Hot weather and tarpon go together, and on the Panhandle beaches, the best month of the year for finding and battling the silver kings is usually July, though both June and August also have plenty of fish. Tarpon generally follow the 75 degree temperature curve as water warms in spring, and start migrating back south as soon as the shorter days of fall start to cool the water.
For anglers who want to tangle with really big fish without heading miles offshore on an extremely expensive marlin charter, tarpon fishing is the way to go. The fish prowl the waters anywhere outside the “green bar” at depths of 4 to 20 feet, and they’re big ones, 100 to 150 pounds typically. And they’re incredibly athletic, sometimes leaping higher than an angler’s head when first hooked, then ripping off 200 yards of line in a smoking run.
Adding to the excitement is that this is mostly sight-fishing; you motor down the beach until you spot tarpon rolling or swimming along just beneath the surface, then shut down and start fishing. Most anglers anchor up or operate on a silent electric troller as soon as they get into an area where the fish are moving through regularly.
It doesn’t take a big boat—the days when tarpon fishing is good, with calm seas and clear water, some anglers chase the fish in flats skiffs less than 20 feet long. Bayboats to 24 feet are also common, and some even pursue them in large pontoon boats.
The fish are easiest to catch well away from the passes, where boat traffic is minimal. This often means a run of 10 to 15 miles one way, looking for fish as you go, but once you find a location with “happy” fish, rolling and feeding, hookups can come quickly.
Most anglers catch tarpon on heavy spinning tackle, 7 to 8 foot heavy-action rods, 5000-sized reels and 40 to 50 pound test braided line, with several feet of 60 to 80 pound test fluorocarbon leader. Live bait is the surest way to go, with pinfish, finger mullet and small crabs among the best offerings. Large soft plastics like the Z-Man StreakZ XL, about 8 inches long in white or pearl, also do well; fish them on a 7/0 Gamakatsu or Worth widegap extra-strong swimbait hook. Treble-hook plugs are not recommended, since they are more likely to kill the fish.
Perhaps the ultimate way to catch tarpon is on a fly rod. Though adult tarpon have huge mouths, they seem to have a special attraction to small flies - streamers only a few inches long, tied on 2/0 to 4/0 hooks, often fool them. Baitfish and crab patterns both work. Tackle is 12-weight, again with a 60 to 80 pound tippet. A number of guides specialize in this tactic and have the gear you’ll need. Of course, you’ll have to know how to fly cast first, and it takes some doing to put a tarpon fly out there 60 to 80 feet.
Whatever the bait or lure, the trick is to drop it several feet in front of cruising tarpon and move it slowly way from them. They rarely hit a lure that lands on top of them, or that’s coming at them. With artificials, the trick is to move it just fast enough that the fish thinks it’s escaping - she’ll usually run it down.
Tarpon put up an awesome fight, sometimes jumping 10 times or more, and they’re powerful fish; most anglers need a rest after getting one to the boat. So does the fish, however, and that means the successful fisherman needs to lend a hand.
The hook is removed and the fish kept in the water; now is the time for a few quick hero shots of angler and fish. (It’s illegal to haul a tarpon over 40 inches into the boat for photos. Biologists say this usually results in the death of larger fish.) You’ll need gloves if you try this on your own; tarpon have very rough jaws. Gaffs are not used, not even in the jaw. They cause too much damage.
The fish is held upright in the water beside the hull as the boat is eased slowly ahead. The movement of the water over the gills soon revives the fish, and it will swim off on its own.
Tarpon are not taken to the docks - doing so requires a special kill permit, used only for potential record fish. Since tarpon live 40 to 50 years, it can take a long time to replace a large fish. The state regulations wisely opt for keeping the ones we have in the water.
Not every trip results in a tarpon but there are other fish around along the beaches in mid-summer to provide entertainment, including huge jack crevalle, blacktip sharks and occasionally even a stray king mackerel. Add to that it’s simply one of Florida’s most beautiful environments and it’s hard to beat a day of chasing the silver king.