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