by John Skinner
I'm writing this a few days after returning from a week of shore and kayak fishing in the Lower Florida Keys. This was my first trip to the area, and I was excited about being at the novice level again and having to deal with new challenges while targeting some species of fish that I had never even seen before. I was on my own, without any intentions of hiring a guide, but I did months of research ahead of the trip. While some of the fishing was brand new to me, it was interesting to see how knowledge gained from the types of fishing we do here in the Northeast paid off in the southern environment.
The entire time I was there I felt that if I wasn't fishing, I was missing out on something. I fished tarpon in channels at night, and this went so well from the start that I forced myself to ignore tarpon during the day and focus on the flats in hopes of encountering bonefish. Flats wading in a foot or two of water was a totally new experience for me in which it rarely made sense to make a cast until a fish was sighted. Unfortunately, there were no bonefish in the area while I was there, but I got to practice on a few bonnethead sharks. They look like small versions of hammerhead sharks, and put up a nice fight in the shallows if you can make a good enough cast to one before scaring it away. I landed two of those.
After my third session of flats wading, a local tackle shop owner informed me that I didn't "stand a snowball's chance in hell of even seeing a bonefish" and that these skinny water speedsters were "way back along the Gulf". This was consistent with the fact that I had not seen a single flats boat fishing. I decided to back off a bit on the flats wading and shifted some daytime fishing to casting poppers to barracuda that were mostly in the 15- to 25-inch range. It was a little like casting poppers for bluefish, but these fish were much faster. I caught dozens from my rented kayak, and they were a blast. I saw just a handful of big cudas, and while I tempted a couple, I was never good enough to get one to commit. The combination of the gin-clear water and their excellent eyesight make them a challenge.
There were two types of fishing that had strong parallels to what we do up North, and I was able to take some advantage of my northern fishing skills. The first was bucktailing rocky structure in deeper channels that had plenty of current. There was no doubt that my feel for how to keep a bucktail in the strike zone with a minimum amount of weight paid off, but mostly I relied on the advice and precision tied bucktails from John Paduano. Among the bucktails on his premiumbucktails.com website are strikingly realistic jigs that imitate southern baitfish. Given all of the other fishing, I didn't try this type of fishing until the end of the last day of my trip. His suggestion was to throw the jigs to the structure and interrupt the retrieves with fast snapping motions. His lures and advice were right on the money. Within a couple minutes of trying I had a large mangrove snapper in the 3- to 4-pound class. This was soon followed by a blue runner, and then a fish that took me under a ledge after a tough fight and never came out. The next fish fought the same, and this time I pulled it out of the clutter to find it was a sizable grouper. These fish were in extremely clear water, and I never even attempted to throw my plain white bucktails that work so well for me on stripers. I finished that session with a strong jack that engulfed a Calcutta swimshad.
The night fishing was where my northern skills helped the most. With advice from John Paduano and Jim Faulkner, I was targeting tarpon with swimshads in deep fast moving channels. It felt a lot like night inlet fishing for stripers. On my first night I went to where they both suggested, and had a tarpon in the air on my second cast. As most tarpon do, it threw the hook on the first jump. The next tarpon lasted 4 jumps before throwing the lure. I managed only a few other hits that night as I fought a 25-knot wind in my face.
The next day, my non-fishing brother who lives in the Lower Keys mentioned a spot with water flow "like the Shinnecock Canal". I told him I needed to see it, and when I did, I knew where I'd be starting the second night. I put 7 tarpon in the air that night, landing one of the "small" ones of maybe 20 pounds. The best part of the night was when I noticed a rip line well up-current of where I was fishing. "Great striper rip," I thought to myself, and guessed tarpon might also appreciate the distorted water flow. On my third cast there I had my first big TV tarpon on the line and in the air on multiple jumps. The fight lasted only about 20 seconds, but featured breathtaking jumps that were fortunately visible with the help of some nearby street lights. It hit 30 feet in front of me but was soon 200 feet away and going for structure at full speed when it snapped the line in mid air with one of its charging leaps. I remembered Paduano's words about big tarpon "There's no pressure. You don't have to worry about losing them, because you know you're going to lose them". The weightlessness on the end of my line was the most likely outcome, as there is only so much you can do with a 100-pound plus fish while standing on the shore with a 7-foot spinning rod.
I've heard that only about one in ten hooked tarpon are landed, and this includes fishing from boats. By the third night I was thinking the odds of a landing tarpon from shore might be even lower. My hot lure had been a 7-inch Tsunami swimshad. I had one left out of the four I packed in my suitcase, and I was saving it for the "striper rip" that was to form early in the ebb tide. When the time was right, I positioned myself on the rip, planted my feet firmly, and began retrieving casts with my rod angled low and toward the lure in anticipation of burying the hook hard on a strike. On my second cast I yanked back hard on a hit and instantly had another of the big tarpon at eye-level as it exploded into a run. With less current than the previous night, and a few lessons learned, I managed to break it from the main current. After about 20 minutes, more than 10 jumps, and several close calls with structure, I had the leader in reach in a predetermined landing spot on a small patch of beach made up of broken coral pieces. The fish lunged when I grabbed the leader, and I had to let go. After regaining the line, I waded into the water and got behind the fish. At the last moment I tossed my rod onto the shore and used both arms and legs to corral the fish into shallow water where a quick picture was taken before I revived it in the current and sent it on its way.
I have no idea what the big tarpon weighed, but my largest stripers seemed like toys in comparison. However, it was the experience of fishing for those stripers that drew me to the piece of water that produced that tarpon, as well as another about half its size, and several other memorable hookups. My most productive tarpon lures were the swimshads that I had already owned for striper fishing. It was nice to see that what we learn fishing here can go a long way elsewhere.