In the spring and again in the fall, the beaches of the Sarasota inshore Gulf of Mexico are blessed with fantastic fly fishing when conditions are agreeable. Huge schools of baitfish will move through on their annual migrations, with gamefish hot on their tail. While Spanish mackerel and false albacore (aka: little tunny, bonita, fat Alberts) are the primary targets for fly anglers, king mackerel, sharks, cobia, and other species will be encountered as well. Every season is different, but action generally peaks around Easter in the spring and Thanksgiving in the fall. The optimum conditions are water temperature around 70 degrees, easterly winds, and clear water.
There really are not specific “spots”; the fish can be anywhere that bait pods exist. However, the three artificial reefs Sarasota inshore off of Lido Key will hold baitfish and the mouths of both passes (particularly on an outgoing tide) are good places to start. Mornings are often the best times, but not always at first light. A little sunlight is usually required to get the fish feeding up on the surface.
7wt outfits are fine for the Spanish mackerel, while stouter tackle is required for the false albacore, with a 9wt being sufficient unless the fish are unusually large. Floating lines work well and are easy to pick up and cast when fishing the Sarasota inshore Gulf. Albies can be a bit leader shy; a 20lb tippet is usually adequate while Spanish mackerel may require a bit stouter tippet. One note on the false albacore, they will fight until they are almost dead, so the use of very light tackle is discouraged. Also, when releasing these fish, shove them head fish back into the water to get them moving and get water flowing through their gills.
It is very important for anglers working these schools of fish in the Sarasota inshore Gulf to be patient. It is quite exciting to see all of the action and activity, but it is a mistake to run all over the place chasing fish. Anglers will achieve more success by sitting quietly, watching and trying to determine which direction the fish are moving, then easing into position. It is always preferable to be upwind of the fish.
It would seem that with the ferocity in which they feed that the fish will hit anything, but this is not the case. In actuality, they can be quite fussy at times. There is often a variety of bait fish out on the beach, ranging from inch long glass minnows to hand sized threadfin herring. It can be important to match the fly to the size of the forage. In most cases, smaller is better and the macks and albies will normally be feeding on the tiny glass minnows. If the fish refuse to take the fly after multiple attempts using different stripping techniques, it is time to change flies. A fast retrieve usually works well, but not always. A more subtle approach may be required at times. At times the fish will actually prefer to take as the fly lies motionless.
Tripletail are another species that fly anglers can target in the Sarasota inshore Gulf of Mexico. This is a unique sight fishing opportunity. The technique is pretty simple, anglers run on plane parallel to strings of crab pot buoys, looking for tripletail. These fish will lie on their side behind buoys, markers, and floating structure, seeming to “pretend” to be grass, waiting for prey to use them for cover. Any that does so gets eaten right away!
The same set up that anglers use for mackerel and bonita will be fine for tripletail, so no need to re-rig. The best approach is to run along the crap pot buoys until a fish is sighted, driving past the buoy for a bit, then slowing and idling back around. In most instances, the tripletail will position itself on the down wind or down tide side of the buoy, so the best approach is from behind. The fly is cast out past the fish, retrieved back to the buoy, then allowed to fall in front of the fish. Tripletail are quite aggressive and will often take the fly. Shrimp and baitfish patterns are very productive.
Sarasota tarpon fishing
The silence of the pre-dawn morning was broken by the sound of several large tarpon rolling gently on the surface. As the guide eased the boat into range the angler made ready to cast. Several anxious moments passed before the fish showed themselves again. The fly was cast out just ahead of the school; a perfect cast! It slowly sank for several seconds before the angler began to retrieve it back in using foot-long strips. The line got taut and moved off to the side.
The angler reacted quickly, coming tight while feeding line to the fish until he was on the reel, ecstatic at the sound of line screaming off the drag. One hundred pounds of silver fury cleared the surface by several feet, shaking its head violently and throwing the hook. Disappointment quickly turned to admiration; what a gallant fish!
That is a commonly played out scenario off of Suncoast beaches from May through July. This is truly world class angling. Very few places offer the opportunity to sight cast to fish this large using fly tackle. Many more tarpon are hooked than are actually landed. In fact, most guides put more emphasis on stalking and hooking these behemoths than in actually landing them.
Tarpon generally show up in early May and are here in significant numbers by the third week in May. Early in the season the schools can be huge, numbering in the hundreds. Later in the season they break up into smaller “pods”. By late July the fish have thinned out considerably, but so has the fishing pressure. Fish late in the year don’t “show” as well but they bite better. This is also a great time to fish them on the shallow bars that exist at the mouth of most passes on the West Coast of Florida.
A 12wt outfit is appropriate when targeting giant tarpon off on the beaches. These fish average 75 pounds and fish over 150 pounds are hooked regularly. An intermediate sink tip line is the best choice. Tarpon leaders are 9′ long and taper, with a 60 lb bite tippett.
The technique is pretty straightforward. Get out on the beach before first light and sit a hundred yards or so from shore. Most fish will be moving from north to south, particularly early in the season. By July, schools will be seen moving in both directions. Sit patiently while scanning the surface for fish.
Once a school is sighted, an electric trolling motor is used to position the boat so that it intercepts the fish. It is too deep to pole out on the beach. The ideal situation would be to position the boat forty feet or so up-wind of the school. The fly is cast out in front of the fish and hopefully a hook-up ensues.
Targeting the “right” fish is critical to success when fly fishing for tarpon. Spin anglers have an advantage out on the beach; they can toss a crab at just about anything. Fly anglers need to be more selective. Fast-moving schools (called “greyhounding”) are very difficult to catch on fly, best to let them go. The same applies to fish in deeper water that show every so often then sulk on the bottom. Ideally, the best chance to hook a tarpon on fly out on the beach will be to find a school that is moving slowly, milling on or just below the surface. These are “happy ‘poons”!
Unfortunately, fish behaving this way are becoming more difficult to find. Fishing pressure is VERY heavy, especially early in the season. Courtesy and patience can be lacking from anglers at times. The proper etiquette is to defer to a fly angler working a school as it is a given that it is more difficult to hook a tarpon on fly. Some anglers adhere to this policy, some do not.
Often times, anglers will find pods of tarpon that will come up on the surface and swim in a tight circle. This is called “daisy chaining” and these fish can be enticed to take a fly, though it requires patience. The intervals between “showing” can be anywhere from a minute to twenty minutes. As long as they don’t move very far, persistent anglers can get a decent opportunity. Anchoring the boat from the stern can help keep the angler in position while waiting for the tarpon to surface again. Once they do, get the fly in there quickly, before they head back to the bottom.
Tarpon will often times move into shallow water, either along the shore or out on the sand bars at the mouth of most passes. This is a situation where the fly angler has the advantage over the spin angler. These fish are very spooky! A medium bait landing in front of them just does not look natural and they will seldom take it. However, a well-presented fly, landing softly and quietly, will entice a strike sometimes. Anglers should expect many more refusals than takes, but when it all comes together, there is nothing in the angling world that can match it!
Patience is required when tarpon fishing. It is very easy to get excited and overly aggressive. The angler who takes the time to get into perfect position will score more often than the impatient one who runs around. A couple words regarding etiquette; do NOT run an outboard near a school of tarpon! It is better to let them go, motor around and re-position than to fire up the “big motor” in a school of fish. Also, if another boat is working a school, leave them to it unless they wave you in.