Tarpon make for nice backup plan

Captain John Long and I zipped west in his skiff from Key West to the Marquesas Keys on Wednesday, filled with anticipation of permit. A few days earlier, anglers competing in the three-day Del Brown Invitational Permit Tournament had released 15 on fly and the winner, Nathaniel Linville, had five releases. That might not sound like much to a non-fly angler, but it’s huge. And on the previous day, Long and a friend had no less than 40 shots at permit on the flats west of Key West. They hooked two and lost them.

But when we stopped and Long started poling the shallows, the few permit we encountered treated us as if we carried the Ebola virus. They would come marching down the flat at a smart clip, somehow spot us from 100 feet away, and promptly skedaddle. It was very disheartening.

But Long kept poling and, after a few minutes, pointed out a happily rolling tarpon about 100 feet away. And then another. And another.

I decided the universe was trying to tell us something.

“If there are happy fish, we are duty-bound to try and catch them,” I said to convince myself to divert from the pursuit of fickle permit.

We switched fly rods from my 10-weight to Long’s 11-weight and he tied on one of the popular “toad” patterns — greenish yellow with a furry head and lead eyes.

When we got within 60 feet of one of the rollers, I made a cast and the fish appeared to make a run at the fly, but never inhaled it. A couple more casts were refused.

Then we saw three baby tarpon cruising parallel to the skiff without a care in the world. This time when I cast, it looked like all three lunged for the fly, but the one in the middle got to it first and gulped it without hesitation. Then it turned away, and the other two followed it.

The little fish, probably about 10 pounds, performed all the cartwheels and aerobatics you would expect of the species — and a lot more of them — than its giant counterparts. Those really big fish tend to jump only about three or four times, then submerge for the rest of the fight. My fish was feisty and energetic, and Long even had to pole after it.

Eventually, I brought it close enough to be photographed and released. What fun.

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We only saw a couple more permit that day, and they treated us just as badly as the first batch. But everywhere we looked, tarpon seemed to be rolling and they only quit when the tide slackened to nothing.

Normally by this late in summer, the silver kings are long gone from the South Florida shallows. Plenty of seasonal tarpon guides who start looking for them in March and April and catch them at their peak in May and June give up the hunt well before now.

That’s because the fish tend to have completed their seasonal migration and pre-spawning aggregations and are headed offshore to reproduce. However, Long and other South Florida guides say the fish do seem to be hanging around here longer than usual this year.

Whatever. After being snubbed by permit for the umpteenth time, a surplus of tarpon is wonderful problem to have.

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