Having been a guide in both fresh and saltwater for over 20 years, I’d like to think that when I got the chance to step up to the plate, I’d get it done! After all, I’ve been coaching anglers for years from the rower’s seat of a drift boat and from atop the poling tower of my flats skiff.
Here’s the reality, I screw up just as good as anyone!
I had gotten to the point of my career in which I challenged my anglers to show me something I’d never seen before. There was a drink on me back at the dock if you surprised me. Truth is, I believe I’d seen everything that could possibly go wrong on a given day in the salt.
The classic mistake amongst tarpon anglers fishing in the salt is the “trout set.” I can’t begin to tell you how many times throughout my career I’ve seen a great cast, the perfect presentation, the eat and followed by the raise of the rod tip like you just hooked a cutthroat instead of the 80 pound tarpon. This doesn't end well. There’s this innate response from most fishermen that got their start in freshwater to lift the rod, no matter how many times they’ve convinced themselves they wouldn’t do it. What should be done? A series of hard strip sets until the fish comes tight.
But don’t worry, it happens to everyone. Including me, your trusted fishing guide!
A few years back in the Florida Keys, a buddy of mine, Capt. Dave Yoder called me up from Key Largo and told me to get my butt up there. The tarpon were thick. As luck would have it, I had the day off too! I dropped everything, hopped in the truck and headed up that night.
Waking up the next morning after a night of cocktails and fly tying and with a slight hangover and blurry eyes, we put the boat in and headed north towards the Ocean Reef Club. Dave shut her down on Cesar’s Bank. A prime spot at low tide as the bank pushes off the shoreline and creates a natural edge the tarpon have to follow. A prime ambush spot.
It wasn’t long after Dave climbed up the platform and I stumbled up on the bow that we had fish pouring down the edge in front of us. At this point, you’d think, ok, two guides on their day off and a bunch of happy tarpon, this is a slam dunk.
Dave positioned me perfectly, I made my cast and began stripping. As luck would have it, an eager tarpon broke free of the group to swallow my fly. And here comes my, “it happens to everyone” moment!
As this beauty of a fish swallowed my fly, Dave screamed “he’s got it” from the back of the boat only to watch in horror as I lifted that damn rod just like everyone before me. I’ve watched anglers lift the rod too many times to remember, believing that I would certainly never do this myself. After all, I’m a guide. And now, it was my turn to be that guy, lifting that rod and watching with disbelief as the tarpon swam off, wiping the sweat from its brow knowing it dodged another bullet.
All I could do at this point is tuck my tail and switch places with Dave, just praying he’d do the same! Turned out, he was much more steadfast with the next fish than I. He’s a real guide, apparently!
There’s a number of things that can seriously go wrong when fly fishing for tarpon. And even when your trusted guide has drilled the proper hook set technic into your mind too many times to remember, when the moment of truth presents itself, sometimes, all bets are off.
So, the next time you think, saltwater fly fishing might be too difficult and you just don’t want to be that guy, just remember, it happens to the best of em! Don’t let intimidation or fear of trying keep you from such an invigorating and rewarding experience.
And stay tuned to our series of guide lines. We’ll be diving into proper hook sets and avoiding the dreaded “trout set.”