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Tarpon armor
As I was sifting through my notes from our recent trip to Tarpon Cay Lodge on the Yucatan Peninsula, I remembered stuffing a bunch of tarpon scales in one of my fly boxes. I had gathered these scales from the floor of our panga one afternoon. They had come from a sabalito that jumped into our boat unannounced and unhooked, whizzed past my nose and went berserk in the bottom of the boat. Last night, I went to my gear room and as I was looking for the scales, I started to make mental notes on what I learned on this trip. 

After much consideration, (a.k.a. daydreaming), this is what I came up with… Here are my takeaways and lessons learned for fishing baby tarpon (sabalitos) on the Yucatan Peninsula. Hopefully, these thoughts will help visiting anglers put more tarpon in the air and ultimately, in the boat:
(Many Thanks to Doug Jeffries for some important additions!)


-First and foremost, relax, take it easy, you're not going to boat every tarpon you hook. You WILL jump many more tarpon than you put in the boat.

-Retie your fly after each fish or at least carefully inspect your shock tippet for abrasion and knicks. If in doubt, retie.

-Use as long a leader as you can comfortably turnover. Tarpon can definitely see the fly line in the air so false casts over fish or too short a leader reduces your odds significantly.

-I prefer black hooks especially over dark turtle grass bottoms. Flies tied on black hooks seem to spook fewer fish.

-Use flies that float (for the rios) or have neutral buoyancy  (for the outside flats). Flies should be tied so to offer a soft landing if properly presented.

-Sharpen your hooks! Sharp hooks penetrate tough tarpon jaws much better. Check your hook every time you cast into the mangroves, snag the bottom or a sunken log, and after every fish take.  Drag the hook point across a fingernail without putting any downward pressure on it.  A sharp hook should "hang up" or grab onto your fingernail, a not-sharp-enough hook will slide across the nail without hanging up. Keep a small diamond file handy.

-Pinch your  barbs!  If not for the fish, then for your guide, your partner and of course, you!  A barbed hook buried in the back of your head is not a good thing! Plus it certainly makes releasing a fish much easier.  


-Remember you know how to double haul. It's amazing how many anglers know the double haul, but forget to use it in the pressure of the moment.

-You should help your fishing partner manage his fly line as he casts and strips it back into the boat. This is especially important on windy days.

-Your fishing partner, your guide and you should be acting as a team. 

-If it is very windy try standing a little farther back on the deck and stripping your line into the footwell behind you. Here, your partner can grab your line and help you manage it and keep it from going overboard or under the boat.  

-If you cast too far, you will be stripping your fly into your target fish. A too long cast presents your fly abnormally to your target tarpon. Prey species do not move towards predators. A fly coming at a tarpon will usually spook the fish. Also, you need to cast in front of cruising tarpon, but not too far in front, as they then might not see it. 

Now is your time to choose direction, velocity and distance.

-Start stripping your fly the moment it lands, especially if your fly has landed very close to the fish. A stationary fly is lifeless and at best, will not elicit a response. At worst, it will spook your tarpon. If you cast too far in front of cruising fish your guide will often say “stop stripping”. This will let the fish get closer to your fly. He will then tell you when to start stripping again.

-If a tarpon misses you fly on a strike, make a long slow strip to allow the fish to find your fly again, then begin short, quick strips once he has found your fly.


-Do not strike as soon as you see the fish hit your fly. This is too soon. If a Tarpon takes a fly from behind, stop stripping to let the fly into the fish’s mouth, then strike. If the fish takes while swimming towards you, set the hook several times in quick succession if possible.

-To set the hook properly keep your rod tip down next to the water's surface pointed directly at the fish while strip-setting. If you are off to the side, you will not have a tight line when they eat and you  WILL NOT get a good hook set. Do not raise the rod tip trout-style, you WILL NOT get a good hook set.


-Once you feel the weight of the fish, put the rod butt against your belly, rotate your body moving the rod sideways as you come tight. Do not use too much power as now is when the tarpon jumps… 

-When your tarpon jumps, be ready to “bow”. Bowing means to push your rod forward while also lowering the rod tip. This releases the pressure on the fly during the tarpon's gill rattling, mouth open, head-shaking jump. It is then much harder for the tarpon to throw your hook. As your tarpon reenters the water start stripping in the line until you are tight again.

-Don’t worry about getting the fish “on the reel” because while you are occupied doing that they will inevitably jump and you will lose them. Bigger fish will usually get on the reel themselves. Smaller tarpon (under 15 lbs.) are best landed by stripping them in and bowing when they jump.

-Fight the fish with your rod tip down almost parallel with the water's surface... not vertically. If you hold the rod tip up, you generate much less power, you allow the tarpon to gulp air and you will come unbuttoned much more often. Fighting the fish to the side allows you to pull the fish in the opposite direction he wants to go thus wearing the tarpon out more quickly.

-Many fish are lost when a tarpon jumps at the end of the fight near the boat. Here, your leader is is stretched and possibly frayed as often is your concentration. Keep focused! At this point, you don’t have the luxury of the fly line stretch to cushion the fish’s movements. When a tarpon is close, you must pay close attention and react quickly and precisely. 

Do not lift a tarpon out of the water by only its lower jaw.


-Get your fish back in the water as soon as possible. If you catch a fish you want to photograph, keep it in the water, have someone get your camera ready, and when all is set, lift the tarpon by the lower jaw and support its weight with a hand under its belly. Take the shot and quickly get the fish back into the water.

-Absolutely never ever hold a tarpon up by its lower jaw or with a Boga Grip out of the water. This can fatally injure the muscles in a tarpon jaw and prevent them from feeding efficiently, eventually resulting in starvation.  

-Same with lip gaffs often seen used on larger fish.  That tears a large hole in the thin membrane of the lower jaw. The result is the tarpon cannot produce enough suction to inhale their prey and feed efficiently.

-After you revive your fish and release it, take a deep breath, smile and celebrate with a cool drink from the cooler. You deserve it! 

Doug Jeffries and Steve Peskoe enjoy a Sol after a great day on the flats!