The tarpon rolled so slowly you could have counted the scales on their backs. The first hint of morning sun lit up each of the 40 to 50 fish and they sparkled like liquid morning stars in the black water. If there’s a prettier picture to be painted I’ve yet to see it. These are the tarpon you dream about.
Each breath of oxygen they sucked from the humid salt air was audible, even from 75 yards away. Time stood nearly as still as the tarpon and their lingering clockwise, southern motion that pushed them ant-speed toward us. With no wind and a slight tide, we waited, seconds passing like minutes as we drifted toward the school.
This is the moment we fish for. When all is right in the world. When the ultimate is the inevitable.
We approached quietly from the south, basking in the reality that a well-placed cast was a done deal. Soon, there would be tarpon breaking the mirror-like calm of the Manasota morning and we knew it.
Just finding a school of beach-side tarpon can be an accomplishment some days. The fish don’t take well to thoughtless boat pressure and especially the ever-present jetski. So when the perfect school presents itself, you know you have done something right in life. This is your reward. Seize the moment. We were ready, each one of us holding 8 1/2-foot spinners stuffed with 30-pound mono and a frisky threadfin herring on the business end. “Confidence baits” you could call them. In hindsight, a fly or plug would have been just as deadly.
Just not today.
My friends from Indian Rocks Beach call these fish “Joe Millers.” Joe Miller was some old guy who fished for tarpon off the old pier there some 20 years ago. “Joe Miller” is that slow-moving school-“Millers” so tightly wound that a collection of 50 fish would fit in your bathroom, all 5,000 pounds of them. These are “happy” fish, nose-to-tail, wrapped up in a mating ritual that draws them within a hundred yards of the Gulf beach here.
In early June here on the West Central Gulf Coast, this is the prelude to the spawn. “Daisy chaining” or “milling” the scientists call it, unable to explain exactly why they do it, only that it eventually leads to the propagation of the species.
The waiting is indeed the hardest part. You don’t want to cast too soon. Or too close for that matter. More casts mean more chances to spook the school. Too close and the nut explodes, sending a string of harried fish down the beach. When the perfect school presents itself, you, too, should aspire to perfection.
After nearly five minutes of silence, save for the sound of breathing tarpon, it was time. We took turns casting, each one of us laying our corks just in front of the school, 10 to 15 feet apart. A wall of threadfins waited for the school, who took their time inching southward toward our baited hooks.
Only twice have I seen a tarpon break formation and eat a bait at first sight. Order is the rule. Our greenies struggled just 20 feet from the fish, yet not a single tarpon moved from their ranks. The fish all remained in line, slowly approaching our baits. I wondered aloud if threadfins have heart attacks.
These fish will eat only because their predestined path takes them in contact with a meal. They’re on a breeding mission here. This is one reason why small crabs work so well-they’re easy for the tarpon to catch. All a fish has to do is open its mouth and the crab disappears.
And while the palm-size blue crab has secured its place in beach bait history, we started our day with an hour-long sabiki session a couple miles offshore. Schools of threadfin herring are easy to find during the summer and loading the well with a day’s worth of bait can be done in an hour, for a fraction of the crab cost. Just remember that in the warm water, a greenie won’t last more than two or three casts before you should replace it with a freshie. A jumbo scaled sardine would be a solid third choice with a big, frisky pinfish coming in fourth.
As soon as you knew it was about to happen, a flash of silver deep under the water started the madness. My bud Tommy Markham was hooked up first. Then it was T.K.’s (Tom Kane’s) turn, his cork disappearing under a giant boil that could’ve swallowed a VW bug. They both reacted to the subtle thumps by quickly coming tight on their fish and getting a good bend in the rod. While some anglers revel in the big hookset, I’ve found that you have much better luck getting hooks to stick by simply reeling until the line comes tight. I owe this to high-quality, extra-sharp livebait hooks and the relatively short distance between you and the fish. I’ve experimented a bit with circle hooks but have a much better hookup ratio with an offset J-hook. The need to come tight quickly after you feel the bite makes gut-hooking virtually impossible and also lessens the effectiveness of the circle hook.
Then it was my turn. I was surprised by a fish that ate 10 seconds after the water had erupted with his two schoolmates dancing on the surface. The fish ate my threadfin as it spooked from the area.
A tripleheader. An exception to the “one-fish-at-a-time” law of tarpon angling but not an impossibility when the conditions are perfect.
Catch enough tarpon and you begin to learn the importance of bait and boat placement. Reading the true direction of a tarpon school as it moves down the beach is an acquired skill that will eventually lead you to more hookups. Knowing whether or not to cast right or left of the school, all the while keeping in mind the ever-changing position of the boat, can tilt the odds in your favor. Reeling in or letting out excess line at succinct moments can help position your bait into the strike zone. You always want to err on the conservative side when the perfect school is at hand. If you drop your bait right in the middle of the pod, you might as well have dropped an M80 overboard.
My fish ate coming at me and I never really got tight on it before it started jumping and twisting across the surface. The hook hung for about 30 seconds before being spit out in a high-flying conclusion some 50 yards from the boat. Easy come, easy go. I quickly traded my rod for my camera and began recording the acrobatics of the two fish still connected to the boat. The best of both worlds as far as I was concerned.
T.K’s fish was the first to the boat, in just under 15 minutes. The fish jumped many times, helping to wear itself out and T.K. applied all the pressure the 30 would take. Using the long rod to pull angles against the fish’s movements, Kane soon had the tarpon doing underwater cartwheels. Tommy’s fish wasn’t as cooperative, choosing to stay with the school which was now humping it southbound down the beach.
Such is the peril of targeting beach tarpon with light tackle. The bigger fish will often stick with the school, leaving your line in constant peril of being chafed by another fish in the herd. You can feel pretty helpless try
ing to pull a 150-pounder from the school using anything less than 25- or 30-pound-test line. Some anglers have switched to the braided poly lines, sacrificing jump-cushioning stretch for the extra power it takes to break out a big fish-as well as whip the fish in handy time.
One option is to follow the school, slowly wearing the fish down. Another is to run your boat right up to the school, or in front of it, in hopes of breaking the fish out. In either instance, your goal should always be to disturb the school as little as possible.
We got in front of the pod, forcing them around us, at which time Tommy’s fish broke from the school and headed east-way east. Before it slowed down, it was swimming parallel to the shoreline in the 3-foot deep swash along Manasota Key, just 25 yards from the sand. It even jumped one time, almost catching a group of nearby waders with its spray.
Under the watchful eye of a dozen beach-side gawkers, the fish was landed, the hooked removed, and the fish revived with a stop-go idle away from the shore. It was the first time I’d ever seen spectators applauding a tarpon release.
While there is often no shortage of fish flowing down the beaches between Sanibel Island in Lee County and Honeymoon Island in Pinellas County, “eaters” are often in short demand. For one reason or another (perhaps they’ve been molested by a big shark, worked hard by another angler up the beach or spooked by boat traffic), some tarpon schools, regardless of their physical appearance, will not bite. At the same time, a school that has produced one or two bites is highly likely to produce a few more-if worked properly.
Enter the braided line issue again. One guide I know well uses nothing but 60-pound braid for beach tarpon fishing. He likes the way it casts and its durability but more importantly, he can land fish quicker, as well as fight them farther from the rodtip, when using it. This allows him to stay closer to, and get back faster to, the exact school he just got bit in.
Many days when the flow of fish down the beach was heavy, I’ve worked school after school with no luck at all before running into a bunch that ate everything I put in front of them. Repeatedly. Cast after cast. I’ve gone from zero bites in six hours to six bites in 30 minutes more times than I can remember. The lesson here was not to waste too much time on fish that don’t seem interested in eating. And if you find a bunch that are biting, stay with them at all costs.
Which is what we did after releasing Tommy’s fish. During the battle, we kept our eyes on the school moving south. We lost them for a moment just before the release but were able to idle down the beach and pick them up a few hundred yards south. While we never were treated to multiple hookups again, we did end up jumping nine and catching four, all from the same school. It was truly the perfect school of tarpon.
Which is not to say that the school of fish you’ve been working for an hour without even a glance is a helpless case. I’ve seen schools mysteriously turn on, void of any tidal or lunar connection. Slightly altering your presentation, whether that means taking the cork off your crab or weighting that threadfin so it sits on the bottom, can often inspire a bite.
One thing that surely won’t aid in getting the fish to bite is chasing them. Always let the fish work toward you. If there ever comes a time in your pursuit of the school (regardless of whether you drift or use trolling motors) that the fish get by you, stop. Refrain from throwing casts at the tail end of the school or shadowing the fish with the boat. Take your time. Let them get by you and create a healthy cushion between you and the fish by heading west or east of the school, depending on the breeze. I prefer to work the fish toward the west, as they tend to bite better in the deeper water. A strong seabreeze, however, often makes an approach from the west the only way to go. Outboards should give the fish at least 75 yards, inboards at least 40 yards before putting any engine pressure on the fish. In the quest for that perfect school, silence is golden. Or silver, if you will.
Trolling motors are ideal for positioning-when used properly. You still need to approach the fish from the direction they are swimming and refrain from chasing them from behind. Get too close and regardless of how quiet you are, the fish will detect your presence.
The standard leader for beach fishing is a 2- to 3-foot piece of 100-pound mono. Some folks use 80, but it will wear through if you hook a big fish and have to pull on it for more than 30 minutes. Fluorocarbon is gaining popularity, for both its stealth and abrasion resistance. A Bimini twist or spider hitch followed by a line-to-line knot such as the Albright, no-name knot or uni, completes the rig. The tackle is basic. Finding the perfect school is much more complicated.