I was fortunate this past fall to get invited to go to Boca Grande, FL in May by my good friend/fellow guide/the brawny man, Brett, and took him up on the offer. Brett has been going poon fishing out of Boca for the past few years with Capt. Austin Lowder, and has hooked fish every single trip and had a great time. Being a complete noob to tarpon as well as the saltwater game, I was just excited to get the hell out of the snow and see some fish that weigh more than my yellow lab.
I arrived in Sarasota and walked out of the airport and into the muggy Florida air just as Brett wheeled around the corner in our rental KIA. We zipped out of the airport and started the hour drive south to Punta Gorda where we were staying. As we pulled in to a bar near our hotel, Brett got a call from Austin and we learned about his boats motor problems, and that we would be having a late start the first day while Austin went to get things checked out. A couple of beers later, we crashed out and woke up the next morning around the crack of 10. It turned out that Austin's boat needed to stay in the shop for the day, but his friend would let us borrow his boat, an Egret brand skiff appropriately named "Duck Soup."
After a morning of phone calls and anticipation we finally got on board Duck Soup and jammed out of Charlotte Harbor, through Boca Grand Pass to a spot that Austin had been hooking fish in every evening. The water and light conditions were less than ideal, so we spent the afternoon and evening mostly blind casting, with shots at maybe 4 rolling or cruising fish. After several hours of blind casting a 12 wt. in ripping winds, Brett finally got a big grab and sent what looked like the side of an aluminum trash can to the surface of the water. Brett had the first tarpon of the trip pinned up. As the line peeled of the floor of the boat the absolute last piece of fly line to go into the guides wrapped around the reel handle, and in a split second before Brett could tap it, and the big show would have began, the fish thrashed and shook the hook. We were all bummed to say the least, and Austin estimated the fish to be in the 150lbs+ range. During the hook-up and subsequent loss I was perched in the back of the boat, with eyes as wide as any japanamation cartoon, amazed by the sheer power of the fish, and the fact that it didn't break anything (including Brett's hand) when the line wrapped the reel handle.
Sunset of the first night. Brett takes sick photos and doesn't throw "duffers".
The second day we got an earlier start than the first, and were fishing by noon, this time in Austin's Hells Bay Skiff, which was a nice upgrade from Duck Soup, although beggars can't be choosers and we were grateful just to be fishing the first day. We spent the morning running around in choppy water, looking for clean water that had not been stirred up from the breeze. This proved to be a difficult task, but Austin found us a couple of spots where we had good enough conditions to see some fish, and I had my first bite of the trip. While we were sitting on a large flat, a Tarpon rolled about 35 feet off of the left side of the boat, and I was in the right position to get a cast on it. As my fly sway away from the tarpon I could barely make out his silhouette in the murky water slowly, snake-like, chase it down, and felt just a touch of pressure on my line, as if a stranger pulled on your shirt sleeve to get your attention at the grocery store. And that was it. After the light pluck the enormous fish rolled down and away from the fly, I never came tight, and my legs didn't stop shaking for half an hour. Our evening ended with anchoring on the same rip as the night before, and Brett hooking two more fish, both of which came to the surface but did not stay tight. We were even nice enough to let the guide fish, and he shared our same results of a flirt, but no solid hookup.
Note the blood dripping from my right leg. Casting a "Duffer"
The third day was Austin's wife's birthday, and unlike most fishing guides he actually remembered this, so we met at sunrise, and fished until 3 in the afternoon (Thanks Mrs. Lowder for letting Austin go fishing!). This day we experienced the best conditions of the 4 days, and after a little searching, Austin had us on a flat where we had Tarpon running at the boat in pods of 2-10 about every half hour. This was exactly what we came down for, and being a great host and friend Brett let me sit up in the bow for the money shot (and he can throw a 12 wt. further than 25 feet). We had several pods come through and were seconds away from moving up the beach because the wind had blown us down anchor, when several tarpon rolled close to the boat. Brett had his had on the ignition key to the boat, 1/2 of a second from starting it up, when we saw the fish, and I was on the deck with rod in hand, about to hop down for the short ride. At this point, Austin was yelling about the fish, I threw my best 30 foot cast, let it sink, and stripped as slow and smoothly as I possibly could, while watching a 100+ pound fish start to turn at my fly.
As I had always heard about, one of the cardinal sins of saltwater fishing is "the trout hookset" which is lifting your rod tip straight in the air when a fish eats your fly. This techniques eliminates your chances of hooking the fish nine times out of ten, and causes guides to talk shit about you all night at the local bar, and mutter under their breath the rest of the afternoon ("Cast over there Joe" under breath:"I hate you"). When you are looking for a couple of chances at a fish in onc day, having your shit together is a good thing, and blowing it at the hookset is not.
As the fish approaches and eats, I continue to strip, and feel it come a little bit tight when instinct sets in and I lift the rod like this tarpon is a 16" brown on the Big Hole eating a salmonfly. During the middle of my hookset, I think "wow, that was the completely wrong way to do this, if I miss this fish our guide is going to come unglued!". Fortunately, I had put enough steel into him while stripping and my gaper hookset was negated by the fact that the fish had cleared all of my line and was off into the backing. I have never hooked anything with the sheer strength that this fish had, and it was peeling like of a cranked-down Able like it was nothing. After about 15 minutes of chasing the fish around, I felt my like come slack as I was leaning on it pretty good. Once the leader made it back into the boat we realized that the fish had bit through the 60lbs bite leader. At this point I was still super excited, and happier than hell to have been able to fight one, regardless of seeing it on the side of the boat.
In terms of grande tarpon our final day was lack luster. We got on the water early with the intention of fishing sun up to sun down, but the water conditions were the worst of the trip, and after only seeing a couple of fish in very murky water we decided to take the afternoon off and fish snook under the lights that evening. Since we had a couple of hours to kill, Austin told us about a baby tarpon pond to go fish, with one warning "watch out for the giant alligator." After a beer and some grub we walked in between two large appartment buildings to a tiny pond that was loaded with baby tarpon. We each ended up hooking a couple tht were lost, then Brett finally connected for good, landing this little guy on a clouser:
Brett's baby tarpon.
Followed up by mine.
Our night of snook fishing was as much fun as chasing around the big boys. It was a good challenge to fire baitfish flies into the edge of the lights while avoiding docks, boats and pesky seatrout. I will definitely be putting snook on the list of things I need to catch more of after this trip, and was unbelievably appreciative of the fact that Austin took us out snooking after an already long day of tarpon fishing. We ended up getting done snooking in time to pack our stuff, grab an hour of sleep, and then head back to Sarasota for a sleepy flight back to Bozeman.
This trip was absolutely everything I had hoped for, a large part of which was thanks to our awesome guide. If you are heading to Boca Grande, or just want to go try to catch a Tarpon, I cannot speak highly enough of Capt. Lowder. He had us on fish the majority of the trip, fished longer than anyone else on the water, and was the only boat all four days that we ever saw or even heard from that hooked or played a fish. Here is a link to his website again, www.seaandstreamflyfishing.com This trip definitely gave me some more fuel for the fire, as well as was both humbling and motivating for a new aspect of the sport to me. I can't wait to do it again!