In most situations the best tarpon flies land softly and sink slowly. The fly needs to be able to land close to these spooky fish without making them nervous. Once the fly gets on the water it needs to stay near the surface and in the fish’s view when stripped. Laid-up fish, tarpon lazing near the surface motionless, see everything and can get grumpy at the slightest disturbance. Laid-up tarpon flies have to land very softly and suspend near the surface. Cruising tarpon also need an un-weighted fly but one that drops into their vision a little quicker. Weighted flies are sometimes used for tarpon in deeper channels.
People first learning about tarpon flies are often surprised that the flies aren’t huge, Northeast striper flies are much bigger. Certainly tarpon eat bigger prey, it’s common to see them crash foot long mullet but on the flats they seem to key in on flies around three inches long; 2/0 flies are by far the most common size. Occasionally in the Keys captains will fish 3/0 or even 4/0 flies but unless an angler has instructions to bring big flies the smaller 2/0 is the right choice. Actually more often than big flies in the Keys smaller flies are the ticket especially late in the season.
Color can be important but often unpredictable. Many captains start every day with a black and purple fly changing it only when a fish refuses; some captains really don’t change then either. There’s not a lot of black bait on the tarpon flats and the color that often works if black doesn’t is chartreuse! It seems movement is more important than color. (Years ago we tied some tarpon flies for a captain with stiff neck hackle, they didn’t fish well so we went back to the saddles we typically use and they work as always. The stiffer hackle seemed to mess up the movement of the fly in the water.) For a general tarpon box it’s important to have some black and purple flies and chartreuse complimented with tan and olive.
Our top three tarpon flies are: Fox Fur Tarpon Fly, SST-poon and Marabou Toads. The Laid-up Bugs are great classics and the Duke of Poons is fast becoming a captain’s favorite. The Duke of Poons along with the M.F. Dinner Shrimp and Cult Classics are good choices for cruising fish.