Mike Hyde with the ladyfish of a lifetime on the fly by Long Key in Layton, FL!
If there was ever a week to be a fly fisher in the Florida Keys, the week of May 16 to 22 was not it. As I write this, there’s an ongoing Small Craft Advisory calling for east winds up to 25 knots with seven-foot seas! During the three days that my father and I fished, we had sustained winds approaching 20 mph, but we made the best of it.
The first two days were dedicated to hunting giant tarpon on the fly; however, we cut the second day short because the fishing was so lousy. The third day was only going to be worse in terms of clouds and wind, so we opted to explore the more placid backcountry south of the Everglades with spinning gear. It was a special experience where we caught and released snook, redfish, ladyfish, and spotted sea trout. We also saw a saltwater crocodile, rays, sharks, dolphins, and manatees.
Our guide was Captain Chuck Schafstall, who launches out of the exclusive Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar dock along with other legendary backcountry and offshore fishing guides. I can’t recommend him highly enough, contact him at [email protected] or 305-395-2631 for your next Islamorada adventure. No matter the season or conditions, he’ll figure out something for you to do and find fish.
Our first day on the flats was a brutal lesson in tarpon fishing. The best shot I had was directly into the wind to two cruising fish. Instead of leading the fish out front, the fly plopped in the middle of the two. They promptly spooked and bolted away. My Dad made several good presentations over the course of the day but the fish just didn’t want to eat. We heard from other guides that no anglers had hooked any tarpon that day, so we didn’t beat ourselves up too bad, but it was still disappointing.
The next day we saw even fewer fish, as the stiff east wind kept the tarpon deep under the bridges. We only saw a handful of fish from the spots where we anchored in and around Islamorada and Tavernier. We did have some jacks and permit swirl around the boat at times, but because we had to be ready at a moments notice to cast to a tarpon appearing out of nowhere, we limited our blind casting for other species. My father did catch a gigantic ladyfish on Chuck’s 1 piece #11 G. Loomis, a nice poor man’s tarpon to break the ice.
I must have been deluding myself ahead of this trip because I did not realize how hard fishing for 70 to 100 lb. migratory tarpon is. Even in ideal conditions with full sun and a light breeze, you still must present the fly ahead of the moving target – not too close and not too far. The tarpon I saw seemed very single minded: they were traveling in a straight line on their migration like torpedoes. The only way to hook them was to present an innocent looking worm fly directly in their way, which they may or may not eat.
Here’s one of my favorite YouTubers experiencing the agony firsthand.
Accuracy was the most important component of the presentation, not distance. If you couldn’t get your fly into the right place at the right time, you didn’t have a chance. These huge fish were moving fast and sometimes appeared out of the blue so suddenly that there was no time for false casts or line management. The number of shots we had was limited, the fish were not cooperative or numerous, and the water surface was both heavily rippled by wave action and obscured by clouds, limiting Chuck’s ability to see fish at a distance.
So, I learned some things, had rum drinks at Lazy Days, beers at Islamorada Beer Company, did some peaceful DIY fly fishing at Long Key State Park, and saw the giant tarpon laid up in the lagoon behind World Wide Sportsman.
It was on some YouTube video, podcast episode, or blog post where I heard the line that “tarpon fishing makes everyone look bad.” This really rang home when Chuck told me the numbers of fish landed versus hooked from other semi-pro anglers in the weeks previous. If you look at the results from the recent Golden Fly Tournament, you’ll see that many of the best tarpon anglers didn’t “release” a single tarpon over the course of three days.
Well, I still can’t wait to do it all over again. Although I could probably use a fall trip first to go find some juvenile tarpon in the mangroves to build up my confidence, I’m ready for the silver king to make me look bad all over again.
Here’s another great YouTuber who found some success after persevering through multiple challenges.