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Destination: Key West, Tarpon on the Flats

by Captain Mike “Hogy” Hogan

Key West is a favorite fishing destination of mine, one that I try to visit annually. Sure, there are plenty of places throughout the Keys where you can get in on some hot flats action without going all the way down to Key West, but the combination of nightlife, great restaurants and a cool vibe pair quite nicely with fantastic fishing.

Fishing-wise, Key West certainly boasts all that southern Florida has to offer: reef fishing, sight casting to cobia, blue water and my favorite, the flats.

Many anglers prefer the long run to the famed Marquesas, the only Atoll this side of the equator, but the run is not imperative to fantastic fishing. The place is just littered with flats, most of which hold fish, including tarpon, permit, bonefish and barracuda.

In Search of Tarpon

This year, my quest was for tarpon. I’d been hearing from Captain Aaron Snell of Key West how effective the 10″ Hogys had been on tarpon, both on the flats and in the harbor at night. While the pictures he kindly sent us were great, I had to go and see for myself.

Best Time To Go

You can catch tarpon pretty much any time of the year in the Keys, but the premier fishing months for larger tarpon are March through June. Capt. Aaron is a big fan of the full moon, which means stronger tides and easier night fishing. There is another run again in late September, but Aaron mentioned that the tarpon tend to be a little smaller, typically in the 60lb class, although as he put it, any tarpon is good sized.

Aaron will tell you to “lead” the fish on the flats. By that he means to cast up in front of the tarpon and bring the Hogy into the fish’s field of view, never behind the fish as this is an unnatural presentation. Very rarely I suppose would you find a baitfish zeroing in on a big predator. Aaron described the ideal scenario as if, from the tarpon’s perspective, it stumbled across the bait.

A tarpon is cruising in your sights, you’re ready, your cast lands ten feet ahead of the fish, which is swimming towards your Hogy. Now what? Keeping in mind that the action of your Hogy is derived more from short rod twitches than from your retrieve, bring your bait into the path of the tarpon. If you need to pause to buy a little time, do so. By imparting short rod twitches, your Hogy will quiver and with each undulation, will offer a natural presentation of a wounded baitfish to the tarpon.

The tarpon eats it! Stay cool and set that hook. But in doing so, make sure you take a short turn on your reel in the same moment as you will eliminate any slack in the line, which will help drive the hook into the fish. (Sharp strong hooks are a must.) As with any self-respecting tarpon, you can expect it to take off. Big jumps and long runs are the norm. Each time the tarpon jumps, bow to the fish, meaning you should lean forward while keeping the rod tip low and toward the water. This will help cushion the jump and maintain a proper angle to the fish. If the fish lands facing you, reel immediately to gain the slack line that will occur. Tarpon are experts at shaking hooks; they’re so strong that each headshake generates tremendous amounts of force.

Proper care is required when releasing a tired tarpon. There is a relatively new law in Florida that mandates tarpon cannot be brought all the way into the boat to ensure a healthy release. It’s also good practice. A lot of damage can occur to large fish when they are brought into the boat whether it’s unsupported organs, physical damage or loss of slime. Take care in releasing your fish. Rock it back in forth in the water to ensure a healthy release. 

Tarpon will expend every ounce of energy they’ve got, so a quick breather will help them get energy levels back. That way they won’t get “poached” by a shark after it’s release. Speaking of sharks, if you see one zooming in on your fish, put the boots to the tarpon, the fish will have a better chance at survival if it breaks off and can avoid the shark.

How To Get There

Key West isn’t the easiest destination in Florida to get to. Depending on where you’re traveling from, you have a few options. There is an airport right in Key West serviced by a number of airlines, both big and small that connect from other airports such as Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. Driving is another option. The drive, which depending on traffic can take up to four hours from Miami, is very cool. There are a number of stops along the way, including some great roadside fishing, state parks, restaurants and neat watering holes. The World Wide Sportsman store in Islamorada has El Pilar, Ernest Hemingway’s sport fishing vessel right in the center of the store. You can go aboard, stand at the wheel and even sit in the cabin in front of Papa’s antique typewriter. If that doesn’t get you in the mood for a Keys adventure, nothing will!

Booking Guides and Lodging

We highly recommend Capt. Aaron Snell who I found through the Salt Water Angler, Key West’s biggest Fly Shop. (www.saltwaterangler.com) They’ll also be able to point you in the right direction in terms of lodging. There are so many places to stay. So where you might “rack up” will depend on what you’re looking for in terms of luxury and expense. Suffice to say, the options run the full gamut! All the nightlife happens on Duval St. so many of the local inns will be able to accommodate your needs there. There is a big strip of Hotels on North Roosevelt that include many of the chain hotel companies, often with the best deals, but less convenient in terms of walking to places and lack a lot of the charm that Key West has to offer.

Captain Aaron Snell: Born and raised in Key West,  and knows the flats like the back of his hand. Though Capt. Aaron most often guides fly fishing trips, he is an expert light tackle angler to say the least. If you can get him, book him.

Aaron’s Tarpon Packing List:

If you’re planning a trip, don’t hesitate to give us a call here at Hogy Central. We’ve done it many times, and we’d be more than happy to point you in the right direction with just the right Hogys! Call 508-444-8764 or email info@hogylures.com

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