They say tarpon fishing is hard but I don’t think I ever really truly believed anyone until this tournament. It was about 5 past 8 in the AM, June 13th, 2019 – day 3 of the competition. Salty, stinging sweat seeped into both eyes with every blink. The sun had just risen about an hour prior and was getting to that angle where you just start to feel the power of UV physically cooking your face.

I had no concept of just how hard you could pull on 16lb test until this very moment. I have climbed Mt. Rainier, run ½ marathons, hiked 45 miles with a 40+ lb backpack in tow and subjected myself to 100 degree weather with mosquitos that covered you from head to toe for days on end in hopes of that perfect take, but never before had I pushed my body to this point physically. I was at that moment fighting a fish that was well over twice the size of any fish I had ever fought and that had surpassed the longest fight two times over. 2 hours and 7 minutes into the fight my rod makes a noise similar to when an F-18 breaks the sound barrier… on a smaller scale of course.

I looked down to find the majority of my rod dangling on the fly line like a cheerio necklace and bloodstains on my right bicep where the broken rod had spontaneously combusted with direct impact into my arm. Five, maybe 10 max seconds later using just the reel to apply pressure without the help of the rod to distribute forces I heard the saddest pop ever. Breaking right in the middle of the class tippet… she was gone, swimming into the abyss almost completely unphased by what she had just experienced. That made 1 of us.

First thought was, “damn Mike, are you captain knots!?” 2nd thought, they didn’t show any of this in Silver Kings (my main “practice” tarpon fishing resource since I live in the PNW) which looking back makes sense because the episodes would be 4 times as long. But it wasn’t until I dropped to the bow of the boat in complete and utter exhaustion, every muscle in my body still trembling from a combination of being flexed for two hours and adrenalin cruising my bloodstream faster than the diameter of my veins would normally allow. Unable to really make complete sentences I stopped my regular chatterbox talk fest while trying to regain my breath. I starred a solid 10 silent seconds into the blue morning sky and thought to myself, “DAMN. THESE WOMEN ARE BAD.”

Each year since the beginning of time starting in spring to early summer tarpon have migrated up the coasts of Florida and each year since 1977 female anglers from around the world have migrated to Islamorada, FL. With a passion for the sport of saltwater fly fishing and the patience, diligence, and dedication it takes to land one of these magnificent creatures they come to compete in The Ladies Tarpon Fly Tournament (@ladiestarponflytournament). June 10th -13th, 2019 marked the tournament’s 42nd anniversary and every year the tournament attracts a diverse, yet like-minded group of female anglers from seasoned to novice.

The awards vary from Grand Champion to Best New Angler providing a wide range of categories that anyone one competitor can aim for. The tournament is a 3 day event that begins with an opening ceremony where each and every tournament rules is clearly stated and if needed elaborated on. One can view a full list of tournament rules here. Essentially, points for the 2019 tournament could be achieved in 3 ways. First, a Release Fish described as 4 feet or longer is worth 200 points. The points are attained when the nail knot at the junction of the fly line and the leader passes through the 1st eye of an angler’s rod. Second, is a Caught Fish. A Caught Fish is described as a tarpon also measuring 4 feet or longer in length that is fought to the boat where the hook is disengaged by the guide amounting to 300 points. And finally a Weight Fish is one that you fight to the boat and estimate to be 70 lbs or greater. In this instance you would take length and girth measurements such that length x girth x girth (all in inches)/800 = weight in pounds, and points = pounds x 10. For example a weight fish that is 60” long by 30.5” in girth is equal to (60 x 30.5 x 30.5)/800=72.1 x 10 = 721 points.

I sat down and had a conversation with Shandra Rummel (@islandrummel) of Islamorada, FL who lead this year’s tournament. After a series of questions I had more detailed knowledge on just how much organization it takes to hold a tournament of this nature as well as a bit of the history behind it.

Ruth: Where does the Ladies Tarpon on Fly Tournament occur in the lineup of Florida Keys tarpon season fly fishing tournaments?

Shandra: Late April through June is the pinnacle of the tarpon migration and tournament season in the Florida Keys. The first of the “big three” tarpon tournaments kicks off the last week of May with the Golden Fly Invitational Tarpon Tournament which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019. The first week of June has seen the Don Hawley Invitational Tarpon Tournament take place for 45 years. It is a 12lb test, release only tournament which started in protest of tournaments which historically killed tarpon to tally the scores. Points are now earned when the nail knot passes through the top eyelet of an angler’s rod. As time went on the tournaments all eventually leaned towards non-kill points. The 2nd week of June was chosen as the week of the Ladies Tarpon on Fly Tournament back in 1977. For 42 years, this tournament has been so proud to continue to occupy such a prime week on the tarpon calendar. Finally the 3rd week of June is traditionally reserved for the Gold Cup which started in 1964 and is seen as the tournament of tournaments in the tarpon fly fishing community of the Florida Keys and beyond.

Ruth: How long have you been a part of the Ladies Tarpon Fly Tournament?

Shandra: In 2014, Shandra served as the tournament scorekeeper in hopes of gaining the confidence to compete the following year. She has been a competitor each year since, and served as the tournament chairman and an angler in 2019. In 2010 Heidi Nute (@heidinute) who has competed in both the Don Hawley and the Golden Fly and who currently holds the world record for tarpon on fly using 16lb class tippet with a fish weighing 152.8lbs, began running the tournament. Heidi was instrumental in resurrecting the tournament, following several years of declining numbers. She continued to run it until 2018 when she moved out of state. And in 2019 Shandra accepted the chairmanship, deciding she had gained enough familiarity, experience and contacts within the fishing community of Islamorada, that taking on the duties and responsibilities of the tournament would be supported by the locals and those who participated in it before her. This was important to her to be in a position within the community to feel as though she could provide such a historically prestigious tournament proper justice and be supported by all involved. Heidi was able to grow the tournament to 18 anglers in 2018 from none only 7 years before. Building on this momentum, Shandra assembled 26 anglers in 2019! Remembering when the tournament was first at its prime in the late 70’s and 80’s, often registering 30-40 female fly anglers, this is quite the accomplishment and an honor to be able to bring a tournament so rich in history roaring back to life!

Ruth: When did you take it over?

Shandra: Officially she took it over for the 42nd anniversary of the event which occurred June 11th -13th, 2019, meaning she began with the organizing a year prior. At this time she had “put in her time” aka established relationships with the founders of the event, the guide community, and the sponsors crucial to create a successful tournament. She even put in her time at the local fly shop and title sponsor, Florida Keys Outfitters. Most who knew her could sense that her stepping up to take on this role would happen with her heart and vision in the right place, an authentic place.  

Ruth: What sets this apart from other tournaments?

Shandra: It is the only all women’s tarpon fly fishing tournament in existence. Although women do participate in the other historically all-male fly tournaments (i.e Diana Ruldolf who was the first female to win the prestigious Don Hawley Invitational Tarpon Tournament in 2004, and also one of Shandra’s inspirations!) generally these tournaments have long waitlists and are reserved for anglers (mostly men) who have competed in them time and time again. So here we have a tournament that only women are allowed to compete in, and thus even newcomers have a chance at placing. 

Ruth: What were some of the challenging parts of organizing this event?

Shandra: Shandra says, “It takes year-round planning. It is 100% about the contacts and relationships one establishes. It is also about balancing the work of the tournament with your day to day occupation.” Shandra, a former buyer, who currently works as a property manager, and has a long history of side gigs in the hospitality and restaurant industry, is able to take on the responsibilities and duties of organizing the tournament to be honest because her heart is in the right place, as mentioned before. But also because she is already in a position career-wise where the tasks and details of such an event by now come second nature to her. All it takes is one interaction with Shandra to see the excitement and aspirations in her voice when she speaks of the event to know she truly wants this tournament to be a premier event in the world of salt water fly fishing. 

Ruth: I heard there is a scholarship component to this event? What/who does this benefit?

Shandra: In 1977 the ladies who created the tournament added a scholarship. It has sort of become a norm for the tournaments of Islamorada to raise money for a specific cause. One example: some tournaments contribute to what is known as the Guides Trust. This trust essentially comes to the aid of a local guide say for instance breaks his/her leg or anything occurs that would keep a guide unable to work and could thus benefit from community support. The Ladies Tarpon Fly Tournament from early stages was registered as a 501(c)(3) and in 1977 when they first began introduced this educational scholarship component. This scholarship supported a female student in the local community studying marine sciences (As a fellow STEM lady hell yea I approve!) During the duration of when the tournament as a whole fizzled out, the 501 (c)(3) unfortunately also died and it has been Shandra’s goal to regain that organization status. This is currently one of the many things on Sandra’s plate that she is working diligently to achieve alongside other women involved in the organization. As part of the tournament there is also a silent auction and vendor donation. The tournament has at this point attained a board and all have been working to reestablish the scholarship trust based on the IWSA’s (International Women’s Fishing Association) model. The plan is that when school begins session in the fall, the marine science scholarship application will be circulated and collected, at which point the board will collaborate and make a decision for the aid to be distributed in spring of 2020.

Traditionally, most of the tournaments in town have a philanthropic component to them. Raising money for a whole host of causes including conservation and research efforts, and funding organizations like the Guides Trust Foundation. This trust essentially comes to the aid of a local guide say for instance breaks his/her leg or anything occurs that would keep a guide unable to work and could thus benefit from community support. The Ladies Tarpon Fly Tournament reestablished its 501(c)(3) status in 2019 and re introduced the idea a scholarship trust originally started by the founding tournament anglers. This scholarship will support a female student in the local community studying marine sciences (As a fellow STEM lady hell yea I commend!) As part of the tournament, there is also a silent auction. All proceeds benefit the scholarship trust. The scholarship application will be circulated and collected in the fall of 2019, at which point the board will collaborate and make a decision for the aid to be distributed in spring of 2020. The scholarship applications can be found on the tournaments webpage: Scholarship  Trust

Ruth: How can you be invited to participate?

Shandra: The tournament ranges widely in skill level such that all skill levels are encouraged to participate. As mentioned in the above article, there are many categories with which to aim for. As part of the placements there even exists a Best New Angler category which provides attainable goals for the novice angler. At the moment with the tournament’s growing popularity the board is deciding between 25-30 participants + a waiting list. However if you are interested in participating in the tournament the best way is to fill out the “Contact Us” form at the bottom of the tournament’s home webpage: https://ladiestarponfly.org

Coming into this competition I had no idea until 4 days before the tournament that an IGFA class tippet of 16 lb test is to be used and will be provided to each angler/guide pair. To be honest I was simply shocked, and thought how on earth am I going to land a 100+ pound fish on 16lbs test?  It was not until I actually fought a 120lb fish on it, where at times I was pulling as hard as I physically could until my rod snapped that I realized the class tippet while it is “sporty” is equally a safety measure. Through talking with anglers and captains the week I was there, I heard horror stories of anglers getting limbs severed back in the day for using 60lb plus straight nylon as a leader on a flyrod.

You see, one of the most critical moments is the moment you get a take, it is the moment where the difficult part begins. You have mere seconds to get that fish on the reel while making sure your line isn’t wrapped around anywhere it shouldn’t be including your body parts. Fish eats. You strip set. Arms apart. Look down at your feet. This is the drill as learned from my guide Captain Mike Alfano @captain_mike_alfano of Islamorada, Fl.

All of this can happen in nanoseconds with the first strip or even more difficult, the last strip when the fish gets right up to the boat and during the entire fly presentation/follow the line had been piling up God knows where! The most interesting thing with tarpon fishing as with most species is that when you are learning them, you think if you could just learn to do this one thing better then everything is gravy. Wrong. Lol.

For example, I went a day early to practice with Mike and after that day what I realized is that I needed to be better at seeing them. Ok, so I have a confession: I usually don’t pray for things for myself especially not for things as silly as being able to better see fish but I’ll admit I did pray just that for the next two nights! (I know, sounds ridiculous to pray to be able to see the fish). And hey, not trying to get all religion-ey up in here but yo that shit worked! I straight up could see fish coming from all directions starting day 1 of the competition. Hooray for me I thought! But again I thought wrong. Seeing them soon became the easy part, feeding them became feasible as well (most likely the fish Gods lining up hella stars).

The difficult part soon became how to get them on the reel without having tangled line or breaking them off right away. 16 lbs test has a lot of meaning. You have to set them hard enough for it to stick but not hard enough for the initial impact to cause the tippet to break. Through frankly unfortunate trial and error aka many fish breaking off, I began to learn how to set them. Again another check on the list of landing a tarpon. 

Ok, so recall: See them. CHECK. Feed them. CHECK. Set the hook without class tippet breaking. CHECK. And then comes the fight. This is truly what it comes down to. Do you encompass the physical strength (and I mean every muscle in your body) and mental endurance to fight an adult tarpon to the boat? Everyone has their own idea of what is the difficult part of landing a tarpon and it may also be an evolving answer. To me at this point post-tournament, I can easily say I had better go hard on the bicep curls before my next tarpon encounter. While fighting this particular fish I learned my new challenge. Technique. Mike explained that there were anglers he knew who could bring a 100+ lb adult tarpon to hand in 25 mins all based on the technique that is learned over time.

As an angler from the PNW having only ever previously landed 3 tarpon with largest one weighing maybe 20lbs at most I had no knowledge of these techniques, but I now at this point intent to learn them. I think that’s one of the most intriguing things about fly fishing, is that there is always something new to learn and thus a new goal to achieve. 

In this 3rd and final day, I gained more points than the previous two days. Day 1 was 200 points with a solid nail knot release, which ended in the fish chewing through my 40lb bite tippet moments later like it was soggy redvine. The second day I zeroed as we had few shots throughout the day and day 3… well day 3 was a day not soon forgotten. There was the tarpon that completely kicked my ass starting in the morning. In fact, we had the massive being to the boat and for the life of him, my guide Mike tried his best to get her to open her mouth so that he could land her by holding on to the lower jaw. As fate would have it this was most likely not her first rodeo and she stayed determined with lock jaw game strong.

We know how this story ended…still the experience gained me 200 points and most likely the hardest fight I will ever have with a fish (or at least I hope so!) We determined that in this fight I was defeated for several reasons. 1.) No prior experience fighting a fish of that caliber thus zero and I mean ZERO techniques applied lol. 2.) She never once jumped. This is not the normal scene envisioned when catching tarpon but she was mad intelligent and saved all of her energy for the pull. She basically towed us around for two hours. And 3.) And this is totally my personal opinion, I was using a 10wt rod when I had no right to whatsoever! Hahaha I know it should have been fine but as a novice tarpon angler I definitely should have chosen a heavier weight rod, I just liked casting (nothing like a good cast!) that 10wt intermediate line so much and it was working quite well for the water depth we were fishing that morning. 

After a mind-altering and epiphany filled morning, we went on to an eventful afternoon, to say the least. Landing 2 more tarpon that were inches from making the 4 feet requirements and thus 0 points the universe ended things with a bang. And I kind of literally mean that. It was about 2 hours from the 3 PM cut off time and we found ourselves dead center in the middle of a shrimp hatch. Ok, what?! A shrimp hatch!? I had never even heard of such a thing… What was about to unfold could only be described as damn near supernatural.

We were way out in the backcountry and all around us, 2” shrimp were literally popping out of the water in parabolic trajectories landing 3-4 feet onto the surface from where they emerged in every direction that you looked. Mike switched me to a shrimp pattern faster than I’d ever seen anyone tie on a fly. And are you ready? We were literally in a SEA OF TARPON. For two straight hours hundreds, and I mean HUNDREDS of adult tarpon burst from beneath the surface going absolutely nuts biting at anything and everything in their path.

All caution completely out the window. Subtle takes? No such thing!! What is a follow? These fish did not give a damn! As soon as your fly hit the water, BOOM! Hahahaa it was literally one of the scariest yet simultaneously riveting fly fishing experiences for me to date. In my home waters, it’s a damn good day if you get a bite on the swing after putting in 10 hours in the middle of freeze your butt of February. But this!? THIS WAS BANANAS!! I had about 10 eats, 4 that instantly either broke off or spit the hook and one that took every last ounce of energy I had. 45 minutes later, dragged into the deep blue and sweating profusely under the mid-day sun, a Caught Fish adding 300 points to the scoreboard. As soon as we released the fish Mike said, “Ok are you ready for another one, we have about an hour left.” I said absolutely not. Lol I’m completely toast!

With tarpon still full body breaching the surface creating an unsynchronized wake in the distant background Mike carefully cruised us back into place. My casting ability was beginning to fade. My arms like noodles did the best they could, but I was beat. In a daze of lethargic casts and possible level 2 heat stroke lookin like I woke up in a ditch on Jan 1st I heard the most beautiful noise!! Beep beep. Beep beep… Mike’s alarm went off signaling the 3PM the cut off time. Thank the Lords in heaven!!! 

The next morning I woke up sore from head to toe.  I really do not think that I had ever been that sore in my life and I came to this conclusion when I went into the kitchen and reached for a blueberry in a bowl on the counter. I think the word, “ouch” actually slipped from my mouth lol. Was it all worth it? HAAAAIL YEA! I had the chance to meet 25 like-minded, incredibly talented female fly anglers all of who I send serious props out to for chasing tarpon period. I learned more about fly fishing in 3 days than I could have ever imagined and I ended up setting new goals for myself. I have visited quite a few places and caught 71 different species on fly. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say the species of their particular region is the hardest to catch and I have not caught all this fish in the world, but I can for damn sure say that tarpon in my book are the HARDEST fish to catch for a plethora of reasons.

I have heard of situations with saltwater guides making a trip more of an unpleasant experience than anything else but I really lucked out with Mike. I 100% could not have left this trip with such a full heart and amazing stories had it not been for him. His methods of communication, patience and supportive and encouraging dialogue enabled me to hook, release, catch and fight the fish I did in this tournament and for that I am thankful. I’d also like to thank all of the ladies past and present who participated, supported, took part in making this event a reality especially Shandra Rummel and her support team, y’all straight rock a party!! Long live the Ladies Tarpon Fly Tournament! See you guys next year!

Article by Ruth Sims, an avid angler based in Seattle, Washington. To follow along with her adventures be sure to check her out at @navajoflyfisher on Instagram. For more information on the Ladies Tarpon Fly Tournament, be sure to check them out online here. Photos shot for Flylords by Austin Coit. 

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