By Capt. Robert McCue
Part 4 of a 4 Part Series on Fishing for one of Florida Most Sought-After Game
Gin-clear flats, white sugar sand beaches and swift flowing passes are traditional
Florida settings for those who stalk the spectacular tarpon along Florida 's Gulf
coast. From April until about the full moon in July, rare is the dawn that doesn't
find a bleary-eyed and demented angler lurking along the well-known travel and
fishing paths of the world's greatest gamefish
after that full moon in July, the tarpon anglers disappear faster than toilet
paper during a blue-light special. Tarpon can be found roaming the saltwater flats,
beaches and passes - but the tarpon fishing in those areas becomes very inconsistent
the rest of the summer.
As I've discussed in previous installments of this series, what brings the
tarpon to these whereabouts of Florida is part of their pre-spawn ritual. The
spring migration southward of pre-spawn tarpon slowly, but surely, becomes a summer
northward migration of post-spawn tarpon. Until finally, they all but disappear.
Disappear? Well, not really - if you know where they went. As the post-spawn
fish move north a percentage of the fish "break off" their After Dark
Tarpon path of travel to enter bays and rivers along the coast. Why they like
this mixture of salt and fresh water (in some cases completely fresh) is not totally
understood and is another part of the tarpon's mystique. One thing is certain:
the temperament of these "off-season" Florida tarpon is unlike that
of their springtime counterparts and best of all...tarpon fishing goes on. Summer
tarpon are here to eat. The waters of both Charlotte Harbor, Pine Island and Tampa
Bay support great populations of these late season tarpon. Due to its close proximity
to my home, Tampa Bay is where I spend most of my fishing time.
While pre and post season giant tarpon in Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor are
no secret, this fishery is very much over-looked. For the most part, there are
no crowds. While it is true the fish move around a lot and don't roll as often,
it can be some of the best fishing of the year. For those in the know...tarpon
season is far from over.
It would be unjust to speak of Tampa Bay tarpon without acknowledging fellow
Mercury Pro Team member and friend Capt. James Wisner. "The Wiz" learned
his craft from the secrets of the early tarpon fishing pioneers. He honed these
skills to a fine edge through a dedicated work ethic and a lifetime of scouring
the waters. And so too, Capt. Jimmy Bradley, friend and a Tampa tarpon pioneer
of the late 50's and 60's.... each who have had shared much of their wisdom with
There are countless places and methods to fish for summer tarpon - far too
many to completely cover in this story. Year after year, however, the tarpon seem
to keep showing up in the same places and eating the same things. The theater
may be a channel, dredge hole, river mouth, bridge, deep flat, oyster bar, "live"
hard bottom, grass edge, points, troughs, docks or submerged rip-rap. Techniques
include flyfishing, plugging, trolling, corking with live bait, bottom fishing
and drifting. Although summer tarpon can be found in many different places, if
I had to pick the type of spot most likely to produce fish, it would definitely
No single spot consistently holds more tarpon in the bay than bridges. These
bridges (we have over fifty miles' worth in Tampa Bay) are tarpon magnets during
the summer. The fishing can be so reliable that my exclusive "Tarpon Guarantee"
charters are run in their shadows. Understanding how the tarpon move around the
bay will determine which bridges to fish. The Sunshine Skyway, however, is a reliable
hot spot all summer long. During the big tides of the full and new moons, drifting
live sardines and herring through the pilings and shadow lines cast by the structure
is a sure-fire way to get hooked up.
On the slower quarter-moon tides, a change in tarpon fishing technique is often
needed. Setup on the up-current side of the bridge and hook up what is nothing
short of a magical tarpon bait: fresh dead menhaden. Sling the Florida Tarpon
weighted bait (it should lie flat on the bottom) into the pilings, then begin
a fishing technique borrowed from northeastern tuna fishermen -- chunking. Sweeten
the area by ladling cut-up pieces of this oily bait into the water, allowing the
tide to carry the chum slick under the bridge. The aroma dribbles around the pilings,
producing much the same effect on tarpon as a picnic basket does on Yogi the bear.
Like most fish, tarpon are lazy by nature and are suckers for fresh dead bait
on the bottom. This technique produces unheard-of bites and is deadly on giant
tarpon. Menhaden is the bait of choice, although a large butterflied pinfish was
the standard prior to the discovery of menhaden as a tarpon bait in the 1970's.
The location of the menhaden schools, as well as the most productive spots, are
often closely-guarded secrets of experienced tournament anglers.
are for the most part great nocturnal animals. The same bridges that hold tarpon
during the day are tarpon night clubs after sundown. The fish are drawn to the
bright lights like insects to a bug zapper. Anglers can anchor up-current and
drift small ladyfish to the shadow line - it's here that the tarpon prowl. Ladyfish
are easily caught under the lights fishing with a 1/4 oz. Cotee jig head and motor-oil
colored grub. But for real heart-stopping action, getting under the bridge and
sight-casting the cruising tarpon is a scene which will burn itself forever into
your memory. Probably the ultimate in sight-casting these fish is rigging a 12
wt. fly rod with a purple and Black Death fly. Another productive method is to
rig a spinning rod with 30 lb. test line and a short piece of 80 lb. leader. Attach
an Owner 7/0 SSW hook to your leader via a loop knot. Next slide a black and pearl
4 inch Cotee shad body onto the hook. Complete the rig by lightly crimping a 3/8
oz. split shot sinker 2 inches above your hook. When you hook up, the weight will
fall off the leader, preventing the tarpon from using the weight of the rig to
throw the hook.
Shrimp and any palm-size fish get the nod as top live baits. The tarpon eat
your offering just a foot or two from the boat - all in plain view.. If this isn't
enough to bring on a case of buck fever, just wait ''til that tarpon "goes
bad" and is looking at you eye-to-eye on that first jump. My clients have
initially expressed concern about night tarpon fishing and being able to see the
tarpon jump. Trust me - you will see everything. Most of the fight is played out
in the lights of the bridge, up to 200 yards away and is no different than watching
a night game in a baseball or football stadium.
To be able to consistently hook up with bridge tarpon, it's important to know
how the fishes move along the structure at any given point in the tide phase.
To gain experience and savvy, you have to put in your time - get out on the water
and learn all you can about these great gamefish. Remember too, as I've said in
other segments of the series...tarpon fishing is a waiting game. While doing battle
with the world's greatest gamefish is all anyone wants to do, the waiting is the
hardest part for some. If you are not interested in hunting, stalking, and do
not have honed skills of patience, tarpon fishing is not for you.
Away from the bridges, there are of course tarpon to be had. The most exciting
and rewarding way to fish these tarpon are with plugs. Mirrolures and Cotee Button
Eye Minnows are top producers. A 4 inch shad tail jig is a top producer as well.
Artificial lure enthusiasts troll large silver Crocodile spoons and diving 7-inch
Mirrolures in various rivers during the summer. The Hillsborough River and surrounding
ship basins are time-proven producers. Many sportsmen love casting flies, plugs
and corked live bait at rolling tarpon. Fish are often found around the deep flats
off Apollo Beach, Mermaid Point, MacDill Air Force Base, and the mud flats near
St. Pete - Clearwater Airport. Pay close attention to the crab trap lines for
a bonus triple tail.
In closing, I'd like to say it's been a great pleasure offering you this series
on my favorite Florida gamefish. Your response has been overwhelming, and I hope
you've enjoyed reading about these fascinating animals. For those who couldn't
make it down this year to sample the action first-hand, we look forward to seeing
you in the future. Book early and let's go fishing giant tarpon fishing!!!!!
[ Tarpon Series - Part I | [ Tarpon
Series - Part II ] [ Tarpon Series - Part III ]
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