When tarpon roll, there is subtle disturbance, not a great ripple like following a barracuda strikes at a school of baitfish. The tarpon slips out of the water, takes in a breath of air and slides back into the water there is little more than a distinctive gulping sound and a small ripple left as evidence. For me, the sound attracts my attention that tarpon are near by. On this particular Sunday afternoon, that sound led me to anchor forty feet, quietly standing in my kayak, from rolling baby tarpon in the Lower Florida Keys.
Standing in the kayak, I burned through the glare and into the water. Scanning the edge of the mangroves from right to left through my polarized brown lenses two shapes emerged in the tea colored water. First, I was hit with buck fever and struggled to get line moving to make my first cast. I made two false casts in order to shoot some line and placed the 1/0 Black Death close enough to the lead fish to be spotted. Right as the fly settled past fish eye level, the tarpon turned to inspect the fly.
I am still amazed that in water, some feathers hair and thread tied to a hook can look like a fish or shrimp or crab. Today I gave enough life to the feathers and hair to entice a reaction from this fish. With my best wounded baitfish impression, I animated the fly with two quick strips. On the second strip the small tarpon rushed the fly. From my spot, I watched in amazement as the tarpon opened its oversized maw and take the fly. I waited just a moment, and as the fish turned, I pulled down hard on the fly line and pulled up with the rod handle. The line came tight and I felt the fish on the other end. As soon as the hook bit into the tarpon’s bony mouth, the fish launched into the air rattling it’s gill plates to shake loose the fly, that amazing blend of feathers and hair tied to a hook.
I could feel the fish pulling hard on the line and watch it leaping in the air. I almost forgot to bow because of amazement. Try as I could, it took me a while to clear the loose line and get it back on the reel. Just as I reeled in line, the tarpon would jump or make another short dash towards the kayak and I needed to slack the line or quickly strip in more line to take up the slack. This was a close-in fight, and time seemed compressed. I felt as if the fish was one move ahead of me. I tried to keep my technique as simple as possible and not pull out any fancy moves. I was still too new to tarpon fishing to do anything more than bow, strip and occasionally clear the loose line.
Bare in mind now, this was no giant, probably only a nine or ten pound fish. The fish made up for its size with speed, acrobatic ability and comparative strength. For a small fish, the baby tarpon are truly a scaled down version of their older siblings. If there is a direct relationship between the ability and strength of the baby tarpon to an adult, the large fish must be something to behold. This little one pulled me around and fought for about five minutes before I brought it to the boat, not a bad showing for such a small fish.