The 3 Best Tarpon Flies a Fly Fisherman Can Choose
Fly fishing expert Ryan Collins overviews three fly patterns perfect for fishing on the flats for tarpon.
Tarpon fishing is one of the most exhilarating types of fishing that can be done on the flats. The first time I saw a tarpon blow up a school of mullet, sending them flying 10 feet in the air, I had a better understanding of the power and beauty of the tarpon itself. To catch one on a relatively-light fly tackle was a rewarding challenge in and of itself, and I wanted to catch one on the fly!
Fly fishing on the flats for tarpon, in particular, is 10 times more rewarding when you hook up and land that first fish. From the hours put in, to the sheer beauty and power of the fish, the feeling while watching your tarpon eat the fly boatside is second to none. The large yet acrobatic tarpon once hooked will leap out of the water—jumping, leaping, and twisting, peeling line off your reel in an instant. Its head shakes like thunder, trying to spit the hook as it blasts off, breaking through the surface of the water in a valiant fight to break free from the line. These tarpons weigh upward of 200 pounds with serious power and speed. A silver torpedo on the flats when it takes off, the tarpon is one of the largest and strongest fighting fish on the flats, yet it is extremely rewarding to catch one on the fly.
When the tarpon are on the flats they feed on a variety of different bait, like mullet, shrimp, and crabs, even sardines. These tarpon are opportunistic feeders and have a few interesting characteristics in the way they move and feed on the flats. They often wait for food to pass by their face to feed. They typically are not picky eaters and will feed on any piece of bait, including flies that come their way.
Also, when the tarpon navigate the flats they typically don’t school as a pod the way they do offshore. These tarpon organize and swim in straight-line formations, one in front of the next, head to tail while navigating on the flats. It’s actually a way for these tarpon to move, feed, and communicate with one another effectively. For as long as man has observed tarpon here in Florida and the Florida Keys, the fish have always navigated on the flats in this particular way.
When the tarpon swim streamline, we find that they are usually feeding 50% of the time and the other 50% of the time covering expansive amounts of water. When they begin to feed, it is actually the second fish in the line of tarpon that dictates if the chain link of tarpon will feel comfortable and begin to feed. Thus, when fly fishing for these tarpon, casting at the second fish in line is most important to generate the first bite of the day, especially on the fly! Understanding the tarpon’s feeding behavior and movements is key to understanding the proper techniques to catch these fish on the fly.
Fly Techniques and Patterns
The Baitfish Fly and Pattern
The first fly pattern that a tarpon angler may choose is a baitfish fly and pattern, such as a mullet, pilchard, or sardine-style fly. These fly patterns are almost all identical in size, ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 inches, and typically represent/reflect similar colors and features such as a large, reflective eye, tapered tail, and shades of white, green, gray, and blue—all commonly associated with many baitfish patterns.
These baitfish patterns work well when fishing for tarpon, among other saltwater and flats-dwelling species, such as snook and bonefish. The fly patterns often represent the typical baitfish forage found in the specific areas on the flats—whether it’s finger mullet swimming the sandy mud flats, a school of pilchards tightly hugging the mangrove edge, or even sardines balling over the grass flats.
These fly patterns are identical to the baitfish typically found in that particular area of the ecosystem, where the tarpon have learned feeding habits and patterns where they periodically feed on these baitfish throughout the year. We find most commonly during the winter and fall that these baitfish patterns work really well to connect with the tarpon that’s moving and staging on the flats.
The Crab or Shrimp Pattern
The second fly pattern that works astonishingly well for tarpon is a crab or shrimp pattern. These patterns are often segmented with two parts of the fly, often with a head or collar and a contrasting tail pattern that has a light-to-dark striping to imitate the look of a shrimp or crab. For the most part, these flies have a sandy tan, pink or copper color pattern scheme. In some cases an additional fabric is laid down on the fly to perfectly represent a shrimp, where even to the human eye it is hard to tell the difference between real and fake.
Note that there are a lot of different color combinations and schemes that usually all have their own effect. There is a wide variety of different sizes, shapes, and shrimp patterns out there that work well to fool tarpon into biting your fly.
Certain times of the year when the moon phases and tides are strong, for example, in the spring, a crab or shrimp pattern is really hard to beat. When the tarpon are keying in and are fixed on the crustacean forage that is moving through their area, this can be an exceptional pattern to use because the tarpon are on the lookout for one of their favorite foods. When you’re able to match the hatch, the tarpon bite can seem like it is on fire, yet there is a simple method to the madness at work here.
All it takes is to be in tune with what the tarpon is naturally feeding on—this little bit of understanding can really make a difference when spending countless hours on the water and fooling these tarpon into biting your fly.
The Toad Fly Pattern
The third fly pattern that works well when fishing for tarpon on the fly is a traditional toad fly pattern, often with a big, puffy head and collar followed by a large, free-flowing tail. These toad patterns range in sizes and colors, but the most commonly-fished colors are bright chartreuse and dark purple or black. When fished properly, these toads pulse through the water to grab the attention of the tarpon as they move over the flats.
One advantage to fishing the toads is that you’re able to draw the attention of the tarpon because of the size of the fly. The tarpon will typically see it and you’re able to get away with inaccurate casting. Often we find that the more aggressive tarpon tend to attack and eat a toad. The spring and winter is a great time to use the toad fly pattern. During the spring and winter transition when tarpon start to move and stage, they sometimes become aggressive feeders and start to chase and hit toad patterns during this time, so the toad pattern is a great fly to fish for large, aggressive tarpon.
These are just a few great fly patterns to key on, but they’ll be perfect for the next time you want to try chasing trophy tarpon on the fly, on the flats.