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



Fishing the flats in The Florida Keys

29 04 2015

I think I’m jinxed.

When it comes to guided trips I have the worst luck for weather.  The conditions never seem to be right.  It’s either to windy or to cloudy or the water is to clear or something.  I have had some great guides but the conditions always seem to be less than optimal.  This held true for my bucket list trip to the Florida Keys to fish the flats for Tarpon, Bonefish and Permit.

Late last year my girlfriend Susan told me she wanted to go back to Key West for the week of her birthday at the end of April.  I already had my laptop up and immediately pulled up fishing charters.  I saw what was available and being a good boyfriend I quickly agreed.  I made a few phone  calls and signed up for an all day trip on the flats for the Big 3 with Captain Gabe Nyblad of Tail Chasin’ Charters.  While I was talking to him, he told me how great the tarpon fishing was at night during high tide and full moon periods.  He asked me if I had a problem with fishing in the dark………..I assured him that I didn’t and booked a trip for the following evening.

The day of my charter started out ok.  We arrived at the marina about 8:30 and waited for Gabe.  It was a little overcast but what bothered me was the wind.  It eventually got up to +20 mph and I knew fly casting was going to be difficult.  Once Gabe arrived, he told me the plan for the day.  He said the overcast skies and wind would make sight fishing for Bonefish very difficult.  He also told me that the Permit were still out in the deeper water and any fish on the flats would be few and far between.  The Tarpon were starting their migration so we were going to try for them first.  Once that was settled, Susan and I grabbed our stuff and climbed into his boat and hauled ass out to the first spot.  After some quick instruction on how this was going to work, I took my spot on the front of the boat while Gabe climbed up on his perch in the back so he could push us a long and spot for fish.  The wind pushed us along nicely but it also clouded up the water.  This meant that I was going to have a short window of opportunity to spot a fish and then put that fly right on his nose.  It wasn’t long and I spotted the first Tarpon coming at us from the stern of the boat.  I made a quick cast in front of him but he swam right past the fly.  This process would repeat itself for the next few hours.  Some of my casts were near perfect, others not so much. Most of the time I was casting into the wind and even though I was using a 12 weight rod and line it was still a challenge.  It was still cool to see those big fish come cruising through.  One was probably in the 150 pound range but like all the others he wasn’t interested.

After our first drift, Gabe asked how determined I was to get one on a fly.  I told him I just wanted to put one in the boat.  A quick change of plans and a stop to pick up some bait and we were on our way to one of the bridges of US 1.  The tide flowing between the pilings acts like a natural funnel and the fish of course congregate around the pilings.  The fly rod was stored now and out came the meat rod with a small live pin fish and a circle hook.  I would cast out in front of the pilings and let the tide drift it into the strike zone.  We saw one tarpon swirl on the surface but like the previous fish he didn’t want nothing to do with my offering.  I did manage to catch a Jack Crevalle.  Nice looking fish.  I figured we would let him go but Gabe had other plans.  Since I told him I wanted to catch something, anything, he decided we were going to head over to The Gulf side of the islands and try for sharks and whatever else presented itself.

After a long boat ride we arrived on another flat area with some mangrove islands around it.  Gabe dropped the fish carcasses in the water and rigged up 3 rods.  The meat rod had a circle hook and a chunk of the Jack on it.  Another rod was rigged up with a rubber snubber with some treble hooks in it for Barracuda.  The third rod was a light action rod that had a live shrimp.  That one was for any Bonefish, Permit, Jack or possibly a Redfish we might see.  This rod I held most of the time since I wasn’t going to get much of a warning if we spotted one of it’s intended quarry.  The sharks were a lot bigger and swam more slowly so they could be easily spotted and give me ample time to switch.  About 20 minutes in, I spotted a shark swimming our way.  I grabbed the other rod and cast the bait a few feet in front of the fish.  She turned on the bait and picked it up.  I reeled hard and once she felt that circle hook dig in she was off and running.  She didn’t make any long runs and pretty much stayed around the boat.  After about 10 minutes she tired and we were able to release her unscathed.  A few more sharks cruised through the area but none of them came into range.  While Gabe was watching behind us, I spotted another shark coming in off the bow.  This was a bigger Lemon Shark in the 5 to 6 foot range.  I made my cast and once he felt that hook he took off for the next 200 yards.  That’s right, he made a 200 yard non stop run before he even slowed down and I could start reeling him back in.  It had been a long time since I have heard a drag scream like that.  Thank God for good reels with good drag systems.  I slowly worked him back in and eventually we got him to the side of the boat for a quick pic and release.  I ended up hooking into two more sharks, one of them right by the boat and we all got to watch him swim up and take the bait which was really cool to see.  After we released him, Gabe wanted to try one more spot before we quit for the day.

We pulled up to another flat area right on the edge of The Gulf and deep water.  Gabe told us that we could see just about anything out here and he was hoping for Bonefish and Permit.  After about 30 minutes, he spotted some “nervous water” which turned out to be Permit.  I couldn’t see them so I made a cast based on his directions.  Unfortunately, I over shot.  A few minutes later Gabe spotted another patch of nervous water and this time I made a good cast in front of them.  They never saw the bait and swam back out to the deeper water.

That was the last cast I would make.  The clouds were darkening up and a big thunderstorm was headed our way.  We locked everything down and hauled ass back to the Marina.  We had a quick chat about tomorrow night and then headed off to a nearby Gabe approved restaurant for dinner.  Good thing we left when we did.  We weren’t in the car 5 minutes when it started to pour.

So that was my trip to the flats, 4 shark and 1 Jack.  I had a great time and will definitely book another trip with Gabe if I ever come back down here.  He took us to areas that most people never see.  The majority of the people that come down here only see what is going on from the road, especially Duvall street and all of the parties, but Susan and I got to see the water and what goes on in a way that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Next time I just hope the weather cooperates.

Open Wide Shark 1

Shark Bait Ooh Ah Ha!

Shark Bait Ooh Ah Ha!

Shark II Shark On II Shark On