August 08, 2022
By Frank Sargeant
Tarpon are widely recognized as the ultimate inshore gamefish. They possess the speed and size of the pelagic giants, yet are accessible in the shallow water of coastal rivers and bays and are easily fished in the smallest of boats or even from bridges and piers. Their power and amazing leaping ability—sometimes going 8 feet into the air or greyhounding in a series of 30-foot arches—make them an awe-inspiring target for anglers throughout the Southeast.
Silver kings, as they're called, are primarily inshore fish found in water from knee deep to 20 feet, but they're also roamers, traveling from the Florida Keys to the Louisiana oil rigs and then back again with the changing seasons. They also make a spawning run as much as 100 miles offshore into the middle of the Gulf of Mexico before returning to their coastal haunts.
They follow temperature gradients pretty closely and are rarely seen in water colder than 70 degrees, with 75 and up being their preferred range. It's this narrow range that limits them to south Florida and the Caribbean in winter, but they migrate north along both sides of Florida and up the Texas coast starting in late March. By July, Atlantic fish are as far north as Virginia, while Gulf Coast fish are off the Mississippi Delta.
HIT THE BEACHES
From Marco Island, Fla., to Dauphin Island, Ala., tarpon prowl the Gulf beaches and flats in summer. This is also true from Miami to Cocoa Beach. Because much of this water is crystal-clear most of the time, sight fishing is the name of the game. There's also a well-known flats fishery in the Florida Keys, of course, but that specialized pursuit is outside our scope here.
The fish tend to travel over or outside the second bar off the beach, typically in water 15 to 25 feet deep, and frequently roll at the surface, making them relatively easy to locate. On the Atlantic side, tarpon follow schools of mullet northward along the beaches in April and back south again in late October.
Successful anglers generally anchor at whatever depth the fish happen to be traveling on a given day—and they do seem to frequently home in on one track—and then wait for fish to approach. Trying to run up on tarpon with outboard power never works, and even a trolling motor can put them off in this area. As such, it is always better to wait and let them come to you. That said, creeping in on fish busting around the mullet schools does work well.
The most certain way to get hooked up is to throw a live sardine, threadfin or finger mullet in front of approaching fish, but artificials do the trick, too. One of the favored artificials is a soft-plastic shad or eel about 7- to 10-inches long in white, pearl or chartreuse, and rigged on a 9/0 extra-wide-gap 4x strong hook. The bait is fished on heavy spinning tackle and stout braid. Cast well ahead of the school, then crank it fast as the fish approach. The DOA Baitbuster, a soft-plastic mullet imitation, is also a favorite.
Fly fishermen catch their share as well, though it's a challenge usually requiring long casts with 12-weight gear. Handling the line as the fish gets airborne and rips a hundred yards of backing off the reel in seconds takes both skill and luck.
Success usually takes a skilled guide on the push pole and a quick, accurate cast as fish glide into range. Flies are typically 3- to 4-inch streamers in dark patterns on size 2/0 to 3/0 extra-strong hooks. A short "bite tippet" of 80- to 100-pound test fluorocarbon is tied to the end of a tapered leader with a piece of 20- to 30-pound test tippet as the weakest link.
ATLANTIC SHRIMP BOAT ACTION
Chasing tarpon in Atlantic waters north of Cocoa Beach up to the Carolinas is a different game because the fish can be difficult to sight-fish in these more turbid waters. One of the best tactics is to take advantage of the natural chum line created frequently by shrimp boats culling their catch.
The trick is to pull up next to a shrimp boat at dawn as they throw the cull overboard, and fish baits similar to what they're culling in the slick. Locals often use a hypodermic needle to inject needlefish, ladyfish and other species with air to make them drift on top where the tarpon sometimes feed.
GEORGIA AND THE CAROLINAS
Tarpon prowl as far north as the Carolinas roughly from June through the end of September before starting to head back south to warmer waters in early October. Huge schools of menhaden are the primary food source here, and they are also one of the top baits.
Tarpon follow the menhaden along the coast, around the jetties and into rivers, particularly on the strong tides around the new and full moons. Popular spots include Georgia's Satilla and Cumberland rivers; South Carolina’s Little River, Shallotte Inlet and Frying Pan Inlet; and North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound, Pamlico River and Neuse River.
Cast-net the bait where you fish and run a couple out under popping corks, a couple with small weights and maybe a couple more with 2- or 3-ounce weights to keep them on bottom. Hooks are size 6/0 to 8/0 short-shank live bait hooks, 4X strong. Local pros use pogies as chum, creating a stream of chopped bait that flows with the tide to lure tarpon to their baits.
TEXAS AND LOUISIANA
Texas tarpon move up and down the beach from late July to early October, anywhere from 100 feet to a quarter-mile out. The tactic here is to ride the beach about 400 to 500 yards offshore on calm mornings to find rolling fish, then ease in ahead of the direction of travel on a trolling motor, again letting the fish come to you before presenting your lure or bait.
Most anglers here use 8- to 10-inch soft-plastic swimbaits on 8/0 to 10/0 EWG 4X strong hooks, or live mullet, ladyfish or other baits 4 to 6 inches long on a 6/0, 4X strong bait hook.
In Louisiana, there's so much other big game action available not far offshore that the tarpon fishery is not hotly pursued. But the fish are there, mostly from the mouth of the Mississippi west to Grand Isle, arriving in July and continuing into October most years.
Tarpon do get huge in these rich waters, with several fish over 200 pounds landed every year. This is one of the few places where tarpon are still caught by trolling. Locals pull the famed "Coon Pop" jig invented here at about walking speed.
SOUTHWEST FLORIDA PASSES
Florida's west coast is blessed with two of the top tarpon spots on the planet. You've probably heard of famed Boca Grande, where the fishery has been booming for more than 100 years. But, more recently, lower Tampa Bay’s Egmont Pass has become almost equally productive during the spring/summer run.
This is all live-bait fishing in deep water—a very specialized pursuit. Basically, the fleet—and there are many boats on the fish on every good tide flow—drifts with the flow, keeping baits as near to straight down as possible. The captains report how deep the tarpon are holding. Baits are often live pass crabs, caught right there in the weedlines.
When somebody hooks up, the captain pulls the boat out to the side of the pass to fight the fish, thus hopefully keeping the line clear of all the other anglers in other boats. It can be a mad house at times, but at the peak of the run from May through July 4, you may see a thousand fish or more on a tide at any of these passes. It’s an incredible assemblage, and the odds of hooking up are very high. Check with the Boca Grande Guides Association and the Florida Fishing Guides Association to link up with guides who specialize in this action—doing it on your own is very difficult. Captain Rob Gorta (captainrobgorta.com), in particular, is a true expert at live-bait action in the Tampa Bay fishery.
Tarpon used to be considered heavy-tackle targets that required 100-pound-test monofilament or Dacron and lever-drag reels. Now, anglers use 65-pound-test braid on 8000-size spinning reels and 8-foot, medium-heavy to heavy rods. Leaders are typically 80- to 100-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon 5 to 6 feet long. The big advantage of the spinning gear is that it’s easy to cast baits even as small as a threadfin, finger mullet or dollar crab—a huge plus when sight fishing. For throwing artificials, level winds with strong gearing also work well. The Shimano Calcutta 700 with 50-pound-test braid is a favorite of some.
DEALING WITH SHARKS
Sharks are the bane of tarpon and tarpon anglers alike. Some species, like hammerheads and bull sharks, shadow tarpon schools in search of an easy target. When a fish gets hooked up, the furious jumping and splashing, plus the mirror-like flash of the tarpon’s sides, often brings sharks rushing in.
While an uninjured tarpon can outrun a shark, those hooked up and fighting heavy drag can’t. Hundreds of hooked tarpon are killed every year by sharks at Boca Grande and Egmont passes. Those who fish these aggregations advise using the heaviest tackle you can handle and getting the fish in fast for a few quick photos before releasing it somewhere in shallower water where it will have a chance to recover before the big eaters spot it.
Needless to say, you'll also want to keep your eyes open when handling a tarpon at boatside—more than one angler has been scared out their shorts by a shark slamming into a fish just inches away from them.
Silver (Screen) Kings
The legendary 1970s film "Tarpon" is still the definitive documentary on the species.
Released in 1973 and starring writers Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane and Richard Brautigan (with a soundtrack by Jimmy Buffet), the documentary "Tarpon" remains one of fishing’s great cult films. Shot in the Florida Keys in the 1970s, "Tarpon" offers rare insight into the fishing world there during that time and features several of the early pioneers of Key West tarpon fly fishing. Legendary guides Woody Sexton, Steve Huff, Gil Drake and Page Brown (an early Keys conservationist) provide commentary. The movie, available on YouTube, was filmed with what would be considered crude cinematography equipment by today’s standards, yet the footage is stunning. Avid fly fishermen will revel in seeing anglers chasing giant silver kings with fiberglass fly rods and often throwing wire tippets from crude skiffs with tiller outboards motors and no poling platforms.
— Dr. Todd A. Kuhn