For many anglers, it’s an addiction chasing tarpon on the flats and channels of Belize. Given that the fish can grow to over 200 pounds makes it one of the most sought-after game fish on the planet. Tarpon will inhale the fly and won’t actually eat it. For this reason, setting the hook may be the most difficult part – it will test every angler’s patience and skill only to further feed the addiction. If hooked into one, spectacular aerial acrobatics and a challenging fight will surely ensue. It all equates to an incredible experience.
Tarpon is a saltwater fish, but can even survive in freshwater or “brackish” water. The fish even have a primitive lung allowing them to breathe air. Often times anglers see tarpon “gulping” as they surface for air. They live a largely nomadic lifestyle covering huge swaths of the ocean in their annual migrations seeking food. With a little background on their diets, what time of year to fish, and what tackle and gear work best, anglers can prepare for success.
What Tarpon Eat – The fish eat crabs, worms, shrimp, as well as baitfish. With such a large mouth, the fish swallows its prey whole. The adults will find their prey in the flats and channels where the juveniles will mostly be feeding in the shelter of the mangroves.
When to Fish – Belize has year-round fishing – 12 months of chasing tarpon. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t better times than others if vying for a chance at a large migratory tarpon. The seasons are:
April – September: These are the true silver kings, 80 to more than 150 pounds. The rest of the year provides an opportunity for resident and juvenile tarpon.
Tarpon Flies and Fly Fishing Equipment – Belize tarpon tend to prefer patterns such as:
- Campeche Crab – size 2/0
- Streaker – sizes 1/0 to 3/0
- Black Death – sizes 1/0 to 3/0
- Green Hornet – sizes 2/0 to 4/0
- Cockroach – sizes 1/0 to 3/0
- Tarpon Toad – size 1/0 to 3/0
Due to the large size of the fish, it’s important to bring the correct equipment. Recommended rod weights are 11 and 12 and tippet is recommended to be in the 16 to the 20-pound range as well as 60 to 80-pound shock tippet. Bringing both a floating line and an intermediate line is recommended.
Where to Find Tarpon in Belize:
Flats – This is more traditional sight fishing. You and a guide will most likely be in a boat searching for cruising fish. In this case, floating lines are preferred. Intercepting patrolling tarpon and quickly stripping is the strategy here. The bottom of the flats could be light-colored sand or turtle grass and matching fly color to bottom color is important.
Channels and River Mouths – In these areas more blind casting is used. You’re better off with intermediate lines that sink quicker. The large channels in the reefs are prime locations for tarpon feeding on smaller fish. Likewise, tarpon will be feeding at the mouths of rivers in hopes of a meal.
Generally speaking, the larger tarpon can be found in the northern part of Belize in places such as:
Once the fish is located, the real battle starts.
Setting, Fighting, and Landing a Tarpon:
Setting the Hook – The key is to make it through the first few minutes. If you can last the first couple of jumps by the fish– you’ll have a very good chance at landing it.
Tarpon have a mouth like concrete.
There are only a few soft spots where they can be hooked. Try to break the tarpon’s spirit early in the fight by playing it hard. The first few runs a tarpon makes, you just want to ensure it stays on – after that put it to him.
In theory, if that line’s tight and you’re applying pressure, the tarpon will effectively reset the hook time and time again, embedding it deeper into the soft part of the mouth with each subsequent jump. If you’ve made it past the first few minutes then there a few techniques to keep in mind during the fight.
Fighting a Tarpon – “Bow to the king,” is a saying thrown around among tarpon anglers. This is meant to encourage the angler to point the rod tip to the fish – literally, bow down or reach your rod tip outwards. This ensures that when the tarpon jumps, there’s slack in the line and it doesn’t land on a taut leader possibly breaking it.
Rod tip down – Hold the rod against or near your lower abdomen with the tip pointed straight at the fish. This applies more pounds of pressure on the fish when it’s in the water, as opposed to a rod held 90 degrees to the water. This will utilize the strength of your leader and tippet.
Use angles to your advantage – When the fish runs – with the rod tip down, even to the point where it’s in the water – point your rod in the opposite direction. The Angle will substantially increase the pressure put on the fish.
With these techniques, there’s no reason not to land a tarpon quickly. Cameron and Doug, speaking as conservationists, went on to emphasize the importance of landing tarpon in a stress-free manner.
Landing Tarpon – The key to landing a tarpon is to do it quickly with minimal stress to the fish. Tarpon as large as 200 pounds have been landed in a half-hour or less. The quicker you land a tarpon and put the heat on it early, the less stress is put on the fish with a long fight.
It’s encouraged that the angler is situated in the water with the fish if a picture is wanted. Either take a picture over the side of the boat with the fish still in the water – or the best technique, get in the water to take the picture. This puts less stress on the fish and reduces mortality rates.
For more information on Belize lodges, trips, how-to articles, and more visit our Belize fly fishing page