Fly Fishing for Tarpon: A 101 Guide

In our last few blogs we went over the oddly spooked and invisible Bonefish and the fever inducing Permit. Today, Tarpon! Unlike other saltwater species, Tarpon (a.k.a., the “silver king.”) are voracious and acrobatic. Each jump they make in an attempt to throw your hook sends a shock to your entire nervous system. Read on and enjoy our deep dive into Fly Fishing for Tarpon: A 101 Guide.

Fishing for Tarpon isn’t a one way street. They can be OVER 100lbs and that means that you SHOULD base your gear off of the size of fish you’re going for and in every manner, be prepared to “Bow to the King”. Bowing to the king means lowering the rod tip down and pointing the rod in the direction of the fish. This act takes pressure off of the line and increases the odds of landing these powerful fish. This sounds simple in theory. However, it can get pretty crazy. Whether you land the fish or not seeing these majestic creatures fly through the air gets your heart pumping as an angler.

Since it’s not a one-rod-fits-all tarpon, we have broken the tarpon down into three groups:

Baby Tarpon: Generally between 5-15 pounds. Use an 8 weight rod with a floating 9 weight line.  

Juvenile Tarpon: Generally between 15-60 pounds. Use a 10 weight with a floating 10 weight line.

Adult Tarpon: Generally between 60-140 pounds. Use a 12 weight with a 12 weight line. 

The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust does a fabulous job of educating the public about conservation of tarpon, including research into the behavior and migration of this species, and safe fishing practices. This is what they have to say about the three age groups of tarpon, “We know that spawning occurs in late spring through summer, and the limited information available suggests that tarpon spawn over 100 miles offshore, where they presently receive no protections. Some of the satellite tag data show that tarpon undergo deep dives, to 400’ depth, during the days just prior to full and new moons, and we think this may be associated with spawning.  The theory is that pressure difference between depth and the surface aids males and females in the release of their sperm and eggs into the open water, a spawning strategy known as broadcast spawning.  

During the juvenile stage, a tarpon looks like a miniature version of its adult counterpart.  Juvenile tarpon tend to thrive in backbay creeks and protected estuarine environments where there are very few predators. Juvenile tarpon can deal with the hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions with help from their swim bladder.  Although most fishes possess a swim bladder that helps with buoyancy control, tarpon have the ability to control the contents of their swim bladders by obtaining and releasing the ambient air and can use that air for respiratory functions.  This allows the juveniles to obtain much of their oxygen from the air rather than the water.  Since most fish need oxygenated water to survive, juvenile tarpon predators are unable to access these backwater habitats. Juveniles are opportunistic feeders. They eat small crustaceans (copepods, mysid shrimp) and worms, for example, and expand their diet to include fish as they grow.

The adult phase of the tarpon life cycle is what makes anglers lose sleep and quit their jobs.  Many have conquered the Silver King, but more often than not it is the angler who has been conquered by an adult tarpon.   The longevity of a tarpon is upward of 80 years, and as we all know, with age comes wisdom.  Decades of experience with anglers may explain why large tarpon so often get the upper hand.”

The Lines:

Those that are familiar with Scientific Anglers, they offer 3 categories of the same line. They are their Amplitude AST Plus (most expensive, slickness additive with texture for superior shooting & durability), Amplitude Smooth (mid-level price, same slickness additive but smooth surface, exact same shooting & durability rating) and Mastery (most cost effective, no additive to line, smooth)

Since Tarpon are not the only thing found in the waters you’re fishing. Think Permit, Snook, Cuda, and Jacks. You need a line that can handle a variety of fish. Enter the Scientific Anglers Amplitude Grand Slam Taper. This line is designed with a short powerful head to turn over a wide variety of flies no matter what the conditions present. The line loads up a rod with relative ease to allow you (the angler) to make the most of every shot that comes along.


  • Features the revolutionary AST Plus slickness additive for superior shooting ability and increased durability (Amplitude AST+ & Smooth Only)
  • Floating Texture on the tip section for the ultimate in flotation
  • Shooting Texture running line delivers longer casts
  • Designed for demanding tropical saltwater applications
  • Loads rods quickly, cuts through the wind with ease, and turns over big saltwater flies
  • Short, powerful head for quick casts to moving targets
  • Tropi-Core technology for tropical climates


  • The AST Plus slickness additive easily highlight’s the pros section of this article due to the fact that it is a gamechanger. This coating takes a minute or two to dial in due to the fact that this line feels much more slippery than most. Performance wise the AST Plus coupled with the dimpled “shooting texture” means that this line shoots really well through the guides for that little bit of extra distance.
  • Like all other Sharkwave and Amplitude series fly lines this line has a three-color construction that provides a ton of contrast. The Amplitude Grand Slam features an horizon (white) tip, coupled with a Sand (light orange) running line and pale yellow site line section. These contrasting colors aid in judging distance while casting or bringing in fish.
  • SA/ID – This is standard on all Scientific Anglers fly lines. However, I feel that it is underappreciated. All fly lines are marked with the series, taper, and weight designation on the front of the line (ex. SA Amplitude Grand Slam WF 9 F)


  • The noise level on textured lines is always a talking point for some anglers. Some may even argue that it spooks fish. The slight whistle as the line travels through the guides always takes a little to get used to.
  • The AST Plus coating is pretty slick and takes some time to get used to when handling. Is it fair to put in as a con? I am not sure. This could be due to angler error just as much as anything

The Reel: 

The most important piece of gear. This is what is going to stop your fish. Your rod is really not going to help all that much when fighting a fish. Make sure your reel has a sealed drag. Assume it will get dunked in the ocean. And saltwater wreaks havoc on metal. A sealed drag will keep the corrosive saltwater out of the important bits. Along with it being a sealed drag, it should be a smooth drag. A jerky drag can break you off, and that is the last thing you want when you have your first permit on the line. Below are two of our favorites.

  • Abel SDS – The Abel SDS (Sealed Drag Salt) takes all the power, reliability, and smoothness of its smaller counterpart and combines them in a larger package capable of taking on saltwater gamefish of all sizes. A unique multi-disc drag system yields an industry-leading 20+ pounds of braking power and is completely sealed from the elements. Now available in 3 sizes, this makes the SDS perfect for fighting big bones on light tippet as well as providing the power needed to halt hard-fighting tarpon in their tracks.
  • Ross Evolution R Salt  – Ross Reels’ Evolution R Salt reel was designed with the rigors of fly fishing in the salt in mind. A 16-disk, sealed-drag system incorporating stainless steel and carbon fluoropolymer produces 30 pounds of fish-stopping drag pressure. Not one, but two, counterbalances on the spool reduce mass and eliminate vibration. An exceedingly strong frame, made of Anodized II aluminum, performs in the most challenging saltwater environments. In short, the Ross Evolution R Salt reel will exceed your expectations. Ultralight weight for unsurpassed power-to-weight ratio Sealed drag Stainless steel internal components for corrosion-resistance Increased backing capacity for fast-running quarry.
  • Nautilus CCF-X2 Fly ReelThe Nautilus CCF-X2 features a stout, saltwater safe, disc drag system that is built to withstand the stress of hard fighting species like Bonefish. The 8/10 reel is a staff favorite due to the fact that it has a lightning fast line retrieval rate of almost a foot per revolution. This reel can also be fitted with a larger 10/12 spool to tangle with cuda, tarpon, sharks and whatever else can be found while roaming the flats.

The Leader & Tippet:

Baby & Juvenile: Leader that is 11 or 12 feet long led to more grabs than the standard 9 footer.

Adult Tarpon: The power of these fish is astounding. Some anglers usse traditional tarpon leaders with shock tippet, while oth

ers just used straight 80 lb fluorocarbon.


The Flies:

Fishing the shallow flats a lot of the flies that are utilized in these shallow areas are extremely lightweight slow sinking flies or top-water “dry flies”. that The smaller & simpler patterns yielded the best results in these shallow water situations.

  • Tarpon Toad – Developed by Gary Merriman in the 1990’s, the Tarpon Toad is a mainstay for any tarpon fly box. The recommended sizes should be from 1/0 – 3/0.
  • Black Death – The black and red fly has been a perpetual favorite among guides in Belize. Pack a few of these in your fly box to increase your chances of landing a Silver King. The recommended sizes are between 3/0 – 4/0.
  • Enrico Puglisi’s Black and Purple Peanut Butter – This baitfish imitation is essential for any fly fisher traveling to the waters of Belize. The recommended size is 3/0.
  • Big Eye Orange/Grizzly – gives lots of action making it irresistible for tarpon. Carry sizes from 1/0 – 3/0.

The Casting:

The casting is not super demanding for the most part. Even anglers who have never fished for Tarpon or saltwater for that matter will have a reasonable chance to taste success. Being a competent saltwater caster with a decent double haul will definitely increase the chances for success. 

Bad weather? No Problemo! The surface disturbance of the rain allows you to get into lagoons & creeks almost undetected, these were lagoons & creeks that I don’t feel we would have had a chance to fish as effectively otherwise. Despite the wet conditions we landed a bunch of fish each session. The lesson here is to not shy away from rainy conditions when it comes to tarpon fishing. Just break out the Gore-Tex and get out there! 


The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust also recommends the following tips for conservation of future tarpon, “One of the most powerful ways for recreational anglers to take part in conservation on a daily basis is by practicing the best methods for catch and release fishing.  If anglers know the proper technique to release a tarpon without causing damage to the fish, the chances of the tarpon’s survival after release will be high, and we will be able to have a sustainable tarpon fishery long into the future.  The first goal is to match the tackle to the fish.  If a fly angler is casting to a school of 130 pound tarpon using an 8 weight rod, for example, if the rod holds up the fight time will be prolonged and the fish will be exhausted.  Exhausted fish are more susceptible to predation because they tend to lose their equilibrium and roll over. And research on bonefish showed that a fish that loses equilibrium is six times more likely to be attacked by a predator.  If you are fishing for tarpon in a spot where predators are abundant, you may want to consider relocating to another location until the predators disperse.

Often anglers attempt to revive tarpon by quickly moving the fish back-and-forth alongside the boat.  A fish’s gills are designed to uptake oxygen only when the fish is moving forward through the water.  If your boat has a slow idle, you can hold the fish alongside the boat while idling forward.  If not, try idling your vessel for a short length, then put the boat in neutral or shut it off to create a forward gliding motion for the fish.  You don’t want to pull the fish through the water too fast since this is also not good for the fish.

While you are handling the fish after capture, it is best to use tackle pliers to remove the hook from the lip with minimal contact to the fish.  If your fish is hooked in the gullet, clip the line as close as you can to the hook.  If you must handle the fish, do so using wet, bare hands and keep air exposure brief (research on bonefish showed that 15 seconds is the max) – including snap shots.

It is best not to hold a tarpon vertically by the jaw above the water. Tarpon and other fish are built for low gravity conditions where their body weight is supported by the water and the buoyancy of their swim bladder.  If held vertically out of the water, the tarpon’s muscles, bones, and inner organs are subjected to forces they are not used to.  If the fish is removed from the water, you should hold the fish horizontally, supporting it at its head and midsection.  If you need to weigh the fish, place it in a damp sling and briefly suspend the sling from the scale.”


The Clothing

We just did a write up on What to Wear: Saltwater Edition. Definitely give that a read after this for the best suggested gear. If you would like to join us for some tarpon and a trip of a lifetime give us a call at 877.773.5437 for more information or by clicking HERE.