Tarpon Flies: Past and Present
Discover the long and illustrious history of this unique family of flies.
by Pat Ford

I caught my first tarpon in June 1971 on the south side of the Marquesas Keys. I was fishing with Capt. Bob Montgomery, and my tackle consisted of a 12-weight Fenwick rod and Shakespeare reel. We all used 12-pound-test tippets back then, and 100-pound-test Ande monofilament was the standard shock leader. That tarpon weighed about 60 pounds, and it inhaled a four-inch-long, all-grizzly fly tied 
on a size 4/0 Eagle Claw hook. I’ve tied tarpon flies ever since then, and I follow the changes in pattern design with great interest.

Recently, angling companion Andy Mill and I put together a book on tarpon fishing, and buddy Steve Kantner contributed a chapter on the history of tarpon flies. My discussions with Steve piqued my interest in exactly how the first tarpon patterns developed, and how they have evolved into the flies we use today. I spent quite a bit of time conducting research in the library at the International Game Fish Association and speaking with saltwater fly-fishing pioneers such as Billy Pate, Stu Apte, and Bill Curtis, as well as more contemporary tiers such as Chris Dean and Don Reed. My studies concentrated specifically on tarpon flies—not the tackle required to catch these great fish—and it turned out to be so much fun that Fly Tyer editor Dave Klausmeyer asked me to share with you what I have learned. I’m sure I will leave out a few steps and forget to mention some key tiers, but hopefully what I do share will be interesting enough to spur other anglers to research the history of these unique patterns and fill in the gaps.

In the Beginning
The earliest descriptions of catching small tarpon on flies are found in the books Camping and Cruising in Florida, 
by Dr. James Henshell (1878), and Tarpon, by Frank S. Pinckney, (1888). Some say George Trowbridge was the first to actually pursue and catch tarpon on his salmon flies, and Alan Dimock’s Book of Tarpon (1911) talks briefly about catching tarpon on flies that were trolled rather than cast. All of this, however, is a bit further back than I intended to go.

As far as I can determine, the Bonbright Special, tied by Howard Bonbright sometime in the 1920s, was the first actual tarpon fly. The Bonbright Special basically looks like a salmon fly on steroids; at that time, most saltwater flies were simply giant versions of freshwater streamers. In 1930, Homer Rhode developed his Shrimp Fly, which was a simple streamer with splayed wings tied on at the hook bend and hackle palmer-wrapped up the entire shank to the eye. That pattern was pretty much the prototype for tarpon flies for 50 years.

Image
Bonbright Tarpon Fly

Hook: Your favorite brand of regular-length saltwater hook, sizes 1/0 to 3/0.
Thread: Black 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail: Married strips of red and white quill feathers.
Body: Flat silver tinsel.
Rib: Narrow round silver tinsel.
Throat: White hackle fibers.
Wing: White saddle hackles.
Shoulders: Red hen hackles.
Cheeks: Jungle cock feathers.

A number of books discussed fly fishing for tarpon in the middle of the 20th century: Streamer Fly Fishing in Fresh and Salt Water, by Joseph D. Bates Jr. (1950); Flies, by J. Edson Leonard (1950); Salt Water Fly Fishing, by Joe Brooks (1950); and, The Complete Book of Fly Fishing, by Joe Brooks (1958). In Salt Water Fly Fishing, Brooks credits four Miami anglers with developing split-wing saltwater streamers in the late 1920s: Bob Aiken, Stewart Miller, Milton Dremers, and Holmes Allen. I can’t, however, find any information about any of these gentlemen. In Flies, J. Edson Leonard devotes exactly one page to saltwater flies, with the “Rhode’s shrimp” being the only illustration remotely resembling a tarpon fly.

In Streamer Fly Fishing, Joseph Bates goes into considerably more detail about saltwater flies. He actually devoted an entire chapter on “southern salt water streamer fishing” and the Florida Keys. Bates describes a trip he took with Capt. Harry Snow in 1948 out of Marathon to fish for the small tarpon that hang around the mangroves. His collection of flies consisted of the Homer Rhode’s Tarpon Streamer and Tarpon Bucktail, and Gordon Deon’s Tarpon Streamer. Bates’s favorite patterns had white tails and red collars. He could fish flies with heavy collars slowly in very shallow water, and the splayed tail feathers gave these patterns more action during the retrieve. Both these beliefs still hold true today.

Image
Homer Rhode Tarpon Streamer
Hook: Your favorite brand of regular-length saltwater hook, sizes 1/0 to 3/0.
Thread: Black 3/0 (210 denier).
Wing: Grizzly, white, and yellow saddle hackles.
Collar: White and yellow saddle hackles.


In the mid-1940s, northern anglers weren’t paying much attention to what was happening in South Florida and the Keys. Names like Jimmy Albright, Cecil Keith, Bill Smith, George Hommell, Jack Brothers, Bill Curtis, and Stu Apte were just appearing on the scene, but the general consensus was that you couldn’t land a large tarpon with a fly rod, so why bother? The reply was that just hooking a tarpon on a fly was worth the few minutes of chaotic jumps that would occur before the 12-pound tippet snapped. No one had thought of using a shock tippet, but the Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club was quietly developing rules and standards for saltwater fly fishing, and the Metropolitan Miami Fishing Tournament was under way.

The “Met” tournament started in 1935 with the purpose of encouraging tourism and fishing in South Florida. While I was collecting information for this story, I dropped by Stu Apte’s home on Plantation Key. I mentioned my project to him, and Stu said he still had a bunch of old Met tournament yearbooks. We went down to his “fish room” and started rummaging through 40 years of history. Those yearbooks contain some great information about fly fishing for tarpon.

In 1940, Howard Bonbright set the tournament record for tarpon at 36½ pounds, but in 1943, the winning fish weighed only 14½ pounds. In 1949, J. Frank Baxter won with a 28-pound tarpon, but in 1952, H. K. Atkins set a new tournament record with a tarpon weighing 51.8 pounds. Although we were still along way from landing the monster tarpon that grace the covers of fishing magazines, a growing list of anglers were casting flies to these fish.

Bigger IS Better

In The Complete Book of Fly Fishing, Joe Brooks wrote: “These are salty scrappers that will strike a fly but are just too big for a fly fishing outfit. Tarpon of 200 pounds have sucked in my two-inch-long streamer and stayed hooked for various lengths of time, mostly very short. But any tarpon over 80 pounds cannot reasonably be considered a fly rod fish.”

Image
Joe Brooks Tarpon Fly
Hook: Your favorite brand of regular-length saltwater hook, sizes 1/0 to 3/0.
Thread: Red 3/0 (210 denier).
Wing: White saddle hackles.
Collar: Red marabou.

While Joe Brooks was putting his magnificent book together, the guides in the Keys were quietly proving him wrong. They fished for tarpon all spring and continually experimented with different colors of patterns. Stu Apte, Bill Curtis, and other guides discovered that if you put 12 inches of 100-pound-test monofilament ahead of 12 inches of 12-pound tippet material, you might actually get your fly back from the mouth of a true trophy tarpon. The Met rules were changed to allow the concept of a “shock” tippet, and in 1956, Horace Atkins set a Met record with an 87-pound tarpon, and in 1957, Gerald Coughlin raised the bar with a 110½-pounder. Tarpon fly anglers were on their way to proving that bigger truly is better.

In addition to improving the tackle used to catch big tarpon, anglers and tiers experimented with different flies. In the mid-1950s, the existing tarpon patterns, which measured five to six inches long, were simply too large and fouled if the wings were tied on at the hook eyes; even though the wings were tied on near the hook bend, Homer Rhode’s Tarpon Streamer was also too bulky.

Casting a huge fly is difficult, so the professionals reduced the amount of palmered hackle on their patterns. They all stuck with the split-wing tail feathers tied on at the hook bend, but reduced the amount of wrapped hackle so that only two-thirds of the shank was covered. The Cockroach, which consisted of gray grizzly tail feathers with a squirrel hair collar, also appeared around this time. Bart Foth used a “high-tied” bucktail, and Joe Brooks developed the Blonde Bucktail, but Stu Apte’s Tarpon Special, which appeared on a United States postage stamp some years ago, is still considered the gold standard of tarpon patterns.

Image
Stu Apte Tarpon Streamer
Hook: Your favorite brand of regular-length saltwater hook, sizes  1/0 to 3/0.
Thread: Orange 3/0 (210 denier).
Wing: Yellow and orange saddle hackle.
Collar: Yellow and orange saddle hackle.

In 1965, Ray T. Simon, under the direction of guide Clarence Lowe, set the Met record with a 144-pound giant. Tarpon were everywhere back in those days, cruising the East Coast in schools of 50 to more than a thousand fish. Bill Curtis told me that it was not unusual to see 20,000 tarpon a day off Elliot Key in the 1960s, and he recalled one school that took almost half an hour to pass his boat. Capt. Curtis was the only guide fishing South Biscayne Bay in those days, and he sadly states that today there are only 5 percent of the tarpon he saw back then.


Bigger Flies for Fishing Deep
In the late 1970s and 1980s, serious tarpon anglers discovered Homosassa, the mecca for giant tarpon. When guys like Apte, Pate, and Curtis arrived, everyone laughed at them for trying to catch tarpon on a fly. In many places, the water is a dozen feet deep, and the flies that worked in the Keys often didn’t do the job at this depth. Knowledgeable anglers started using bigger, heavier patterns to meet the needs of this new fishery.

I never fished Homosassa during its heyday, but I dropped in on Billy Pate one day and we got onto the subject of flies. Billy keeps all his tackle in a room in his garage; it contains a combination of priceless antiques and—how can I phrase it—junk. It’s much like everyone’s collection of fishing gear.
Billy marched me down to his storage room, where we rummaged through dozens of dust-covered boxes and bags until he found the one containing his collection of “never going to be used again” tarpon flies. There was evidently a lot of experimenting going on in the late 1970s, with both patterns and hooks. Some flies were tied on extremely light-wire hooks so they would sink slowly; others were made on huge hooks that dwarfed the feathers, presumably so the wire wouldn’t straighten during a long fight with a big fish. God help you if one of those size 8/0 octopus-style hooks hit you in the back of the head!

Image
Billy Pate Homassasa 
Tarpon Fly
Hook: Your favorite brand of regular-length, heavy-wire saltwater hook, sizes 2/0 and 3/0.
Thread: Rust 3/0 (210 denier).
Wing: Rust grizzly saddle hackles and pearl Krystal Flash.
Collar: Rust bucktail.
Eyes: Medium chrome dumbbell.
Note: Here’s another pattern for fishing very deep.

Most flies were tied with split wings and in the colors that had been successful in the Keys. Some had painted eyes to make them look more alive, and some were tied with feathers that came from species of fowl that might now be extinct. Billy’s collection was both hysterical and priceless. My favorite oddity was a giant shrimp tied by the Frontier Fly Company that had huge lead eyes and a wire weed guard. It was five or six inches long, and appropriately named the Saltwater Appetizer Shrimp. I could probably have cast that heavy fly with a spinning rod.

Tarpon Flies Evolve

Not content to let well enough alone, tiers introduced marabou and rabbit Zonker strips into their tarpon flies. Marabou was initially added between the split tail feathers; then it replaced the spiral-wrapped saddle hackle on hook shanks. There simply was no limit to the variations of materials used for tying the new-generation tarpon flies. Even the color palette expanded to include pinks and purples as anglers realized that different times of the day and different water conditions require different-colored patterns.

What I find interesting is that most of these flies don’t remotely resemble a living creature. I guess grizzly feathers give a fly a shrimp-like appearance, but I’ve never seen an orange-and-yellow baitfish.

Tarpon have excellent eyesight. If you go to a boat dock called Robbie’s of Islamorada, you can buy a bucket of pilchards to throw to the dozens of tarpon hanging around the pilings. Throw a pilchard into the air, and watch the tarpon follow and strike it as soon as it hits the surface. If you’re brave enough and don’t mind getting your hand mauled, you can hold a pilchard a foot above the water and a tarpon will leap up and eat it. Tarpon feed on baitfish such as mullet, pilchards, glass minnows, crabs, shrimps, and, when they’re available, palolo worms.

I didn’t fish for tarpon very often in the 1970s or 1980s with a fly rod, but, as an avid tier, I always had a collection of flies available. When I started seriously fly fishing for tarpon in the early 1990s, I noticed that there were two versions of tarpon flies: the ones in the stores designed to catch the customers, and the ones in the guides’ boxes meant to catch the fish. Flies with painted eyes are a good example: when seen from the side, the eyes give a fly a more lifelike appearance. The problem, however, is that a tarpon rarely chases a fly from the side; the fish pulls in from behind and inhales it. Most guides felt that painting eyes was for tiers with superior artistic talents and too much time on their hands.

Stu Apte came up with his fly called the Apte Too around 1979. This pattern broke the tradition of tying split-wing tail feathers. It consisted of furnace hackles tied together, then a body of squirrel hair tied on right behind the hook eye. By 1980, there were lots of guides in the Keys chasing tarpon every spring, and the tarpon population was decreasing. The remaining fish became smarter, and big flies tied to 100-pound-test leaders were easy to spot and got rejected. Leaders became longer, shock tippets became lighter, and the flies became smaller.

I can still remember my first real fly-fishing trip for tarpon. It was with Capt. Bill Curtis out of Miami. We arrived at “Curtis Point” on Old Rhodes Key before daylight. Bill gave me a fly he called a Red-Eyed Anchovy, and I jumped a fish that weighed well over 100 pounds on my first cast. A few minutes later, I hooked another tarpon that snapped the 15-pound tippet. As the sun came up, I switched to a darker pattern—an Apte Too, I think—and caught a fish that weighed around 70 pounds using a 10-weight rod. I was hooked on tarpon fishing, and I fished with Bill every week that season. We used a variety of flies, all of which, other than the Red-Eyed Anchovy, were tied in the traditional split-wing style on size 4/0 hooks. Bill had been using these patterns on the ocean for 30 years and they still worked, but the Red-Eyed Anchovy was space age stuff; it even contained a rattle.


Image
Classic Toad
Hook: Your favorite brand of regular-length saltwater hook, sizes 4 and 2.
Thread: Chartreuse 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail: Chartreuse and yellow marabou.
Body: Chartreuse or light green rug yarn.
Eyes: Small lead dumbbell.

Every guide has his favorite and oftentimes original flies, but they also all fish differently. Guides like Capts. Doug Kilpatrick and Chris Suplee fish the clear water around Marathon where smaller flies are most affective; Capt. Randy Towe, who has won a number of tarpon fishing tournaments, routinely fishes the channels and deeper waters of Florida Bay and Flamingo. Randy dredges with a clear intermediate-sinking line, and has a number of favorite spots in 10- to 15-feet-deep water where you can see the tarpon only when they roll. Randy’s favorite dredge fly is a humongous size 4/0, black pattern with bead eyes; it looks—and cast—like a dead cormorant, but it works.

I spent a number of days fishing with Randy and eventually came up with my own dredging fly. It consists of a purple Zonker-strip tail over a few strands of Flashabou, and a purple marabou and black schlappen feather wrapped on the hook shank. This pattern is big and bulky, but it has an enticing wiggle even when it is just drifting. Tarpon jump all over it in the deep, muddy water. I gradually reduced my Purple Monster to a more reasonable size, and I still use it at dawn and along the West Coast.

Capt. Andy Mill, who fishes out of Marathon, is another innovative guide who created a new style of fly to meet his local fishing conditions. The waters around Marathon are usually clear, and Andy uses long leaders and a strange pattern called the Toad. This fly, which was reportedly developed as a bonefish pattern by Capt. Harry Spear, is a combination of a Merkin Crab body with a marabou tail.

The Toad is tied on a size 2/0 hook and has black monofilament eyes, a green rug-yarn body, some yellow rabbit fur, and a chartreuse marabou tail. The Toad also works well when tied with a Zonker-strip tail. I don’t know what the tarpon 
think it is, but they eat it from Miami to Key West. The standard Toad is a winner, but the chartreuse/green color scheme usually doesn’t work for me in the backcountry, 
so I tie a brown/orange version for Flamingo, and purple/black for early mornings. An olive-green Toad is likewise very effective at times, and you can also tie this fly with a deer-hair body for extremely shallow water. The Toad has been the number-one tarpon fly in the keys for the past half-dozen years.

When All Else Fails, 
Try Fishing with Worms
We’ll conclude our brief tour through the history of tarpon flies by discussing patterns designed to imitate the palolo worm. The palolo worm “hatch” occurs a few hours be-
fore sunset on an outgoing tide around the full moons of May and June. If the worms are about to hatch, all the tarpon will disappear during the day; they are either off the reefs where the worms will congregate, or they are lying 
in the channels or under bridges waiting for the worm hatch. If you are lucky enough to hit a worm hatch, you will never forget it. Thousands of tarpon will slurp the two-inch-long maroon and gray worms off the surface like they are candy. And a matching fly is ultra simple: it looks like a palolo worm.

Image
Borski Worm
Hook: Your favorite brand of regular-length saltwater hook, sizes 4 and 2.
Thread: Pink 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail: Natural rabbit Zonker strip and orange craft fur.
Body: Chartreuse or light green rug yarn.
Eyes: Plastic dumbbell.

After a lot of experimenting, the guides wound up using patterns featuring small Zonker strips and fine chenille heads. Everyone has a favorite color combination, but the worms are pretty much maroon and gray, so there you go. However, over the last few years, I’ve heard that a few of the top guides and anglers have been using worm flies all through June. This makes sense, since tarpon love palolo worms, and they probably mistake the fly for a worm that has its hatching days mixed up.

So much history, and so little space. Although tarpon flies appear simple, they have a long and illustrious past. We’ve just scratched the surface about these patterns and personalities who created them, and I’m sorry if your favorite guide or tier was not mentioned. But, remember this: In spite of all the fuss over secret tarpon patterns, the pros put far more importance into placing the fly in the right place at the right time. Master tarpon anglers rarely make casts that are more than 60 feet long; they simply put the fly in the perfect position the first time.
___________________


Pat Ford is an attorney who lives in Miami. In addition to being a master angler, Pat is also an extremely talented photographer.









 
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