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Fly Fishing for Baby Tarpon
written by Bill Cooper

Baby tarpon are extremely wary fish, so a fly-fishing trip targeting Silver Kings requires a little forethought and preparation. This article will help you prepare for that once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
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Baby Tarpon
Baby tarpon typically range from 5 to 30 pounds. This healthy specimen was coaxed from a turtle grass flat.

The faint smell of saltwater invaded my nostrils as my guide brought his Mako flats boat up on to plane and sped across the mirror smooth waters of Campeche Bay, Mexico. "Welcome to the world of Tarpon Bay," Cpt. Miguel Encalada said through a tanned face full of gleaming white teeth. "Our adventure begins."

Indeed, I had just begun an adventure for which I had waited a lifetime to experience. Visions of the 'Silver King' leaping toward the sky filled my mind. For well over 50 years I had only read of these great fish in the pages of Outdoor Life and Saltwater Magazine. Now, I would pen my own story.

Anticipation and preparation are the first two elements of any outdoor recreation experience.  The anticipation of catching baby tarpon on a fly rod had eaten up portions of several decades of my life. My insatiable appetite for information swelled as I read articles in magazines and on the web. TV shows about saltwater fishing added fuel to the fire of my desire. The final stages included selecting a destination for baby tarpon. The appeal of the mangrove swamps of the Yucatan won my bid.

Preparation for the trip took the better part of three months. Selecting rods, lines, leaders, flies, clothing, an outfitter and an airline kept me busy. Since I made my trip, a direct flight into Campeche City is now in place.

All good tactical plans for baby tarpon fishing include choosing a place where your quarry can be found in a setting suitable to your personal desires. I searched long and hard for a place off the beaten path, with a relatively wild nature, yet close enough to comfortable amenities and cultural history. My selection of Campeche, Mexico completed tactical maneuver number one.

My second chore included choosing a guide. A few hours study of websites and testimonials by previous clients pointed me to Cpt. Encalada of Tarpon Bay.

Cpt. Encalada and I spent weeks e-mailing back and forth prior to my trip. His guidance and instruction had me well prepared for the adventure well before my arrival. Planning and preparation are two key elements for any baby tarpon fishing trip to be successful.

Baby Tarpon
Every baby tarpon guide carries an assortment of tarpon flies tied on number 1, 1/0 and 2/0 hooks.

Baby tarpon range from 5 to 30 pounds in most destinations. Heavy equipment is required. Fly rods in an 8 or 9 weight are recommended. Scientific Angler makes a weight forward tropical saltwater floating fly line. Coupled with 200 feet of backing, the reel is set with this duo. Masons Hard Type Nylon shock tippet in 20 and 30 pound weights are standard baby tarpon gear. An assortment of flies is also necessary and should include the following: Tarpon Toads, Campeche madness, seducers, coackroaches, gurglers, poppers, ghost minnows and Puglisi tied on 1, 1/0, and 2/0 hooks. Purple-black and orange-black work well for the morning while chartreuse, and white and tan work better in afternoons.

The average temperature ranges from 80 to 97 degrees and requires light, protective clothing. Sunscreen is a must. Insects are almost non-existent. A light rain jacket, polarized sunglasses, a good cap and a light pair of fishing gloves completes the wardrobe.

Baby tarpon are extremely wary fish.  Proficient casting ability is paramount to success. Practicing at home will pay huge dividends later. Saltwater rods and reels are heavier than most freshwater fishing rigs. The exercise from practice sessions will not only tone muscles, but help develop confidence and skills. Casting 30 to 40 feet will put anglers on fish in the mangrove swamps. However, accurate casts of 50 to 70 feet will bring far more jumps and hookups. And it makes the guide's job much easier.

"Cast in front of the bubbles," echoed Cpt. Encalada's soft instructions. Sounded easy enough. One false cast, two false casts and my fly line streaked toward my intended target. The chartreuse tarpon toad landed gently on the water. My heart jumped into my throat as the tarpon raced -- in the other direction. "These fish are extremely spooky," Cpt. Encalada soothed my nerves. "Not much you could have done differently.

Cpt. Encalada proved to be any encyclopedia of information. I quickly realized the importance of my diligent study and choice of guide prior to my trip may have well been the most important tactic in my baby tarpon fishing arsenal.

I made mental notes, which I transferred to paper once I returned to my motel room. "A falling tide flowing from the mangroves makes for better fishing," Cpt. Encalada had said. "March through September is the best time to fish tarpon." "Cast 5-feet in front of the fish." "Keep a low profile." "Strip, strip, strip the line as the fish chases." "Keep your rod tip low and sweep to the side while pulling line with your left hand when a strike comes. That will improve your odds of hooking the fish in the corner of the mouth." Information overload, it seemed. However, in three days with Cpt. Encalada all the pieces of the baby tarpon fishing puzzle began to fall into place.

Baby Tarpon
Accurate casts up to 70 feet puts anglers on more baby tarpon and helps prevent spooking wary fish. In mangrove swamps, casts of 30 to 40 feet are often sufficient.

Every guide wants to put his clients on fish. Through decades of experience I have learned that a very productive fishing tactic is to allow the guide to fish if at all feasible. Watch his actions -- how he casts, where he casts, his stance and his reactions when a fish is looking at a fly or chasing it. Definitely watch the guide's moves when he prepares to set the hook and how he handles the fish once it is hooked. Often we think we know what we should do under a variety of conditions.  Failing to observe your guide perform a variety of fishing tasks is a big mistake. Watching him provides the perfect example of how to do everything. Verbal communications are great, but may be misinterpreted. Watch and learn.

Baby tarpon hide in the protection of the mangrove swamps and can often be seen cruising in small pods near the tangles of roots, where they can dart for cover at the first sign of danger. Water near the mangroves is often darker as a result of tannin from the mangrove roots. Much more concentration is often needed to spot tarpon in these environs. Stealth is important when approaching fish under these conditions. Everyone in the boat must practice both sound and movement discipline. A thump on the boat or sudden movements may put an unseen tarpon to flight. Communications between the boatman and the Captain become especially important as well. The boat must be brought to perfect position quietly for the most effective casting possibilities.

The best places to search for baby tarpon include brackish water creeks entering the bay, opening s in the turtle grass flats, the structure around small islands and around the bubbling water of freshwater springs gurgling up from the bay floor. Each of these habitats requires different approaches and often different flies. A good guide will have it all under control.

I traveled many miles through the 80 mile long Los Petenes Biosphere Reserve near Campeche City.  Mangrove estuaries, turtle grass flats and innumerable channels through the jungles gave up the hides of backcountry tarpon. The entire experience exceeded my grandest expectations. Even my extensive research, study and preparations had not fully prepared me for what was to come.

The sea breezes, mysteries of the mangrove jungles, warm sunshine on my back, the Mayan history, the local people, it all lingers in my fondest memories. But, the image of my dreams is the "King" leaping to the heavens.

For the life of me, I will never be able to think of them again as baby tarpon.

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