As a former Key West guide and someone who fly fished for tarpon in every month of the year, I’m often surprised at the number of people who think that the only time to travel to the Florida Keys for tarpon is May and June. The reputation those months have is no doubt a carryover from the 70s and 80s, when there were relatively few anglers and lots of migrating tarpon. The game, as you probably know, has changed.
Here are my top five tips for anyone thinking of booking a guide to tarpon fish in the Keys this season or in coming years:
1. Choosing a guide is more important than choosing a season. The difference between the top Keys guides and the average guide is tremendous. The best guides are wonderful people to spend time on the water with, they have a large repertoire of spots to fish–which becomes very important when the weather or fish behavior becomes unpredictable, and they know their business, from knots to hooks to flies to placing the boat just right for your cast. They’ll know whether it is smarter to spend your day chasing tarpon, or whether permit or other species present the best opportunity.
Also, fish migration patterns change from year to year depending on conditions and the movement of tarpon prey. January may be calm and warm and provide fantastic fishing for laid-up tarpon, the season might extend far into July, and there may even be good fall tarpon fishing. The only thing you can be certain of is that every year is different. So fish with a guide who comes highly recommended rather than trying to find any guide who is available during “peak season.” (They’re probably already booked anyway.) You’re better off fishing with a great guide in bad weather than a lousy guide on a perfect day–it’s that kind of game.
2. Choose and book your lodging carefully. If you wait until the last minute to find that ideal place to chill after a long day on the water, you’ll end up paying too much for a place that probably won’t meet your expectations. Keys hotels are notorious for over-charging and under-delivering. But there are many quiet guest houses and well-managed hotels to choose from, and most of the good ones post images of their rooms online. Caveat emptor.
3. If you are bringing your own gear, buy a new fly line. Or two. I never ceased to be amazed out how reluctant anglers are to buy a new line every season. Yes, lines can last you years if you take care of them, but why not drop $80 on a new line and fish with something you know will shoot well. Bring your “old” line as a backup. It’s a minor investment that can make a big difference in your enjoyment over a few days of fishing.
4. Plan to eat well. The last thing you want to do when you are fishing all day is to worry about what you are going to eat and where you are going to get it. Like lodging, there are more bad places to eat in the Keys than good places, and a little research is well-rewarded. You’ll appreciate a good dinner with excellent service after a long day on the water, and you’ll be glad when you don’t have to scramble to find something to take out on the boat. Ask your guide for recommendations, or ask experienced anglers. They’ll all suggest one or two “can’t-miss” options.
5. Keep your expectations in check. Yes, the Florida Keys are among the most beautiful places in the world to sight-fish. Yes, the guides are the best in the world. But I once took the time to calculate the number of “very fishable” days in the average week. I came up with the number “two.” Regardless of the season, on average two days of the week will be bad weather days, five days will be fishable, and of those only two will probably offer you great conditions. As an old Bahamian guide once said, “The sun be the boss of ‘dis game.” For tarpon, I’d add “the wind.”
Of course tempering your expectations means that you will probably be open to unexpected thrills: hooking a laid-up fish at the end of a day when no other fish would eat, seeing something you’ve never seen before, learning something completely new. Which leads to a bit of advice I offer anyone hoping for success in saltwater: always be ready for good things to happen. Believe me, it makes a difference.