Tarpon Fishing: The Ultimate Birthday Surprise

Initially Published January 24, 2022 in PA Steelhead Association’s TIGHT LINES NEWSLETTER

My title gives quite a bit away! Perhaps. However, I think the pictures do more than the ensuing article to explain how much fun I had. Yet, even within the pictures there is a lot of information that is missing. My birthday, much to my delight, is on Christmas Day. My mother, Sallie, has always made sure my birthday presents were in birthday paper and my Christmas presents were in Christmas paper. If you broke the rules you were informed of your breach of conduct. Due to this, I often get bashful about opening birthday presents. This year my older brother, Chris, decided to completely circumvent this patterned behavior! On my birthday, Chris said, “don’t worry Ari, you don’t have a birthday present from me to open this year! When we get to Florida you’ll get your gift.” That statement went into my right ear and directly out my left. I did not think twice about it until Stella, Chris and I were in the truck on the drive down. We arrived at my parents’ place on a Sunday and it wouldn’t be until the following Sunday my surprise was revealed: a Tarpon fishing adventure with Russell Kleppinger. A professional guide that my brother had caught Tarpon with a year earlier & a highly professional individual. When my brother told me he gifted me a trip with the Tarponator I was extremely excited. Apart from some drift fishing/deep sea fishing, I had never had the privilege of fishing with a professional guide. I was so excited about Tarpon fishing that I immediately googled everything about Russ and Tarpon fishing. I learned a number of things on my nerdy deep dive. Russ catches a ton of fish, Russ really loves these fish (no mishandled fish make an appearance on his page), it takes roughly 7-13 years for these fish to reach sexual maturity, and like many large sea creatures the biggest Tarpon are typically female. Russ has an Instagram page named “fishruss” and there are many pictures to prove his claim of being the Tarponator. Russ has helped with a number of research projects and is cited in research articles published by the University of Miami. I was pumped to fish with him. When my brother brought me back to reality and said he and my dad were going as well, I was grinning ear to ear. Monday came and went. It was cold, beautiful, memorable, and one of the best birthday presents I have ever had.

I caught a beautiful 90-pound tarpon on a live shrimp. I believe it was about a twenty minute battle. I loved watching it jump and roll in the moonlight. I am glad I read Lefty’s book section on Tarpon. I would have watched the first eruption out of the water with awe had I not known to lower my rod and point at that silver behemoth.

My very first Atlantic Tarpon! Caught with traditional spin gear and a live Florida Shrimp.

It was a very successful first Tarpon adventure. I caught one, my father caught one, and my brother caught a Jack Crevalle. Russell could sense my inner crazy (psycho) though. He knew I wanted to catch one on a fly. So, when he reached out two days later with a cancellation, I knew I had a shot. In retrospect, I am unsure if he had a cancellation or if he made time for me. Nonetheless, down to Miami I went again. As I arrived his two clients from the prior trip were departing. They both had grins on their faces and were more than happy to share how their evening was going. It was awesome to be amongst instant friends. After some chatting, they left and we walked around his building to the docks out back. Immediately, Russ started showing me the set-ups and the gear. I had no idea Tarpon flies look how they do to prevent material from fouling on the hook. I also had never touched a rod with an extended fighting grip and a built out fighting butt. Ultimately, I ended up using a G. Loomis 12 weight “short stick” with an extended fighting grip. WFF line. His own leader set-up. Le May Cockroach fly tied by Russ. My first Tarpon of the evening tapped the fly. I set the hook, then went to set it again because gosh it just hadn’t mo… water started breaking and a fish erupted from the direction of my fly! I had hooked one! Holy shit! Bow!! Keep the line tight! Watch your hand near the reel! I want so badly to say it’s like Steelhead fishing, but I just can’t. If I had had my hand near my reel handle on the first run, I would’ve broken a knuckle. I lost that fish under a marina after perhaps a five-minute fight. That first Tarpon I saw the initial eruption, the fish ripped out all the floating line, another few jumps, and he made a beeline for the nearest boat until he was clear under the marina. Lost him. We went to another location. He asked if I wanted to switch to the rod he was using with a dragon tail streamer on it and I said, “no thank you.” I liked the Cockroach fly. It made sense to me to use it (shrimp imitation) and the way Russell tied it, it looked cool as hell. Location 2 was somewhere not near the beach/ocean, and I only say this because I really have no clue where in Miami, we were fishing. We had not been “bumping” and stripping our flies for five good minutes before I felt that unmistakable tap on the fly. I was at the end of my movement; I had returned my left hand back into position to begin fluttering that shrimp imitation when I felt it and then fumbled it. I confessed my mistake to Russell. To say he wasn’t worried it would be my last strike of the evening may not be true, but it seemed like it. However, I do know that he was more concerned at my frustration at myself over anything. We reviewed strip setting and discussed how sharp his hooks are. In another few moments, I had hooked up again. I solidly set the hook once and felt it stick. This time when the fish jumped, I was awestruck by its sheer power. I blinked and I was in the backing. I felt my forearms and my core work against this fish using the rod. I learned how to palm the reel and pump the rod to get line back. I worked that fish for about two hours. When she came to the boat, I saw the fly Russell tied for me in the corner of her mouth. She was so huge and brilliantly metallic. The biggest eyes and fish scales I have ever witnessed. I stared and stared at her burning the memory into my mind. We took some pictures, pulled the fly, started the electric trolling motor, and got her ready to swim off with strength. Away she went. 

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