Getting Silly with It – Chasing Tarpon on a 3 weight…

To a flyfisherman, the word “Tarpon” conjours up great visions of leviathan sized creatures, armour plated beaten silver heavyweights, exploding into the air over a gin clear flat, gill rakers rattling like the springs on the old farm truck as it drives over a cattle grid, a bewildered angler clinging to what seems like an all too insufficient 12 weight as they battle to stay composed, let alone in control….

The word “3 Weight” on the other hand to most fly anglers, would bring about the thoughts of high mountain creeks, stalking wily browns and rainbows… 5x, 6x or even 7x tippets..Mayflies and damsels,  gentle casts, painting dries onto the water like dandelions caught in a gentle spring breeze…. The quarry themselves beautiful gentle shy creatures that require a stealthy and measured approach….

So for most of us, Tarpon and 3 weights are much like Oil and Water… or Sardines and Condensed Milk… they just don’t mix…

Not all Tarpon are 100lb heavyweights however… big Tarpon have to start their lives somewhere along the line as little Tarpon… and to become big tarpon, they need to eat.. a lot… and unlike their often times sulky, belligerent lock jawed bigger older family, the juvenile Tarpon is a far happier, hungrier and more accommodating kettle of fish… Another beauty of these big little minnows , is that one doesn’t need a fancy flats boat, crystal clear flats, thousands of rands worth of flies and a world famous guide to catch them..

Throughout the Caribbean, there are quite literally 1000’s of miles of back country waterways that hold juvenile tarpon… a lot of it which is reachable on foot, if you’re of an adventurous spirit, don’t mind the odd ” No Entry” sign, and can handle the Mosquitos, there is some fun to be had out there in amongst the mangroves…

Juvenile Tarpon fishing has gained a fair amount of fame over the last few years, with a lot of guides offering Juvie Tarpon focused trips nowadays, rather than them just being a “Day Saver” when the “real” Tarpon don’t cooperate… Some honest anglers will even admit to enjoying the Juveniles more than their larger brethren, because despite their smaller size, the exhibit all the attributes and personalities of their bigger cousins that make them such an addictive quarry.. they go like stink, jump like a demon possessed and they love flies… even better is they love surface flies…. And where jumping 3 or 4 big tarpon in a morning and landing 1 is considered a damn good days fishing, the little fellas generally will offer you far more shots, far more eats, far more hooked and landed fish at the end of the day… This doesn’t necessarily make them an easy quarry, they can still be grumpy, moody, spooky little sons of bitches, but they are a little more forgiving than the big fellas… and lets be honest, as much as we all love the challenge of a difficult fish, sometimes you just wanna have fun, cut loose and catch some damn fish… I guess Juvenile Tarpon are kinda like that Bon Jovi song “Living on a Prayer”… perhaps you won’t admit to loving it, or knowing the lyrics… but when the DJ at whatever dodgy drinking hole/wedding/irish keys in those first few lines, and you find yourself playing air guitar and lip synching into your beer bottle , you know you are having about as much fun as possible on a dance floor… Juvie Tarps are kinda the same thing… few things put such a big and instantaneous smile on your face than watching these things blow up on your fly and go airborne half a dozen times in 10 seconds… these are unpretentious happy making fish…and I love em..

My first encounter with juvenile Tarpon was nearly 15 years back while living on Grand Cayman… as a 18 year old barefoot scruffy carefree divemaster, I spent a lot of my spare time exploring the island in search of fish… One incredibly warm summer afternoon found me on a mission to try and get to some remote bonefish flats on the Northern tip of the west side of the island… to reach this flat, one has to navigate a huge network of mostquito control ditches/dykes cut into the mangroves… Its hotter than you could every be comfortable in, clogged thick with mosquitos the size of budgies and so humid in there it feels like you are drinking instead of breathing…. Along these raised levvee’s in the mangroves, you have about a metre or so of dark tannin stained water before the thick mangroves start… so essentially its just a raised single lane dirt track with a metre or so of water either side before the impenetrable wall of Mangroves starts…

As you can imagine at this point I was trying my hardest to get through this maze and to the crystal clear flats and cooling breezes I knew were ahead of me somewhere, so my mind was not really thinking if these tiny ribbons of water, all connected together, could possibly be worthy of fishing…

After what was probably the 4th time reaching a dead end in the mangroves, and being no closer to the flats, I turned around and started pedalling my rusty bike back up the track, swatting away the every present mozzies, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted something which changed my fishing career on Cayman instantly, and started my love affair with these incredible little giant minnows..

20 metres along, right next to the mangroves I saw what was the unmistakable vision of a Tarpon rolling… For a split second I thought I was delirious from the heat, and imagining things, but not 5 seconds later the fish rolled again, this time a few metres closer to me…. I was gobsmacked… here in this dark water, barely a metre wide, was a fish that was somewhere between 4 and 8 pounds, and not only that, it was a TARPON!

I dropped my bike, and immediately rigged the 6 weight I had at the time with shaking hands… I figured perhaps this was a fish that got stuck in this tiny water way, but it seemed happy, and maybe I’d get him to eat…

Opening my meager fly box, I only had a couple crazy Charlie type flies, and a few small deerhair slider type creations… figuring the water couldn’t be more than a foot or too deep, and because deep down I’m addicted to any kind of surface eat, I tied on the deerhair slider, and snuck my way down the track, intent on fooling this little critter..

That first cast changed my life…. I flicked that little bug out barely 3 metres because of the tight mangroves around me, and the actual lack of water, and on the first strip a 8 pound tarpon exploded 3 ft into the air, cartwheeling across my frame of vision, with that deerhair bug in its maw, wrapping my leader around a low hanging Mangrove branch and popping the 10lb tippet in the blink of an eye….

I stood frozen and gobsmacked for a full 10 seconds… the shattered silence of the mangroves slowly returned, and I could hear my heart beating in my ears…. This was my kinda fishing!

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My good buddy Dylan who became an absolute master at these little Tarpon
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Fisheyes and Long Arms make for big fish…. First juvenile Tarpon on the first evening back in Grand Cayman in September this year.
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Small fish, big fun
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Dylan locked up on a Tarpon in a typical tight water scenario…

 

It took me another 3 months before I finally managed to fish that bonefish flat, because from that point on, I was addicted to chasing these incredible juvenile tarpon in this crazy maze of mangroves and backcountry tracks…

Having grown up on small pond bassing, this tight quarters fishing for fish that smash topwater flies came almost second nature to me… but now I was chasing fish in the 1 to 10lb range, that went absolutely ballistic on every hook up… and we were absolutely surrounded by miles and miles of these water ways chock a block full of hungry tarpon… and NO ONE else fishing for them…

Over the years fishing for them, and two trips back to Cayman in the last 4 years, we refined our tackle and tactics quite a bit, but in the end it was a case of making it as complicated, or as simple as you wanted… We tied up beautiful intricate deerhair sliders in all different shapes and colours, all of which worked on the Tarpon… but none of them as successfully as a plain old simple black wooly bugger! We started fishing for them with 6 weights, then 5 weights, then custom built 9 weights cut down to 7’ by removing the but section entirely…. We went from 9ft leaders to 7ft leaders down to 3ft leaders….. KISS theory reigned and we ended up fishing a 4ft straight section of 20lb mono and that’s it….

On the last two trips to Cayman, I took over a 2/3 weight Deane rod that was handed down to me when my father passed away… its at least 15 years old, and was my KZN and Cape Streams set up for many years.. I figured it might be a fun, albeit silly , tool to chase tarpon with, seeing as it was designed to chase tiny small stream trout, not angry 5lb tarpon, but I’ve never been accused of being a “conformist” so figured what the hell….

And I’ve gotta say this little weapon has been the perfect tool for these fish… I seriously doubt that Roger Baert thought one of his rods would be abused in such a way, but he unwittingly designed the ultimate Cayman Juvenile Tarpon wand… granted I snapped about 6 or 8 inches off the tip somewhere along the line, so that helped punch the slightly heavy ( for the rod ) deerhair sliders into tight pockets in the Mangroves well, and with little space for the tarpon to go other than up, or along the Mangroves where you could chase after them, this little rod was perfect… Sure we lost a few fish.. every now and then a 15lb juvenile finds its was onto the end of your line and sometimes you get luck and he steers clear of the mangroves, and othertimes you just watch and giggle and hold on while he threads you through the bushes and pops off…

But thankfully there was always another willing eater just round the corner, and 20 plus fish in a 2 hour session was the norm…

I’ve been lucky enough to fish a lot of truly beautiful places, for amazing fish all over the world… but there are very few fishing experiences I enjoy more than walking through these hot sweaty mosquito ridden mangroves, with a 3 weight in one hand, a handful of deerhair sliders and some 20lb leader in my pocket in search of these little giants….

 

Who said you can’t catch Tarpon on a 3 weight?

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Dylan with a cracker juvenile Tarpon. Typical water in the background.
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Dylan with a typical size fish from an area we found that delivered larger than average fish for a couple weeks for us before we got kicked out..
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One of the best things about chasing these Tarpon has been watching my fiancé Leda fall in love with chasing them, and become an absolute wizard at it!
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Double the fun…

 

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Leda kicking ass and taking names again..
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Leda with her first two self tied Tarpon Lollipops…
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Tarpon Lollipops

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Getting Silly with It – Chasing Tarpon on a 3 weight…”

  1. Ulrich says:

    That is awesome dude!!!!

  2. Leonard Flemming says:

    Lekker boet, nice post!

  3. Herman Botes says:

    whoooo , What lekka read

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