Key West Report: Crystal Water, Bright Fish

May 17, 2008 By: Marshall Cutchin

A few days ago Glenn Pittard and I hauled my skiff down to Key West for three days of tarpon fishing, timing our arrival with the weaker tides of the month, which I like because it takes the tarpon longer to do what they are going to do with less water flow. If that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, you might want to think of it this way: tarpon are very tide-sensitive and highly predictable unless they are in full-on migration mode.
We got to the lower Keys just after the passage of a weak cold front, and day one started with a light northeast breeze and no humidity. We’d have good light all day, but I was worried about the effect of the northern slant to the wind, especially since we had heard from several guides that the fish were hard to feed (“as usual”). I headed to the backcountry to a network of channels that feed a small basin, looking for wind and tide moving the same direction, which tends to slick the surface and make tarpon more likely to roll. We saw only one fish, which rolled as he felt the boat push toward him on the shoulder of a channel.
With so few fish in this location, which is a kind of “indicator spot” for backcountry fish, we abandoned the Gulf side and ran to Butterfly Basin near the ocean. There were plenty of big tarpon there, most of them high in the water, and even at 8AM we could see laid-up fish as we moved into casting range. Unfortunately these fish were very picky, and after 20 or 30 casts and the arrival of a few more boats I decided to head west.
We fished the Jewelry Store for laid-up fish and found only a couple of pairs of fish but didn’t connect. Then we ran to the Toilet Bowl on the ocean side and had a couple of quick shots before we got our first fish to eat; it was a big fish, and turned and ran back to the fly after it swam under the leader. “That’s the kind of fish we’re looking for,” I said to Glenn. We had a couple more shots and a few fish eat the fly on the ocean, then I wanted to show Glenn some more laid-up fish so we headed to an interior basin. We began to pole a rather nondescript deep grass flat and almost immediately began to see the dim purple-gray backs of fish lying immobile in water. These fish required a lighter-colored fly, so we tied on a Coker Smoker and Glenn began throwing at groups of fish stacked like pickup sticks about 6 feet down in the water column. The first throw got an eat, then the second, and third, and fourth. We kept that up for a while, then decided to give those fish a rest, hoping they’d be there for another day or two.
After running to the end of the Lakes, we pulled in to a point not far from where some of the filming for the 1973 film “Tarpon” was done. Almost as soon as we stopped the boat I saw a school of about 80 daisy chaining tarpon about 200 yards down the flat. It was a gorgeous sight. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the fish — who were very happy and floating around in a large counter-clockwise circle — had their tails sticking out of the water and seemed to be actually shuddering with excitement. These were obviously new fish, fresh out of the ocean, and Glenn’s first cast confirmed it. He jumped a nice fish out of this school, and played it for a while before the hook pulled. I chased the school down again and he hooked another red-hot fish, which he fought to the boat. I could still see the school, which was about 1/4 mile away, so I poled after them again and Glenn jumped another fish. We could have kept following them and jumping fish but I thought we had put them through enough.
We ended the day by running back to an oceanside channel where we could watch for fish on the high incoming. By 5:15 we decided to call it a day even though the visibility was still spectacular. The bright day and the fish had left us giddy and worn. I switched on the radio and we listened to the forecast for the next day: 15-25 knots out of the east. We slid off the flat and planed up for Garrison Bight. The thrumming of light seas against the hull reminded us of what a good day it had been.