Forcing the Feed

Simms: You’ve made your living talking anglers through the process of feeding all kinds of fish, most notably, tarpon. So when it comes to tarpon, what is the basic David Mangum feeding philosophy?
Well you know, in my mind, it’s all about being able to quickly figure out the lead and the cross of the presentation. Keep in mind, every situation is unique. For instance, there are times and situations when you might not want to cross the fish but by and large, if you have a good grasp on lead and cross, your “shot to bite” ratio will greatly increase. So to answer your question, my philosophy on feeding tarpon is this: I don’t want to move the fly [or start feeding the fish] until the fish is about two feet away from the bug. That’s when I have my clients start making very short, fast strips. This style of stripping not only gives the impression of a panicked food item, but it also keeps that food item in the feeding zone of the tarpon. Because you’re keeping the fly in the zone with short, fast strips and not pulling it too far away, you’re basically forcing the fish to make a quick decision. How are you forcing the fish to make a quick decision? You’re not giving the fish any time to think. Think about it like this — the further the fly gets from the fish, the more time it has to think and decide whether it wants to expend the energy to eat, or to save that energy for an easier opportunity. Personally, I never want to give them that opportunity. I prefer to force a reaction bite. It gives you more control of the outcome.

Simms: How does this philosophy differ from others, or philosophies of
the past?
I don’t know, I guess some people feel like the best approach to feeding tarpon is to play a game of cat and mouse with them. You know, make the shot, move the fly, when the fish approaches, stop the fly, when the fish stops, move the fly again, and so on. I’m sure that works fine for some but again for me, I don’t like the idea of giving them time to think. If you can wait until the last second and force the fish to make that snap decision, you’re far more likely to get bit because you are more in control of the situation. I think this method just makes the fish more concerned with missing out on an opportunity, whether it’s hungry or not.

Simms: It seems like we had a conversation with you in the past that kind of dovetails into your theory of not wanting the fish to see the fly until the last few seconds. From what I recall, at the time, because of your philosophy, you were in favor of using very sparsely dressed flies. Is that still the case?
To an extent, sure. Again, if I can help it, I really don’t want the fish to see the fly until it’s really close. That’s why the same theory holds true in clear water and dirty water. For example, when you’re fishing dirty water, there’s a lot of turbidity and sediment in the water. So — the fish, as he’s swimming through that dirty water, he can’t see the fly until he’s very close to it because of the clarity. But let’s say you’re in the Keys fishing gin-clear water on the ocean side. In that scenario, the fly could land 20 feet out in front of the fish and they are actually able to see it because the water is so clear. That happens sometimes. Personally, I think those tarpon instinctually know: Ok, when I’m swimming around on a bright sunny day in super clean water, I’m not really going to think too much about eating because it’s too hard. Everything I want to eat sees me from a mile away and it either won’t let me get close, or it runs away. However, when I’m swimming around in dirty water, all of the sudden, if I come up on something I want to eat, I can get it without too much effort, but I have to react quick. So if that thought process is accurate, it makes sense that anglers are going to get more bites when they are fishing water that’s a little dirty. That’s why ideally for me, I prefer fishing in water that’s just clean enough so that I can still see the fish.

Simms: You mentioned earlier that there are times when you might not want to cross a fish. That’s interesting. What might that scenario
look like?
Well for me, I pretty much always want to cross the fish. Keep in mind, I’m not fishing in the Keys. A lot of times the water I fish does have a little color to it. So in my region, crossing the fish with the presentation makes the most sense because when you cross the path of the fish, you’re giving yourself a little wiggle room, or keeping yourself in the game if the fish turns outside of your shot a little bit or whatever. But again, that’s something that’s a little different in our area vs. a place like the Keys. In the Keys, crossing the fish’s path is called fencing. A lot of guides down there don’t want to make a fence with the line in front of the fish because the water down there is typically so clear, they can see it. But up here, in our dirtier water, you’re able to cross them and keep bringing that fly until it’s in their path by about six or seven feet, then stop, wait for them to get about two feet away, and then, tap, tap, tap.

Simms: So most how-to content out there harps on making your first shot count which ultimately means, presentation is the key. What are the key elements for the angler to think about in terms of their
first presentation?
Yes. Most often, that first shot is going to be your best shot. When you’re tarpon fishing, there are three main variables to the presentation. It’s like geometry. There’s cross, lead, and depth. And they are all dependent on one another. Once the angler gets eyes on the fish and determines how high or low the fish is in the water, they can then determine how far they need to lead and cross the fish in order for the fly to be at the right depth and the right distance from the fish when it’s time to start the feeding sequence.

Simms: So is there a baseline of how far to lead and cross a fish that will put the fly at the right depth?
Good question. Remember, the cross will depend on the lead. Those two variables influence each other. For example: Let’s say I have a fish moving right to left. I can lead that fish by 20 feet, but if I do, I better cross him by a lot as well. That way, when the fish approaches the “fence” that I’ve created with the line, I’m able to bring the fly, bring the fly, bring the fly until it’s in the best position. If I lead the fish by twenty feet but only crossed it by a foot, well, think about it. It doesn’t make sense to strip the fly because if you do, you’re going to be way short by the time the fish closes the 20-foot gap. So in the same presentation, if you choose to leave the fly, by the time the fish closes that same 20-foot gap, you’re out of the game as well because your fly is on the bottom. So if you lead that fish by 20 feet and go way past it with a lot of cross, you’re able to slide the fly, slide the fly, and keep it elevated. This way, when the fish closes that 20-foot gap, your fly is right in the feeding zone. Hope that makes sense, but that’s super important to understand.  

Simms: It does and that’s a really great description. Just because it’s a common question and plays a role in crossing and leading fish, how long is your typical tarpon leader?
12- to 14-feet.

Simms: All of this is making a ton of sense. However, what about a fish that is cruising straight at you?
You know, there’s rarely a time when a fish is coming straight at you and there’s not at least some kind of slight angle to play off of. But, in that rare situation, you’ve got to present your fly somewhere in front of him — a foot left or a foot right. Once again, wait until the fish is right on the fly, then start bumping it. If a fish eats in that situation, basically what you want to do is nothing at all. You’ve got to be disciplined and wait until the fish turns away and gives you some kind of an angle to work against.

Simms: Tick, tick, tick. Anybody who has seen your videos and films has heard this. Why the tick, tick, tick instead of long and slow strips?
Again, I’m sure that works for others, but for me, I never want the fly to pause. When you’re feeding using long and slow strips, pause will occur between the end of your strip and the start of the next strip. Also, it’s not really ideal if the fish eats at the back end of your strip. Tick, tick, tick, allows continuous movement the whole time and keeps your stripping hand close to your rod hand which is where you really have the most control to dictate the situation. There are a lot of variations to the strip. You know, sometimes we go under the arm and do a two-handed strip, and yes, sometimes, we’ll use a long, slow slide kind of a strip. The main thing anglers need to do as the fish approaches the fly and accelerates on the fly is to speed the fly up a little. This brings out the predator in the predator. Rarely do food items not run away from something that’s trying to eat them. And, the closer the predator gets to them, the faster, or the harder they try to escape.

Simms: So that’s why right before the fish eats in your videos, the tick, tick, tick intensifies?

Simms: Let’s talk about getting the best hook set. It’s definitely not as easy as one might think and there are definitely subtleties that anglers might not realize or think about.
Honestly, once the fish eats, the best practice is to do less. If you yank back with your stripping arm, even if you don’t move your rod at all, it can be almost like you moving your rod. Once the fish eats, you just want to keep pace with the fish until he turns. It’s really hard to hook a fish that eats and keeps coming forward until he gives you a little bit of an angle. If you do too much — whether it’s moving your rod, or a big giant strip, it’s more common for the fly to come out of the fish’s mouth. Keep in mind when that fish eats, obviously he has to open his mouth, but he also has to close it and trust me, he closes it a lot slower than he opens it. Also take into consideration there’s a bunch of water in his mouth that has to go out of the back of his gills and out of the top of his mouth. If you react too fast, the fly comes out and you don’t hook it. Keep tight on the fish until the fish tightens the line.

Simms: In your videos, once a fish eats, you’ll say “Burn your finger”. How can you burn your finger by doing less?
After you come tight, I like to explain it like this. When the angler is clearing their line, I want them to do so as if they didn’t have a rod in their other hand. The only attachment to the fish I want the angler to have when they are clearing the line is the fly line in their stripping hand. I want zero bend in the rod. I want the angler holding that fly line tight enough to get a light burn, but not so tight that they’ll break the fish off and not so light that you can lift your rod up and bend it. No bend in the rod, just straight fly line when you are clearing your line.