Monthly Archives: May 2014

More Sharks Than Usual in the Keys

By Phil Thompson

Be it geography, demographics or a narrow gene pool, Key West, Fla. is known for unusual occurrences. Spring 2014 is no exception.

Around the island, the migrations of many aquatic species are in full swing, and none more eagerly awaited than the million member march of tarpon moving north, up from the Caribbean.

Two distinct species–Atlantic and Gulf–stimulated by rising water temperatures and the call to procreate, cross the straits of Florida in football-field-size schools. These silver-sided beasts, some in excess of two hundred pounds, are historically greeted by large, hungry sharks.

The traveling tarpon’s first port of call are the channels, harbors and grass flats of the Florida Keys. From Key Largo to the Marquesas, world-class anglers also await the fish’s arrival armed with thousand-dollar fly rods alongside shrimp-tinted tourists on the fishing trip of their dreams.

Tarpon have no food value—an entrepreneur tried making pet food from them in the 1940s, but the dogs and cats refused it—are highly prized for their leaping jumps and strong battles.

As one Key West captain said, “There is more money spent catching tarpon than any other non-edible fish in the world.”

This year an inordinate number of large sharks—mainly bulls and tigers—have shown up in advance of the tarpon and have feasted with an aggression that has the fishermen on edge.

Ralph Delph, an elder statesman of Keys captains, who has more than 100 world records, weighed in on the issue.

“I’ve never seen bulls this big in the harbor,” he said. “Some of these beasts are six and seven hundred pounds.”


Courtesy Byron Chamberlin

Meanwhile, a collective concern among the guides appears to be growing.

“We’re having tarpon eaten in spots where we’ve never had a problem with sharks before,” Peter Heydon said over a beer at Dante’s bar.

Heydon is a flats guide and poles in pursuit of the monster tarpon across skinny-water grass flats and shallow-snaking channels.

“We were anchored in Calda channel the other day and the baits we had out behind the boat were only being eaten by sharks,” Heydon said. “We were jumping tarpon on plugs casts along the channel edges. The fish were creeping right next to the banks, trying to sneak past the sharks waiting in the deeper water.”

Both bulls and tigers are flat-bellied sharks able to suck in their gullets and pursue prey into inches of water, pinning them against a bank or bar. These highly visible chases across the shallows often end in exploding cascades of water and sand, whipped by thrashing tails as the shark devours the tarpon, leaving only blood, scales and a lifeless head staring up from the eel-grass bottom.

The big bull sharks in many instances are jumping clear of the water—not an unheard of event but unusual and scary due to their size.

“I grabbed my son Santiago and held him close,” Capt. Pepe Gonzalez said. “The shark cleared the water and all I could think of was what if it lands in the boat?”

“It was a really big one.” added Capt. Paul D”Antoni, who happened to be anchored close by. ”I’m guessing six-hundred pounds.”

Not only are these giant, leaping bull sharks being more aggressive, but they’re also fearless, showing up before the fishing boat has anchored or put out the first chum. Attracted by the idling motors, the sharks have learned to stake out the most popular spots and wait for the action. According to some estimates, one out of every three tarpon hooked in the harbor is being eaten.

No one is more familiar with the underwater topography of the Key West harbor than Lee Starling or “Lobster Lee.” For more than 30 years, Starling has made a living harvesting lobster from the honey holes, ledges, wrecks and discarded debris from Fleming Key to Fort Zachary Taylor at the harbor’s entrance.

Starling is used to fighting strong tidal currents, poor visibility and yachts speeding overhead while gleaning the Caribbean crawfish from hidden holes along the channel’s dredged banks.

“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Starling said.  “On one wreck I dive where the tarpon hang out, the bottom is carpeted with scales. I’ve seen scattered scales before, but never anything like this.”

Tarpon are lined with silver dollar size heavy armored detachable scales that give way to shark bites, allowing them to escape, leaving a few scales as a reminder of the encounter. But, when they coat the bottom in numbers Starling describes, it translates to fish being eaten.

“I’m not diving Fort Zack right now,” Starling said. “I dove for a lost anchor the other day and the bull sharks were on me as soon as I hit the water. No chum, no spearfishing—two things that attract sharks—-they were just on me.”

Starling blames the gathering on “power chumming,” and doesn’t single out the harbor fishermen who use shrimp trash – the by-catch from shrimping—to attract the tarpon.

“Even the guys on the reef yellow-tailing are responsible,” Starling said. “Their scent trail can bring fish in from the Gulf Stream.”

Illustrating his point, a 600-pound bluefin tuna was hooked and fought for six hours last week before escaping, an unheard of feat in Key West. The giants are known to migrate far offshore this time of year, but this fish was hooked close in, in only 150 feet of water just outside the reef.

Tim Ott, veteran tuna harvester and star of the popular Television series “Wicked Tuna,” owns a home on the island and spends much of the winter fishing from Dry Tortuga to Cay Sal Bank.

“The tuna are following the bluefish up into the Gulf of Mexico to their spawning grounds.” Ott said. “Something caused the bluefish to travel more inshore of their normal migration route and the tuna followed.”

Around the same, time a Great White shark was spotted repeatedly over a four-day period at the Toppino buoy, a popular dive site only 17 feet deep, lying within sight of shore. Are these two unusual encounters a product of power chumming? Or as some suggest a reflection of climate change.

Capt. Mike Weinhofer believes the rising overall local shark population explains the increases in the harbor and on the reef.

“With the elimination of long-liners, finning, and finally the closure of a loophole that allowed commercial fisherman to sell sharks as incidental catch, we have seen an increase in all sharks, but especially the inshore species,” he said.

Capt. Tony Murphy owner of The Salt Water Angler fly shop, has won the ESPN shark challenge three times: “I’ve seen large hammerheads, twelve to fourteen feet, just outside the swim buoys at Fort Zack. Evidently the sharks aren’t after people. In many cases they are just yards apart.”

Reports from along the Keys trail indicate this problem is not Key West’s alone. Rumor has it a frustrated charter captain killed a big bull shark—most everyone releases sharks—and hung it from the Bahia Honda Bridge in hopes the scent of their dead brethren would keep the other bull sharks at bay. It reportedly worked until after three days, the fragrance faded and the sharks returned.

Outdoors writer and author Phil Thompson is a retired Key West flats guide. He has authored several books set in Key West and Cuba.







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Getting Ready for the Beach

D.T. Variation

Courtesy: Steve Gibson.

The winds are supposed to subside later this week. Hopefully, beach snook will be waiting. One of the best flies for this type of fishing is the D.T. Variation, a pattern developed by Sarasota guide Steve Gibson. It’s quick and easy to tie. I love Deceivers, but they’re time consuming. This fly is a breeze.

Materials: Mustad 34007 No. 1 to No. 4, white flat-waxed monocord, four white neck hackle (two on each side) facing (not splayed), pearl krystal flash, white neck hackle (palmered, 3D Prism Stick-On, Devcon 2-Ton expoxy.


1. Mash the barb down on a standard size 2 hook. Attach thread at the rear of the hook shank just ahead of the bend with a half hitch.

2. Select four white neck hackles and make two pairs with the curve facing inward. Measure the feathers against the hook shank. Secure with tight wraps.

4. Select two or three strands of pearl Krystal Flash. Secure them to the hook shank in front of the feathers equally on both sides.

5. Tie in a white neck hackle. Palmer with five, six wraps. Try to get the fibers to lay back.

6. Build a head. Tie off.

7. Attach the 3D prism eyes on each side.

8. Re-attach red thread and wrap a band of thread about 1/8th of an inch to create the tip of the head.

9.  Coat the head, eyes and red band with Devcon 2-ton.



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Filed under Fly fishing, Fly tying, Misc.

A Few Fundamentals

This is some good info from Sonny Mills,  a kayak angler from Texas.  It’s always good to go back  to the basics when trying to find fish.

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Filed under Education, Fly fishing

A Little News

The print version of my book, On the Fly in the Bay, is now available on Amazon. Thanks to all of my fly-fishing friends for helping make this happen. … Already working a second edition — beach snook and baby tarpon.
That’s assuming I can actually find a few of the little guys 🙂

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Filed under Education, Fly casting, Fly fishing

Baby Tarpon

A great video. Can’t beat these little guys on fly.

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The Book

Just finished On the Fly in the Bay, a beginner’s guide to fly fishing Tampa Bay. It’s available via Kindle on Amazon. The print version should be out soon.


An excerpt:

Every story should have a point —a theme, a message, a purpose. I suppose it’s the same with a book. The point of this book is to educate those who fly fish Tampa Bay.

It’s not for the expert. If you’re an expert, you probably know —- or should know —- most of this information. What you’re about to read is for the beginner or intermediate fly fisherman. A more seasoned angler can pick up a few tidbits, but might find most of the information redundant.

When I moved to Tampa in 2011, I was primarily a freshwater fly fisherman. I started chasing trout in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia nearly 30 years ago, but shelved the fly rod when I moved to Florida. Mainly the issue was access. Before Tampa, I lived inland, two hours away from viable saltwater.

Back then, I dabbled, making the occasional trip to Jacksonville or St. Augustine. Success, as expected, was limited and I gradually moved on to other more accessible hobbies – retriever field trials and bird hunting.

My wife’s career led to a family move to Tampa. Only minutes from the salt, my passion for fly fishing surged. I sold my dog training equipment and bought a nice kayak, a Native Ultimate, the one of the first premier stand-up yaks along with the $300 push pole.

I thought I was set. I thought it would be easy. It wasn’t. In fact, the learning curve was extraordinarily frustrating as I stumbled and bumbled around the Bay. I didn’t know when, why or how to fish.

Catching a redfish? Just finding one was a moral victory. I used to scuttle along the shore, barely above ankle deep water in search of backs and tails day after day wondering what I was doing wrong. It looked so easy while watching those Saturday morning outdoors shows where they boated a dozen tailers in a matter of minutes.

So what was I doing wrong? A lot, actually.

I knew, to progress, that I needed knowledge. So I started reading. Every book, every website was on my radar. Very few of them helped. That void served as the purpose of this book, which is to help shorten learning curve and alleviate the frustration that I endured. I suffered. You shouldn’t have to.

This is not to say that this book will ensure angling bliss. Only time on the water does that. I don’t have all the answers. No one does.

I focus primarily on sight fishing. It’s the most rewarding style of angling; it’s also the most difficult. But the potential sense of accomplishment surpasses the challenges along the way. Sight fishing with a fly rod is like golf. Perfection is not possible. Some days birdies flow as spotted tails pierce the gin-clear water; other days, you simply try to scratch out par with a fish or two before the clouds roll in.

A number of folks helped make this endeavor possible. Flip Pallot gave me inspiration after suggesting that I write a book. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t, so I quit making excuses and got with the program.

Others who helped along the way: Tim Boothe, Chris Camuto, Vaughn Cochran, Bob Cramer, Walt Durkin, Spencer Goodwin, Ted Hagaman, Chris Hargiss, Enver Hysni, Evan Jones, Ethan Kiburz, Billy Kingsley, Dayle Mazzarella, Jess McGlothin, Ryan McGue, Parker Rabow, Sam Root, Walt Ruda, Keith Sawyer, Jared Simonetti, Joe Sefchick, Beaver Shriver, Phil Thompson, Joe Welbourn and Leigh West.

I may have forgotten someone. If I have, I apologize. So many people have helped me appreciate fly fishing and all of its life lessons. For that, I’m grateful.


Winter, 2014

Tampa, Fla.


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