Florida Keys Tarpon

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Florida Keys Tarpon
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Giants In The Middle Keys
In early April schools of giant tarpon start sneaking into "Back Country" ; that amorphous conglomeration of mangrove islands, reefs and flats on the Gulf side of the Florida Keys.  When Captain Chris Morrison of Marathon, Florida invited us on a tarpon hunt in the Back Country we jumped on it.  Chris told us, "The area around Marathon in the Middle Keys can be loaded with fresh, laid-up tarpon that haven't seen a fly.  Many of these fish will weigh 100-200 pounds.  You will get lots of shots, but don't expect these fish to be easy.  They are shy and hard to hook and when you hook one they will be exceptionally powerful in the oxygen rich cool water."

A school of giant tarpon prowl the Florida Keys.  Photo Mark Bachmann 2004.

  I had been tarpon fishing several times before, but had never landed one over 70 pounds.  Plus we hadn't fished the Florida Keys, which is the most famous tarpon fishery in the world.  That gave us the perfect excuse.  It's research you know.  We have always wanted to see what fishing for large tarpon in Florida is like.   

We joined Chris on the morning of March 29.  After a short run in his Dolphin flats skiff we were over tarpon almost immediately.  They looked like black logs suspended lazily just below the choppy surface.  For me they were difficult to see.  It had been a long time since I had done any of this kind of fishing and my skills were terribly lacking.  It wasn't long before the first spot was completely trashed with bad casts and all the fish were down. My performance in the next spot wasn't a lot better, but after several missed shots the fly landed in the sweet spot two feet in front of and three feet beyond a fish that was quartering toward me.  The tarpon took fly turning away with such force 
A giant tarpon tears line of the reel.
that the line burnt my hand.  I struck back several times. Then the fish went berserk; rocketing its seven foot long body high into the air several times as the line melted off the reel.  There aren't words that can describe the helpless feeling.
Keep your center of gravity low and enjoy the ride.

The twelve weight rod that felt like such a "stick" before I left Oregon now feels puny against such ferocious power.  After ten minutes and several more sky walking jumps, the hook which had been driven so deep into the flesh pulled free.  Twenty minutes later the second tarpon took  the fly coming head on toward me and pushed enough slack into the line that I thought it missed the fly completely. Chris who saw the whole sequence from the poling tower, yelled for

me to set the hook, which I did as the fish went passed the bow of the boat.  To my surprise, it was hooked and bolted a couple of hundred yards of backing off the reel without jumping.  It stayed down and nearly half an hour passed before we saw the size of the this fish. Then it jumped twice.  Chris said it was a little smaller than the first fish.  Who Knows?  It didn't look that much different to me.  Tarpon are able to gulp air into their swim bladders and absorb 

Landing a big tarpon takes endurance.
oxygen from  the atmosphere.  This action enables tarpon to live in oxygen starved water or supercharge themselves as they are being
Mark and Capt. Chris.

played on a hook and line.  The trick is to keep a fish from gulping by pulling its head down by sticking your rod under water and giving it a "down and dirty".  I wasn't able to keep this tarpon from gulping and the fight went on for two and one half hours.  Finally Chris grabbed the tarpon by the lower jaw with both hands and hoisted it across the bow of the boat for a quick picture and a length measurement  and a picture.  It was 78"; easily the largest tarpon I had ever landed.  Chris estimated the fish at 130 pounds.  It was returned to the water where it revived  instantly.  I, however was exhausted. 

Capt. Chris Morrison
Is a real good guy to know if you are going to fish the Florida Keys for tarpon.  Chris works hard and is very much in tune with the incredibly productive environment that he guides in.  He is very well organized and extremely energetic.  Chris is quietly controlled constant motion.  He uses a immaculate, Dolphin flats skiff with a perfectly tuned 90 hp Yamaha motor.  He is liberal with flies and quick at rigging very strong, reliable leaders.  Chris understands tarpon and where they will be concentrated. He sees well and gives quiet, precise directions. 
"I guess the best thing that I can say about Chris is that I plan on fishing with him the same week next year", 
Mark Bachmann

Capt. Chris Morrison
Home Phone: (305) 743-6948
Cell Phone: (305) 393 - 2353
Web Site    
Capt. Chris Morrison

Tarpon. Tarpon have been called "The Silver King"....King of fly rod game fish. The reputation is well deserved. Big tarpon can be truly intimidating. Medium size tarpon can be exhausting. Baby tarpon can be exhilarating, miniature replicas of their behemoth parents.

Tarpon remind me of over-sized, lazy trout in a very rich lake. They have their feeding cycles but don't waste any energy. They are however, capitalistic feeders and will often take nearly any fly if it is really easy to catch. A straight-on shot will usually get results. The odds go way up if the fly is presented at a level slightly above the fish's eyes and retrieved at a pace to keep it about two feet ahead of his nose for at least five seconds.  Fly action is important. Flies that have a lot of wiggly, flowing materials are most productive. Tarpon are 

Big tarpon.

Baby tarpon.

nearly like steelhead in that they move freely between fresh and salt water. Tarpon can migrate many miles inland, up rivers and roam head water lakes and creeks. Some jungle rivers are turbid. At times, usually during freshets, tarpon seem to enjoy the cover. As in all rivers, when there is bed load shift, there are a lot of prey species exposed for exploitation. Tarpon within these turbid rivers can be very aggressive feeders.  The greatest of these tarpon rivers in Central America is the Rio Colorado, which is the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Silt load from the 

Rio Colorado stains the blue water of the Caribbean for several miles. Tarpon school here in unbelievable numbers. The trick is getting them to find your fly in the muddy water.  

Dan Blanton has fished this area a lot. He reasoned that if tarpon couldn't see the fly, maybe they could hear it. He fastened large, hollow bead-chain eyes to a bulky fly. It was an instant success. The holes in the bead chain act the same as air blown across an open pop bottle. They whistle. That is what he called it, the Whistler. Whistlers are productive anywhere tarpon hold in deep or muddy water.

We have modified the Whistler series for the jungle river waters of southern Belize such as the Monkey River which in flood can be nearly thick enough to plow. These flies are tied with extra large eyes, and are heavily dressed to buck a lot of water. Fluorescent feathers and hair are combined with liberal amounts of holographic flashabou for maximum visibility. 

Brian O'Keefe and a West African tarpon.
187 pounds

Tarpon Flies Tarpon Fly !!!Tarpon Fly !!!
of outstanding quality  are offered at sensible prices 
Tarpon are the largest members of the Herring family.  Pictured left is Brian O'keefe with a 187 pound #20 test IGFA record tarpon caught in Sierra Leon, West Africa.  It stood as the #20 pound record until last summer when the record was taken by a 202 pound Florida tarpon caught by Jim Holland of Vancouver, Washington.  The long standing #16 pound test record is a 188 pound fish caught by Billy Pate.  These huge fish will test any and all gear.

 It is for those times 
that a wide selection of flies is worth every dime you have invested.

ALF Tarpon Baby Tarpon Tarpon Bunnies
Keys Style Page 1 Keys Style Page 2 Whistlers

Tackle For Giant Tarpon
When you play the big tarpon game, you need a rod/reel/line combination that will deliver pin-pont accuracy at ranges from 40'-65'.  It has to load easy under windy conditions and deliver large flies and bulky leaders with precise control. Above all your outfit must be designed to deliver silky smooth drag pressure under a steady load of 6 pounds pull and peak pressures of over 12 pounds. This is no place for anything delicate or temperamental.  Any distraction caused by your tackle can lead to immediate defeat. You want an outfit made from proven components.  The directory below will take you to the proven rods,  reels and lines.
Rods Sage 1190-4Xi2, 1290-4Xi2 Very durable and powerful with smooth performance.  Works best for tarpon fishing if over loaded one line size.  
Winston 1290-4 B2X A sensational rod that handles many kinds of fly lines.  Very lightweight, yet incredibly durable.  Seems to be a true 12-weight at tarpon ranges.
Reels Abel Super 12 Abels have less moving parts than other reels.  All of the parts are made precisely. No expense is spared.  Totally reliable if well maintained.  Smooth under pressure.
Tibor Gulfstream Tibor Reels are made in Florida and are tested regularly on giant tarpon.  The current World Record 202 lb. tarpon was landed with a Gulfstream.
Lines Mastery Tarpon Lines The makers have a lot of experience. 

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