For beginners and experts alike, just the idea of hooking a tarpon on fly sends the mind racing. Once that idea becomes a reality, the desire to repeat the process consumes all. But it's the mental images these great fish provide that make us obsess over them--freeze frames that only anglers can fully appreciate, such as the instant a tarpon hones in on a fly or the moment a freshly hooked fish breaches. No matter how many times you see them, these images never get old. No two are the same, and each captivates our imagination.
Fly Fishing in Salt Waters talked in depth with tarpon scholars Bill Bishop, Capt. Bruce Chard and Capt. Bob LeMay to extract some of their wisdom. Follow their advice, and with some luck, your catch numbers will increase this season. More importantly, you'll acquire a lot more mental images to obsess over in the years to come. Each interview is printed in full in the following pages:
Boca Grande, Florida
Author of High Rollers: Fly Fishing for Giant Tarpon
FFSW: Along beaches, tarpon often run specific lines. Is there a way to determine where those lines are, and if there is, what's the best way to position yourself?
Bishop: The lines tarpon run on the beach are determined by contours on the bottom. During the winter months, when the water is extra clear, I'll run the beaches just to see how the bars and contours from the previous season have changed, and I also look for new bars and contours.
Once you establish where these are, you simply position your boat in a way that allows you to make close to head-on shots at fish running that contour. Be flexible about where you stake up. Sometimes a move as short as 15 feet makes all the difference in the world.
FFSW: What's the ethical way to approach a lineup of tarpon boats on the beach?
Bishop: Well, my feeling is that there are plenty of lines tarpon run on the beach, and I always prefer to find my own. However, if you do want to get in the lineup, as a general rule, approach from a good distance - at least a couple of hundred yards - from the outside. Before you enter a lineup, take some time and study the boats. If you do, it's normally pretty easy to determine where the fish are running and which way they are running. Once you figure that out, as long as you approach from a distance, either by poling or using a trolling motor, and put yourself at the end of the lineup, you won't be stepping on any toes.
FFSW: Can you still catch fish if you are at the end of the line?
Bishop: Well, you've got to remember that even though the end of the line is the D spot, when the tide changes, the D spot often turns into the A spot.
FFSW: Do you fish only the strings of fish, or do you focus on the singles, doubles and triples?
Bishop: Seeing a string of 40 fish is exciting. However, I'd rather fish the singles, doubles and triples. A large string of fish has a central nervous system, and all I mean by that is that if you make a presentation to the lead fish in a large string and it doesn't like your fly, the odds of the 39th fish in the string eating is extremely low. However, when you cast to singles, doubles and triples, they have the tendency to be more competitive when it comes to an easy meal.
FFSW: What is the most common mistake anglers make fishing off the beach?
Bishop: I see anglers casting too early all the time. They believe that by making an 80-foot presentation, they will have wiggle room to make a couple of shots if the fish doesn't eat on the first cast. You always want the mentality of, "I'm going to hook this fish in one shot." It's one thing to say that, but in order to do it, you have to study the fish. The most important thing you must learn is where that fish is going to be. Once that's determined, take your eyes off the fish, focus on the spot where it will be and drop your fly right there.
FFSW: It's generally agreed that in order to be a good tarpon angler, you've got to know how to feed fish. While that sounds like a simple concept, it's not. How should anglers think about feeding tarpon on the beach?
Bishop: In my book, High Rollers, I compare feeding tarpon to playing with a cat in your living room. Say you are holding a piece of string that's stretched out across your living room floor, with a feather attached to the opposite end. Suddenly your cat enters the room as it normally would. It doesn't see the feather because it's too far away, but when it gets close enough, you ever so slightly tug on the string to make the feather move. If you tug too much, the cat will probably spook and run to another room. But if you move it just right, the cat will notice the feather, crouch down and watch it intently, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on it. That is precisely how you should go about feeding a tarpon.
FFSW: Speaking of High Rollers, in it you talk about how important it is to always target the lead fish in a string. If the lead fish doesn't eat, is it worth casting at successive fish?
Bishop: Yes and no. If the lead fish doesn't eat, resist the urge to pick up and cast again. Instead, try and feed the second fish on the same cast, and so forth.
FFSW: Do you have a particular go-to fly for beach fishing?
Bishop: You know, I used to, but I honestly couldn't say that I have a go-to. I tend to lean toward long, thin and sparsely dressed patterns in light colors, especially when the water on the beach is really clear. Basically, I want to be able to read a newspaper through my beach flies.