Despite the lack of extreme visual clues there are many less obvious seasons in South Florida. If you learn and pay attention there are three separate climatic seasons in summer alone. When it comes to flyfishing in the mangrove areas, which I do primarily from a canoe, each of these subtle but distinct periods signals a change in target species, tackle and tactics. Such are the demands when living in an area where one can fish almost 365 days a year.
It is a tough task but somebody has to do it! Actually it is difficult to get it right since it is as easy to stay on the old fish too long as it is to start fishing for the new too soon. In the one case it is almost sad to see one period end, and you try to keep it going even though you see the signs that things are ending. Those signs are usually quite obvious since the fish are no longer around. And it is just as hard not to anticipate whats coming next, and go out looking way too early, hoping to be one of the first to catch the early wave when it is just starting. Usually when you make that mistake you really kick yourself for not staying with what was working.
Right now, back in the mangroves, it appears that the stellar winter snook fishing is drawing to a close. And this year it was stellar, once again, finally. It has been years since a devastating freeze knocked the snot out of the snook stocks in the far southern end of the state. This last winter there was an abundance of almost big enough to spawn sized fish. Hopefully they will have a wonderful sex life starting this summer. I’m guessing these fish are the offspring of the few larger adults that survived since the freeze. Unfortunately there seems to be a real dearth of juvenile snook, which back then were abundant to the point of being almost bothersome. Maybe these just about big enough ones that were around this winter will start making babies and fill in that void. With them may rest the future of snook fishing down here. I hope all the anglers see them as such, and not just snook fillets.
What a lot of folks are really looking forward to is the annual spring migration of large tarpon. It can start in April. It might already be happening in the lower Keys or up the west coast, but it has to be in full swing for them to move far up the ‘Glades rivers where I can encounter them in a canoe.
What has begun, for sure, is the baby tarpon season. I caught a glimpse of it a few weeks back, and began making plans right then. Where these fish go during the winter is a mystery to me, but they disappear as if abducted by aliens. I don’t believe they are large enough to migrate, at least not through deep open waters. When they are small they look just like overgrown herring, and are probably just as tasty. Hell, even the schools of the big spawners, the migratory fish over 75 pounds, have predators like hammerhead sharks that shadow the schools and dine almost at leisure. What chance would a 5 pound or smaller tarpon have in open waters?
I think they move back even further to wait out the winter. Years ago, Key West angler Jeffrey Cardenas wrote the book Marquesa : A time and place with fish that chronicled his lunar month solo stay on a houseboat moored in the Marquesa Keys between Key West and Cuba. In that book he tells of snorkeling way back into the labyrinth of mangrove roots and observing juvenile tarpon gathered up. The fish were stationary and employed their ability to sip air through the surface to survive the anoxic environment. That is how I imagine these babies spend their winter.
What I am sure of is this: around the spring equinox these baby tarpon begin to reappear as if by magic. It doesn’t seem to be as much due to increasing water temperature as it is in response to increasing daylight hours. This past weekend a fishing buddy and I launched his canoe just after daylight when the thermometer on his truck read 44 degrees F. That is pretty cold for an April day in South Florida, but the baby tarpon were right where we expected them to be. Throughout the day we put a number of them into the air and we scored a few snook too. It will only get better on the little tarpon as the summer progresses.
Baby tarpon on light flyrods are about as much fun as can be had without drugs. The winds were up so we had to use rods a bit larger than usual but even still we had our hands full. One fish, which we estimated to be in the 20 pound range jumped angrily twice to show his distain for fly trickery, then ran straight into the mangrove roots to cut me off. I had no chance what so ever. Later in the day a fish half that size gave me fits for about 15 minutes on my 6 weight rod. Somehow during the fight my tip section came loose and slid down the line to the leader. If my leader broke the tip section would have been lost. Of course this one was a warrior who also chose to attempt to reach the safety of the roots and made it almost there numerous times. Not all tarpon take this despicable route, actually most stay in open water and fight fair, but they all spend some quality time in the air.