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Poon-Tastic by John O'Hearn

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Poon-Tastic by John O'Hearn Poon-Tastic by John O'Hearn

I live and work in the Florida Keys for one single reason: I love tarpon. I love the heavy tarpon fly rods; I love the fanciful tarpon flies; I even love the arcane knots. But most of all, I love the fish....

I live and work in the Florida Keys for one single reason: I love tarpon. I love the heavy tarpon fly rods; I love the fanciful tarpon flies; I even love the arcane knots. But most of all, I love the fish, whether I’m poling down a small point in a backcountry basin looking for a couple of toads or I’m waiting in ambush for armies of tarpon to start marching with the tide. Even if it’s blowing 25 knots and there aren’t any fish around, I don’t care. I love it all. There is nowhere else in the world where the tarpon fishery is so varied. From residents and migrants, to toads and babies, January to December, the opportunities for sightfishing are virtually limitless.

But with all this comes one major drawback: People.

The history and allure of tarpon fishing with a fly in the Keys is well known. Countless thousands of anglers support a year-round fishing industry down here. But all those anglers mean a lot of pressure. With life spans that can surpass a half a century, these tarpon have literally seen everything, but I still smile at the thought that I might be fishing for the same fish that Stu Apte fished for in Loggerhead some 30 years ago. These fish can be hard to catch. Some days they might seem impossible. But trust me, they’re not. I couldn’t pay the bills at the end of the month if they couldn’t be caught. The best part is that they don’t require any top secret fly pattern or closely-guarded presentation strategies. Really, it’s not that hard.

Keep it Simple: The Cast

I like to keep things simple, and every presentation starts with the cast. Now is not the time to teach casting, nor do I have the expertise to do so. Leave that to the Lefty Krehs of the world. There are many great books and articles on the subject, so find one you like and use it. What I can do is discuss a couple of tricks that serve as the foundation for flats fishing. The best part is that they’re easy, too.

Successful tarpon fishing demands complete control of the fly in the water and control of the fly line in the air. The most accurate cast in the world is useless if the fly is not under control, if it is not "activated" at the proper time. Let go of the fly line and slack will be created on the cast. The fly line will often over-run the leader. The time it takes to find the line and strip out the slack often spoils the shot. Stay in control while shooting the line toward the tarpon. Let it slide through your stripping hand. When you think about it, it’s very easy to do. But if you don’t think about it, watch how often you let go of the line. It might be the most common mistake in tarpon fishing, even with experienced fly casters. Hell, I still find myself doing it. Just remember this: Don’t let go of the line. Don’t ever let go.

Don’t Be a Slacker

Boats, currents, wind and aggressively-tapered modern fly line all seem to conspire together to create slack in our casts, even when we don’t let go of the line. To eliminate slack from the cast, try this simple trick I learned from experienced Atlantic salmon and permit angler Nat Reed: Strip before the fly line hits the water. A long, single strip a split-second after the fly hits the water but before the line lands goes a long way in eliminating this problem. The timing sounds more difficult than it is. A little practice and it can become second nature. If you’re still not tight at this point, a quick strip and you will be. Now the fly is in your control from the minute it hits the water. Less slack equals more fish. I like the sound of that.

The First Principle

"I always throw at lips." --Carl Hiaasen

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here when I tell you this one. A tarpon will never—I repeat never—eat a fly that it doesn’t see or feel. This first (only?) principle of tarpon fishing is the foundation for all presentations. I want every tarpon within casting range of the boat to see the fly. How do you accomplish this? Well, that’s where things can get a little more difficult. The combination of wind, light angle, fish orientation and direction—not to mention the ever-moving skiff—yields an infinite variety of scenarios.

Maybe the fish are slowly sliding toward you at a 45-degree angle with the wind over your left shoulder at 10 knots (a perfect shot). Or maybe a deep, surly single is laid-up at three o’clock 20 feet away, directly into a stiff 18-knot breeze (not so perfect). Either way, we want the fish to see the fly without realizing how it got there. Too far of a lead on the laid-up fish and she will likely make the boat before ever seeing the fly. Too short of a lead on the sliding fish and she may swim by the fly before there is a chance to animate it. So how close is too close and how far is too far away? Without having to spend tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of days on the water to figure that out, lets see if I can’t simply things a bit.

To start, let’s break down our shot at tarpon into two separate categories: Stationary (laid-up) fish and moving (swimming) fish. Without a doubt, my favorite style of fishing is to pole a long bank in search of nests of laid-up tarpon, which typically happens on a new moon tide in April. Blue skies, fresh winds and air temperatures in the mid 80s will have the fish happy, high and present in good numbers. It may take a couple of stops to find the first fish, but they will be around. These are the easy days, and so are the shots. All I have to do is stop the boat between 40 and 50 feet from the fish and give my angler a 45- to 90-degree shot. When the boat is under control, it’s time to start the cast.







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