On The Fly
An inside peek at the secretive world of fly fishing on the Florida coast.
When most people think of fly fishing, the iconic fishing scenes from the 1992 movie A River Runs Through It probably come to mind. Just as most people probably think of the Florida Keys or the Caribbean when they hear the term “saltwater fly fishing” and not the Upper Gulf Coast. And maybe part of that is by design.
“Ten years ago, I would not be having this conversation with you,” says longtime tarpon fishing guide Gjuro Bruer when we spoke recently about the vastness of our local fishery available to those armed with a fly rod. But ask most locals where they caught their fish, and you’ll probably still get a sarcastic answer like “in the mouth” or a very generic geographic location such as “in the bay.” For a couple of decades, you couldn’t get those in the know to even admit they went tarpon fishing, let alone if they caught anything. Those who chased tarpon with a fly on our waters treated it like a combination of a water-based, Prohibition-era speakeasy and Fight Club. Only a handful of people knew the password, and those who did knew the number one rule was you didn’t talk about tarpon fishing.
Tarpon fishing may still be a little under the radar, but there’s a local, ever-growing community of fly fishing enthusiasts along the coast. They even meet in public, and aghast, tell others where and how they caught their fish. A big part of that community is the Fly Fishers of Northwest Florida, a club whose mission is to assist people of all ages in learning about and enjoying the sport of fly fishing. The club also proudly sponsors the local chapter of Project Healing Waters, a national nonprofit that provides disabled veterans and active military personnel with physical and emotional rehabilitation through fly fishing, fly tying, and associated activities (see related story on page XX).
“I’m a relative newcomer to the group,” says Bob Myers, the current club president. “I retired from the Navy, moved down here, and fly fishing was something I had always wanted to pursue. I was immediately made to feel welcome, and soon enough, I was given casting lessons by a certified casting instructor and learning to tie my own flies.”
Fly casting is part physics, part skill, and part art form. To see someone who can deftly present the fly in all conditions is similar to watching a guitar master play. They both make it look effortless. Whereas, even after 20 years of fly fishing, I feel like my casting sometimes more closely resembles a harness race jockey flailing down the stretch. “A casting lesson, like those offered by our club, can greatly speed up the learning curve or help correct bad habits much like a golf pro can help your swing,” says Myers.
Locals proficient with the fly rod can find fish to target nearly year-round, from inshore favorites like redfish and speckled trout to the toothy Spanish mackerel just off the beach. But it’s the mighty tarpon that brings anglers to the area from all over the world. “Before COVID, most of my clients flew a long way to chase tarpon down here,” says Bruer. “Anglers from South Africa, Australia, Scotland, and states out West like Montana made up most of my business.”
Bruer has been a tarpon guide since he was a teenager back in the early 2000s. He has witnessed the guide business go from just two or three guys to well over 50.
“There is a vast tarpon fishery that runs from Louisiana to the Florida Keys,” says Bruer. “From 30A to Apalachicola is a world-famous stretch within the tarpon community. What makes it so special is that you can still target big fish without the immense pressure of other well-known places like Boca Grande and the Keys.”
For many fly fishing aficionados, catching a fish on a fly is only topped by catching a fish on a fly they tied themselves. Myers remembers catching a Spanish mackerel on a fly he tied even though he wasn’t so sure of how the final product looked. “As a member of the group said to me, let’s let the fish be the judge of how the fly looks,” he recalls. Like Myers, I will never forget the first bonefish I caught sight casting in the Bahamas. It wasn’t huge, but I caught it on a fly that I had tied, making the catch most memorable. I’m glad I can write about it without you having to ask for the password to read it.
Fly Fishers of Northwest Florida