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Photo Essay: Tarpon in the Keys

By Grant White

After years of watching tarpon videos, reading countless articles and daydreaming about the silver king, I finally took a trip to the Florida Keys to chase tarpon from the bow of Cheeky Endorsed Guide Jamie Connell's flats boat. Based out of Key West, Jamie is in the thick of some of the best tarpon fishing in the world. My trip, which spanned several days during late April, coincided with the annual tarpon migration to the flats and inshore waters of the southeastern U.S.

I met Jamie at the boat launch just before sunrise on the first day and immediately zipped out to a remote flat several miles away. Like all great guides, Jamie has his finger on the pulse of his local fishery, and it didn't take long for him to put me in position to take a shot at a cruising tarpon. 

"Tarpon 1o'clock!" shouted Jamie from the poling platform not long after arriving to the flat. "Two of them! 60 feet ... 40 feet ... Drop it in at 30! Cast! Cast!" Heart pounding, I scanned furiously for a glimpse of the moving shadows, but couldn't spot them. Without locating them myself, I let loose a powerful double-haul crafted from hours of casting into the blustery New England surf. As my crab fly hummed outward, I finally caught sight of the cruising fish ... they were practically next to the boat! Spooked, the tarpon darted off for deeper water while I dejectedly retrieved my fly which had landed about 40+ feet passed the heads of the fish. 

It was my first rookie mistake. Standing for the first time ever on a flats boat surrounded by nothing but miles of water, I had grossly overestimated the distance of 30-40 feet. In reality, 30 feet meant the fish were only a few rod lengths away from the boat, yet I realized I must have been scanning 100+ feet in the distance. A short, accurate cast would have done the trick. 

"We'll get another shot," encouraged Jamie. 

The Keys are a true angler's paradise. Poling stealthily over the flats, the crystal clear water provided a perfect view of the aquarium-esque fishery below. Countless species of tropical fish, sea turtles and the occasional bull or hammerhead shark cruised beneath. For the next few hours, we were practically surrounded by tarpon. Thick schools, 10-15 strong, swam slowly beneath us. One of the larger schools even began daisy-chaining no more than two rod lengths from the boat. It was an elegant display of power and agility I felt fortunate to witness on my first trip. 

While we had no problem finding tarpon, fooling one of these beasts to eat proved to be another challenge entirely. For 4 hours, I threw everything we could think of at these fish. Crab imitations of every size, tarpon bunnies of every color, floating line, intermediate line, sinking line, but nothing worked.

The sun began to sink the sky, signaling that time was running out in our day. "Would you want to try one of these?" proposed Jamie while dangling a live crab and a spinning rod. "Could be worth a shot." I took the spinning rod without thinking twice. I love fly fishing, but also have no problem grabbing a spinning rod when the conditions call for it. In this case, it was clear the conditions were calling for nothing but a juicy crab.

No more than 10 minutes later the spinning rod was doubled over and the drag was screaming. "Holy ...", exclaimed Jamie as the tarpon broke the surface with an epic leap. "Big fish, that's a big fish!" It landed back in the water with a violent crash and disappeared. During this initial run, line peeled off my spool at an unfathomable speed. A few minutes later I noticed that a tarpon had broken the surface a couple hundred yards down from us, nothing more than a small blimp on the horizon. "Whose fish is that?" I asked, looking around for another boat. "It's yours," replied Jamie. 

For the next few minutes, the massive fish embarked on two or three more blistering runs, each time unleashing a power I had never felt before through a fishing rod. As it finally approached the boat, Jamie made the decision to break the line. In shark country like the Keys, fighting tarpon to the point of exhaustion is one of the surest ways to kill it. We snapped the line and I watched the prehistoric fish swim away in awe. 

Jamie figured the fish was 6ft long and 130lbs, the largest he had caught that year. For me, it was the largest fish I had ever seen in my life. The power, agility and sheer size of that tarpon was unlike anything I've ever experienced in my fishing life. I couldn't get the impressive first jump out of my head, or the sound of the drag screaming as it ripped off hundreds of yards in just minutes. I collapsed back into my seat exhausted, exhilarated and unbelievably grateful for the opportunity to fish for these beasts. With aching and sunburned arms, I began planning my next tarpon trip.