Fly Fishing for Baby Tarpon and Snook in Tidal Streams.

I love kayak fishing along Mangrove streams in Florida. These are brackish, tidal streams that eventually enter into the gulf or an inshore bay.  Many of these streams are so small they can only be accessed by a kayak or small water craft. These are the nursery areas where baby Snook, Redfish and Tarpon grow up. They are also the areas where many Snook and Tarpon spend the winter. Perhaps I love them because for the past 60 years I have been primarily a Western Trout Stream angler and a Mangrove stream is at least a little familiar. After all it is moving water!  There used to be many more thousand of square miles of mangrove jungles in Florida, but because of all the building on both coasts, many areas have been cleared out and replaced by cement sea walls, condos, canals, and high rises. Now we are learning how important mangroves are to the environment and it is illegal to cut them. There are still around 555,000 acres of Mangrove covered areas in Florida. Much of these Mangrove areas are in Southwest Florida, from Tampa Bay and south into the Everglades. The largest area of natural Mangroves close to me in Bradenton Florida is in South Tampa Bay, and only a half hour drive. I have been fishing this area and finding some success in catching Snook and Baby Tarpon. There are some similarities between a Mangrove stream and a Western Trout Stream and some astounding differences.

Similarities in Mangrove streams and Western Trout streams include:

  • Both types of streams have lots of brush on one or both sides. In the case of Mangrove streams the limbs hang down into the water and may extend several feet out into the channel. On Western Trout Streams it’s usually Willows. Many fish like to hide under over hanging branches and undercut banks. You have to get your fly very close or down under them if you want a hook up. You can often hear Snook and Baby Tarpon smacking bait back under the Mangroves, which is exciting to hear, but you may not be able to get your fly to them. Mangroves can actually reach out and grab your fly, or so it seems, and they don’t want to let go. To get your line untangled you often have to pull your kayak over to the Mangrove where you are stuck and untangle the mess, this will definitely spook the fish in the area.
  • Both streams have current, but the Mangrove streams are much slower than most Western Trout Streams. Both have deep holes, slots, and pools where fish may be concentrated. 
  • In both types of streams, fish will be facing into the direction of the current waiting for food to be washed into their feeding zone. In the case of Mangrove streams it is baitfish, crabs or shrimp. In the case of a Western Trout Stream the food items are nymphs, aquatic worms, terrestrials, emerging and adult Caddisflies, Mayflies, Stoneflies, and different types of baitfish such as Sculpins, Trout and Sucker minnows.

Differenced in Mangrove streams and Western Trout streams include.

  • Trout streams usually have rock bottoms. Mangrove streams have muddy or sandy bottoms.
  • Trout streams flow the same direction every day, and all day long and don’t vary as much in the amount of water in the flow. Mangrove streams are really two streams in one and they get larger or smaller depending on the tide. In a Mangrove stream, the water will go out, slow down, stop and then reverse and flow the opposite way. This is the most astounding difference between the streams. Fish hold in different places depending on which way the tide is going. Where fish locate on an incoming tide may be completely different on an outgoing tide. In a Mangrove stream at high tide predator fish leave their ambush points and may cruise under the Mangroves looking for an easy meal.
  • Western Trout streams are freshwater while Mangrove streams are brackish with a mixture of fresh water and salt water.

bcJCNNAzQ3WM6XImoKyHPQRecently I found some nice Snook and juvenile Tarpon in a couple of narrow, deep pools and drop offs in a small tidal stream. It was a mile and a half paddle to get to this stream and it is one of the more remote areas in south Tampa Bay.  I had been looking at this area for a couple years on Google Earth and was excited to finally get to explore it. As I arrived at the mouth of the stream the sun was just peeping over the Mangroves.

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A white popper fly fooled this little Snook before the sun got on the water

I tied on a small, white popper and fished a shady area along the outer Mangrove bank. Within a few casts I connected with a small Snook.  I was amazed at the fight the small Snook  put on, jumping and running under  the Mangroves and putting a bend in my 6 weight rod. What a joy to catch a Snook, at any size. The water was brackish and stained. I was fishing an outgoing tide. The next spot I stopped to fish was a deep hole that is formed where the water enters into the bay. I quietly navigated along the edge of the hole to where the water came into a quick drop off. I dropped the anchor up-stream from the upper end of the hole and then slowly let out rope, letting the current position my kayak within casting distance of the upper end of the far bank. I had a feeling the fish would be holding on the drop off as the water comes into the pool, and I was right. Armed with a 9 foot, 6 weight rod with an intermediate, full sink fly line, I cast the fly, a #4 bait fish pattern as close as possible to the mangroves and allowed the fly to sink down and sweep under the mangroves. PaPow, PaPow, PaPow, PaPow, PaPow. One after another when the fly got sucked under the mangroves, a hungry Snook pounced on the fly. I ended up catching 5 Snook, the largest was 26″, without moving from that spot. Hooking a 26″ Snook in the outgoing current and under Mangroves is a tremendous fight. Once hooked you have to try and pull the fish out and away from the many Mangrove roots into more open water. I continues working my fly down the pool but had no other hookups. The fish were obviously concentrated at the upper end of the pool where the current was the greatest, and tiny crabs, shrimp and bait fish were being washed into the pool by the outgoing tide.

Moving on up the stream I came to a long, narrow, deep slot that opened up into a larger open pool. I moved to the upper end of the pool and again dropped anchor. I sat watching the pool for a few minutes, looking it over for fish activity. After 10 minutes or so I saw several large fish moving up the pool, their fins coming out of the water. Immediately I thought, “those are rolling Tarpon”. Quickly, perhaps too quickly, I made a short 25 foot cast that spooked them and they disappeared. After several more casts into the area where I last saw them, and with no response, I paddled on up the stream.  I marked the spot and vowed to come back. I proceeded up the river to a bend where the stream narrowed into a deep slot. I got out of the kayak in order to walk closer to an area   where the water was deep, dark and came out of a Mangrove tunnel. I heard a large splash and saw where a big fish had busted some bait against the opposite bank. Tiny glass minnows scattered in the air as the fished attacked them. I carefully cast into the narrow pool, close to where the violent splash had taken place. The hole was  laden with Mangroves on both sides, and contained numerous dead falls and sticks coming out of the water. “What a tough pace to fish”, I said to myself. I got two hard strikes but didn’t hook up. On the third strike I actually made a strip set with my line hand and the fly connected. A 10 pound Tarpon came 3 feet out of the water, flipping and tumbling in the air and coming down with a splash. What a shock! I quickly stripped in line as it swam towards me and I could see the fly stuck in its upper lip. My 6 weight rod was straining to control the fish from running under logs and brush. It jumped several more times and actually jumped up into the mangrove canopy where my line got caught in the brush. I forcefully jerked the line and it came out of the Mangrove leaves. That was a rare time that a Mangrove ever let go of my line. As the Tarpon ran under a log I put too much pressure on the fish and the fly broke off, parting the 20 lb fluorocarbon . This all happened in a minute or so and left me shaking, but exuberant from a fight like I have never experienced. I sat down in my kayak, took a couple deep breaths, and with my trembling fingers re-rigged, adding 10” of 40 lb shock tippet to my 20 lb tippet. I hoped this would give me a better chance at actually landing a baby Tarpon in such a tight and brushy area. Several casts back into the pool connected on two smaller Snook that jumped several times and put up a nice  fight.  After numerous casts with no strikes, I headed back downstream to the pool where I saw the rolling Tarpon. As I approached in my kayak, I heard several loud splashes from predator fish, Snook or Tarpon, that were back under the Mangroves. Coming upon the pool I again quietly dropped my anchor and slowly allowed the current to position the kayak at the front of the pool, and in an area where I could make a back cast. While at the head of the pool, I cast across and upstream to the opposite mangrove bank and let the fly sink and swing under the Mangroves. After a dozen casts and 3 strikes, but no hookups, I checked the fly, thinking I needed to sharpen it. To my surprise the hook had broken off at the bend. Grrr! Grrr! Grrr!

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This lightly weighted, bead chain fly is made out of a white rabbit strip, white maribou, and Siberian Fox fur. It has great action in the water while it sinks slowly. It is deadly on Snook and baby Tarpon.

I tied on another fly with a loop knot. It was a fluffy, white rabbit strip streamer with a bead chain eye. After several more casts into the upper part of the pool with no success, I got out of the kayak and sneakily walked along a sand bar to the lower end of the pool. I noticed another splash of a feeding fish. Again I cast across stream, let the fly sink and drift under a mangrove out cropping. After several casts, I got a hard strike. I remembered to strip strike with my line hand and up and out of the water, doing flips, was another Tarpon. The fish ran up and then down the pool, jumping several more times. I applied sideways pressure on the fish hoping to keep it out of the Mangroves, not wanting to repeat the last event upstream. Finally the Tarpon exhausted itself and turned over sideways. I got the Fish Gripper tool on its lip. While holding it in the water and waiting for it to revive, I admired its large silver scales and huge mouth. Wow, I finally hooked and landed a Tarpon, not a big one, but a fish that fought harder, and jumped more and higher, than any fish I have caught. No wonder they are called the “Silver King”.IMG_6849After an awkward picture, and a prayer of thanks, the Tarpon  was released. It slowly swam around, gulped air several times, and then disappeared back into the pool. Now I have Tarpon fever! I can only imagine what an adult Tarpon in open water would fight like. I hooked three larger Tarpon while in the Keys fishing with my good friend and Orvis Endorsed fly fishing guide Matt Thomas of Riplips.com. Matt guides on the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers in Colorado, in Louisianna for Redfish, and in the Keys for Tarpon. He is the fishiest guy I know. The Tarpon I hooked were only on for a jump or two and then the hook pulled out. Matt put me on 15-20 shots each day. My problem in hooking them was the “trout set”. A “Trout set” is where you lift the rod tip to set the hook.  After 60 years of trout fishing this habit is hard for me to break. The “Trout set”  usually pulls the fly out of the mouth without it getting hooked. The much more effective way to set the hook in salt water fishing is to keep the rod pointing at the fish while making a sharp pull of the fly line with the line hand, called a “strip set”. With Tarpon, because of their bony mouth, it is best to set the hook several times, and when the fish takes off make sure the line does not get caught around the reel. Perhaps I will catch a mature Tarpon in the spring. For now I am very satisfied with landing a baby Tarpon in a small Mangrove stream. I hear there can be Tarpon in the tidal streams all fall and into the winter. I will certainly be back!

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A week later I returned to the mouth of the little stream. The tide was reversed, and now there was an incoming tide that caused some confusion in my mind. I was not used to tide changes that totally reverse the water flow.  A change of tide is a true act of nature that still amazes me. I pulled up to the opposite end of the pool where I had caught Snook on the outgoing tide. I again positioned my kayak close to the mangroves and at the head of the pool, which in an outgoing tide was at the opposite end of where I was positioned during the incoming tide. Casting as close as possible to the mangroves, I let the fly get swept by the current down and underneath them. PaPow, PaPow, PaPow, PaPow, one after another, four nice Snook took the fly, straining the rod and jumping. I so love Snook! They like to jump, put up a tremendous fight, and love to eat streamers.  Even small ones put up an amazing fight. I continued up the Mangrove stream to where I caught the Tarpon a week earlier. The water felt devoid of predator fish. There were not any fish popping bait fish under the mangroves. I saw schools of Mullet and lots of small bait fish but no predator fish attacking them.  I only caught one small Snook in the areas that was loaded with Snook and Tarpon the week before. Perhaps the fish were there but just not eating. One thing I have learned in salt water fishing is that there are many more variables to take into account, such as the moon, the tide, the water temperature, the wind, and if there is bait fish, crabs or shrimp drifting in the current. In salt water fishing, the fish are where you find them, they move around a lot and have distinct feeding times. It has been said, “the salt water has no fences”. In fishing Western Trout streams you can be sure that there will be trout in similar places that you found them yesterday. In salt water fishing the fish move around more frequently and have more definite times when they are on “a bite”. IN SALTWATER FISHING,  THE FISH ARE WHERE YOU FIND THEM! SO GO FISHING! OR IS IT HUNTING? OR I GUESS IT’S HUNTING FISH.

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The first time I fished this area on an outgoing tide, I hooked a Tarpon and 3 Snook. The next time on an incoming tide I couldn’t find a fish!

5 thoughts on “Fly Fishing for Baby Tarpon and Snook in Tidal Streams.

  1. Hi Jim, what a great blog. Loved your stories. Was on the Bighorn River earlier this week. Hunting for Rising trout to, tricos. Fishing was as difficult as I’ve ever seen it on the Bighorn, several years of very high water had left the water murky for the first time in 30 years of fishing it. But of course had a wonderful time. Look forward to seeing you sometime soon.

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    1. Love the Big Horn. Fond memories. From what I remember the Trico spinner fall is very early in the am and #18. South Platte Tricos are much smaller. Trico spinner fall is my favorite of all hatches. Good to hear from you . come and visit!

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