Tarpon could be said to be angling’s Holy Grail. I’ve heard top Keys guides refer to catching a tarpon on fly as the apex of angling. While most Floridians think that it was crystalline blue water and white sugar sand beaches, coupled with the mild winters that attracted people to the state in the first place, it was actually anglers seeking tarpon.
As early as the late 1800s tarpon tournaments were hosted on Useppa Island. In those days anglers with button down suits and ties fished from rowboats towed to Boca Grande and Captiva passes. Anglers are no longer wearing suits and rowboats have given way to technical skiffs and tower boats, but great schools of tarpon still invade local waters in May, June and July.
Ninety miles to the north the Gulf flats that front the sleepy town of Homosassa were and are home to some of the most prolific tarpon fisheries in the world. Homosassa’s love affair with tarpon could be said to have started in 1882 when Anthony Weston Dimock hooked a tarpon in the Homosassa River.
“At first I thought the wonderful being was a mermaid,” Dimock recounted. “As I noted her fierce display of activity and strength, I pitied the merman who came home late without a better excuse than a meeting of the lodge.”
Winslow Homer, (1836-1910) the great American sporting artist, also came under the spell of Homosassa. In 1904, Homer painted at least 11 watercolors during a stay there. In a letter to his brother Arthur, Homer described Homosassa as, “The best fishing in America as far as I can find.” In the 21st century, many have experienced a love affair with the mermaids of Homosassa. While the history of the region runs deep with redfish, trout, cobia, grouper and hundreds of other species, it is the tarpon that have made Homosassa a legendary fly fishing destination. A quick look at a map makes it clear why this region has been such a magnet for tarpon and the anglers that pursue them. It’s still one of Florida’s most pristine areas with thousands of islands, clear spring-fed rivers and a habitat rich in marine life.
While Homosassa has been the place most mentioned in tarpon lore, it was actually a large area from Crystal River to Pine Island, near Bayport where the anglers fished. The greatest concentrations of tarpon were located between Chassahowitzka’s Black Rock and the flat known as Oklahoma near Pine Island.
It was Black Rock, Lower Rack, Upper Rack (dilapidated net drying racks) and Oklahoma that dominated discussions both on and off the water. The first anglers that pursued tarpon from Crystal River to Pine Island used conventional tackle, but they undoubtedly led the way for fly anglers who discovered one of the world’s greatest fly fisheries. Eustace Locklear, a native of Homosassa and a man remembered by everyone who fished the area with a fly, learned to fish for tarpon from Jonnie Elmer, of Crystal River. Elmer caught his tarpon by trolling the river with an inboard boat.
Although anglers have been fishing for tarpon since the 1800s, it was Harold LeMaster and Kirk Smith, of St Petersburg’s L&S Lure Company (MirrOLure), and Dee Mitchell, their friend and doctor, that can be credited (unintentionally) with introducing the fly fishing world to Homosassa.
The three anglers regularly fished plugs for tarpon near Honeymoon Island. On a day when the tarpon weren’t showing, they topped off their tank and headed north in search of fish. When they reached the area north of Pine Island they ran into schools of tarpon that would forever change the history of fly fishing.
Fly fishing legend Lefty Kreh was introduced to Homosassa by Mitchell, LeMaster, and Smith after he moved to Largo from Miami in 1971. Kreh became the outdoor editor of the St. Petersburg Times after heading the prestigious MET Tournament in Miami. By all accounts, Kreh caught the first tarpon on a fly in the Homosassa area. Kreh introduced these anglers to fly fishing.
“LeMaster wanted to learn how to cast, although he always preferred plug casting,” says Kreh, who remembers him being a good caster and led him to a 100-pound tarpon on fly at Homosassa.
LeMaster and Smith also introduced Clearwater homebuilder and rod maker Gary Marconi to Homosassa during the early 1970s. Marconi fly fished the area with his college buddy Norman Duncan from Miami. Duncan, the creator of the Duncan Loop, was one of Florida’s original saltwater fly fishers.
Marconi made Captain Dan Malzone aware of the area’s phenomenal tarpon fishing. Marconi was building fly rods for Malzone in the early 1970s when he learned that Malzone had built a house on Pine Island, south of Chassahowitzka.
“Marconi turned white as a sheet when he realized where the house was,” says Malzone. “I had built a house overlooking one of the area’s most famous flats, one that Marconi and Duncan had been secretly fishing for several years.
“He then asked me when the house would be ready, and when I told him May, he said that would be perfect. As it turned out we slept in the house with no furniture along with Marconi and his friends Neil Sigeartsen and Pete Centerrno.”
To say the fishing was spectacular is a bit of an understatement according to Marconi, who kept a log book in the early days. His best day, April 29, 1975, shows that he and Duncan jumped 56 tarpon by noon.
Captain Dale Perez, a Tampa native and Keys guide, heard about Homosassa from Duncan.
“Captain Steve Huff and I were having breakfast at Stout’s in Marathon when Norman Duncan came in and showed us a picture of a huge tarpon he had caught in Homosassa,” says Perez. Duncan was one of the early anglers who made the Keys guides aware of Homosassa’s fly fishing potential.
Perennial tarpon angler Tom Evans remembers a day soon after this encounter when he was fishing with Huff in the Keys.
“The weather was terrible,” Evans relates, “and Huff asked me if I wanted to go check out a place on the west coast of Florida that he had heard about.” We spent two days there and had terrible weather,” says Evans. “Despite the conditions, we saw enough big tarpon to realize the area’s potential.”
Stu Apte was another angler who had heard about Homosassa well before it became a destination.
“Ray Donesberger, one of my best clients, had stopped by Homosassa on his way to the Keys to fish. While he was there he went out with Eustace Locklear and four other anglers.
“When Locklear spotted a school of tarpon he would position the boat with a paddle and cast a MirrOLure to the fish. He had given everyone a number and when he hooked up he would set the hook and say Number one, your turn.”
Apte next heard about the area from Lefty Kreh.
“He’s the one that really lit my fire,” says Apte. “I made my first trip to Homosassa in the early ’70s.”
Apte never guided at Homosassa, choosing instead to share poling and fishing with his good friend Captain Ralph Delph. One of Apte’s fondest memories is the day he landed two world records on one day.