By Capt. Rick Murphy
Yamaha Pro Staff
Late May and early June are the prime tarpon fishing months in the Florida Keys as the fish migrate through the area before heading up the eastern coast of Florida. While Islamorada is known as ground zero for flats fishing, and in particular for targeting tarpon on fly, the fishing has really changed over the years as fishing pressure has increased.
There are just so many people chasing tarpon these days that the fish have deviated from their normal feeding patterns and we’ve had to adjust how we target these fish in order to be productive on the water. Between the clarity of the water and the amount of pressure the fish get in Islamorada, they don’t have enough distance between the boats to calm down after being spooked and get happy again and want to eat. So a lot of the times the fish you run into in Islamorada have been repeatedly pounded and just aren’t responsive to the fly or to eating anything.
Years ago, we all threw large flies at the fish, and those flies were designed to have a steady and fairly quick sink rate so that you could lead a fish by 10 feet and by the time you move the fly in front of the approaching fish it had sank three or four feet into the fish’s strike zone. Then in the last 10 to 15 years we’ve had to go to smaller flies to get the bite. Then it was sparser flies, flat tails instead of split tails, less flash—we’ve really pared down from what was once the standard Keys tarpon fly.
It’s to the point that we’re currently throwing flies that seem more appropriate for big bonefish than tarpon. Those flies don’t sink very fast. Now this year everyone is talking about using palolo flies that match the worm hatch that takes place in the Keys.
While I’m sure throwing a fly that you have confidence in will likely get you more bites because you will throw it more often and believe it will get eaten, there’s still a sink rate that has to be met for the fly to adequately be positioned in the path of an approaching fish. It’s an essential part of the presentation.
A lot of times we’re throwing at fish that are in seven or eight feet of water, and while the fish look like they’re just below the surface, they’re not, they’re four or five feet down. With the old tarpon flies, if you throw the fly six feet or ten feet in front of that fish, you have to immediately start stripping the fly because it sinks four inches because we’re using small hooks, no weight and floating lines, etc. Now with even smaller hooks and less feathers, the fly barely sinks at all, and you have to throw it 20 feet in front of the fish and let it sink until the fish gets there and hopefully it’s in front of the fish.
You can’t tell because you can’t see the fly, you’re lucky if you can see the nail knot. So you start stripping and hopefully you get the bite. To me, that’s not tarpon fishing.
At some point in time, we’re going to go down in size of flies and leaders that all you’re looking for is a bite and one jump before the fish breaks off. Right now, to get the bite in clear water at Islamorada you have to go down to 40-pound fluorocarbon bite tippet, which is pretty thin and doesn’t give you very good odds of landing a fish before it wears through the leader.
My options in the Keys are to pare down to super tiny flies, super light and super long leaders and expect to throw at fish and constantly get denied, or I can make a long run into the backcountry where the fish haven’t been pressured and use the more historic tarpon fly fishing techniques and patterns, which is what I’ve opted to do. So I’m running from Islamorada way into the backcountry of Florida Bay just to get to areas that don’t have a lot of fishing pressure, and when you travel this far every day, you get a good feel for how fuel efficient the 150 h.p. Yamaha four stroke is on an 18’ Maverick Mirage HPX flats skiff. I’ve done a bunch of testing lately with a lot of different prop applications with this boat/motor pairing and the Yamaha Pro Series Prop still seems to be the best combination of speed, performance and fuel efficiency. The Yamaha Pro Series Prop just gets so much more lift than the other props.
I’m burning 15.5 gallons per hour running wide open at 57-58 mph with a full load, which is pretty impressive. I’m running about 120 miles round trip on a daily basis, and between starts and stops I’m burning about 28 gallons, which breaks down to about 4.5 miles per gallon, which if you know me and how I run wide open everywhere, you know that’s impressive gas mileage.
I could sit on the ocean side flats and watch my client make 100 casts and get three good shots at the fish and maybe get one bite, or I can run to the back and watch him make 20 casts and jump10 fish. To me, the classic style of getting the tarpon bite where you see the fish and watch it eat are what tarpon fishing is all about. So I’ll make that run every day, knowing I have the reliability to get to the fish and home quickly, efficiently and economically. And that is Florida Keys tarpon fishing.