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Florida Tarpon

By Capt. Robert McCue
Part 2 of a 4 Part Series on Fishing for one of Florida Most Sought-After Game Fish.

Big Boca Grande tarpon.�Here they come, one o'clock a big wad"  I said, as I hit the hi-bypass of my electric trolling motors to intercept the path of the giant tarpon. Their black mass just visible in the light green Florida saltwater, 500 yards off the beach. A few fish roll, their giant eyes looking right at us. "Give 'em the filet mignon" I suggested to the stunned angler. The blue crab lands well ahead of the school and slowly sinks out of sight as the huge mass of tarpon closes in. The rod tip bounces and the angler cranks the handle of the large spinning reel in a fury to come tight to the beast. "Jab 'em, hit him again," my voice cracks with a rush of adrenaline, like a trainer in Mike Tyson's corner during a title Giant Florida Tarpon Fishing fight. A 5-foot surface-to-air- tarpon missile launches, the gills rattle like a threatened diamondback as the king walks on his tail across water. The tarpon beast cartwheels in attempt to throw the razor sharp  hook. Its body lights up in a array of silver and so does the angler, and the guide wonders, who hooked who? Another Florida tarpon fishing charter success story, another Florida tarpon gone bad.

A moment of a lifelong memory? Yes. A rare occurrence? Not really, after all, we're fishing giant tarpon on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The scene is played out day in and day out all along our beautiful coast. As I mentioned in the introduction to fishing tarpon, the silver king arrives along the West Coast of Florida on  or about the first moon in March most years. Action heats up in April and peaks in May,  June, July, all along our beaches and  saltwater flats. This, all part of a  tarpon pre-spawn courtship ritual that has been happening as long as anyone can remember.

An hour before first light, I launch my 18-foot tarpon skiff the "Bounty Hunter". Her trolling motors rigged, batteries charged, a arsenal of rods point to the fish gods in every rod holder, the tarpon war machine is ready for battle, another fun day in the Florida sun. The location of my tarpon charters may vary somewhat according to particular moon phases and movements of the giant tarpon. For this reason the "Bounty Hunter" is stowed on her trailer, giving me the mobility to act as a tarpon fishing nomad and necessary to keep my clients in the highest concentration of tarpon all year. I am a firm believer in the odds game.

Another tarpon taken at Boca Grande.I make my run to the tarpon battlefield in the early morning darkness and kill my Mercury 150 Opti-Max. a half-hour before first light in the theater of probability. Tarpon hate outboards,(they may not chase them away...but do change their temperament in shallower water) and I feel it's very important not to "run" anywhere you expect them to be. As the sun rises, all eyes study the water for signs of the tarpon. They almost always give themselves away by "rolling" on the surface, other times they may "fin," just a portion of their tail or dorsal breaks the surface. Other times a "pop" will be heard of the feeding "poon". If none are spotted after a patient "stakeout", I will move well outside of the anticipated travel path of the fish and slowly idle northward parallel to the beach thus as I expect the tarpon to be generally moving south in early spring. Stalking tarpon is similar to buck hunting, except it's a little bit warmer! We are always staked out some where waiting. This is a major part of tarpon fishing. If you are one who is not this type we suggest fishing for another species. Of course, the payoff is huge.

As soon as I spot the tarpon fish, I turn the big motor off and make my final approach and adjustments with a pair of high-thrust electric trolling motors. The same technique is used when I am tarpon fishing on the saltwater flats, with the exception that I never use a gas motor in hunting tarpon in shallow water. Tarpon on the beach are often found in 8 to 25 feet of water and can tolerate a gas motor idling a few hundred yards away. Tarpon on the Florida flats will not stand for a gas motor in the clear shallows. At a good distance the fish may not "spook" but their feeding will turn off. Flats tarpon are always "spooky." I search for these fish using a combination of the push-pole and electric motors, and only approach to make a presentation via push-pole, as these fish are sensitive to the whirl of the electric's. The key to catching Florida flats and beach tarpon is to be patient. An angler who stakes out an area is more likely to encounter "happy" tarpon than those who insist on moving at fish quickly.

I often sit outside of pods of tarpon and study their movements, their speed, and the attitude of the fish. If the tarpon( as they often do around the moons and in the early season) are moving fast and rolling high ("greyhounding") and the area has a lot of fish moving through, I will often let these "greyhounding" fish pass on. These tarpon fish are hurried, and about as likely to stop as the average guy late for a date with Demi Moore. Remember, these are pre-spawn fish. By letting them pass I can concentrate on finding "happy" fish, those moving slowly, milling or stopping to feed. A properly presented bait to these fish will often result in a hookup. If the pods are coming infrequently I'll work all schools I can. Being able to make quick, yet patient decisions is also key in catching beach and  saltwater flats tarpon.

As I mentioned in the introduction to tarpon, a key factor is finding northbound schools on the beach. This situation occurs mostly after the first full moon in June. Northbound tarpon are post-spawn. Southbound tarpon are mostly pre-spawn. Southbound fish can require presenting the bait a multiple of times. Like putting a peanut on the table of a poker game, eventually somebody is going to eat it. The northbound tarpon are hungry. They may have just completed the rigorous act of spawning and in addition just made it in from the continental shelf 125 miles off shore and are returning to their normal habits. If there is anything normal about tarpon! 

A tired, but happy, angler poses with his prize tarpon.After finding "happy" tarpon, and approaching them cautiously a proper presentation and a bite is all you need to  complete the hunt. As you sit well ahead of the fish, prepare to make your final adjustments with the push-pole or trolling motor. As the fish close within 50 feet, take your shots directly off the bow and not at the fish. On the beach this will allow your bait to sink 8-10 feet, just barely above the tarpon's head and line of sight. The big mistake made by many on our fishing charters is casting directly at rolling fish. Rolling fish don't often bite, the tarpon below do. A bait on a tarpon's head or your line across one's back will spook that fish and the school in turn. Also, a bait on the surface or just bellow the surface will not always be seen by the eaters near the bottom. Not to mention that a 6-foot tarpon knows not many things only 2 inches long have the nerve to charge them. A 50-foot distance is about right, with 100 feet getting the nod on greyhounders. Overcastting is a good idea as you can always reel the bait back toward the fish quickly and silently. This technique works well on spooky flats tarpon too.

A unique situation on the flats is a "laid up" tarpon. These fish are suspended motion-less just under the surface. We can either see the fish from a short distance under the water, or the tips of their fins break the surface. What these fish are doing is the speculation of much discussion. Some believe they are sleeping, others say they are resting after a long swim. One thing is for certain, they don't like small baits in front of their noses. These tarpon are extremely spooky. They are perfect for a well placed silent fly. Otherwise cast well ahead of the fish and let your baits drift in front of the fish. Oh yea, HOLD ON!

On the Gulf coast of Florida flats and beaches ,tarpon etiquette is an unwritten law. Respect other fisherman. Never get close to them. Never run your outboard near them or the fish they worked hard to find. If you must work fish that someone is on, stay at least 500 yards down from the direction the tarpon are moving. Get in line with the path of the fish using your trolling motor or push-pole and make your shots. If you don't hook-up, let the fish pass at least 500 yards and allow the other boats to set up. This system is called "leap-froging" and it is the only way multiple boats can productively share pods of beach tarpon and flats tarpon. A boat with a fish on always has priority. Allow the angler plenty of room to break his trophy out of the school. Then the school will settle, and they are all yours. Working this way you may quickly establish a fishing buddy on the beach.. Having a fishing buddy can be very beneficial to you, particularly if you are visiting a new area.

Tackle for this light tackle beach and flats fishing should be of good quality and in top working order. On our fishing charters a medium spinning rod with a reel capable of holding 250 yards of 20-pound test is standard. You will be encountering fish averaging 100 pounds, but could push 200.  Tackle can be scaled up or down depending on your skill. The 20-pound gear offers lots of fun and a challenge, and allows a healthy release of these beautiful animals. Hooks should be heavy duty and very sharp. An 80- to 125-pound-test leader of a foot to six feet in length is a must, with length  and strength being decided by the technique you prefer.

The one bait that stands alone when it comes to fishing Florida tarpon is a live blue crab, with 2.5 to 4 inches being the size preferred by the pros. I like to fish them with no weight or float under most situations, but many prefer them. Palm-size pinfish, grunts and herring make great live baits. Dead bait in the form of pinfish and shad often will out produce anything. This is a specialty of a few and I strongly recommend that unless you know where to find the choice menhaden and know how to fish them, you should hire a pro. For many the only way to take a tarpon is by using a piece of plastic or a feather as bait. The Cotee Liv' Eye action jig with a 4 inch shad tail is highly productive, as is the 65M MirrOlure on the beach and the 52M MirrOlure on the flats. Prime colors include red, green or flame. Jigs and plugs should be examined as to their condition, as a tarpon will test your tackle. If you have a weak link in the chain you can be assured the tarpon will find it. Hooks should draw blood on the slightest touch. Tarpon have very tough bony jaws that are very difficult to penetrate.

An experienced angler prepares to release his trophy tarpon.Saltwater flyfishing has become very popular over the last few years. I recommend that those with little fly fishing experience or those who have never caught a tarpon on fly apply their efforts toward the beach. You need not be a expert to hook up on fly with beach tarpon, though being able to double-haul and cast somewhat accurately helps. Tarpon on the beach are much easier to approach and the margin for error is greater. Florida flats tarpon are very spooky, casting great distances accurately on heavier than normal tackle is required. Just 20 miles of my house is the world-famous Homosassa tarpon flat. Most world record tarpon on fly have been caught here. I must admit the tarpon fishing is very demanding and over the years has become a little crowded, further, it's not as good as it used to be. The area is regarded as reserved for fly fishing. Anglers interested in trying it another way should take my warning and not go there unarmed! The fly is probably the best way to hook a tarpon on the flats. A good cast is silent, swift and deadly on these big fish. A 12- or 13-weight fly rod with a high quality reel and smooth drag are standard tarpon tamers. Mono core "slime line" and 3M Mastery sinking tarpon taper works great on the beach and has grown some popularity on the flats where floating, weight-forward is the norm. Backing should be of 30-pound test, with 300 yards adequate and 500 being better, as it increases the diameter of the arbor, making it easier to pick up line quicker. Good flies are blue, purple and brown cockroaches and the "black death" on the beach.

Action on the beach often is best at first light till noon when a sea breeze puts a chop on the water and makes the fish hard to see. Action on the flats is best in the early morning through the early afternoon, as the sun lights up the clear water, making the tarpon easier to spot. This is particularly true over sand or the spotty bottom that tarpon love.

In part three we will look at Boca Grande, the world's best tarpon fishing.

[ Tarpon Series - Part I | 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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