Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
This piece is a story in the book ‘Tarpon Tales, Florida’s Most Exciting Tarpon Fishing Stories: Forty-Five Tarpon Adventures, Quotes, Photographs, History & Research’ by Randy Wayne White and Carlene Brennen. Skyhorse Books. 2007.
My wife and I had been living on the island of St. Croix for about 3 years, and had finally found the spot on the island where we wanted to live. It was a simple apartment, the first floor of a two-story house, but it provided ample space for us and our two dogs. It was a two minute walk to the beach, but more importantly, only a 10 minute drive to the flats. The previous places we had lived on the island, while each had its benefits, were 30 minutes or more away from the flats, and not quite so close to the beach. Plus, my drive to work from the new place took me right past some nice flats that I could fish on my way to and from work. Location is everything.
The beach near our apartment was part of a long crescent-shaped bay with coral covered rocky points at each end, and sandy shoreline in between. Palm trees and seagrapes fringed the back of the beach, but were sparsely located so provided little shade. The beach was off the beaten track, so was never really crowded. I knew someone who said this was her favorite beach on the island, but I never saw her there. It was a nice quiet place to go to unwind in the evening, or to take it easy on a slow weekend.
I occasionally fished both rocky points and the shoreline in between, but never as thoroughly as I should have. You know how it is sometimes, the stuff close to home never seems as good. Plus, I had spots around the island - flats, shorelines, or drop-offs I liked to fish, where I often had success. The times I did fish this beach, it never really produced more than some small barjacks, palometa, and needlefish. I snorkeled in the bay frequently, and never saw any large fish. So the bay was a spot for some leisurely casting and small fish, or a protected place to fish on windy days.
The road to the apartment passed up and over a hill that provided a view of both rocky points and much of the bay. On my way out in the morning, and then again returning home in the evening, I usually slowed my truck to take a peak, more interested in the size of the surf than anything else. On occasion, a sizeable surf break formed on either or both points, and I’d go home and grab my board.
In June, and again in January, baitfish (sprat and fry, local names for a type of herring and glass minnows, respectively) can often be found schooled up against shorelines around St. Croix. I've used a castnet to catch some of the sprat, and they are full of eggs and milt, so appear to be schooled together to spawn. I'm not sure about the fry, but I think they might just be at a critical mass to attract predators, which then push the fry up against the shoreline. The trick is to find where these baitfish are schooled, which can involve some searching. There doesn't seem to be a standard pattern, or a hot spot that produces consistently. Rather, the locations of these schools changes from season to season and year to year.
The most efficient way to search for schools of baitfish under attack by predators was to look for brown pelicans feeding. I usually did this by driving to good vantage points around the island and using binoculars to scan the shoreline. If I saw a few or more pelicans diving repeatedly in a small area, I knew there were baitfish schooled below. If I was lucky, a large school of sprat or fry was being corralled by large fish from below, and forced to the surface. Sometimes, the pelicans were so full they took some time off from diving, but the sight of a half-dozen or so pelicans resting on the water was as good a sign of baitfish as if they were diving.
Once on the scene, I usually watched the diving pelicans for a few minutes to figure out which type of baitfish they were feeding on, so I knew which fly to tie on. If, after diving into the water, a pelican quickly tipped up its beak and swallowed the baitfish, I knew the fish were large, probably sprat. The sprat are large enough so that the pelican can open its beak a few inches to let the water quickly drain before swallowing the fish. If, on the other hand, the pelican hung its beak to slowly drain the water from its pouch, before tipping and swallowing, I knew the baitfish were small - probably fry. The fry are so small that the pelican must drain the water from an almost closed beak, which takes longer, before swallowing the fish.
Once I found an active school of baitfish, I focused on fishing the outer fringes, where larger gamefish would be feasting on the trapped baitfish. Barracuda, various types of jacks, and snappers were the usual predators on these baitfish schools, but occasionally groups of tarpon invaded invade the scene. A deceiver to imitate sprat, and a clouser minnow to imitate fry were the only flies I needed in these situations.
The first two weeks of June during our first summer at the new apartment, my wife was visiting her parents in the States, and I was on my own. Ready to fish. But as luck would have it, things weren't working out - it was unusually windy for June so made many spots unfishable, and projects at work were requiring long days. Since I didn’t have time most evenings to get out onto the flats, I used the limited evening light to search for the schools of baitfish I suspected were somewhere around the island. It was the right time of year for them, after all. As I reached home as dark fell for the fourth time, having found no baitfish, I began to wonder if the summer feeding frenzy would happen at all this year.
After four evenings of fruitless searching, on the fifth evening I decided to head straight home after work and do some blind-casting for jacks at the beach. As I drove over the hill to the apartment, I did a double-take. For the first time that summer, I saw pelicans diving off one of the points. Not one pelican, or even a few, but a dozen or more. Many were diving into the water just outside the line of small surf that was breaking over the reef. Others were sitting in the water, either taking a rest or just too full to fly.
I already had my 8 weight fly rod in my truck, and headed straight to the beach. It was 6:30, and it was a five minute walk to the point where the pelicans were diving. Sunset would be at about 7:00, and it would be totally dark by 7:30. As I hustled down the beach I could see that most of the pelicans were still working the school of baitfish, flying up and diving back into the water as quickly as they could manage. As I neared the point, I thought to myself that it looked good for some fun with a few big barracuda or maybe some hungry horseye jacks.
As I got closer, I could see the pelicans were making quick work of the fish they caught - quickly tipping their beaks and swallowing the fish before lurching from the water for another pass. Sprat! Just the same, I made a couple throws with my cast net and netted a few fish to make sure of their size. They were large, to 6 inches, so I’d need my largest deceiver. As I pulled in the net after the second throw, I saw the unmistakable dorsal and then tail fin of a tarpon of 25 pounds or so about 40 feet off the beach. I threw the castnet up on the beach and grabbed the fly rod. It was now 6:45 PM.
My first two casts were to the deep water outside the dropoff next to the point - just beyond the line of frothing surf as it edged along the shallow reef. I was hoping to intercept a tarpon cruising along the edge of the reef looking for an easy meal. There were no takers. I put the third cast right where I had seen the fish roll when I was throwing the castnet - in the middle of the wild water, where waves rolling in from each side of the shallow reef point collided in a fury of white foam. This is no place for a fly, I thought, no way for a tarpon to see it.
The fly hit the water, and bounced in the chaotic waves and froth for a few seconds as I hurriedly stripped slack out of fly line snaking over the white foam. Then the churning water erupted in an explosion. I didn't see the fish, just the spray of white water erupting from the roiled surface. The line went tight in my hand and I instinctively set the hook with a strip strike. The hook found its mark, sending the tarpon airborne. It was strange, but because of the washing machine of water over the reef, the tarpon never really landed in the water, but half rode the bubbling foam and half launching itself again and again, it=s leaps carrying it away from the reef and into deeper water.
Once the fish finally was back in the water outside the reef, I set the hook twice more. With that, the tarpon headed for open water at breakneck speed and then jumped three more times, about 80 yards away.
I suddenly realized my situation. I was standing waist-deep in the surf, the larger waves breaking at chest level 10 feet out before boiling around my midriff and then tugging at me from behind as the water rushed back out over the reef. The backing was still peeling off the reel with amazing speed, and disappearing into the white mush before emerging into view again as it sliced through cresting waves breaking over the reef, and finally disappearing again as it followed the tarpon into open water beyond the reef.
In a brief automatic mental check it dawned on me that this fish was over 50 lbs., my largest tarpon hooked to date. I was in awe of this fish's strength, and overwhelmed by the situation over which I really had no control. Everything put together seemed too much for me and my 8 wt.
The fish slowed, and I finally turned it about 130 yards out. Slowly, I began to work the fish back in toward shore. Then came the stalemate - I took in some line, the fish took out a little line. With the 8 weight and my position on shore, I had no leverage and the fish wouldn’t come in over the outer edge of the reef.
Just as I thought things were going well, and the fish might come over the reef edge, it burst toward open water again, as if it had just been hooked for the first time. I briefly lost sight of the fish as it passed behind a wave. I could see only my fly line disappearing into the front of the wave as it crested over the reef. Then for a brief moment, as it passed through the next wave, I could see the fish clearly, suspended motionless for a brief moment as the wave rose to full height before folding forward in crashing white foam. Each large scale on the tarpon flashed silver in the dimming light, the fish framed by the abyssal azure glow emanating from the depths.
And then it was gone. The hook had pulled. After a moment of denial, I began reeling in the line, I felt the adrenalin shakes that so often come after big fish that are lost.
As I got the fly line to the rod tip, the rod bent double. Another strike. This time I never saw the fish B it never jumped, just headed for deep water at breathtaking speed. I never had a chance. I was unable to set the hook with the fish heading away so fast, and I couldn’t turn this fish, which was even stronger than the last. I held onto my rod and just watched. And then, like the first fish, the line slackened and it was gone. This time, the tippet had parted.
With some light still remaining, I tied on a new tippet and fly as best I could with shaking hands, and headed back to my spot on the point. Amazingly, the action continued until it was too dark to see.
As darkness painted everything in black ink, I felt my way shoreward, gathered my castnet and fly box, and started home. The stiff breeze had dropped with nightfall, but the surf still raced up the beach in fits of hissing foam.
I was sore and tired, and had no fish to show for it. But I was happy. I'd been in the middle of a tarpon blitz, and had it all to myself. I'd hooked who knows how many fish - 8, 10? - and felt the raw power of them all. None of them jumped quite like the first one, but I saw the reflection of a silver-hued sunset and heard the rattling gill plates again and again as the fish jumped through the dwindling light.
I returned to this spot each evening after work for the next 5 days. With each evening the number of pelicans dropped, and the sight of tarpon rolling through the surf was less frequent. But on each occasion I was treated to feeding tarpon - not quite as chaotic as the first evening, but still four or five hookups each time. Then one evening there was just one pelican diving, and I saw no tarpon rolling. I caught a couple of barjacks and lost a barracuda, which are usually fun in their own right, but not the same after the tarpon blitz. A half-dozen throws of the castnet netted only a handful of sprat. Most of the bait was gone, and the tarpon with them.
As I stood on the shoreline, reflecting on my good fortune, I realized I hadn't been grocery shopping or done laundry in a week, food was scarce and clothing dirty. I'm glad we moved to the new apartment when we did.
This video was taken at another plac and time, but could just as well have been taken during those days on St. Croix.
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