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SUSAN COCKING: Tracking tarpon is simpler this time of year

On my first cast of Tarpon Season 2007, I hooked into an estimated 100-pounder at Flamingo using a brightly colored Rapala Magnum X-Rap. I would have caught it - I swear - except captain Rich Smith was forced to cut the line to let the tarpon escape an attacking bull shark.

Three days later, I managed to catch and release another estimated 100-pounder in an area on the Florida Bay side of Islamorada known as the "Slough" just north of the Indian Key Bridge, fishing with captain Lonny Shaw. This one ate a fresh silver mullet head sitting on the bottom.

The next day, I scared several dozen tarpon without catching any by throwing live pinfish rigged on a bobber on the oceanside flats of Tavernier with captain Greg Poland.

What this all means is: tarpon are everywhere.

And Shaw, a light-tackle guide out of Islamorada for 25 years, believes the best is yet to come.

"I think they came in a little late because of the cold fronts and wind," Shaw said. "We don't have a good bunch of fish in yet. June and July are going to be awesome. July is going to be awesome for fly fishing."

Historically, May is the month when tarpon migrate south along Florida's east and west coasts destined for Key West, where it's widely believed they stage in preparation for heading offshore to spawn.

Some fish appear to be on a mission - swimming doggedly south without stopping to eat - no matter what you throw to them.

Others lollygag on both sides of Keys bridges, taking a sabbatical from the "meet market" to rest and feed on mullet, crabs, pinfish and whatever the tide brings.

Fly fishing for tarpon at this time of year tends to be a bit congested - especially on the oceanside flats from Biscayne Bay to the Keys - because guides and anglers are jockeying for the optimum spots for sight-casting to southbound tarpon.

"You have to be sitting in the primo spot 1 ½ hours before the sun comes up," Smith said. "The way you target these tarpon, you stake out and sit and wait and wait."

Poland, an Islamorada flats specialist, said to catch a tarpon on fly rod, your best bet is to target what he calls the "village idiot."

"If a school of fish is coming at you, the first fish is the scout," Poland said. "You never want to cast to the scout because he'll warn everybody else. Let the first fish pass. The village idiot is, like, number eight - going along with the school, dum-de-dum-de-dum, and if you see one that rolls, he's happy."

Shaw would prefer to find a village full of idiots rather than one traveling with a gaggle of rocket surgeons.

Since Shaw's clients often include tarpon novices, he likes to fish live or dead bait in channels - not too close to bridges where pilings become break-off hazards.

"I'd rather have a little more control rather than him going through the bridge and you're not composed yet," Shaw said.

He favors 40-pound-test line and 80- to 100-pound leader with 7/0 hooks. The bait depends on what's running with the tide, such as crabs being swept from the bay to the ocean on outgoing water.

Smith prefers to forgo the crowd scene. So he often heads to Flamingo in Everglades National Park, where there's less competition for migrating tarpon in Ponce de Leon Bay, Big Sable Creek and East and Middle Cape Sable - anywhere creeks flow into the Gulf.

"They're not so pestered that they don't want to eat," Smith said.

Smith said artificial baits such as the X-Rap work better than live bait at Flamingo because their frequent casting covers more water.

"Tide is not as critical as wind direction," he said. "The best is southeast at 5-10 knots. The west wind stirs up the bottom."

As Gulf and Atlantic waters warm through the summer, South Florida's visiting tarpon tend to migrate north along both coasts.

With the onset of autumn cold fronts, they head south again. The species has been known to cover great distances.

A 2006 satellite tagging study conducted by scientists from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School showed a 171-pound tarpon tagged at Veracruz, Mexico, traveled more than 1,000 miles in 102 days, and was recaptured at Timbalier Island, La.

That means careless handling practices - such as dragging a fish into a boat in the Keys - might mean that fish won't make it to, say, Melbourne, for example. A great argument for angling's Golden Rule: 'Do unto others' fish as you would have them do unto yours."

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