Over Memorial Day, I did two days of tarpon fishing on the fly with Captain Randy Stallings. My trip got off to a pretty rough start. Storms rolled through the east coast, and I was faced with severe delays. After several hours of sitting at the airport and wondering if my flight was even going to take off, I finally heard those magic words: “We’re now boarding the flight to Miami.” We touched down a little after 1 AM, and by the time I grabbed my rental car, drove to Islamorada, and checked in to my hotel, I was getting to sleep a little after 3 AM.
After a brief nap, I met Captain Randy at 7 AM at the docks. He was all loaded up and ready to go, so I hopped aboard his 18′ Hell’s Bay flats skiff, and we headed out to the fishing grounds. Although I’ve read as much as I could find about tarpon fishing, this was my first time out of the flats, so I had no idea what to actually expect. It was an absolutely beautiful day. Calm seas, clear water, and blue skies. A short trip to the flats and Randy cuts the motor and breaks out the flats pole. I immediately look straight down off the side of the boat and see two giant tarpon just cruising right past us. I’m blown away by the size and stealth of these fish. Randy tells me those 80-100 lb fish I just saw are about normal size. My adrenaline starts pumping, and I can’t wait to get in on the action.
Randy grabbed a rod, and gives me a quick demo on using the stripping basket and the proper retrieve. He hands me over the rod, and I toss out the line to get it laid out nicely in the stripping basket. We’re ready to go. Randy starts scanning the water from his platform and calls out “We’ve got a line coming in, about 1 o’clock!” I get ready to cast, wait for Randy’s go ahead, and start double hauling. I lay down my third false cast, and shoot the line at the fish. My fly laid down about thirty feet wide and ten feet short. Woah. Let’s chalk that up to high adrenaline throwing me off. I quickly pick back up and toss a mildly better second cast. A bit long this time, but at least a little on target. I strip in the fly, but don’t get so much of a mention. I didn’t really have a third shot at this line of tarpon. Randy spots a second line and gets us in position. I managed a bit more accuracy this time, but still overshot and spooked the line. I could already feel the lack of sleep starting to hit me, and slinging around a 12 weight was no easy task when all I wanted to do was take a nap.
The fish were running pretty good, but my casting just wasn’t up to par. About the 7th or 8th line of fish in, I finally laid down a perfect cast. I start stripping in and a tarpon breaks for my fly. He followed it about 10 feet before quickly spinning back around and joining back up with his school. No luck that time. Off to find the next fish.
Thinking of the boat as a clock face becomes incredibly more challenging as you get more tired. I can’t tell you how many times Randy would call out “3 O’Clock” and I’d look left, prompting a “Your other 3 O’Clock!” The day continued on, and while I did get a few follows, most of my casts were just poorly placed. I’d either lead the fish too much, throw way too short, or throw over the fish and spook the school. Randy did his best to work around my challenges. He got me as close as he could to the fish and even switched me over to a 10-wt rod with a clear line to help keep the fish from getting spooked if (when) I overshot the line. Even still, I could hear the frustration in Randy’s voice as I cast off target time and time again. I understand that it can be frustrating as a guide to work your butt off to get your client in perfect position over and over, only to have them completely miss so many shots, but I still would’ve hoped for a little more patience. After all, the client is the customer.
The day was wearing on, and I had yet to stick a silver king. I’m beginning to think I’m going to come up empty handed. Randy calls out that a line is coming straight at us from 12 o’clock. “Just toss it straight ahead!” That’s my wheelhouse right there. Straight line, no worrying about getting down the right distance to lead the fish – just straight down the pike and retrieve. I lay out the cast and start stripping in the fly. I see one heading right for my line. My heart begins racing and I loose track of where the fly is in the water! I’m still watching the fish, then I hear Randy call out “Holy sh*t he ate it!” At the same time, I felt my line go tight on my retrieve and I strip strike the fish like my life depends on it. IT SET! The fish was stuck, and luckily for me, didn’t go skyward and throw the hook immediately.
The battle is on. The reel is screaming as the fish pulls off line at will. Within seconds, I’m into the backing. The prehistoric beast starts dancing on the surface. Randy happily reminds me to bow to the fish as he jumps. I remember on jump number two. We’re still hooked up. He already has about 100 yards of backing out. Every maybe thirty seconds, I get an opportunity to reel in some line, but for every ten feet I get back, he takes out 50 more. Another jump, another bow, and the fish is still hooked. This is the biggest fish I’ve ever caught or even hooked on a fly rod, and the battle was unlike anything I’ve experienced.
We’re close to five minutes into the battle and the fish leaps skyward one more time. I bow, but then the dreaded feeling comes over me. A sudden slack in the line. I reel quickly in hopes the fish was just running at me, but I soon come to the realization it’s gone. I bring in the line with an ear-to-ear grin despite losing my first tarpon. It was an incredible experience. I finally get the line reeled up and go to inspect the fly, only to realize it isn’t there. The loop we used to tie on the fly was severed. Our only guess is it somehow got caught up in the eye of the hook and the sharp metal cut it free. As it was pretty late, we took a few more shots – no follows – before calling it a day. I grabbed a quick dinner at one of the local restaurants and headed back to my hotel to catch up on sleep.
We headed back out on day 2. I felt well rested (finally!) and was looking forward to getting another shot at one of these monsters. It was fairly clear again, but an onshore wind picked up. Luckily, my casting ability came back now that I wasn’t about to nap on the boat. The first shot I had was perfect, but no interest. That morning, a missed shot was the rarity rather than the norm. I had several great follows that we were sure were going to take the fly, but we could just never coax the fish to inhale. The wind started blowing even harder, casting became more and more challenging, and one by one, the other boats started leaving the flats. A little after noon, and casting became almost impossible with the wind. Randy offered to end the day early and call it a half day. I appreciated Randy offering that rather than keeping me out there to “run up the tab,” particularly because we both knew it was extremely unlikely to get another shot at the fish.
I enjoyed going out with Randy. He was easy to talk with, and REALLY knew his tarpon fishing and how to give someone the best possible chance to hook up. If you’re experienced on the flats, I wouldn’t hesitate to give Randy a call. I have no question you’ll put up some great numbers with him. If you’re a flats fishing newbie, though, you might be wise to save Randy for your second or third trip.
Ready to book with Captain Randy Stallings? Captain Randy can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (305) 587-0307 or (305) 453-9854. Rates start at $400 for a 4-hour half day trip.