Before visiting America's #1 city to score tarpon on fly, please adhere to the following advice.
Key West, as commercial as it is, is a phenomenal destination for the fly angler. Not only does the southernmost point in the United States offer some of the best flats and offshore fishing in the entire state, there's a host of superb eateries, excellent guides, a full range of accommodations and a diverse nightlife.
While nirvana is there for all of us to enjoy, I headed south partly because of my desire to subdue a bone on fly, partly because I had a hankering for tuna tacos at the world famous Hogfish Bar & Grill, but mostly because I was able to fish with Captain Gil Drake.
Drake, by anyone's standards, is one of the best. He is an accomplished angler in his own right and one of the most experienced fly-fishing guides that you will ever come across. For the past 35-years, he has been guiding anglers in Key West to fly-fishing glory. Gil began his career in The Bahamas in the mid 1960s at Deep Water Cay where he led countless visitors to successful inshore and offshore pursuits. At the time, most fly fishermen limited themselves to targeting bonefish and the occasional permit. Not Drake. Though his goal of besting a blue marlin and a permit on fly during the same day was never realized, by the mid 1970s he was one of only a handful of anglers to have successfully landed a billfish on fly and was the very first to score a wahoo with a long wand. In 1975 he moved to Key West. When I asked him why, with a smile and a very passionate tone he replied, "For tarpon and permit."
I am a strong proponent of the old adage, "experience is the best teacher," so what I was really after during my recent trip was Drake's advice for novice fly fishermen just breaking into the sport. Specifically those making the transition from traditional conventional and spinning gear. My goal here is to share that information with you.
Drake's most pertinent advice for any angler is to practice. "Practice…practice…practice, but don't practice on my boat," Drake added. He pointed out that unless you are on the water fly-fishing every day, it is important that you practice before you arrive for a charter. Practice at home, practice at a park, practice in the street. The long awaited opportunity for a trophy fish is not the time to practice your casting skills. Get yourself comfortable so that you can cast accurately at 40-feet. With an accurate cast at this distance you can successfully present a fly to any target in Key West, even permit. Both Drake and I suggest saving the long distance stuff for impressing friends, as fish don't care how far you can cast.
As a rule, it's a good idea to practice with light rods and build up your strength, accuracy, timing and confidence. "When you are comfortable, step up to larger gear," says Gil. "Practice twice a day for 15-minutes rather than once a day for an hour. Muscle memory is the goal," he added.
Drake advises anglers to learn to straighten out their backcasts. As a certified fly casting instructor, I couldn't agree more. Develop the timing in your cast to properly load your fly rod. For many, this usually means slowing down, even pausing on your backcast to allow time for the line to flatten/straighten behind you. Remember that a fly rod works by "throwing" the line and carrying the fly to its target. The bend and flex of the fly rod, like that of a bow or golf club is critical. When the fly line is straightened on your backcast, the line's mass and momentum "loads" the rod, bending it like a spring. The stored energy in this spring releases during the forward cast, dramatically increasing the fly rod tip's speed, dragging the line faster and farther with little effort. This step alone is critical to accuracy, distance and casting confidence.
These days, my time spent on the casting platform is a rare commodity. I always feel rusty when it is my turn on the bow, which emphasizes the fact that practice cannot be overlooked regardless of your level of experience. It's a good idea to team up with another angler to practice with so you can critique each other. The buddy system certainly worked well for Gil, though he had an advantage. While attending the University of Miami, Gil practiced during the evenings with the likes of Chico Fernandez, Norm Duncan and John Emory. I practiced with my cat.
During the course of our recent outing strip setting, the act of driving the hook point home by pulling the fly line, was one of many topics of conversation. "Not with tarpon. A tarpon does not have to open its mouth very wide to inhale a fly. Strip setting is okay when the fish is close and you can see the fish's gapping maw inhale the presentation, but at 40-feet in a light chop you will likely not see the fish. Tarpon can eat the fly and spit it out before you can even get the slack out of the line. A rod set, using the rod to facilitate a solid connection, is much faster. Use it," instructed Drake.
Once you're tight, the most important thing to do is get the fish on the reel where you can effectively fight the fish. This act does, in fact, require on the water practice with actual fish. I know on my boat if I can get a novice fly angler into a school of ladyfish, Spanish mackerel or even speckled trout before he sets up on his first tarpon, the odds of landing that fish increase dramatically. Both Drake and I agree that with tarpon, anglers need to slow down. When you see rolling fish, first survey the situation. Don't rush things. On most occasions the first tarpon you see is not the only fish in the area. It is important to identify all of the fish, pick the most likely target and plan your presentation accordingly. This is critical advice as you may only get one shot. I cannot tell you how many times I've watched an angler lay down a fly on the first fish he saw, only to "line" another fish and ultimately spook the entire school. Missed opportunities are frustrating for everyone, so take a deep breath, look around and plan an effective presentation.
I share Drake's opinion that a 10-weight will typically subdue any size tarpon you'll encounter on the flats. Ten-weight gear is significantly easier to throw than a 12-weight and more importantly, easier to transition to from an 8 or 9-weight that most Florida fly anglers are accustomed to. While I can write a book about what we discussed, the above pieces of advice alone will certainly enhance your time on the water and your success ratio.
In conclusion, the opportunity to fish with Captain Drake or any other experienced guide with his level of knowledge and experience is easily worth the price of admission. A true professional, Gil's willingness to help and his ability to put you on fish will make your day special, not to mention that his mild manner and casual style blend seamlessly into the laidback Key West lifestyle. Just so you know, you won't find Gil Drake at a marina. You can't email him or text him. You won't even find a website for him. What you can do is call him (305.296.4905) and expect to board his flats skiff right behind his home where you'll experience an exceptional day of instructional fishing. Your biggest challenge will be finding open dates in his booked calendar.
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