Keys Guide’s Unusual Tarpon Rig

In the summer issue of Southern Culture on the Fly, Keys guide Capt. Joel Dickey shares his tarpon rig with readers. Dickey shuns the “traditionalist” notion that tarpon should only be fought using 16 and 20-pound test leaders and instead suggests a simple 60-pound mono butt section with a 50 to 60-pound terminal section, connected by a six-turn blood knot.

“Oh, I can hear the polyester crinkling now,” Dickey writes. “Not to mention statements like, ‘that’s not sporting.’ To me, what’s not ‘sporting’ is fighting a 150-pound fish for hours on end just to say you caught it on 16- or 20-pound test, only to release the tarpon, which dies of exhaustion minutes later as you make your way to the next spot.”

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  • MJM

    I agree that you should use the heaviest leader you can so you can land fish quickly, but doesn’t this leader exceed the breaking strength of most fly lines? And most backing for that matter? If I am going to break a fish off, I want it to be at the leader so I’d generally want a section between the butt and bite tippet that is less than 30-pound.

    • You’re right, MJM. I know a number of guides who’ve tried the “straight to 60-pound” method and broken fly lines or even backing. But *if* you don’t put more than 20 pounds of pressure on the fish, you *should* be OK. The problem is that most people don’t know what 20 pounds of pressure feels like…. and 20 pounds of pressure adds up pretty quickly when you have the heat on the fish and you forget to take your hand off the spool.

      • Bill Bishop

        Straight 60lb. or even 30lb. is overkill for any tarpon and fly rods alike. This has less to do with what is or isn’t “sporting” and has more to do with learning how to pull on fish correctly. Fighting a 150lb. tarpon on well tied 16lb. leaders isn’t an hour on end long process if correct methods are employed and those lessons aren’t going to be learned fishing straight 60lb. With proper fish fighting skills and correct boat handling most 150lb. fish can easily be landed on 16lb. in 30 to 40 minutes max. In most cases with most 150’s it will be far less. It depends on the anglers objective. If the mission is to simply catch a tarpon on fly and be done with it…. 60lb works. If the objective is to learn how to fight tarpon correctly 16lb. is the way to go because the angler is forced to learn and use correct fish fighting skills. Most anglers will be amazed how hard they can pull on a well tied 16lb. tarpon leader before it breaks. The best way to learn how much pressure can be applied is by breaking a few fish off while in a fish fighting mode. Once this is memorized the angler can begin to apply maximum pressure thus minimizing the time it takes to bring the fish boat side. Guides are in charge of how long they allow their anglers to fight fish…. not clients.

        • Bob Ferguson

          Reading “Down and Dirty” by Stu Apte might solve a lot of Tarpon fighting questions.

        • bezer

          Well said!

        • Chuck S

          Amen Bill! Well said and I fully agree – the tippet system grew from thousand of expert anglers catching fish and reevaluating their gear and it’s there for many reasons as it makes good/common sense. In short one needs a deliberate weaker link, or Class Tippet, to keep rods intact, fly lines unbroken, backing from separating, and more as has been pointed out above. Great comments for the most part.

      • Marshall, the guide I fish with in Key West there tapers down to 30 or 40. His thought is that his clients are not record fishing and if they are will have their own gear. He does not catch enough “big” tarpon every year to merit record fishing for tarpon. Permit are a different story. When I am fishing the Tampa bay area (Sarasota to Homoasassa) I use 16 or 20 because I want to break one off if sharks get close by. I have no problem with the leader setup Capt Joel is using. He probably gets his lines wholesale. I pay retail. I would rather see the straight 60 than anyone fishing 6lb tippet for poons.

      • Earle Waters

        To many things can go wrong with 20 plus class leader. A 100 pound plus tarpon can pull angler, guide boat and gear all day on #16 and can be landed with proper gear and knowing it’s limits. Don’t have time to learn on the water. Test your pulling power with a hand scale. Then find a kid with a bike and tie on to his seat support and have him ride down the sidewalk for a given distance. If you know someone who is a rower you can impress him with your skills when you bring him to a stop with #16. When you see your handle or your finger go flying using over #20 is not going to be pretty! Don’t take the risk of hurting yourself by cutting off a finger are worse. It recent years, sharks have been the reason for having to brake a fish off and if you can not do it from pointing the rod straight at the fish and locking down the reel with your hand and letting the fish come tight, you are going to make a tarpon lunch for a shark! Backing the drag off sometimes is not soon enough to save your fish. Following a tarpon with no drag is going to require cranking up and we know how that can screw up the fishing! After 35 years as a tarpon guide, I was not happy when Billy Pate got the IGFA to add #20 as a class line. Using anything over #20 is almost as scary as a guide who drinks two MONSTER drinks before leaving the dock!

  • Collin

    they is dead on correct. only issue is with novice anglers and tangled spaghetti. broken blood knot no problem, broken nail knot on the water…………..problem. that is why I stay with 40lb

    • I think you’ve got it, Collin. The difference in this kind of choice has a lot to do with experience level. I know few guides who would want to put a shiny new tarpon rod in the sweaty hands of a novice angler who might get the line wrapped around their leg or finger with a 40-pound leader. On the other hand, for folks who catch a lot of tarpon and understand the value of putting full pressure on the fish, it can be a lot of fun to fish with “over-weight” leaders.

  • Riverrhino

    Using this system for catching tarpon not only doesn’t make sense, it is flat out dangerous to clients that get a half hitch around their ankle and get dragged into the ocean! I agree that playing a big tarpon quickly is essential to their survival but I’ve caught hundreds of 100 pound plus tarpon on 20 lb. class tippet and rarely does it take me more than 10 minutes to get the leader inside the tip top. This past May I landed several fish in the 120-140 lb. class with 20 lb. class and 80 lb. shock and none took longer than 15 minutes to “leader”. Of course in order to get the fish to hand and get the fly out, it may take another 5-10 minutes. Marshall Cutchin himself could probably vouch for this after having spent many days with me in his skiff. Probably the biggest danger of using any class tippet heavier than 20 lb. is that anglers and clients are going to break a heck of a lot of rods. The 20 lb. will usually break before the rod does, unless you put too big a bend in the tip of the rod (which usually happens when the fish is close to the boat and the angler is excited.) Finally, for big tarpon 60 lb. fluoro shock tippet doesn’t cut it. I’ve had many tarpon saw or clip thru 60 lb, when I’m putting on a lot of pressure. 80 lb. Fluoro is a much better choice and rarely will it get abraded enough cut through.

  • Alex

    Any guide fishing with a tippet over 20# shows very little interest to teach his clients how to fight a fish properly. On top of that , doing that can put into risk himself, his clients and the integrity of his tackle (by all the reasons already discussed which I completely endorse), So that is downward silly and unprofessional( specially coming from a FISHING GUIDE), any good tarpon fisherman can catch 100# plus tarpon with regularity in less than 45 minutes, Using 16 and 20# tippets. We don’t truly have a sport without the rules. to me that’s like playing basketball and count 2 pointers as 3.

  • rick

    60, 40, 20……….barbless hooks. play with them for 10 minutes then give them some slack or break them off. Everyone wins.

    • ian

      exactly!! who truly wants to land a tarpon. have some fun then shake em before she puts down every laid up fish in the bay.

  • WindKnot

    Something not mentioned here is the breaking/opening strength of most hooks. I’d say that even if–and that’s a BIG if–most clients (newbies) can put enough pressure on a tarpon to break a fly line or backing, the hook should (again *should*) open first. Of course, before that they’ll feel like that rod is going to blow up in their hands, so they probably won’t pull that hard. NOT saying I agree or disagree here, but for a lot of tarpon rigs nowadays (with all the 1/0 Toads being tossed around) the hook is often the weakest link. I personally use pretty small hooks and 20# class tippet, and usually find those hooks open (slightly) when I land my fish… on a 10-weight, under 30 minutes. Down and dirty is great, sure, but the key is to use the butt of the rod and “short stroke” those fish, like a tuna fisherman on the banks.

  • WindKnot

    Also, for the record. I do agree with him about fighting a tarpon to death not being sporting. If people think this is a rarity or that most guides know better, a quick search of YouTube for “fly fishing tarpon” should suffice to clear up that little misconception. If it comes down to releasing a fish to live another day, or fighting it for 1hr +, I’m going to come down on the side of whatever keeps the fish alive. Again, not saying I agree with Dickie’s leader choice, but live, swimming tarpon are more important to me than teaching someone how to properly fight a fish. And, and, if they’re using heavy tippet they can pull harder than they’ve ever thought possible and learn exactly just how much pressure a fly rod can take.