There was a school of tarpon rolling at 10 o’clock. And one at noon. And one at 3 p.m. Wherever we looked, it was tarpon time; silvery backs backs were popping out of the soft green swells of the Gulf everywhere. We decided to ease in on the 3 o’clock fish because that would put the wind behind us and make for an easier cast. It also meant the trolling motor would get us there without having to start the outboard and risk spooking the fish.
I eased the boat into position while friend Jeff Ward made sure his “dollar” crab was lively and that the circle hook was securely placed in the corner of its shell. The motor put us in the right spot just soon enough; the tarpon were still more than 100 yards out, but we sat directly in their path. I turned off the baitwell pump. These days, it’s always better to make your presentation from a “quiet” boat—one in which not even an electric trolling motor or a baitwell is humming.
The fish rolled and went down, but we could trace their path by the stream of silvery bubbles floating to the surface in the almost-greasy calm.
Jeff whipped out a perfect cast, well ahead of the bubbles, and let his crab swim its way toward destiny as he kept the bail of the big spinning reel open, allowing the microfiber line to trace the sinking bait.
As if on cue, the line made a big jump. Jeff closed the bail and started reeling. He cranked until the rod was pointing down at the water and the line snapped tight.
Fifteen years ago, a 150-pound fish was big news.
A tarpon six feet long went straight up, shook its head mightily, touched water for a second and then jumped twice more coming back toward the boat. Jeff cranked up slack again, and as soon as the fish felt pressure, it took off on a smoking run that ended with another couple of greyhound style jumps.
Jeff has wrestled his share of tarpon, and he went to work on this one with all the right tricks. He kept the rodtip close to the water, the pressure on and always pulled directly opposite the direction the fish was trying to swim. In just under 20 minutes, the fish was boatside. I grabbed the lower jaw with my “sticky” orange gloves, let the fish settle down, and then twisted the hook free from the corner of its mouth. A few minutes of recovery time at boatside, a quick look around to make sure there were no bull or hammerhead sharks lurking close waiting for lunch, and I pushed the tarpon out and down, on its way to catch up to the school.
These days, this is a story that’s repeated hundreds of times each morning along Gulf beaches, as the best tarpon fishing in decades continues on a roll here. Most anglers think the reason tarpon fishing seems to be doing so well along the west coast is the tarpon permit required to kill fish, put into place by the state in 1989. Before the $50 tag was required, some 4,000 fish a year were killed, mostly at Boca Grande and Tampa Bay. These days, the kill hovers at barely 100, and all those added fish for all those years have made a huge impact. Since tarpon live at least 30 years, it’s likely the stock of fish is still building steadily, and the average size definitely continues to increase. Fifteen years ago, a 150-pound fish was big news, but today lots of tarpon that size are caught each spring along the Gulf Coast, and a sprinkling of fish that go 30 to 40 pounds heavier are reported.
The prime season gets under way around April 1, or whenever water along the Gulf beaches reaches about 75 degrees. The fish are thick through May and into early June, until the time the afternoon thunderstorms get under way. Most anglers believe the tarpon leave the beaches and head offshore to spawn on new and full moons in June and July, and then return in August to move up inside the larger bays, including Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay, where they feed in the “black water” areas until about mid-October before migrating south.
From late April through early June, the waters along the west coast are often mirror-like from dawn until about noon, creating perfect sight-fishing conditions. The sea breeze typically kicks in after lunch, making fishing more difficult—that’s the time when most anglers are ready for a shower and a cold drink.
Pretty much any beach between Anclote Key and Marco is likely to have tarpon motoring along it in spring. The fish show up anywhere from 200 feet off the sand to three miles out. Larger concentrations often hang around the big passes. Everybody knows about the phenomenal numbers of fish at Boca Grande, but in the last five years, the mouth of Tampa Bay has become nearly as productive, at least for beach fishermen. Check the north and south bars around Egmont Pass, as well as the beach on the west side of Egmont Key, the deep flats off the pilot docks on the east side of this island, both sides of Southwest Pass, the flats off Passage Key and the big bar at Bean Point as starting areas. Around Boca Grande away from the madness of the boat jams in the pass, you’ll find loads of fish arou
nd Johnson Shoal, Captiva Pass and all the beach areas in between, as well as in Pine Island Sound.
The big challenge in beach fishing is to be where the fish are; it’s common to find hundreds of fish in one 5-mile stretch, and then almost none in the next five miles. So tap your network of fishing buddies to find out where the action is before you go—or expect to do a lot of running until you find the hotspot for the day. (You can cheat, if you don’t mind investing $100 to $150 bucks; visit an airport near the coast and pay for a Cessna flight along the beach; in an hour, you can cover miles of water, and you can see the fish down there as if they’re painted on a white canvas. The nice thing about this strategy is you’ll sometimes find a big wad of fish that other anglers have not discovered, which means they’ll be happy—and hungry.)
Once you get out on the water, it can be a bit of a challenge to see the fish, particularly if you don’t have a lot of experience under your belt. Take along binoculars, and use them to look up and down the beach for tarpon clues. (No peeking at the bikinis up on the sand.)
Sometimes, the tarpon make it too easy; they’ll make spectacular busts on big bait, and the splash can be seen a mile away on a calm morning. But much more often, you’ll be looking for a “push” of water as the school moves steadily, or maybe “busy” water, rippling softly, as the school circles. At times, lazy fish relaxing on top will show only the tips of their fins and tails. And sometimes submerged fish will release the telltale silver bubbles.
A tower boat definitely makes it easier to spot the fish, and to keep an eye on them as you prepare to cast. However, like tracer fire, towers work both ways; they also make it easier for the tarpon to see the boat, and they tend to shy away after they’ve been pressured for a few weeks.
Most anglers who succeed consistently have learned the “quiet boat” tactics. Get positioned far in front of the fish and let them come to you, rather than trying to use outboard or even a troller to close the gap to casting range. The fish are far more likely to bite if your boat is sitting still and silent.
Justin Moore, who fishes out of Anna Maria, has developed a tactic that also seems to work well. Rather than motoring toward the fish, he uses electric trollers to pull his baits away from them. He swims threadfins, well back of the boat, and eases along fast enough to stay just ahead of the fish. It’s sort of like trolling, but with a visual lock on the fish you’re after. Sooner or later, one of them can’t stand it and latches on.
Circle or modified circle hooks are popular for this duty; most use short shank livebait hooks, 5/0 or thereabouts, in 2X or 3X strong. The main leader is four to five feet of 60-pound clear mono, the shock leader 12 inches of 100-pound-test fluorocarbon, chosen mostly because it’s a lot harder than most monos and therefore more resistant to wear on the rough jaws of the fish. Microfiber lines are the hands-down favorite for those using spinning tackle these days; 50- to 80-pound micro spools flat and casts a mile. Even more importantly, when you start pulling on a fish that’s 100 yards out, the micro acts almost like a steel cable; there’s no stretch, and all your effort goes directly into whipping the fish. This is not only good for the angler, who does not want to sweat for hours in the humid, calm air, but also for the tarpon; the quicker a tarpon is whipped, the more likely it is to avoid sharks while on the hook, and the more energetic it will be after release. I personally like PowerPro and Fireline, but there are many other good brands of fiber lines.
Most anglers prefer an 8-foot spinning rod with a heavy butt and whippy tip. Reels capable of holding 250 yards of 50- to 80-pound microfiber are the ticket. Revolving spool reels also do the job, but casting is so much more challenging with these that all but the old pros are switching to spinning gear—particularly since the fiber lines have made it possible to spool heavy tests. Spinners make it possible to cast small crabs without added weight, a big advantage. And they also do a pretty good job of tossing artificials. It’s not easy to get beach tarpon to take any sort of lure in clear water, but early in the day they will occasionally inhale a plastic shrimp or mullet. They can also be caught on the usual streamer flies, for those who can make the necessary long casts. (Later in the summer, when they move into black water, they readily whack all sorts of artificials, and will even hit topwaters with a spectacular ferocity.)
Top baits are small brown crabs known generally as pass crabs, which can be netted in the weedlines that form on current rips around many of the larger passes. Threadfins, which can be sabikied around the major bridges and markers, are also a top bait, as are large scaled sardines. Finger mullet, enormously popular as tarpon bait on the east coast, have never caught on here, though odds are good that tarpon would like them fine. Pinfish and sand trout definitely do work, very well, when you can get them, as do jumbo shrimp—but if I have shrimp that big, I’m going to eat them myself instead of sharing them with a tarpon.