Fly fishing for tarpon spans from the Bahamas along the southern coast of North America, Florida, Houston all the way to Ascension Bay, Mexico.
All those mangrove-style muddy waters are loved by Tarpon and the fly fishers who chase them. It’s important to have your fly box filled with flies proven to work in the varied conditions Tarpon love.
These majestic beasts are lifelong pursuits that often lead to an addiction. Tarpon has everything a saltwater fly fisher would dream of. Anger, vigor, style, and class. All these traits are displayed in their aerial battles and uncontrolled runs.
When you finally get to leader the Tarpon and take a few snapshots to capture the beauty of the beast, you then realize how lucky you actually are to be up and close with such a thing of beauty.
The thoughts run through your head as to why a fish of that size even bothered with your small fly. The nice thing to know is that tarpon love to eat the fly. Unlike the smaller, tricker species like Milkfish, permit to name a few.
With the right tactics and flies, you will be able to get a few tarpon to eat on your fly. Whether you land the fish or not is a different story. Many beginner tarpon anglers only have a 20% conversion rate to start with.
It’s just how it is. The more you hook and fight these beasts, the better you will get, so don’t stress too much.
Below I will go through my favorite Tarpon flies and why I fish them. Let’s get you on the right road to hooking the fish first, and then the rest will follow.
1. McKnight’s Homeslice
Tied by legendary ‘Poon’ angler Doug McKnight, these classic baitfish patterns are a must for the tarpon fly box. Tied on 1/0-3/0 hooks in brighter colors are preferred.
The Tarpon would be cruising the scum line, and you place this baitfish pattern just in front of the moving shoal. A singular fish should move off to eat. Change the retrieve up a little as well. Slower movement when the fish is nearing a commitment.
2. Ruoff’s Laid Up Tarpon Fly
Invented out on the Florida Keys by the one and only Rick Ruoff. The pattern was thought out for laid-up fish. These are fish that are near the surface and sometimes sleeping. Over the years, the pattern has proven to be a great success in Costa Rica and Cuba.
I love this pattern for clearer waters when the fish are tricky. It lands very softly and has excellent movement. My preferred colors are blacks and beiges on a smaller 1/0 hook. This is also a great pattern for snook and striped bass.
3. Merriman’s Tarpon Toad
The Merriman’s Toad is one of the few patterns that have remained unchanged for the past 20 years. It is simple to pattern to tie and even easier to fish. The fly was tied to target the young Tarpon that are everywhere early season but has also proven very effective for the laid-up fish as well.
Red and olive green is a great color on a #1 hook. Fish the fly slower for the laid-up fish and speed up the retrieve when they start to track the fly.
4. Baitfish Styles like Everglades Special
EP fibers have to change the way we tie baitfish patterns. Enrico Puglisi’s EP fibers offer lightness and great movement and are available in various colors. This is what makes these baitfish patterns so unique.
I like them in purples, blues, and whites. The big eyes are a significant trigger as well. Tied on size #2/0 is preferred. You can have a few smaller sizes in the fly box for those trickier days when the bigger patterns just don’t get the eat.
5. Apte’s Black Death
The Black Death is tied by non-other than Stu Apte. The black death is a must-have in any tarpon fly anglers fly box. It is super light to cast, and its profile allows it to cut through the wind with ease. Big ‘Poons love the long tail and massive eyes. I like to fish the fly in darker colors. For some reason I’ve had the most success with them. A larger size is best on a 2/0 or 3/0.
6. Everglades Gurgler
The Gurgler is a well-known fly that will attract almost any predatory species to the surface to eat. It’s a killer bass fly, and the Tarpon love it as well. I always have a few in the fly box on any trip, but I make sure I have some for a tarpon mission.
The plopping and water disturbance is a massive attraction to Tarpon, and nothing will get the heart pounding more than seeing a bow wave pop up behind your fly. Fished in brighter colors on 1/0 hooks with a 4mm foam piece is the way to go.
Guide Tip: Tarpon can grow to incredible sizes. The trophies start at 100 lbs. but they can get MUCH bigger! Wondering how big? Read -> What is the Biggest Tarpon Ever Caught
7. Tarpon Tapas
These simple patterns are always handy to have in the fly box, especially when fishing out Florida way. They work wonders down there for the smaller Tarpon and migrating fish. Tied with a zonker strip for the tailor, a craft fur extension, and a soft hackle body, there isn’t much else to the fly. Smaller sizes are best, so a #1 or #2 is best. Keep to the more natural colors to imitate a few crustaceans as well.
When you hear of flies going out of fashion, you think of the old dry classic and a few saltwater streamers which the Cockroach falls under. But this pattern hasn’t lost its use for anglers and its attractiveness to Tarpon. Tied on a 1/0 hook in tans and creams is best with a steady retrieve. A fleeing shrimp or small baitfish come s to mine, and the tarpon love this.
9. Tarpon Mouse (a.k.a. Tarpon Slider)
This is a great surface pattern to have for Tarpon. If you are like me and love some surface action, then this is the fly pattern to have. Ideal for lazy laid-up Tarpon or for fish that are gulping for air during the day.
The pattern rides just below the surface and pushes some nice water. A range of colors work is size 1/0, and it’s all about the bullet-style deer hair head. When fishing in the shallows, a weed guard is recommended for the floating grass.
One of the most straightforward baitfish patterns to fish and tie. The Tarpon love them. I carry a few different sizes and colors. 2/0 and 4/0 are best in purples, reds, and white. Make sure they have some erratic eyes on them. I just think the pattern works better with them.
11. Lefty’s Deceiver
No introductions are needed here. This is one of the oldest baitfish patterns and one of the best tarpon flies. Lefty Kreh’s deceiver was first tied for striped bass but quickly became very popular for other species as well. Tarpon love this streamer/ baitfish pattern. Reds and whites work really well on a 2/0 hook.
An Easy to Tie Tarpon Fly
Fly size, weight and colors effect how productive a fly is going to be. Quality stainless steel hooks sharpened regularly will help drive the fly home.
Setting up a fly rod for Tarpon
It’s important to remember that Tarpon aren’t your average saltwater species. These fish are big, pull hard, and can have some serious attitude.
It is essential to have the proper setup when targeting these fish. Your rod weight, reel drag, and backing capacity all play an essential role in fighting the fish.
You want to be able to hook the Tarpon, fight it, land it and release it safely, and your fly rod setup will drastically influence this outcome.
A 10-12wt fly rod and reel is what is recommended to start with. Obviously, if you are targeting the smaller juvenile Tarpon, a 9wt will suffice, but I wouldn’t go any lighter than that.
Your reel needs to be of a standard that is designed to fight big fish. A smooth drag with no startup inertia and loads of backing is what you need. The bigger 10wt and upwards can hold anything from 300 yards of backing. Get yourself one of these reels. You are going to need it!
Leaders and tippets should be the heaviest you can get away with. Fish what you are confident with and know will hold up.
Recommended Gear list for Tarpon Fishing
The gear needed for Tarpon is heavy, and you shouldn’t think you can just wing it.
This will result in lost fish.
Rods need to be 10wt and above and preferably a medium to fast action to turn over those larger flies.
Guide Recommendation: Tarpon fishing is serious. Casting heavy flies in windy conditions, usually you get one shot. To stack the odds in your favor get the right equipment. The SAGE SALT HD was made for this. Read more and check prices on Amazon with this shortcut link -> SAGE SALT HD Fly Rod
Reels must be salt ready and able. Have a large arbor and backing capacity. Smooth drag with no jerks.
Lines will generally be a floating, weight-forward line, maybe even a rocket taper for a windy area and larger flies. A sink tip can be handy for those deeper sections and when the Tarpon is hanging deeper.
Wading and boots aren’t very important as most tarpons are targeted off a boat, so a pair of boat shoes will suffice. A good pair of wading flats boots are great when you are targeting Tarpon of the beach in the surf. This can be challenging, so why not have a comfy pair of shoes on.
Packs and vests are a personal choice, I for one just carry a backpack. You don’t really change your fly that often, and it is easy enough to grab your fly box from your pack.
Leaders and tippets are essential choices. I like to fish a straight 9’ leader with a 20lbs tippet to start.
A boat is imperative to a good tarpon day on the water. Most of the tarpon fishing in the south is done on one. Ensure you have all your needed gear for the boat and a vitally important line bag or tube for when the fish speeds off, and your feet aren’t tangled up in the fly line.
Redfish, Snook and Spotted Seatrout
In a lot of the same waters that you’ll find tarpon you can find Reds, Snook and Seatrout. You might be wondering where? The first place I’d recommend is Florida.
- Read about the best places to go in Florida -> HERE
- Chasing Snook? Fill you fly box with the right flies read this article -> Best Flies for Snook
- Learn the tips and tricks for catching Snook in this article -> How to Fly Fish for Snook (Setup, Where and Flies)
- Redfish are becoming more popular for fly fishers. Read about the best flies in -> Best Flies for Redfish
Tarpon Questions and Answers
How do you rig for Tarpon?
Tarpon rigs for a fly rod and reel are pretty straightforward. Heavy rod with big reel to hold plenty backing. Leader and tippets in a standard setup, 9’ length, are fine or shorter if you choose. You don’t need a long leader. It just becomes troublesome in the wind, and 50-60lbs leader fluorocarbon will be fine for most fish.
Make sure your knots are up to standard and double-check them once you are done.
What weight fly rod should I use for small Tarpon?
As mentioned before, Tarpon are big fish and should to respected with a 10wt and above fly rod. But it can also be great fun to chase the smaller fish on a 9wt fly rod. The 9wt is heavy enough to cast the larger flies and to handle the wind. You also have enough backbone to muscle those 20 pounders and above. Another nice thing about a 9wt is your arm isn’t dead the next day. You cast a 12wt all day, and you will know all about it the following day. Your arm will be buggered!
Are Tarpon easy to catch on the fly?
Tarpon are considered relatively easy to hook on the fly. I say hook because that’s just the start of events. Landing the bigger fish, your success rate is halved! That said, they eat with ease and generally will eat a second time if they miss. Laid up ‘poon’ can be some of the trickiest fish to convince, especially when they are in those relaxed states. This is where the tarpon slider will work wonders.
One More Cast
So, there you have it. Whether you are a beginner or seasoned veteran, there is always something new to learn. I love learning things from others. It could be something small that makes a world of difference.
That’s what tarpon fishing is all about. Finding the fish, identifying what mood they are in, and landing the fly in front of them. Getting the eat and holding on for dear life!
Take what you need from my thoughts and get out there and have fun.
Fly fishing has been my passion and pursuit for the past 20 years. I am a South African based fly fisherman who loves nothing more than spending a day on the water. Fly fishing is more than catching fish, being in the outdoors with good friends and family is what it is all about.
Sources: A huge thank you to the folks at UMPQUA. True industry leaders in the fly fishing world. Check out with this link UMPQUA