Some of them are good, others not quite so good - and a few are really bloody terrible, providing only the bare essentials and little caring if their customer is satisfied or not. The really bad ones are those surly fellows who look down their noses at their land-lubber customers, treating them with contempt and screaming at them at the top of their voices whenever their hapless paying victim steps a little out of line. I'm sure that there is actually a school of thought in some parts of Florida that the customer expects this kind of treatment, as I've not only experienced it myself but I've also heard other anglers complain of it. Thankfully pirates like these are few and far between but do make sure that whenever you book a guide that you do so only upon the recommendation of someone you trust.
Most guides out here provide all bait and tackle and, most importantly, the ‘how to’ and ‘where to’ information that is the true criteria for being a guide. Many will also include soft drinks and lunch either in their packages or as an inexpensive option. Some will even point you in the direction of nearby lodging and a half-decent watering hole - though few will actually provide the service of booking you in. Fewer still will offer the kind of service that you can experience at Tarpon Springs, courtesy of Mr and Mrs Gene Zamba.
In a country like the USA where there is such a diverse cultural background, one gets used to hearing some unusual names but Gene's surname threw me completely. Where did that one originate? It turns out that back in the mists of time, Gene's great granddaddy was an honest-to-goodness Red Indian. This could account for the almost mystical method he displayed in tracking down a few fish when I visited him last month. (If the term ‘Red Indian’ is considered a bit dodgy these days then I apologise – I can’t keep up with what is PC these days, I must be getting old.)
Gene runs a very different kind of guiding service to the usual ones you’ll find out here, and his customer base reflects that. Regular customers include some household names, from backgrounds as dissimilar as the Gulf War’s Stormin’ Norman to some very well known top rock stars – I had to promise not to name them.
Gene’s house backs onto a canal, a backwater of the immense Lake Tarpon, the state’s specimen bass lake. Here the bass grow to almost 20lb which is quite a bit bigger than most bass you’ll find in Florida! At the bottom of the garden is a small boat for customers use - this is fine for exploring the huge lake just a couple of hundred yards away. However, for sea-fishing, Gene has 24ft purpose built boat which is complete with ‘tuna-tower’ and has a huge outboard powering it.
So, what makes Gene’s operation so special? Well, the fishing is good - but this is Florida, it’s rarely bad. Gene’s latest email should give you a clue.
"It's getting hot around here and I am not just talking about the weather. Poons are starting to make a good showing. Wednesday on a Fly fishing trip I hooked one up on light tackle with live bait from the back of the boat with spin tackle that went 75 pounds or up. The Tarpon got tangled in my anchor line before I could get the anchor up so you know what happened there…
Fishing overall is excellent. Bait is all over the place and lots of it. We are landing good numbers of Spanish Macs, Trout, Cobia, Bluefish, Jack Crevalle and Poor Man's Tarpon and they are terrorizing the area. With 2 anglers in the boat and a good full day of fishing we are landing about 100 fish a day on live bait.
The wind laid down yesterday and we went offshore after King Macs on a Fly. Paul Gerber landed a 32 pound SMOKER on a 10wt. This King pulled out all the backing 11 times before we were able to run it down… "
Breathtaking stuff to the average Euro-angler. But even with fishing this good, that’s not what makes the difference. It’s the ‘special’ package that we were treated to back at the Zamba house that’s the key to what’s different here.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a member of a Royal family? To be treated to the absolute best of everything, from service to taste to décor - and for this to be considered the norm? To be served a meal that would challenge an international 5-star chef - in surroundings where more thought has been put into the cutlery handle colour choice than most top restaurants put into their menus? I won’t go on – because I know you haven’t. But I have. The secret weapon in Gene’s arsenal is his wife Lynan (pronounce it Lyn-Anne). This highly intelligent lady is even more than just a stunning cook – she is a woman who excels at being a top hostess. If this place is a standard fishing lodge then I’ll eat my hat. You really had to be there, but to find this standard of cuisine and hospitality in the land of fast food and gunslingers was something really outstanding.
I did not arrive at a good time or in a good condition and I was not alone. I was suffering with the onset of bronchitis whilst Gene was just recovering from pneumonia or something. With us on the day’s trip was Caroline, a lady-flyfisher from New Jersey who, it transpired, was also in the early stages of some illness. We were a sorry bunch of invalids who boarded Gene’s boat in the fog at 7am on the Thursday morning. Yes – to compound our sickness we picked some dirty weather. Florida can spring the odd surprise sometimes. Overnight heavy winds had dropped to leave us with a foggy day and a nasty swell. In the shallow Gulf waters, where the water rarely exceeds more than 6ft depth, this was going to present a problem. The normally crystal clear water was clouded and turgid. How Gene managed to find us some good fishing in those conditions was quite a feat in itself, but he managed it.
In the lee of an island he threw a cast-net for baitfish. We soon had sufficient to last the session and took off on a bumpy but enthralling ride across the waves to "a little spot I know". Here we free-lined the small baitfish for a real variety of species. Redfish, snook, cobia and ladyfish are the main targets at this time of the year and we also took a couple of plaice and ‘sea-trout’. Not the sea-trout we are used to catching in the UK of course, but a very spotty looking brownie copy just the same.
The tackle we used at Gene’s was all in pristine condition. We were using his 7ft bait-casting outfits as the weather and conditions were not right for casting fly-tackle. Though some of the fly tackle I’d seen in Gene’s workshop made my jaw drop. Ever seen a 14 weight rod? Not sissy stuff this. It’s for tarpon. Gene caught me looking askance at this heavyweight and commented "Look – When you’ve got a fish maybe 200lb dancing on the end of your line you need all the help you can get." I hope to find out for myself someday soon – but when I do I’ll wear incontinence pants!
If tarpon are your target species then be sure to be here at the right time of year. These fish migrate up and down the coast and only appear in these waters for a couple of months each year. This means that when the fish are running (right now in May and June for instance) there is a heavy demand for guides. Even the bad ones get fully booked – so if you are planning a trip out here, book ahead for next year right now or you might be disappointed.
When it comes to catching tarpon on the fly, Gene is a number-one man. He has a lot of experience at it and will ensure that you learn how to play the fish properly. For instance when a tarpon jumps, you must drop the rod-tip or you will lose the fish. This, explained Gene, is because tarpon have very hard mouths. The hook will work lose if you don't "bow to the King" as he put it. If you are going to travel right across the world for a tarpon, it’s good to have someone beside you who knows exactly what he’s doing.
Despite Gene being a rough and tumble type of bloke who can entertain you with his stories well into the night (ask him about his army ‘career’!) this is not a place to bring the louts from your local pub. In fact, I would definitely avoid Tarpon Springs if you’re someone looking for a trip to get hammered on the local brew every night. It’s far too classy for that. On the other hand, if you have someone who you really want to pamper.. Someone really special… Perhaps, someone who has never been fishing before and is unused to roughing it – then a trip to Gene’s Tarpon Springs operation should be at the top of your list. It will, as they say out here, blow you away. It did it for me!
Lots more info is on Gene’s website – check out: