Fishing for tarpon

TARPON: Tarpon are the largest, strongest, and most acrobatic of the Belize species. Even juvenile fish will put your angling skills to the test and strain your tackle beyond belief. Belize's tarpon fishery is primarily known for its small- to mid-sized specimens (20-70 pounds), although fish over 100 pounds are not uncommon. A large majority of these fish are local individuals which remain in Belize throughout the year. Migratory fish begin to show up around late March and numbers will increase significantly from April through July.

Belize offers the tarpon angler a very unique selection of diversified conditions, which range from inland river lagoons to the stereotypical shallow-water flats scenario.

Tarpon are attracted to Belize because of their affinity for brackish water. Like the snook, tarpon seem to prefer to forage and (especially) breed in waterways containing low salinity. The estuaries and coastal riverways of Belize meet these requirements perfectly. Adult and juvenile fish will often remain in the protected rivers and lagoons for lengthy periods. Here, they can menacingly loom at the top of the food chain and not be bothered by the larger predators of the open ocean.

The migratory habits of many fish will often induce them to leave the river/estuary system, and they are commonly found on many shallow-water flats, which offer relative protection as well as a veritable cornucopia of tarpon fodder. Such delicacies as shrimp, crabs, mullet and various other forage fish keep the tarpon exceedingly content.

Fishing Conditions: 'Mere are two types of fishing conditions you will find in Belize: river/lagoon fishing and/or flats and & channel fishing along the coast. The river/lagoon fishing will only be available from Belize River Lodge.

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Basic Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing

1. River and Lagoon Fishing: Fish will usually be in deep, murky water where sight fishing is difficult. Rolling fish are : somewhat common but blind casting is the general rule.

2. Flats and Channel Fishing: Fishing will be done from small skiffs in clear, shallow flats (3-5 feet deep) or in the tidal channels which connect the flats.

Spotting Fish: Individuals who have never fished for tarpon often think that such a large fish would be exceedingly simple to spot. When conditions are right and the fish are rolling on the surface, they are quite easy to see. Unfortunately, when the fish aren't rolling, they can be very difficult to see even in shallow water. There are several clues to look for when trying to locate fish, which include a slight surface disturbance or "nervous water" or, more frequently, looking for the dark backs of fish. It is essential that you wear a good pair of polarized glasses you must be able to spot the fish as soon as they are in your vicinity so as to allow time for an accurate presentation of your fly or lure.

FLY FISHING FOR TARPON - Presentation: Once cruising or rolling fish have been spotted, it is important to quickly and accurately place the fly in front of the fish's path. Tarpon are not easily spooked and you can place the fly quite close to them. A distance of about three to five feet is perfect. Allow the fly to sink to the level of the fish and then begin to strip it back with a slow, steady retrieve. This is the moment of truth. If all goes well and the tarpon is in the dining mood, the fish will greedily take the fly - wait until it turns before setting the hook. By doing this, the tippet will slide into the comer of the fish's mouth (the softest part) which theoretically sets you up for the best possible hooking angle. Tarpon have concrete-lined mouths, so a supersharp hook is an absolute necessity.

Correct hook setting will also help put the odds in your favor. Point the rod tip at the fish and firmly set the hook with your stripping hand only. Then keep your rod tip close to the water (to eliminate slack) and pump the rod sideways with short, sharp tugs as you pull on the line and the rod simultaneously. This sounds very nice on paper,but if you haven't caught one of these giant primordial beasts before, the sight of one inhaling your puny fly will give you a dangerously increased heart rate. All those years of calm control on the trout stream will instantly vaporize into a bumbling ball of nerves.

The Rod: The flies you'll use are not that big, nor are they heavy, so you won't need a big rod for the flies - it's for the fish. The ideal rod for Belize-sized tarpon is a 10 wt. You can get away with a stiff 9 wt, but if you hook a hundred-plus pound fish or your guide asks you to cast a 3/0 fly in a 20 knot breeze, you'll wish you had the backbone of a heavier rod. Rods listed in the bonefish section in 10 wt are ideal. A model with a beefed-up butt section for added power would be a wise choice.

Reel: Tough, no-nonsense reels are a must when you are playing tarpon. A strong, reliable drag is vital. The Pate Tarpon model or the less expensive Scientific Angler System II- 10/11 model are good choices.

Lines: The lines recommended in the bonefish section in appropriate sizes will work well.

Leaders and Tippets: For the novice tarpon angler, pre-made tarpon leaders by L.L. Bean or Climax will simplify things considerably. If you would like to learn the knots/leader dimensions, good reference books are Practical Fishing Knots by Lefty Kreh and Mark Sosin or Fly Fishing in Salt Water by Lefty Kreh. A brief recipe for a standard tarpon leader: it is tied in three sections totaling about 6-8 feet. Butt Section: 3-4 feet of 30-lb. test joined to the fly line with a nail knot. A perfection loop should be tied at the other end. Class Tippet 2-3 feet of 15-lb. test. Join to butt section by interlocking perfection loops. A Bimini Twist with a double surgeon's loop should be tied at the doubled end. Shock Tippet: 12 inches of 80-lb. test connected to the class tippet with an Albright Special knot. The fly gets connected to the other end of the shock with a Homer Rhodes loopknot.

Flies: When it.comes to fly preference, tarpon can go from greedy to fickle in a matter of hours. Slight variations in shape and color can often make a difference in the number of fish you'll catch. A selection of the following should cover you in all conditions (flies should be tied in sizes 2/0, 3/0, and 4/0); Cockroach, Chico's Shallow Water Tarpon (burnt orange/ grizzly, blue/griz., yellow/griz., green/griz.), Stu Apte (Apte Tarpon), Sea Bunny (olive, purple, tan), Lefty's Deceiver (various colors). Deceiver (red/yellow, chartreuse/white). Popping bugs, such as Gaines Saltwater Popper, can sometimes be very productive (red/white, blue/white).

Note: Those fishing in the Belize River area should bring brighter patterns (2/0-4/0): Whistler series, Seaducer, Lefty's Deceiver (red/yellow, chartreuse/white).

A Note on Lost Fish: The average fly fisherman only lands about 30 percent of "jumped" fish. The most common causes related to fish loss are dull hooks, poorly tied knots, and frayed tippet -super-sharp hooks and well-tied knots are of utmost importance! Carry a small hook file at all times.

Tarpon In Belize
by Tarpon Tony

Blue skies, popcorn clouds, and gentle winds set the stage for unbelievable Tarpon action on the saltwater flats of Belize. At the El Pescador Lodge, north of San Pedro on Ambergris Cay, Ali and Logan Gentry are gracious hosts and manage a turnkey Fly fishing operation, which accommodates expert as well as the novice fisherman. The accommodations are excellent, the services complete, and the cuisine is unique. The lodge dining room provides a full service bar, which is the gathering place for raucous afternoon fish tales and rowdy card games. With El Pescador as base station, Nestor Gomez, a king among tarpon guides, engineered a game plan, which proved fantastic. Early morning starts were the cornerstone of success. Rising at 3:30 A.M. to travel under cover of darkness allowed access to fishable flats at first light. Within minutes of the first drift, the sounds of rolling tarpon electrified attention and forced sightings of telltale silver backs and rippling fins. Fly-casting any target was simple in the absence of defeating wind. The roll call was incredible. " Tarpon rolling 200 feet 9 o'clock, 60 feet at 2 o'clock, two of them at 50 feet 1 o'clock". Choosing a target proved to be the most difficult decision. Once chosen, inducing a take was not a problem. The fish were aggressive and slammed flies, at times with aerial assaults. In all we fished six days, covering five flats in three different areas from mangrove margins to deepwater. Hundreds of fish were sighted. Of presentations made there were thirty takes, twenty-seven fish jumped, and nine landed. The largest weighed 165 lbs. [68 inches long, 43 inches girth], and was subdued after a two-hour battle, which included 27 runs, 7 jumps, and 5 lurches under the boat, the last of which destroyed my # 12 Loomis GLX rod. Two other fish went over 100 lbs., the remaining ranged from 15 to 85 lbs. Many of the fish jumped were on for multiple jumps and were lost for a variety of faults: snapped leaders, poor hook sets, and unexplained. The experience was the realization of the quintessential tarpon fantasy. I am planning to reproduce it as soon as I rest my weary back and trunk. Nestor, Ali, Logan, El Pescador , thank you for the experience.

Written by Dr. Anthony Cuomo on August 28, 2000
A.K.A. Tarpon Tony

PS.. Dr. Anthony Cuomo had an unforgettable week of tarpon fishing at El Pescador Lodge in Belize last week. Dr. Tarpon Tony has been a guest and friend of El Pescador for over 11 years, always fishing with his favorite guide, Nesto. Tony landed the lodge record for the 1999 season last May with a 157 pounder. He now holds the 2000 record as well with a 165 pounder caught on August 26th. He is only 4 pounds shy of the lodge record for our 30 year history.

SPINNING/CASTING FOR TARPON: Tarpon are a wonderful adversary for the light-tackle spin/casting fisherman because of their dependable eagerness to take a wide variety of plugs and their unparalleled fighting ability when hooked. The spin fisherman has a distinct advantage over the fly fisherman when blind casting because of the overall effectiveness a spinning or casting rod has when it comes to covering large expanses of water. When sight casting, a little more care should be taken to avoid spooking fish.

Presentation: The wide variety of lure types which follow all have very different actions and are retrieved at varying depths. As a general rule of thumb, tarpon like lures that are retrieved at a nice, easy pace. With this in mind, remember to take your time to make the lure act as tantalizingly as possible.

Lures (Surface): Rebel "Jumpin' Minnow" 4 1/2" 5/8 oz. (silver flitter and G-finish/gizzard shad) and Heddon Zara

Spook 4 1/2" 3/8 oz. (G-finish shad and G-finish pearl/red head). Heddon Lucky 13, 5/8 oz. 3 3/4" (silver flitter and white/red head).

Subsurface (Minnow Type): Rapala CD Mag 5 1/2" (silver/ black back) or Bomber Heavy Duty Magnum 16J,, 1 oz., 6" (silver/black).

Mirrolures: These popular lures have been very effective for tarpon for many years. Mirrolure 52M, 3 5/8 " 1/2 oz., shallow runner-, 65M, 3 3/16" 1 oz. deep runner; 38MR 3" 3/8 oz. (red/ white and green back/white belly).

Jigs: I oz. saltwater jig head with 6" sassy shad (chartreuse/ black back and natural shad). Bucktails from 1 to 1 1/2 oz. in yellow and white can also be productive.

Rods: When purchasing a rod, remember that it must have a fairly heavy action to aid in hook setting and to properly play a heavy fish. A few rods that meet these specifications are:


  • Penn Power Stick 66" med-hvy action, lure wt 3/8-1 oz.
  • Shakespeare Ugly Stick Big Water 66" medium action, lure wt 1/2-3 oz.
  • Cabela's Fish Eagle II 7' med-hvy action,lurewt 1/2-11/2oz. Casting
  • All Star Ex-Hvy-Trigger Cast 6', lure wt 1/2-1 1/2 oz.
  • Cabela's Fish Eagle II 7', lure wt 1/2-1 1/2 oz.
Reels: Must hold at least 1,50 yards of 17-20-lb.test and have strong/reliable drags. A few good examples are:


  • Penn Spinfisher 65OSS,
  • Abu-Garcia Cornniodore 907F
  • Diawa Whisker Tournament
  • Abu-Garcia 6500C Syncro
  • Diawa Millionaire II 6000M
Line: For spinning reels, a thin/supple monofilament like Abu-Garcia's "Ultra-Cast" monofilament, 17-20 lb. For casting reels, a stiff, low stretch line like Berkley "TriMax" or "Big Game," 17-20 lb.

Note: The small teeth in a tarpon's mouth are very abrasive, so it is essential that you use at least l2 inches of 80 lb. shock tippet or a wire leader between your line and lure.

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