By Mike Holliday
Yamaha Pro Staff
June is the month the tarpon come to town in Southeast Florida as the fish migrate up the coast to their summer haunts, some pushing inside the inlets and relocating in the Intracoastal, others continuing north for distant waters. It’s tarpon time for me, a steady dose of sleep deprivation, small cuts on my hands and aerial T-Bombs. It’s a time when the Atlantic calms, the afternoon rains follow a schedule and the dawn fish are spiked up and milling. It’s a time when I dedicate my life to covering water.
I run out of the St. Lucie Inlet in Stuart, cruising the beaches looking for laid-up, milling or moving schools of tarpon. The key here is to keep moving until you find fish, and knowing when to leave a school to search out another.
Early June is dedicated to running south, as the fish stack up in the gin clear waters of Palm Beach County and southern Martin County. We begin the quest just before dawn, running to an area called Peck Lake, a depression in the sand with outside bordering reef that the fish seem to like to hole-up in for the night. The water there is about 12 feet deep, and the fish rise to the surface with the dawn, milling about for 10 to 15 minutes before starting their trek north for the day.
Be there at dawn, and you can approach the floating school on the trolling motor and selectively pitch flies at individual fish. Lead the spiked up dorsal by 10 feet and immediately start stripping, and when you see a flash or feel a thump, strip strike and then try to retain possession of the rod.
As a rule there will be three or four nice schools and eight or ten boats in Peck Lake at dawn, which means you have about a 50 percent chance at being the ones throwing at happy fish. As the sun rises and fish get jumped, the schools start to feel the presence of the boats and begin rolling, and slowing swimming north.
When I started tarpon fishing the beach there would only be one or two boats at Peck Lake in the morning. Now it’s turning into an armada, and the strategy of hanging out in one area and waiting for fish to pass by has morphed into a plan of running away from everybody and then looking for fish. And that’s where my 250 h.p. Yamaha VMAX SHO four stroke outboard and Maverick Master Angler 21 have come into play.
With a top speed in the low 70s, I can power past the other boats. For locations like Peck Lake where the fish are there at dawn, the other boats can just leave earlier in order to be the first there, but once the dawn bite is over, the open Atlantic is mine and the other boats are just colored dots on the horizon.
Don’t get me wrong, you can’t look for tarpon when you’re traveling so fast your eyes are watering. Once a half mile gap is put between the boats, I’m quick to throttle down to 2,600 rpm and keep the boat on a slow plane as we cruise along in 15 feet of water a couple of hundred yards off the beach looking for rolling fish. At this speed I’m burning around 5.1 gallons per hour, which is exceptional fuel economy while covering water.
I’ll run south until I find fish, sometimes only a few miles, other days 30, 40, or 50 miles, whatever it takes. If you want to fish tarpon, you cannot let the price of fuel limit your search. The next mile may produce five or six schools or literally thousands of migrating tarpon. And if you have them to yourself, you’ve pretty much found the Valhalla of saltwater light tackle and fly fishing.
Sometime midday, I’ll make the decision to turn around and head back, covering the same water we passed in the morning but often encountering schools of fish that have pushed in to the beaches from offshore, and thus new, happy fish. Even the schools we’ve already chased have had time to relax and transform back into happy, happy, joy, joy mode, and we can approach them from a distance via the trolling motor and feed a few some feathers and steel.
Starting about the third week in June I’ll run north, often ending up in Vero Beach, a small beach town where the shoreline curves forming a big cove with deep water. The fish hold tight to the beach here, and watching their green backs move over the light brown sand is like viewing an underwater army on their way to a fight. You see the fish lock on to the offering, lunch the bait or fly and then leave town totally pissed.
I’ve been playing with these fish for over 20 years and in that time have seen gas prices tripled, yet I spend the same amount of money on my daily gas bill as I did when I first found a school of happy fish on my 31st birthday just south of Vero Beach. Technology has kept up with the anglers, as these fish that haven’t changed their form, habits or movements since the dinosaur age swim on.