Tarpon take their time about showing up in the Panhandle, usually arriving months after they first show in the famed tarpon spots along southwest Florida like Boca Grande or Egmont Pass. But, when they do arrive in force, typically in July, they suddenly seem to be everywhere, and they hang around for months, giving anybody who's willing to take them on a great chance to see the silver king in action.
Tarpon are not eaten in the U.S., and there's now a $100 permit required to possess one, so the species is virtually catch-and-release. Since 2013, the regulations have been particularly tight:
• All harvest of tarpon is eliminated, with the exception of the harvest or possession of a single tarpon when in pursuit of an International Game Fish Association record and in conjunction with a tarpon tag.
• Tarpon tags are limited to one per person, per year except for properly licensed charter boat captains and fishing guides.
• Transport or shipment of tarpon is limited to one fish per person.
• There is a one-fish-per-vessel limit for tarpon.
• Gear used for tarpon is limited to hook-and-line only.
• Multiple-hook rigs with live or dead natural bait cannot be used to target tarpon.
• People can temporarily possess a smaller tarpon for photography, measurement of length and girth and scientific sampling. All tarpon more than 40 inches must remain in the water.
• Tarpon regulations extend into federal waters.
As you'd expect, these regulations mean there are more and more tarpon every year, and that the average size is steadily increasing. Given that the larger females may live more than 50 years, they've got time for a whole lot of growing.
Twenty years ago, the average tarpon weighed around 80 to 90 pounds. These days, catching one that's "a buck-fifty", as the guides like to say, 150 pounds, can happen to anyone on any given day. The species is known to get up to over 250 pounds, so even bigger tarpon are probably in our future. (The IGFA all-tackle record is 286-pounds, 9 ounces, for a fish caught off the west coast of Africa, if you're wondering.)
The big attraction in tarpon fishing is hooking up to a fish that comes up to look you over. Adult tarpon are noted for jumping 6 to 8 feet out of the water and doing it a bunch, especially when hooked in the shallow water where they sometimes prowl.
They're also noted for unstoppable runs, ripping off 200 yards of line and more in seconds.
Those are the fun parts of tarpon fishing, the parts that keep us coming back.
A lot less fun is trying to lift all that weight and drag it close enough to the boat for a quick photo before release, a process that can take hours if you're not geared up right and don't take the fight to the fish.
Fly-rod guides used to tell me that the typical angler took a minute per pound to whip a tarpon, that is, a 90-pounder might take an hour and a half. Really good anglers who know how to push their tackle to the limit and who hook up in shallow water, like Stu Apte, routinely bring 100-pounders in under 15 minutes.
The arrival of braided line and heavy weight spinning gear greatly changed the tarpon game in recent years; the no-stretch braid allows hauling the fish in much faster than with mono or fly-line, and fight times of around 30 minutes for hundred-pound fish are about the norm. This is a good thing both for the angler, who will be frazzled after hauling on the rod for that long in the August heat, and for the fish--the shorter the battle, the better the chance of a successful release.
Where to find Tarpon
The easiest place to find tarpon is along the beaches, where schools of them travel anywhere from 100 feet to a mile off the sand at this time of year. Spotting them is not difficult--they "roll" frequently, with the mouth actually coming above the surface to gulp air, and that along with their large size makes them easy to locate so long as waves are moderate.
They also like to hang around the jetties and in the major passes at Pensacola, Destin and St. Andrews, the point and the elbow at Cape San Blas, in Indian Key Pass and at both ends of St. George Island as well as at Bob Sykes Cut.
As the summer progresses, good numbers of tarpon also prowl into the bays and cruise around the grass flats, particularly if there are schools of bait along the edges. The fish can usually be found in water 4 to 10 feet deep. Again, rolling is the most obvious tell, but sometimes there are just a few "burps" or bubbles. Occasionally, the fish will lay up right on the surface as though sleeping, with just fins and tails showing.
How to connect
The classic gear for tarpon is a 12-weight fly rod and a cockroach or brown/black streamer fly about 3 to 4 inches long on a 2/0 to 3/0 extra strong hook. If you can cast 80 feet or so--and that's not nearly as easy as the pros make it look--and if you have someone with some skill handling the boat--you might catch a tarpon this way. But it's a long shot.
A lot more certain way to go about it is to gear up with an 8-foot heavy-duty spinning rod, a 5500-size or larger reel and 50-pound-test braid, and put a live finger mullet, menhaden or threadfin in front of them. Most use 3/0 to 4/0 extra-strong short-shank hooks file sharpened, and fished on 60- to 80-pound-test fluorocarbon leader at least 4 feet long. The heavier leader prevents the fish's rough jaws from sawing through the line in an extended fight. The same tackle can be used to throw large swimbaits or topwaters, which also fool the fish with some frequency, though not nearly as often as the real thing.
Sight fishing is the most interesting way to go after a tarpon--you spot the school, get in front of it as quietly as possible, on an electric trolling motor in deeper water, or via pushpole on the flats, and then as the fish get into range you put the bait or lure at least 20 feet ahead of them and let them swim up to it.
Some smart guides have gotten on to trolling live baits far behind the boat and gradually letting them back into a school that's following the boat. This allows keeping the bait in their faces much longer, and usually results in a hook-up.
It's not necessary to see tarpon to catch them, however. In areas where the fish are noted to hang out--around jetties, in the passes, around the deep-water bridges--it's possible to put out a spread of baits and wait for the fish to arrive. Tarpon take cut bait as well as live bait in this scenario, and the more baits you put out, the more scent in the water and the more likely you'll score. (Of course, you'll catch more catfish on the cut bait, too, but that's part of the game.)
Once a tarpon takes, all the excitement is usually over in the first five minutes. Then the fish settles down and begins to pull, and that's when smart use of gear pays off. By maneuvering the rod to pull directly against the direction the fish is trying to swim, the battle-time can be cut significantly over simply pumping straight up and down. This is another advantage of spinning gear, which is lighter and more maneuverable than the star-drag tackle used in the past.
Once the fish is at the boat, the skipper puts on gloves and grabs the fish by the lower jaw. This can be a mano a mano moment with larger fish--muscle up and be ready for a brief but intense wrestling match.
The fish can then be stabilized at boatside and a couple of quick photos made. Remember, fish over 40 inches--which will be almost all of them--must remain in the water. They can't legally be pulled into the boat, even for a minute. This is a good rule--researchers found it usually damaged the organs and resulted in the fish dying after release.
Once the photos are made, the fish is revived by easing the boat along at walking speed as the tarpon is held head forward, water flowing through its mouth and over the gills. When it starts to swim again, it's pushed out and down, and usually gets its motor started.
One caveat in all this handling at the boat is the arrival of sharks, which are frequently attracted to splashing tarpon. Big bulls can be dangerous not only to the fish, but also to the guy handling the fish--keep your eyes open and be ready to get out of the way if you see Jaws headed your way!