this spectacular fishery. Most of my experience is in the Mexican Yucatan and Belize but I have fished for them in Venezuela and Florida too.
We have a little fishing shack and a vehicle and outboard skiff in Sebastian, FL only one mile from the Sebastian River which has many small Tarpon in it year round. Still mid-summer is my favorite time for Baby Tarpon anywhere.
Baby Tarpon are one of the most exciting game fish on a fly rod and will easily take your fly if they are not aware of your presence. They chase down and attack your fly and will make as many as a half dozen violent strikes on one retrieved cast. In the summer months these fish are actually easy to hook for even average fly fishers. Landing them, as always, is another story. They love to jump and in doing so they fly off the hook with ease. When you are casting to lots of fish daily this is not a problem but more like a blessing because it’s all about the grab and jumps.
TIMING: This is a big part of being successful with these fish. In the warmer months, April through November, they seem more aggressive and up in the warm shallow water. The wind can be much calmer in July and August on open shallow flats which helps you to see them rolling for a greater distance. Traveling long distances in an outboard skiff is much nicer in the mid-summer’s generally lower winds.
July is my favorite month.
In the cooler months of December through March they can be active during the warm periods but a cold front can come down from the north and put off the fishing dramatically too. Winter months are a nice time in the tropics for a fun vacation with a little fly fishing but the summer is best for a “commando fishing trip” for baby Tarpon.
TIDES & MOON PHASE: We like the ‘quarter moon’ phases with the more subtle Neap tides. With the small difference between high and low tide the fish seem to hang around at the edge of the mangroves so we can get to them easier.
Spring tides on the full moon and dark of the moon have higher tides which allow the small Tarpon to go way into the flooded mangroves for cover and to feed which makes it almost impossible to get to them. The Spring tides also have lower low tides which force the fish out of the shallows into the deeper channels where they are not as easy to catch. We also don’t like to go on a full moon because the Tarpon feed at night and are not as hungry in the day time.
DESTINATIONS: The more remote the better. Many parts of the tropics have had active fly fishing lodges for over 40 years now which does change things. It causes the fish to be very spooky because they have been ‘pounded’ for years with the end result being mediocre fly fishing. In many places in the tropics you will see a few small Tarpon daily hiding up small mangrove creeks where you get one cast and maybe a take with a jump and it’s over. That is not good Baby Tarpon fishing.
After fishing many locations for over three decades with groups of customers and friends we have finally found some of the last new unmolested places in the western Mexican Yucatan. This is on the opposite side of the Yucatan from the areas of Caribbean coast that have been popular for over 40 years now.
Today, the best Baby Tarpon destinations I have found are owned and operated by Yucatan Fly Fishing.
Here is a You Tube video clip showing the quality of fly fishing for Baby Tarpon in these remote western parts of the Mexican Yucatan.
**The point of the hook on the fly used above was removed so they could demonstrate how many Baby Tarpon could be brought to the fly in just
7 minutes of fishing.
RODS: We like graphite 9′ rods from # 7 to # 9 line size in 4 piece for travel. Powerful rods with larger guides and a fighting butt are best.
*Have several complete outfits so you can have a back up in case of a failure.
**Be sure to check your ferrules hourly as you cast to be sure they are still fitted tightly.
REELS: Most good quality solid fly reels with a disc drag will work because most of these fish jump so much they seldom get onto the reel. After Tarpon get to be 50 pounds you need to be thinking of a serious big game salt water reel.
**Cleaning the salt water from your reel and backing after a trip is important.
LINES: We use tropical stiffer core weight forward floating lines that are usually one line size heavier than the rod calls for, especially on rods with a powerful tip. 99% of our fishing is done with a floating line because the water is clear, shallow and the fish feed on or near the surface aggressively.
We use short belly lines on 8 to 9 foot fly rods for fishing around and inside the mangrove lagoons and creeks. We use the short belly Sage Bass lines, Rio Outbound Short tropical lines and Redfish lines for tight conditions.
**In heavily fished places around cities where the small Tarpon are “pounded” daily some use fast sinking Clouser minnows and clear slow sinking lines. To me this is not quality Baby Tarpon fly fishing.
LEADERS: We use leaders ranging from 8 to 10 feet depending on conditions. Back in tight cover in mangrove creeks we use shorter leaders so we can have more fly line out to help make casting easier. On open water shallow clear flats and lagoons when the surface is calm we use longer leaders so the floating line does not spook the fish.
We use 20# breaking tippet for the most part so we don’t lose as many flies and so we can strike the fish harder without breaking them off.
We use longer (2 feet) shock / bight tippets than IGFA rules allow (sub-12 inches) because we can tie on more flies without having to change shock tippets as much. We also use longer lighter shock tippet in these clear spooky situations. We are using fluorocarbon shock tippet now, especially in clear smooth water. Clear hard Mason mono is still very popular with many Yucatan guides because it is stiff and clear. It does have a short shelf life so don’t keep it too long. Most give it to the guides when they leave unless they are making a return trip soon. Ande is another popular stiff mono for salt water.
Simple hand tied leader for Baby Tarpon/ Snook/Jacks:
4′ of 30# clear hard Mason mono for the butt section
2-3′ of 25# Mason for the transition section
2′ of 20# for the Mason breaking tippet
2′ of 30# Mason for the bite/shock tippet. (40-50# fluorocarbon is an option.)
**You can adjust these lengths to make the leader longer or shorter depending on the wind. On sunny calm afternoons we like to lengthen our leaders to around 12-15′. Your leader can be connected together with Albright, surgeon or blood knots. We usually use a Homer Rhode or Hufnagel loop knot to the fly.
*After I tie up a leader and tie on a fly I usually hook it on something in the boat and put a steady pull on it for about 10 seconds to set all the knots and be sure it is not compromised.
**After ever fish that is “jumped” or landed you need to check you shock or bight tippet for wear. We usually cut it off and retie it.
FLIES: We are using smaller flies (~2.5″) tied with materials that are soft so the flies have more action and look alive. Rabbit strips, soft chicken hackle and turkey marabou plumbs are popular. Some new soft synthetic furs are getting popular too.
We use a small version of Chico Fernandez’s “Seducer” that is under 3″ long on a #1/0 – #2/0 SW hook. We have these tied special by Bob Scheidt of Fresno, CA. Most other Seducers are tied too long for our liking.
We like high quality Japanese stainless steel hooks that are medium wire with the barb removed or flattened. These hooks don’t need to be sharpened before use and are harder so they stay fairly sharp. We like to have a ceramic hone to clean up the tip of the hook after hooking some fish with them. Most use size # 2 to # 2/0 for baby Tarpon flies.
*Hooks like the Owner Aki have a harder, heavier point that will not bend easily in the hard mouth of any Tarpon.
Good standard basic colors are white, yellow, black, orange and tan. Many patterns will have a red collar on the front of these basic colors. Barring on the fly does add a realistic look to many patterns. Grizzly hackle died is nice for a natural barred look.
We also use lots of top water surface patterns, especially on smooth water during low tide and in the AM and PM. They can be very effective in the mangrove creeks and lagoons. Early and late in the day can be top water time. It is impossible to exaggerate the excitement of top water fly fishing for Baby Tarpon. The takes are explosive and unexpected at times. Hook up ratios with top water flies is lower though……
We use small (#1/0-2/0) versions of the Gurgler, Snook-a-roo, saltwater poppers, Crease fly, LH Floating Minnow, Rainy’s Bubble head popper, Puglisi floating streamers, plus Airheads and Pole Dancers from Umpqua by Charlie Bisharat..
**Fishing barbless or with a small or reduced barb is best for penetration and good hooking of Baby Tarpon.
Clothing & Gear
- We like very light weight, light colored, long sleeve shirts and long pants for sun and bug protection.
- Many use the new “Buff” neck gator for sun and bug protection.
- Have a couple sun hats with chin straps.
- Get some sun or stripping gloves for sun protection.
- Have some water proof sunscreen and bug repellent.
- We like a water proof boat bag for our gear.
- Have a water proof point & shoot digital camera with extra batteries and a charger plus a big storage chip or two.
- We like a large longer SS forceps with a cutter for mono. Good for removing hooks from fish.
- Get a powdered form of something like Gator Aid to add to our bottled water.
- You might bring a light weight hooded rain jacket for those afternoon showers.
FLY FISHING TECHNIQUES
Generally early morning boat rides are the norm to insure the best results because Baby Tarpon are usually very aggressive before noon. Afternoons can be slower or just OK depending on the timing of the tides. Evening can be good again. Mid-afternoons can be tough especially with a slack tide and no wind.
We recommend that you have your guide check out your leader or install a new one right off. Then let them go through your flies and pick out a good one and tie it on for you. This way it shows respect and you will have the right leader and fly for that day.
Also forget all the advise your friends or I have given you and listen to your guide.
Your guide will usually tell you on a clock face where the fish are and then in feet or yards or meters how far out they are out and what direction they are traveling in. “One o’clock at 60 feet going right” means they are slightly to the right of straight ahead off the front of the deck and out about 60 feet traveling to the right.
Our fly fishing for Baby Tarpon is done 90% from poled outboard power skiffs. This casting is not generally far but should done as quickly as possible and accurately too. Our best candidate for this type of fishing is a person who has fly cast from a boat. Also someone who is used to throwing medium size flies is going to fair better. Even though this is not any where near as demanding as fly fishing for giant Tarpon in the Florida Keys, it does demand some level of casting skill.
After getting up on the front deck we usually strip out some line and make our longest cast and then strip the line in and coil it on the deck. If some of the line flows down off the front deck to the lower middle deck it is OK.
Your fishing partner is supposed to help manage your fly line as you cast and strip it back into the boat.
All three of you are supposed to be a team in spotting fish.
** Fly casting skill is the biggest limiting factor in all salt water fly fishing.
Second limitation is the ability to see fish under water or to see “nervous water”. Having high quality optically ground glass Polarized glasses is a must. We like light brown lenses for normal high light situations and yellow / amber for low light. If you need glasses to drive, you will need to buy some good Polarized glasses with your prescription. For one color I would go for light brown . Have something to clean your glasses because you will get salt water spray on them.
You need to cast in front of a cruising Tarpon but not too far in front because they are lazy and also might not see it. If they are not spooked you can put a fly down 3 feet in front of them. If it takes you more than two quick false casts to get your fly out and down in front of a rolling fish you will not be able to be sure it is still traveling in that direction or has actually made a big change in direction.
Start stripping to get the fly moving as soon as possible, especially if you have landed the fly very close to the cruising fish. They usually don’t like a free falling fly. If you cast way out in front of a cruising fish in clear water your guide might tell you to “stop stripping” for a moment and let the fish or school get closer to your fly, then start stripping again. We have started and stopped numerous times on one cast.
If you cast so your fly is swimming along in front of Tarpon in the same direction they might take it more consistently. They are lazy. I think they love to swim up directly behind an unsuspecting small fish or crustacean and inhale it. If you cast too far across their nose you will be stripping the fly right into the fish which is not normal for small fish to be doing. This will usually spook them like crazy. They will also spook if they swim under your floating fly line in clear water.
In clear shallow water with the sun high above you with no clouds or wind you can usually see them very well, especially on a light colored bottom. This is the ultimate situation. It is wild to see your fly moving under water in front of a fish or more likely a school (6 to 12) of small Tarpon. When one or more sees your fly and starts to race for it you have to force yourself to not react too quickly. Keep stripping and wait till you feel the fish. When the line comes up tight you merely “strip-strike” the fly quickly into the fish with your rod down pointed directly at them or slightly off to the side if they are larger fish.
**Please don’t raise your rod to set the hook on even really small Tarpon. Their mouth is so hard you will usually not get them hooked well. After several quick jabs raise the rod and have a good bend in it. Then be ready to “bow” or push your rod forward to release the pressure while they immediately jump. As they enter the water start “strip-striking” them again and just fight them by stripping the line in when you can.
**Don’t ever try to get the fish “on the reel” because while you are doing that they will normally jump and you will loose them. Any decent size fish (30#+) will usually take out the extra line and get on the reel themselves. Most small tarpon (under 20#) are landed by stripping them in like a black bass, pan fish or trout.
Another big problem is many don’t keep their rod tip down close to the water and pointed almost directly at the fly while stripping. If you are off to the side with a big angle between you and the fish you will not have a tight line when they take the fly. Consequently you will not get good hook penetration and merely experience a lot of “jumped” fish. Small Tarpon are harder to hook than big ones.
For fighting the fish we recommend laying your rod low moving it from side to side keeping the fish off balance and being ready for subsequent jumps. Like Atlantic Salmon, Sailfish, Steelhead, Rainbow Trout and Dorado these fish seem to enjoy jumping. They always seem to jump at the end of the fight right at the boat.
**We usually fish bare footed on the front casting deck of an outboard powered flats skiff so we can tell when we are standing on our fly line.
Let me know if you have any other ideas or comments to ad to this article. I’m not the leading expert on baby Tarpon but I have been doing it for some time and have been outfitting many anglers and taking groups for them too.
Be sure to get a tune-up casting lesson before you go and do some practice casting with your baby Tarpon outfit. Use a Tarpon leader and fly with the point removed for practice on water.
If you have any questions feel free to email or phone me at any time.
Bill Kiene’s Fly Fishing Forum