As you may have learned from reading this blog, my darling fiancé Ryan is obsessed with fly fishing. Actually, I’m not sure obsessed adequately describes his passion and commitment to the sport. Usually, he can be found fishing for his beloved brown trout in the rivers and streams in Missouri, Arkansas, Montana and Colorado.
But the ultimate saltwater fly fishing experience is flats fishing for tarpon. Tarpon are large silver coastal fish considered by many anglers to be the ultimate fly rod target. They grow up to 8 feet in length and sometimes weigh 200 pounds. The tarpon is considered one of the great saltwater game fishes, not only because of the size it can reach and its accessible haunts, but because of its fighting spirit when hooked; it is very strong, making spectacular leaps into the air.
A normal tarpon fly rod outfit uses 10-12 weight rods and reels spooled with appropriate line and using a class leader tippet of 12-20 lb. Pretty light tackle where the fish may weigh 10 times or more than the breaking strength of the leader! Typically an angler stations himself on the bow of a shallow water flats boat and with the aid of a guide searches for incoming tarpon on the flats (inshore areas of the ocean that are very shallow, typically no more than 3-4 feet deep). When a tarpon is sighted, the guide positions the boat to intercept the fish. The angler usually has no more than 6-10 seconds to cast out enough flyline and make an accurate cast to the fast moving fish. Accuracy and speed are paramount but the task is compounded by the inevitable excitement and nervousness of seeing a fish that may top 180 lb bearing down on the angler. Once the cast is made, hopefully a tarpon sees and pursues the fly. The hookset is difficult due to the hard mouth of the fish which has been likened to the hardness of concrete. For that reason many tarpon throw the hook on the first few jumps. If the hook stays secure, then the fight is on. Tarpon have tremendous endurance and are one of the most exciting gamefish to fight - frequent spectacular jumps, long runs, and stubborn bulldogging are all part of the game. The average angler can usually land a tarpon anywhere from just under one hour to more than three hours.
A few years ago, Ryan had his first taste of tarpon fishing in Key West, Florida. We flew down there for his birthday, giving him the chance to spend one day out on the flats with his friend John and their guide Joe. Towards the end of the afternoon, after "chasing silver" all day, Ryan had the perfect opportunity to catch the fish of his dreams. Although he’d been practicing the tarpon hookset all morning, he instinctively set the hook like he was catching a trout, and pulled the fly right out of the tarpon’s mouth. Fish lost…John’s turn. John, after learning the hookset lesson from Ryan’s painful loss, ended up catching a tarpon immediately. Although thrilled for his friend, Ryan was devastated and vowed revenge on the tarpon.
For the following two years he thought about the tarpon that got away. He became determined to have another opportunity to catch one. He read books and articles. And he began watching a show on the Outdoor Life Network called "Chasing Silver," all about tarpon fishing. Each episode of Chasing Silver was filmed in a different tarpon hot spot. Locations included Key West, Belieze, Boca Grand, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, etc. But his favorite episode was called "Location X."
Location X was an undisclosed location, where veteran tarpon anglers were blindly taken to experience the best tarpon fishing of their lives…on film. In a cloud of secrecy, the anglers are transported to a clandestine spot to fish with a masked guide, lured by reports of large, willing tarpon in shallow water. Passing through dark mangroves identified only by a lone stake with a black 'X' burned into its weathered surface, the unsuspecting anglers travel to wide, mottled flats backed by a featureless shoreline. It all looks normal enough, even sedate. Then they are awakened by some of the most spectacular tarpon eats yet captured on film. Pretty exciting stuff, and I don’t even fish!!
So last year for Ryan’s birthday I wanted to surprise him and take him tarpon fishing again. I knew he’d be thrilled about spending a few days fishing and hanging out in Key West, on the beach. Unfortunately, I waited too long to book Ryan’s usual guide Joe, who was unavailable (he said was completely booked by December). He looked into finding us another guide in the Keys, but no one had any days in April or May available. It appeared that Ryan was going to miss his chance to chase silver.
However, I had a call in to our good friend Steve, an incredible fly fisherman, who works for Orvis. He knew how badly Ryan wanted a tarpon and was determined to make it happen for him. One afternoon I got a giddy phone call from Steve who told me that he had two days guided tarpon fishing for us, but we had to say yes and not ask any questions. Hmmm…what does that mean? He needed an answer right away. That wasn’t a decision I was comfortable making secretly without getting any feedback from Ryan. I didn’t know where we’d be going, how long we’d be away from work, how expensive it’d be or any other details…and I couldn’t ask!
I immediately called Ryan and told him what I’d done. He was incredibly excited at the thought of tarpon fishing, but was apprehensive about agreeing to something without having any idea what it was we were signing up for. He called Steve and convinced him to give us the basics. Turns out, Steve got him two days of tarpon fishing, in Location X, with the guide from Location X!!!! Ryan was freaking out!! Steve said this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and not to pass it up. We still didn’t know where it was, but we agreed to go and booked the guide!!
A month later, now having all the details, we boarded our plane and headed to Location X. It was an amazing place. We had the guide booked for two days, but unfortunately, due to bad weather, Ryan only got one good afternoon of tarpon fishing. I even got to tag along and take pictures! We got up hours before dawn and headed to our top secret destination. The morning wind was rough and the water was choppy. Since tarpon fishing is all done by sight, it didn’t really work until the sun came out. In the afternoon, we saw about 15 tarpon, 6 sharks, some dolphins, and all kinds of jacks. Ryan did great - he hooked a couple, but didn’t manage to land any. Those fish can really jump!! But he learned a lot about tarpon fishing, and had an amazing experience. Still, the silver fish eluded him again.
However, the days we booked with the guide became ours – meaning we have them every year until we cancel. So, we’re going back!! We leave on Monday for Location X!! This year, it’s ON!! Happy hunting Ryan!!