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