My first tarpon on a fly was a stout, laid-up fish that ate my worm and broke me off an hour later. I was a teenager at the time, and fortunate to have a father who took me on an annual spring trip to the Keys. But as I grew older and started achieving some success on the bow, my focus shifted to permit. Like many permit anglers, my trips often ended with a long flight home, followed by a long-winded explanation to my wife about how I could spend three days fishing, catch nothing, yet still feel the trip was “a step in the right direction.” At the height of my addiction, I was focusing more on the seconds ticking away on my watch than I was on scanning the water.
I’d lost the mental game before even stepping on the skiff.
My fascination with tarpon eventually returned to displace permit, and in March 2020, when my family’s spring-break trip from Chicago to our hometown in Florida coincided with long-term lockdown, we embraced the opportunity to lengthen our stay in warm weather. And I embraced the opportunity to pursue the silver king. Without a boat, all my fishing was done on foot. The beaches stretching from St. Lucie County to northern Palm Beach County offer some of the best relatively undisturbed shoreline in residential southeast Florida, so long as you’re willing to walk. If you squint hard enough you can see the swaying palm trees of an A.E. Bachus painting, whose art so epitomized the Indian River. This is also one of the country’s more under-the-radar tarpon fisheries, with a population of large ’poons showing up in the early and late months of summer to shadow what is simply referred to by locals as “the minnow run.” (Think Montauk blitz with larger, more discerning, and more acrobatic predators.) Clouds of bait by the billions, in schools so large that the oily scent is often noticed before the minnows are. It is similar to the famed palolo worm hatch in the Keys, except the minnow run can linger for days, rather than hours.
Depending on wind direction and beach contours, these massive clouds of two-inch bait get pushed to within ankle depth of shoreline, creating one of those rare circumstances where the shore-bound angler is better positioned than the bay-boat mafia. The tarpon gorge themselves, jumping out of the water to eat the peanut-sized creatures by the bucket-mouth. They lurk in the murky water that these minnows prefer, materializing out of the turbid shoreline to blast the bait, then disappear. Up close, the minnows have a permanent look of terror on their faces, as if swimming in a constant state of anxiety, a disposition we can all appreciate in these times.
With limited beach-access parking, shore-bound anglers tend to stick near their vehicles. But I quickly learned that I needed to cover some ground to locate the schools. As an avid runner, I scaled down my tackle to an 11-weight, flies, and leaders, plus water bottles in a sling bag, typically covering around two miles before seeing something worth stopping for.
My record distance was 13 miles in a single outing, when following an acre-sized mullet school from Martin County to Palm Beach County, passing through nature preserves, public beaches, and the backyards of palatial estates. It was the Florida version of the Badwater Ultramarathon, only without the belt buckle. I ran out of water early in the day, but couldn’t possibly leave the school. The voice of David Attenborough echoed in my head as I stood in waist-deep water watching blacktip sharks shred the mullet while monster jack crevalles picked up their scraps a few feet away from my femoral artery.
I also watched tarpon in a manner I had never experienced. There was no rush, no fear of a guide signaling the end of a day, just appreciation for a fish that embodies power and subtlety. I am anxious for the world to get back to normal, but for a few short months, I simply appreciated the joy of pursuit and all that it encompasses. It was actually the moments in between locating schools that are burned into memory: swimming with manatees; watching a loggerhead sea turtle lay its eggs and sluggishly work back to the ocean; taking shelter in the mangroves from a lightning storm; and witnessing a massive hammerhead nearly beach itself in three feet of water.
I never landed a tarpon over the summer, but I did jump enough to remember why people will sometimes change the course of their lives to pursue them.
Jack Siragusa is a lifelong—and fourth generation—flyfisher, currently living in Chicago with his wife and four-year-old daughter. While he enjoys exploring the Great Lakes tributaries of the Midwest, his passion is chasing fish on the beaches of Florida.