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'Just keep reeling Bette' - A Tarpon Story

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As Told by Dennis Dickson

Great Bay Beach - Tarpon IslandYears ago I was spending my spring days flyfishing the north sound rivers of Washington for native steelhead. This March day Hal and I were fishing the Skykomish River and its past fabled C&R wild steelhead fishery. We got sidetracked in conversation, as we often time did, talking about far off fish in far off lands. Now Hal is what you might call a “serious Die-Hard” when it comes to his flyfishing. As a long time airline pilot (since retired), he has opportunity to flyfishing around the world. The only two fish he even bothers with anymore, is steelhead and tarpon. He made a statement that day on the Sky that has stuck with me ever since.

Hal exclaimed. “Some guys are trout fishers and a few are steelheaders”. In the salt, some guys are bonefishers and a few are tarpon guys. No offense Dennis, but I know you. You will be more than happy chasing bonefish until you catch a tarpon, and then that is all you will want to do. After steelhead, of course”. 

That was back in the early 90’s. I have since caught my bonefish, even jumped a few really big tarpon. Hal couldn’t have been more right. I really like to chase bonefish, Heck, I would jump on a plane and do it tomorrow. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t confess if forced to choose between fishing the two, tarpon wins, hands down. 

I have since “refined my "tarpon junkieness" to a specific set of do’s and don’ts.

I don’t like casting 12 wt. rods for tarpon. They really suck (or maybe I really suck at casting the big rods).

I also don’t care much for flats boats. I am just A.D.D. enough that waiting my turn to “be up”, meaning up in the front of the boat, is not my idea of fishing. Given a specific opportunity, I would rather pole the boat than wait and watch, and I would just as soon be up casting than poling if truth be told. I am just too poor (or cheap) to spend the cash to go “one on one”.

And while I am purging, I should also confess, I have stood on the front of a 17’ flats boat enough times to admit that the only time I really enjoy the experience, is when I have a target in front of me. Four hours of being poled around without a shot, absolutely bores me to tears. My poor fishing companion for the day has since stared holes in the back of my head, while he sits and waits for his turn that never seems to come soon enough. Even if the up angler does hook up, by the time the dude lands the bloody thing, his partner’s day is gone. Been there and done that.

More up and downside

The surge and power of a hooked tarpon is nothing short of spectacular. The whole thing is totally worth it, but you better be not only a good caster. You better be a good 12 wt. caster. If you don’t know the difference, never mind. You are not.

So you get hooked to the absolute biggest friggin fish of your life, and he is towing and jumping. Total boredom one second, sheer pandemonium the next. What your guide doesn’t tell you is this. The fun of a 100 plus pound tarpon, is in the first 5 minutes, and the last 5 minutes. Everything in the middle of the tarpon fight is "all out work”. It kinda reminds me of a 2 hour tug-a-war.

A fishery refined

Tarpon caught from ShoreSo a long time client and friend turns me on to a new style of tarpon fishing. He calls it “Poon hunting“. Many guys know about the baby tarpon hiding out in their nursery mangrove lagoons. These 2- 10 pound fish are fun, but in my opinion, this fly fishing barely resembles the “big boy” gig. But that is me.

Buddy Jim tells me of this place down in the Caribbean where you can fish for real “Poons”. These are juvenile tarpon that range from 8-40 pounds. A true 10 wt. fish. Says they run and jump just like the big guys do, but after 15 minutes, they come in!  I am all over that!

A star is born

I didn’t come to realize until years later, four more parameters I would call a huge plus. Both Jim and I have independently found other Poon fly fishing areas you can fish from shore! The upside to this scenario is everybody is casting, everybody is fishing. I really like that. Sure, we now use inflatable kayaks to extend our search, but some of the best fishing we do is walk and wade.

Side note

Our “Tarpon Hunter” kayaks have since been refitted to fly fish tarpon. You can hardly imagine your level of buck fever when you are casting at first light to this porpoising trident sub that’s as big as your friggin boat! The anticipation before hook-up alone will practically kill you. You stare at the lanyard attached from your wrist to the rod. Then you realize that this tarpon fishing is serious stuff.  

Tarpon Island is not exactly next store to the Pacific Northwest, but it has plenty of non-angler activity. I call this tropical paradise “Sweetie friendly”, and lest you think that is not a deal breaker, try convincing your girl, who had her heart set on a Maui experience, you are taking her fishing!. Let’s face it. Tropical fishing with you has always amounted to a lovely but desolate experience. Not her idea of a good time.

Tarpon GurglerTarpon Island has the best of both worlds. Amenities (shopping, dining out etc. ) along with world class fishing. Kinda what I imagine the Florida Keys were like 50 years ago. Once you are there, you’re there. Nobody wants to spend a whole day getting to a fishery, then more hours each day getting onto fish. I prefer fisheries you can practically walk to. It’s one of the first questions I ask the outfitter. How far is the fishing from camp? Tarpon Island works.

Poons eat surface flies. Many tarpon fisheries are about moody fish. I prefer aggressive top-water feeders. The “Tarpon Gurgler” is a surface fly that Tarpon Island fish love to take down in a “Toilet Bowl” take. Last year we had a group of four anglers who jumped over 100 Poons in their 5 day fishery - many on surface flies. My favorite story is about a sweet gal named Bette.

A little background

Gary is a very accomplish angler, but tarpon were new to him. Another guy, Mel had a previous tarpon experience in southern Mexico. He said he saw a small fish in a week’s fishing. Our third angler, Orin would probably describe himself an advanced novice. My experience is, he has certainly done well in the fisheries he and I have engaged in. Bette is Orin’s wife. She kind of got roped into this trip. I think maybe the warm weather in winter months with real people, real shopping was enough for her to “check it out”.

Mike and I hedged our bet with Bette by booking a half-day up on our private lakes. I found her to be a very sweet gal. She caught a few big trout that day.

Now I got to tell you, I didn’t exactly complain when Orin bought a couple anti-reverse Abel big game reels for the tarpon trip. I had no idea how cool was that.

So there we were. All guests showed up to Tarpon Island”, end of January. Winter had already settled into the Pacific Northwest with its rain and snow - sucky at best. The 80 degree tropical weather settled into my bones on arrival. I remember as I climbed off the plane reflecting to myself, “I don’t care how long we are on the island, it is not long enough.”  Solace to know that everybody who comes to the island are there for sun, water, and shopping. Few know or even care about the tarpon fishing. Perfect!

Bette with her PoonA short ride to our hotel and we were ready to go. I had since found that even though these tarpon will feed all day, there is a definite bite period at first and last light. Maybe it was a good sign as we walked a few blocks from town. Mike hooked up and landed a nice Poon on his first cast. I was still a little concerned for Bette. A thirty foot cast was pushing it for her. In most tarpon fisheries, that is like, no chance. She was pretty quiet for the first hour that late afternoon. The tropical sun finally went to bed and the lighting went from yellow to dusk. You could almost feel the tarpon around us getting active.

Just another cast

We found that undisturbed fish would cruise right along the shorelines at day light and night fall. With Mike at her shoulder, Bette worked her line out down along the shoreline vegetation. About half way through her retrieve a lovely Poon decided whatever that wiggly thing gurgling the surface must be more food. The fly went down in a toilet flush. Mike simply said. “Strip strike, Bette”. She nailed it perfectly. To say the tarpon went crazy would be a bit of an understatement. The 10 wt was drove into full flex. The Abel reel took over, as the silver king danced across the lagoon.

Even from a distant with the tarpon trashing and driving, I could hear Mike coaching his Gal. “Reel Bette, just keep reeling” So there is Bette, cranking away. Asking her to bow to her tarpon would have to come later. Right now Mike was banking on an Abel anti-reverse reel, a 50# shock tippet, and the 3/0 Gami hook. Six jumps and some lovely running around, and Mike lipped Bette’s first ever tarpon. Perfect!

Over the course of the week, I guess there was plenty of highlights including two fish that decided to tear the 40# butt section off Bette‘s, fly line.  Letting go of the fly line when a big fish decided to freight train from a take at the end of rod, is another concept, but we are all good.

As we climbed back on the plane headed for the PNW winter, I could still remember Mike saying, “Reel Bette, just keep reeling!”

Dennis Dickson       www.flyfishsteelhead.com

The Tarpon Gurgler
Materials List

Name Tarpon Gurgler
Category Tarpon
Hooks 2/0 Gamikatsu beak
Thread 3/0 mono (white)
Tail/Body Krystal Flash: (silver, pearl); Craft Fur: (white, lime green); Flex Floss: (white)
Body Cactus Chenille (white); 3/16” Elmer’s Foam Board (lime green)
Eyes Googly 7 mm doll eyes
Glues Dave’s Flexi-cement / Aquaseal


Tarpon Gurgler Step 1
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Tarpon Gurgler Step 9   Step 9
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1998 Photo (Dennis holding a steelhead)
1998 Photo (Dennis Holding Steelhead)

Northwest native Dennis Dickson is a Washington fisheries biologist who also has enjoyed the opportunity of being a steelhead flyfishing guide for over 20 years.  He and his staff share their vast experience, teaching their highly popular flyfishing schools and bringing anglers from all over the world to enjoy the thrill of flyfishing steelhead. Dennis and his guides, who along with himself, fish many clients throughout the year.  His website, Flyfishsteelhead.com is among the most widely read Internet weekly steelhead flyfishing reports in the state of Washington. Dennis also has personally written some 40 articles and stories about steelhead flyfishing. Flyfishing has been good to Dennis; The writing is his way of giving something back.*

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