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Tarpon, permit and bonefish usually sit atop flats anglers’ bucket lists

By Capt. GEORGE TUNISON - | Jul 16, 2021

Capt. George Tunison

For the many who live to challenge trophy class saltwater fish in very shallow water using light spinning and fly tackle, there is a small handful of fish species that stand out from the rest, that haunt the nightly dreams and daytime thoughts of these dedicated anglers, especially fly rod fans.

The king of the flats, the tarpon; the chrome sprinter, the bonefish; and the swimming mirror, the permit, are usually at the top of most flats and fly rod bucket lists.

Histor-ically this area of Southwest Florida gets credit for being the place where the first tarpon was landed on rod and reel, in March of 1885 by Mr. WH Wood, guided by Capt. Smith of Punta Rassa. Because of that Tarpon Bay catch and the press it received, Southwest Florida became THE place to come to challenge the “uncatchable” silver king.

Wood caught not one but two tarpon that day and three more in the Caloosahatchee by week’s end and is also reported to have shot an alligator.

Of course, others have disputed Woods’ first caught tarpon on rod and reel status, themselves claiming that title, but none ever officially recognized.

Seems no one officially knows who caught the first tarpon on a fly as well. Dr. James Henshall was catching redfish, seatrout, snook, jack crevasse, bluefish, ladyfish and tarpon to 10 pounds on the fly along both lower Florida coasts in 1878, publishing an account of his adventures in, Camping and Cruising in Florida, 1884. Later, AW Dimock published a book, “Tarpon Fishing in Florida” (Florida Enchantments 1908) detailing his adventures and fly rod catches in Charlotte Harbor, Pine Island Sound and Boca Grande Pass.

The current all tackle record weight is 286 pounds, but recently a monster tarpon was fought, boated, photographed and released by a trio of anglers fishing off South American waters. This giant was 87 inches long with a huge 54-inch girth and calculated to weigh in at 312 pounds, which crushes the current All Tackle record weight. This fish didn’t qualify as three anglers took turns fighting it to boat side following a two-hour battle.

A 202-pound tarpon, caught on 20-pound tippet, is the current fly caught world record.

Fly fishing pioneer and legendary guide Bill Smith gets credit for the first bonefish catch using a fly rod in 1939. Other bonefish had been caught by accident while fishing for other species using bait, but Smith is credited for the first stalked, sighted, cast to, caught and witnessed, bonefish using a fly. A 16-pound specimen holds the all tackle record spot. A 12-pound fish claims the 2-pound tippet fly record.

The first official fly rod-caught permit angler information is also an unknown, but records list a 60-pound fish as the current all tackle world record with a 16-pound fish, taken on 2-pound tippet as one, line class, fly caught, world record.

If you would like to try for a place in the record book or would like to catch your first, you needn’t travel far as we have two of the three species swimming locally, but not always on the flats.

Tarpon are swimming along our beaches, in Charlotte Harbor and river mouths. Hard pulling permit are currently found on near-shore reefs.

Although bonefish are occasionally caught in local waters, this is a bit too far north to target them. Better to head south to Biscayne Bay and to the Keys for hot bonefish action and a shot at some of the biggest bones in the world.

To consistently catch all three of our target species in beautiful, green blue, knee-deep tropical waters, it’s but a short drive to beautiful Islamorada and several other Keys’ fishing destinations where old airline pilots and baseball superstars like Stu Apte and Ted Williams, along with names like Billy Pate, Brooks, Albright and others, pioneered Keys flats fishing.

Capt. George Tunison is a Cape Coral resident fishing guide. You can contact him at 239-282-9434 or captgeorget3@aol.com.