Fly Fishing for Winter Tarpon

It’s been only weeks since the last of the baitfish populations pushed out of south Florida. With them went some fairly predictable fall tarpon fishing.  But now we are only weeks away from the months when tarpon begin responding to warm, calm winter days by moving up into the rivers and basins of the Everglades and other sheltered inshore areas.

Some of the best tarpon fishing you can do happens in January, February and March in Florida.  It’s not well-known or well-understood, but the winter fishery is something to behold if you get the timing right and know where to look.  We’ll be publishing some tips on winter fishing over the next few months.  Here’s one to start:

When looking for winter tarpon, think dark bottom and no wind.  Dark bottom–be it the tannic sand of the Ten Thousand Islands basins or the long dark turtlegrass in water that is 10 feet deep or so in the Keys–holds heat.  And the absence of wind brings tarpon closer to the surface; there are different theories for this, but my favorite has to do with the fact that wind (and cold) oxygenate water and enable a tarpon to stay deep without rolling.

So to begin your search for winter tarpon–assuming you don’t know the locations they’ve preferred historically–start by looking near deeper water or pockets in basins in about 10 feet of water.  And look in on calm days with bright skies so that you can see fish that are sometimes laid up 8 feet below the surface.  You may have a hard time getting the fly down to them without an intermediate line, but don’t worry–they’ll come up.  And if the weather has been calm and hot for a few days, don’t be surprised to see some very big fish lollygagging right near the surface.

Light Bottom vs. Dark Bottom

“Light bottomed flats reflect a large portion of the sunlight. When water temperatures are at the extreme end of the comfort zone of saltwater fish, generally during the months of July, August and September, fish will often prefer to frequent light bottomed or sandy coral flats because the water temperatures will be a little cooler.”  That’s Kent Klewein of Gink & Gasoline summarizing the effect of light bottoms on water temperature.

What he says is true, and anyone who’s fished the dark-bottomed Everglades or deep grassy flats for wintertime permit will also intuitively understand the opposite effect: dark bottoms draw fish in cooler weather.  But tides and solar heating play an equally important role.  Incoming water fresh from the depths of a channel can be warmer than the flat it covers in very cold weather, and water than has been sitting in a sunny basin for hours before ebbing out in the late afternoon can be the warmest you’ll find all day.

As fish feel the first touches of fall, keep in mind that the newly cool water will pull fish up onto the flats for several weeks.  But when that first big cold front hits, you’ll want to shift your strategy to looking for the warmest spots and the flats least touched by the change in wind direction: those in a wind shadow or with deeper areas adjacent to drop-offs.