Last Saturday I fished with guide Duane Baker out of Key Largo for ocean tarpon. I have wanted to do the ocean-side tarpon fishing thing for a few years, and finally pulled the trigger. I was very lucky to get Duane – he’s accomplished, a relaxed yet precise coach, and an all around nice guy. Along with all of those things, May is the busiest time of year for Tarpon guides in the Keys, and Duane just happened to have an opening on a Saturday.
So, after getting on his calendar a couple months ago, I met Duane at the John Pennekamp State Park ramp in Key Largo, having driven up from Key West that morning. The wind forecast was decent – crazy winds in the morning, followed by calmer conditions. I’d never thrown a 12wt in 20 knot winds, but was excited to try it.
We sped through the mangrove maze of the barrier islands off Key Largo, eventually driving onto a beautiful sand flat. There was nothing there that stood out to me, but Duane immediately anchored, keeping us relatively still in the 20 knot winds. Rather than pole me around, he stood on the deck and scanned the water. He expected fish to come South along one side of the boat, and North along the other side. I didn’t know what to expect, but started looking for fish. I had a 12 wt Orvis H2 in my hands, and the fly was a tiny palolo worm pattern – deer hair body trimmed tight to the hook, and a red leather tail that had been coated with “hard-as-nails” polish to keep it stiff, and prevent fouling. A wind-tamer basket was necessary equipment to keep the fly line from wrapping around everything.
The glare from wind and low sun made sighting fish to our North impossible, and after about 20 minutes of looking, Duane belted out “fish at 3 o’clock”. I looked the wrong way (9 o’clock) and by the time I spun the correct way, the fish was 30 feet past us. It was a tarpon, and was cruising along solo. Two minutes later, another fish, from the opposite direction. This time the glare was so bad Duane didn’t see the fish until it was 20 feet away, right alongside of the boat. In both cases, I wasn’t able to get a cast off, and watched the fish go.
For the next 4 hours, in the heavy wind, Duane would use his push pole to swing the boat one hundred feet to the left or right as fish swam by. Around thirty tarpon in pods of 3-5 fish came by us to the North and South, and in most cases, I was able to get a cast off to them. Tarpon on the ocean-side are notoriously finicky, and only eat if the fly practically floats by their mouths. I had a couple fish give the fly a hard look, with one fish breaking off from his buddies to inspect it, but none of the fish ate, and all continued on their journey without slowing down.
The winds eventually died, and the sea flattened. That’s when the big push came. Tarpon in pods of 10-40 fish, arranged nose to tail, cruised up and down the unseen highway we had parked on. Many fish were in the 120 pound range and visible from several hundred yards away as black phantoms in the water. Duane unhooked us from the anchor, and began poling me around the flats, positioning the boat perfectly for easy casting. I made some poor casts, but I also made many good casts, working my way along each pod as they cruised by. First cast to the lead fish, small strips, pick up, recast to the third, fourth, and fifth fish, small strips, pick up, recast to the seventh, eighth, and ninth fish, small strips. The casting was not terribly hard – most were 25-40 feet out, and in the light winds, I was able to put the fly where I wanted. The fish, however, could care less. I was rejected by at least 50 fish that day.
If you read about the ocean-side fishery in the Keys, you’ll hear that these fish are either migrating, or doing pre-spawn rituals, on these flats. For those reasons, they are more interested in staying in their pods, and not chasing down food. A good angler can get a fish or two to eat in the course of the day, but its not uncommon that none of the fish eat. And on those days, you count yourself lucky to be in a beautiful place, matching wits with ancient fish as they follow a million years of instinct.