I HAD JUST returned from Homosassa, Florida. I had driven 10 hours each way to fly fish for tarpon. I had recently broken three ribs in what remains disputed as either a biking accident or a drinking accident, which required that I ride in the poling skiff with a full-size bed pillow clamped under my arm to cushion the fractures. It was not a “manly” look, and it was not comfortable in the least, and all this underscores how badly I wanted to catch a Homosassa tarpon. Imagine my disappointment when, upon my return home, my wife asked a ridiculous question: “Did you catch a tarpon?”  

I shook my head. Julie should have known better. But she didn’t, and it occurred to me that many others do not, either.

Tarpon 101

Did you catch a tarpon? It’s a question that bedevils many tarpon anglers, and I get it. There’s a certain logic to it. So for all you friends and family of tarpon anglers, let me walk you through the steps of what fly fishing for tarpon is all about, so that you can understand what to ask and what not to ask and how to effectively communicate with a tarpon angler and share in the various levels of success and failure that mark the pursuit. For greater understanding, I’ve italicized the actual Steps to Catching a Tarpon to make it easier to follow.

The first step, of course, is that you actually see a tarpon. Don’t think this is a given. Despite the fact that the fish are often pursued in water as clear as rubbing alcohol, and that a decent-size tarpon is as large as a Doberman pinscher, actually seeing a tarpon is a small victory in itself. It’s akin to when a grouse hunter says that they “moved a bird.” That means that the hunter or the dog bumped a grouse into a wild flush. That doesn’t sound so awesome to me. You can even flush a grouse and never see it, only hear it clatter through the trees, and still count it as “moving a bird.” Such it is with seeing a tarpon while fishing for tarpon. It’s nothing to really write home about, but if that’s all you’ve got for your nine hours of baking on a boat deck, go ahead and put it out there.

Next up: You get a shot. A shot is a chance to cast to a tarpon that you actually see, so we’re moving up a bit on the big-deal scale. A few different things can constitute “a shot.” Certainly, a blown cast is a shot. Cast too far or too short or too wide or too splashy and the tarpon will vanish like smoke on a breeze. You screwed up, but still, you got a shot. That’s not nothing. Even a perfect cast in front of a fish paired with a refusal of the tarpon to eat the fly is a shot. The fish had the chance. You did your job, or most of it, anyway. Sometimes that’s all you can do. And all you get.

But if the fish does not refuse the fly and sucks it down into its gaping dark maw, that’s another thing. Now you got an eat, as the tarpon anglers say—and there are several types of eats. There are crashing eats and sipping eats and sucking eats. The end result is the same: Get an eat, and buddy, now you’ve got a story to tell at the bar.

Don’t get too excited just yet, because getting the fly into the tarpon’s mouth doesn’t mean that you’ve actually hooked the fish; many things can go wrong at this point. For example, the trout set, which is when you try to set the hook by lifting the rod high. That technique works on a trout stream—but not on a tarpon flat. If you do trout-set a tarpon after an eat, expect your guide to scream colorful expletives from the poling platform and threaten to beat you to death with 18 feet of graphite pushpole if he ever sees that again. Don’t ask me how I know this. 

Let’s say you get a shot at yet another tarpon, and glory be, you get an eat and are poised to strike but you haven’t even stuck the tarpon yet. Which is the next level: You stick the tarpon, and you stick him good. You strip-strike hard and you feel the fish turn and run with the fly in his mouth and you stick him a couple more times before he blasts off to the horizon. You have a primeval beast on the line and even if it all goes south right there you have a solid, bona fide, accepted-in-the-tarpon-world victory. But wait: There’s more.

What you really want is to jump the tarpon, which means that the tarpon actually jumps. This may not happen at all. Or, it may happen 15 times. It might happen in less than a quarter of a second after you stick the tarpon or it might happen 30 seconds later when the fish has stripped your reel down to the backing and your first back spasm sets in. When you jump a tarpon, the fish very well might shake the hook loose at the arc of its leap, twisting and shaking with astonishing violence. And if so—and this might be a little hard to understand—that is perfectly OK. In fact, for many anglers, losing a tarpon on the jump is actually a good thing, because now there is no long, drawn-out fight that could exhaust the fish and lessen the chances for a quick, safe release. If this were to happen when you were fishing for bluegill in a farm pond or trout in a stream, you would think: Dang, I lost that fish. But you are tarpon fishing and you have “jumped a tarpon” and you have not lost a thing. You have met the game fish on its home turf, fooled it with your fly, and sent it cartwheeling toward the heavens. For many tarpon anglers, that is a win.

But it is not a “caught fish.” That happens only after you get an eat and stick the fish and jump the fish and fight it close enough to the boat that your guide or companion touches the leader. Then and only then, if someone were to ask, could you say that you had actually caught a tarpon.

And thus endeth the lesson. Of course, Julie turned around and walked away, shaking her head and muttering to herself at about the time I got around to you got an eat. So, we’ll probably have to have this conversation again.

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