Tarpon can be found in keys waters 12 months of the year. These local fish tend to be smaller on the flats while larger ones tend to take up station around steady manmade food sources such as fish cleaning stations or where shrimp boats come into the harbor to cull their catch. However it is in the spring when the northerly migration leads huge numbers of large tarpon to set up shop in the channels running between the keys. These channels attract the majority of the tarpon catching effort in the Keys. Targeting these inshore giants is simpler, than many people think.
The Tarpon come into the channels to feed and for protection from predators. (That’s right; six foot fish do have predators inshore.) On high tides during the day many tarpon go up onto the flats to feed. However, during falling tides and in the evenings they retreat back into the channels for safety and to keep feeding on the fish and crustaceans that are flushed out of the harbors and off of the flats on the falling tides.
The tarpons diet is varied, and when hungry they are not at all fussy about what they eat. The dietary list is long and includes almost anything that swims and will fit into their mouths. After watching tarpon at fish cleaning tables devour whole tuna heads and dolphin carcasses it becomes clear that they can and will eat more than just live mullet and blue crabs. Understanding that there are conditions that the tarpon prefer to feed in will help to curb some of the frustration associated with fishing for an animal that will seemingly eat almost anything, except what you are currently offering.
One condition that will tend to put the tarpon off of their bite is the passing of a cold front. The first few days that the wind is out of any northerly quarter will definitely reduce your chances of a hookup. The fish that do eat will tend to be more finicky and the chances of them striking and immediately spitting the bait are high. Once the winds return to an east to south east quarter the fish will return to their normal feeding habits. Cool water also will change their feeding habits. Tarpon will usually wait until the water nears eighty degrees before feeding on crustaceans like the popular blue crabs. The theory that seems to make the most sense is that the oils in the crabs do not digest well in the cooler temperatures. For that reason it is recommended that you stick with fish for bait during the early part of the season.
Tarpon start to show them selves in the lower keys as early as February. They tend to keep to the back country channels until the cold fronts start to become few and far between, usually around the end of March or early April. By April the fish usually start to migrate northward along the outside shorelines both along the Gulf and Atlantic sides. It is along these shallow shorelines that the majority of tarpon are taken on fly in the keys.
To target tarpon you need to be where they set up to feed by ambushing bait as it flows out into an ambush point. This is why the keys bridges hold so many tarpon. It is here that the bait is swept through relatively narrow areas and are often disoriented by the strong currents. Presenting bait in the strong currents can be a challenge. This is one of the prime reason that mullet is so popular of a bait. The mullet tend to be able to swim more naturally in the strong current. Pinfish will also work, but they will not last as long, so the larger and stronger the better. During periods of more gentle tide flow between the full and new moon phases, pinfish or blue crabs may actually be preferable bait to mullet, because they are not as agile or strong and able to escape a tarpon attack, even pinned to a hook. Oddly enough both pinfish and mullet perform better when hooked through both lips. Place the hook from under the lower jaw and exiting the upper. This not only helps the bait swim into the current but also helps to shed some of the seaweed that might foul your bait as it flows through the channel. Hooking the bait through both lips does not hinder its respiration as one might expect.
Terminal tackle for tarpon is usually centered around sixty to one hundred pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material. Most anglers settle at around eighty pound leader material for most situations. A barrel swivel or better yet a ball bearing swivel should be used to make your connection to the terminal tackle. For the hook selection many anglers prefer to go with circle hooks to insure that the fish will not be hooked in the gill or gut hooked. While the choice of circle hook varies, it is important to make sure that it is kept very sharp. Several companies such as Owner and Gamkatsu offer presharpend hooks. You can save considerable money by buying Mustad brand hooks in bulk and sharpening them yourself. When hooking a crab it is advisable to use a tool like a rigging needle to pre punch a hole in the crab in order to not dull a freshly sharpened hook. When using circle hooks it is important to not use the traditional hook setting method of striking sideways with the rod. Instead of striking the fish you should do nothing but let the fish set the hook himself. As the line comes tight the hook is designed to slide to the corner of the fish’s mouth and roll in on its own. Only after the fish jumps or takes drag should you start to actively fight the fish. For anglers who continually strike the fish it is recommended that the rod be left in the rod holder until the hook is set.
Depending on the current, and distance from the boat that you wish to present your bait, you may wish to float your bait on some kind of bobber. Many keys guides use recycled Styrofoam and make breakaway floats by carefully cutting all of the way around the float and then wrapping your line around several times. When the fish strikes, the fishing line cuts the float in half and you are free to fight the fish without the encumbering float on the line. Tarpon can use anything weighting the line such as sinkers floats and even bait that has slid up the line as leverage, to help them throw the hook on a jump.
Tarpon jump as a natural mechanism to help dislodge any foreign object from their mouth or throat. They find less resistance in the air than they would in water and it allows them to much more violently shake their heads to dislodge the irritation. When they jump it is important to not allow them the leverage needed to throw a hook. To reduce available leverage the angler should always drop the rod tip during a jump. This technique is referred to as bowing to the king.
The end game on a Tarpon can be dangerous for both the fish and the angler. When a tarpon is brought to boat side it is important to not wrap the leader around your hand but to grasp it firmly and be able to release it if the fish lunges. If the hook is clearly visible it should be carefully removed with a pair of pliers. If the hook is not visible the leader should be carefully cut as close to the mouth as possible. The hook will soon corrode away and the fish will be left no worse for the wear. The fish should be drug slowly through the water by the lower jaw until it shows some sign of struggle, before being released, to give it some time to recover.
Captain John Sahagian