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Florida Tarpon

By Capt. Robert McCue
Part 1 of a 4 Part Series on Fishing for one of Florida Most Sought-After Game Fish.


AsJumping tarpon. I laid the boat off plane in the predawn darkness, a light east breeze whispered across the calm Florida water. Slowly drifting and waiting for the first morning light, a low frequency buzz that only a tarpon guide can detect radiates from the bow. The client's anticipation builds with the rising sun and the buzz becomes a vibration. The angler's heartbeat can be felt on the bottom of my feet. The kings surface for a gulp of air, and I position the boat. The angler's knees rattle. This is the moment he dreamed of, a chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to test his mettle against the silver gladiator, the beast of all beasts, the Megalops Atlanticus, a.k.a. the Tarpon.

And so it goes, another morning at the office for those who pursue the silver king for a living along the Gulf Coast of Florida. It's my favorite time of the year that starts in spring and for a few in the know, lasts until the first cold fronts of winter.

As those who know me can attest, tarpon have a very special place in my heart, although the snook take second to none. Come late spring I leave the line-siders to spawn and I get into a strange tarpon frame of mind. My days and nights are spent following the tarpon and making dreams come true on our Florida tarpon fishing charters. It is my pleasure to offer you a series of West Coast of Florida tarpon fishing stories here on CyberAngler and starting with this introduction to tarpon.

Let's begin this introduction to tarpon fishing with the first tip I give all anglers in pursuit of any gamefish anywhere in the world: Get to know the species you are after. So exactly what do we know about the Megalops Atlanticus? Well, actually not much. Research of the tarpon fish has been minimal compared to some other species of fish. This is because tarpon have no food value. Most of the tarpon research has been funded by private funds and via the state's revenue generated by the sale of Florida tarpon tags.

We Landing a nice tarpon.know tarpon are prehistoric animals, traveling the warm seas back as far as 125 million years ago. They are one of the few fish known to us as possessing a air bladder. This unique organ allows them to actually breath from the atmosphere. They obtain this air by "rolling" on the surface and taking a gulp. Tarpon use this exclusive feature to survive in fresh water and oxygen-depleted, stagnant waters. The air bladder plays a key roll in the survival in juvenile tarpon life, permitting them to exist and mature in places where only they can survive, thus preventing their natural enemies from reaching them. The air bladder is a gift to tarpon anglers from the fish gods. Tarpon rolling makes finding and fishing Florida tarpon a wee bit easier.

Shortly after the first moon in spring, adult tarpon begin to show up along our coast. Some speculate tarpon migrate north from the Keys. I too believe some fish do make this migration. However, I theorize they also migrate from the continental shelf 125 miles offshore, where they winter in the warm waters of the Gulf Loop, or perhaps they come straight from the Yucatan, due west. During this early spring show, tarpon most often enter the large bays of Tampa and Charlotte Harbor, and the first grass flats inside major passes. These waters are most often a few degrees warmer than the still chilly gulf and supply the food source for these hungry fish. The migration continues all through April, May and June all along our beaches, passes and flats. This migration to the shoreline is related to some sort of pre-spawn ritual.

Tarpon often display a courtship in which they "mill" or "daisy chain." Often they are very much preoccupied in the show of affection, and can be very temperamental, particularly around the major moon phases. During these moon phases many of these tarpon break off and head offshore to spawn near the continental shelf. I believe they make the journey quickly, all the while more tarpon are moving in. The spawned-out tarpon will return inshore a few days later after completing their business. Tarpon are true lunar fish. Besides snook, their behavior and movements during these periods is that of no other fish I target.

By the full moon in June the early tarpon that entered the bays will have left to join the legions of tarpon on the beaches and flats. Offshore, a fertilized female drops a milt of eggs that shortly later become larvae, which take on the appearance of a ribbon or an eel. One mature female may spawn as many as 15 million undeveloped tarpon. The mortality of these larvae is very high, as they are at the mercy of the sea. These larvae are great swimmers and with the help of the winds and tides make a great journey a 125 miles to the estuaries, where they will once again undergo another change to a form of a fish that can easily be recognized as a micro tarpon. I once thought that spawning activity was highest around the full moon. Recent research shows that, the dark moon may actually be more active. A further testament to natural tarpon survival, they use the cover of a dark sky to protect their eggs from predators.

These A micro Florida tarpon finds protection in the estuaries.micro Florida tarpon find protection in the estuaries' mangroves and non-tidal pools, where they engage in a period of rapid growth. In this these areas appear to be landlocked and may be many miles from the gulf. The water is very low in oxygen, and their unique air bladder allows them a safe haven from predators who would not even consider tasting this stagnant soup. To actually find these tarpon nurseries, you cant help but wonder how they can live there, how they got there and how will they ever get out.

Tarpon are survivors. In fact, the Megalops Atlanticus, some scientist believe, are one of the last living family members of many other species of tarpon that existed millions of years ago. As these tarpon grow to about two feet, they move once again, to a larger body of water. They are fond of deep, man-made canals and holes far up Florida coastal rivers, and in the upper reaches of large bays. When they reach sexual maturity at the age of 7-13 years of age, they join in with the adult Gulf tarpon.

These A baby Florida tarpon.baby tarpon have always fascinated me. Over the years I've caught tarpon as small as 2.5 inches long in small tidal ponds while throwing a cast net for chubs. I've found them (10 to 20 inches) in retention ponds connected to the Cotee (2 miles away) river via a drain pipe. And I found them in the rivers and canals ranging from 10 to 60 pounds. The best tip I can give for these special little gems is....keep your eyes open. Baby tarpon could be found just about anywhere. I once had a spot that I wrongly shared with another guide who was having a tough day. After swearing on his life, I took him into the hole. Some 30 tarpon ranging from 20 to 50 pounds went in the air that day between us. Typical for the honey-hole...at least for me. Very shortly there after, the spot became famous. Soon every " Captain" Tom, Dick, and Harry was in there trying to gain a name for themselves. To add further insult to injury, they brought the media writers, and film crews...the rest folks is history, easy come-easy go. You get the idea...keep your hard earned findings under your hat. Florida Tarpon are a hot commodity.

The adult spawn may actually take place through July, but most fish have spawned by the end of June and I believe these fish begin a northward migration both offshore and inshore along the beaches. This late north migration theory has gotten me much talk, but for anyone who truly does a lot of tarpon fishing...you know what I am saying is true. These fish are most often hungry, particularly if they are "greenbacks" - those just returning from the offshore spawn. "Greenbacks" have great appetites after going through the rigorous act of spawning, and the exhausting 125 mile journey back to shore. We will pass up dark back tarpon for the greenback tarpon when the situation arises on our fishing charters.

Northbound tarpon are fish to key-in on when you find them, as I will touch on in the next segment. Many of these northbound tarpon will "break off" their travel path and enter the bays and rivers where they will stay until the first series of cold fronts. The fronts will push the tarpon south and offshore to the gulf loop, and perhaps back to the Yucatan. Only to start the cycle all over again next spring.

In part two of this four part series we�ll learn a little about fishing Giant tarpon on the beaches and saltwater flats. Look for it soon�

[ Tarpon Series - Part II | Tarpon Series - Part III | Tarpon Series - Part IV ]

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Capt. Robert McCue operates Bounty Hunter Sport Fishing Charters and Guide Service on Florida's west coast. His guide service offers world class light tackle (live bait, spin, plug and fly) fishing on the calm inshore waters from Boca Grande to Homosassa on Florida's Suncoast. Capt. McCue also provides a weekly report for CyberAngler - click here to read his current report.

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