Night Time Tarpon

4 05 2015


I knew that someday the Weather Gods would smile down on me and take pity.  Late Wednesday, April 29th, was that time.  It had rained all day long and the wind was in the 20mph range again.  The weather forecasts for the evening weren’t looking any better.  There was a 70% chance of thunderstorms before midnight and the winds weren’t showing any signs of diminishing.  I kept waiting for Gabe to call and say the trip was cancelled but it never came.  The last of the storms blew through around 5:00 pm and the winds died down.  I got a text shortly after from Gabe saying we were still on and to meet him at the marina around 9:45 pm.


We weren’t launching from the same place we started Tuesday.  Gabe pulled up and told me to follow him about 4 or 5 miles north on US 1 to a different launch area.  By 10:00 pm we were in the water and heading to his “Secret Spot”……another bridge.  He gave me a quick run down of the situation and then handed me a 10 wt. rod for which I was to use to do battle with my quarry.  Gabe told me that with the all day rain he was hoping that the shrimp would get flushed out of the mangroves and that the Tarpon would be feeding on them.  Prime time would be in that first hour of high tide and we were in position to take advantage of it.  He told me to cast in between the arches of the bridge and listen for the sounds of a bowling ball hitting the water.  As if on cue, when he said that we heard the tell tale splash of a tarpon feeding.  I was making short 30 foot casts under the bridge arches.  I let the line glide between the handle and my right trigger finger as I made slow short strips with my left hand.  When a fish hit I was supposed to give a hard pull on the line with my left hand to set the hook.  Once that happens I was supposed to let go of the line with my left hand and let it slide between my right trigger finger and the handle until all the slack was taken up and I was tight with the reel.  Only then could I pull back on the rod and let it bend.

Easier said than done.

After hooking and landing thousands of fish handlining, ranging from Y.O.Y. Smallmouth to 4 foot long Muskie’s, letting go of the line isn’t part of my DNA.  It just doesn’t happen.  A very wise Jedi Master once told his young Padawan that “You must unlearn what you have learned”.  It took a little doing (3 busted leaders to be exact) but I finally got it figured out.  Gabe just laughed with each busted leader and lost fly but he said they were busting the water tonight and it was only going to be a matter of time before I got one to the boat.  Things started to change on the 4th fish I “stuck”.  I didn’t bust the leader but she jumped about 3 feet in the air and when she landed she took off for the boat.  I never got a chance to reel in the slack line and she was gone.  Gabe checked the leader once again and re tied the fly.  He would do this after every strike.  Gabe explained the a Tarpon’s head is like a cinder block that is lined with sandpaper.  It is hard to drive that hook home and the 40 pound test mono leader I was using was taking a beating.  Once I was set up again, I went back to casting and it wasn’t long before I stuck another.  This time I did everything right and the fight was on.  This was a bigger fish than the previous ones and instead of staying near the boat he took off between the arches of the old bridge.  We gave chase and I was now fighting the fish in between the old and new bridge.  All I had to do was keep him away from the pilings and out in clear water.  He had other ideas.  Of course, he swam right between two pilings, fortunately for me they were wide enough and we were able to maneuver the boat between them.  Once we did, he took off for open water and we were in the clear.  With some coaching from Gabe I was able to get him to the side of the boat where we could get a light on him and see how big he was.  Gabe estimated him to be in the 70 pound range.  I wasn’t going to argue, he was a beast to me.  We turned our headlamps on and Gabe grabbed hold of the leader to try and remove the hook.  One he got hold of his lower jaw the fish came back to life and he broke free.


I was hooked now.  After a few high fives and fist bumps, Gabe showed me the leader and just how trashed it was.  I could now see first hand just how easy it is for one of these fish to bust the leader.  It was a frayed mess.  Gabe tied on a new section of leader and another little white rabbit strip streamer and I got ready for more.  We headed back “up front” (Atlantic Side) since we landed this fish “out back” (Gulf Side).  A few casts later and I was hooked into another fish.  This turned out to be a Mangrove Snapper, the Bluegill of the Ocean.  We dropped him in the live well and I went back to my routine.  I “stuck” a few more, some jumped and threw the hook, others I just never really got the hook set deep enough.  Eventually I did hook into another smaller Tarpon and after a few brief jumps and short runs we were able to get her to the boat for a quick pic and a release.  This one stayed up front so it wasn’t long before I hooked into another fish.  This one turned out to be a Snook and unfortunately the leader busted before I ever got him to the boat.  It was after midnight now and we were nearing the end of the bridge.  Gabe told me that we had time for a few more casts.  Just like my first steelhead on a fly, on my last cast, at the last arch I hooked into another Tarpon.  This one took off through the arch and we had to give chase.  He was smaller and easier to control so I was able to keep him in between the bridges.  A few more jumps and he was tired enough to bring him to the boat for another pic and release.

That was my night, 3 Tarpon landed, a Mangrove Snapper, 1 lost Snook and I stuck well over a dozen Tarpon.  I have a cut on my trigger finger where the fly line kept rubbing.  My right arm and wrist are very sore and I would do this again in a heart beat.  I love handlining walleye but I would give that up in a second for the opportunity to do this in the evening.  The best thing was that we were the only boat out here.  Gabe told me that he is the only guide that does these night fly fishing trips.  No one else wants to do them.  I can’t understand why, it was a blast!  I was fortunate enough to see what this fishery has to offer.  So many different species and so many different scenario’s.  I could spend a lifetime down here trying to learn it all.  Of course I would still have to make a few trips north to put some walleye in the freezer and freeze my butt off catching steelhead but I would have no problem spending the rest of my time down in the flats chasing Tarpon.

Mangrove Snapper Tarpon 2 Tarpon 3





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