Tarpon: Silver Kings of the Keys
Tarpon are a spectacular gamefish found in the Florida Keys and many other areas. They are one of the most sought after species to catch due to their large size, incredible power, and dazzling acrobatics.
Tarpon can be difficult to catch for a variety of reason, and will take advantage of any mistakes an angler makes when trying to land them. The point of this article is to help give you the upper hand next time you seek out the silver king! We will be discussing my top 10 tips for landing and fishing for tarpon.
1. Bait Variety
Tarpon are notoriously picky feeders. It is not uncommon to see lots of tarpon rolling around your boat while you sit and wait for a strike. This waiting can often go on for hours. I recommend always trying to bring a variety of bait. Crabs and pinfish are usually easily obtainable and very easy to keep alive, so always bring some of them. Live mullet is another outstanding bait, and often what tarpon are really after especially during ‘mullet runs’. Pilchards or white bait can work very good too. Even a dead chunk of ladyfish, mahi, tuna, mackerel, or other types of fish fished on the bottom can often entice tarpon.
2. Tactical Variety
In tune with the above mentioned tip, trying a variety of tactics is often necessary when tarpon fishing. Anchoring with baits out is a great approach when you see fish rolling in the area. Try fishing a couple different live baits, which are usually attached on a rig with a float. You can usually fish a dead bait when anchored and this is always a good idea, instead of a float here use as little lead as possible to help hold your cut bait on the bottom. Drifting is a good bet when you don’t see tarpon, you can drift over known areas such as channel edges, bridge faces, bottom depression, etc… When drifting, try staggering your baits at different levels. If your not getting bites, I always suggest putting them out a little further.
3. Know Your Tides
Catching tarpon successfully requires targeting them when they are feeding. Tarpon are generally nocturnal feeders, so they often bite best at or near dark. Sunrise/sunset is a great time to be out on the water fishing for big tarpon. After dark can also be very good. Middle of the day is usually going to be the least productive time. Tide is also a cru
cial element when fishing for the silver king. Traditionally falling tides are though to be the best, however there can be very good incoming tide spots as well. You’ll have to simply scout where fish are on what tide – they will often lay in different areas on the different tides. Trial and error is what it is going to take, unless you can find a willing guide to give you some help here.
4 . Hook and Leader Size Variety
While tarpon are generally not thought to be leader shy, in some cases it can benefit you to drop down in leader size or try fluorocarbon leader. Especially at times of years when tarpon fishing is popular, the less a tarpon sees of your rig the better. While I often fish 100# test, dropping to 80# or even 60# can help out, however you cannot pull as hard on fish with the lighter leader. Hook size should be adjusted depending on your bait. With big mullet a 7/0 or 8/0 hook is often the right choice. With finger mullet, pinfish, or crabs, you may want to drop down to a 6/0 or 5/0. Circle hooks are a popular choice with many baits and dead bait, however with mullet your best bet is going to be a regular J hook. Make sure they are sharp!
5. Hooking Your Fish
Tarpon will often surprise you. With the hours we often put in fishing for them, they always seem to bite when you least expect it. When you grab your drink, or answer your phone… Try to always keep your game face on. Don’t panic when you get the strike.
When fishing crabs or pinfish, I always tell my anglers to just reel – and fast! Once you have a good bend in the rod feel free to give a sturdy hookset. Once you do that, be ready to ‘bow to the king’ as they say – more on that next. When fishing mullet, you’ll often notice that the mullet will get very nervous and swim erraticly and jump while being eye-balled. Keep your cool and wait for the strike. Live mullet fishing requires much more angling skill to properly set the hook, as a mullet can often freak out and foul up the hook set. Again wait for the tarpon to eat the mullet, reel down as fast as you can and once you get tight, give a good hookset.
6. Bow to the king
Tarpon are known for the jumping and wild aerial acrobatics. When doing this, an angler must be ready to drop their rod tip and ‘bow to the king.’ This releases the pressure while the tarpon thrashes his head about in the air.
These are the time when tarpon throw the hook most often, and having tension during that time makes it much easier for them to do. So make sure to drop the rod tip and give them some slack when jumping. You can often anticipate a jump by the tarpons movement – if they make a big run, change in direction, or any other erratic movements be ready for the jump.
7. Fighting the fish properly
Tarpon angling is unlike almost any other type of angling. It requires brute strength and finesse at the same time. It requires teamwork with the captain and angler as well. In the beginning of the fight let the tarpon do his thing. Fight him with a medium drag while he is still making fast runs, jumping, and fresh. After he tires down and you get him nearer to the boat, it’s time to put the heat on him.
Slowly increase drag pressure, however if he sparks back to life and runs back it off again. I like to use my hand or fingers to add pressure, depending if your fishing spinning or conventional tackle.
With spinning tackle, simply palm the spool. With conventional tackle, use your thumb on the reel to do so. Now as far as pulling on a tarpon here is the trick. You want to pull against the tarpon, which means pulling the opposite of the way he is swimming. Not pulling straight up, but rather angle your rod to the right or left, pulling the line directly across the back of the tarpon. This makes him work much harder to swim and wears him out.
Combining this tactic with the added pressure from your hands on the drag is how you really whoop a tarpon. Now be ready for the tarpon to freak out when you do this, as he will feel that pressure and often try to run or jump – when this happens make sure to let him do his thing, let any additional pressure off and be ready to bow when he jumps. With this tactic you can turn an hour+ battle into a 20 minute battle most of the time.
8. Boat Maneuvering
This is more for the captains, but properly driving the boat while fighting a tarpon is critical. You want to be ready to chase a tarpon right away. This means having a quick release on your anchor ball when anchored so you can simply through your anchor line in the water with a floating ball attached to give chase.
When drifting you want to be ready to reel all other lines in and chase as well. Be very careful around bridges. Try to anticipate where the fish will go and if he looks to be swimming under a piling, try to lead him the other way if possible. Go very slow too as you will often have to turn the other way as tarpon will often try to swim around pilings and such to break you off. Make sure to take note of the wind and tide as they can often be extreme around bridges with the extra flow of water.
9. Don’t Run Over Your Fish
While this may seem to be a no brainer, I cannot tell you how many people I see doing this. If your going to drift (or anchor) up on rolling fish, try to sneak up on them. When drifting this means running way around where you plan to make your drift. When anchoring, this means just approaching slowly where you like to anchor, and trying to be as silent as possible when deploying your anchor. Using a push pole or power pole is often advised especially if your near a bank edge, as it will cause less of a disturbance and is less intrusive to the tarpon below.
10. Patience and Attention to Detail
Remember tarpon are finicky. Try to have patience when fishing for them. I also suggest trying to take notes as this will help you in the future. If you find fish in certain areas, on certain tides, wind direction, moons, etc… you will have a much better chance at remembering that if you write it down.
You’ll likely find the fish there again given the same conditions. Also keep mixing things up. Don’t keep fishing exactly the same way if things aren’t productive just because you’ve caught them like that before. Mixing things up at least helps you find what the fish prefer at that given time, and this again can often be the same for days to come or in the future given similar conditions.
That’s my top 10 tips for fishing the silver king in the keys. Once you hook that tarpon of a life time you’ll understand why they are one of the most sought after gamefish in the world. You’ll also appreciate the amount of time and hard work that goes into catching each and every one of these magnificent beasts.
One final note I suggest is no matter how much you’ve fished in the past, be teachable. I can honestly say that I learn something new almost every day I’m out on the water, and that is what makes fishing so fun and interesting. Taking the time to try new things or even going with a guide when fishing a new area will increase your fishing skill by leaps and bounds.
Good luck and tight lines – catch ’em up!
Capt. Rick Stanczyk