An east coast skiff guide divulges his secrets for locating and catching beach-run tarpon.
“Lob it softly,” Nathaniel Lemmon instructed. He didn’t want me to sling the baitfish off the hook and then have to get another out of the baitwell and re-rig. Time was of the essence as we were surrounded by baitfish and feeding tarpon… and both were moving.
Captain Lemmon had moved ahead of a pod of pogies and turned off the motor of his 18-foot flats boat. In short order, they had moved to where we were bobbing just a few hundred yards off the beach. The pogies, however, had little concern for our presence. They feared the dozen or so tarpon we could see rolling on the perimeter of their ever-tightening ball and who knows how many more hungry tarpon waited below.
Another loud splash signaled that a tarpon had raced into the pod and seized a pogy near the surface. Because splashes were all around us, we knew we were at the epicenter of the feast. The water we were in appeared to be light-brown in color because the baitfish were so tightly compacted. Beyond the clearly defined edge of the bait pod, the water was a more typical bluish-green. It was to this edge, less than 20 yards from the boat and where one tarpon after another continually rolled, that I made my lob cast. I hoped my bait would appear to have moved just slightly away from the pod. Injured and now weakened, perhaps disoriented and struggling, but very much in harm’s way. It didn’t matter to me how a predator tarpon perceived it as long as one of them grabbed it, and the fight would be on.
We were using 6-foot heavy-action spinning rods rated for 15- to 30-pound line. These rods hardly flexed at all on the lob cast, but getting great distance was not our objective. We wanted rods with plenty of backbone for lifting stubborn tarpon that had sought refuge near the bottom in 40 feet of water. Six thousand-series spinning reels with a quality drag (Lemmon prefers models with at least 24 pounds of drag) were mounted on the rods. Their spools were fully loaded with more than 200 yards of 30-pound braided Spectra line. Lemmon first tied a Bimini twist in the braid. Using a Bristol knot, he then connected a 5-foot piece of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Last, he added a 2-foot piece of 80-pound fluorocarbon leader using a double uni-knot and to this secured a 5/0 Kahle hook. Although most anglers use large circle hooks when fishing for tarpon with live bait, Lemmon prefers a Kahle hook. He likes the ability to make a firm hook-set after the bite and believes he has a higher hook-up rate with the smaller Kahle hook he is using.
We wanted to have both mullet and pogies available to use as bait. I’d use one and the captain would use the other. On the way to Ponce Inlet as the sun was about to rise, we eased the boat over to the shoreline and cast-netted several mullet. After clearing the inlet, we netted our pogies from a good-sized pod of baitfish not being harassed by tarpon. We hooked our mullet behind the dorsal fin and the pogies were hooked just ahead of the eye socket. If we later found the tarpon had a preference, we could double up on the same bait. Every hour or so, we netted a few fresh pogies and liberally chummed with weak ones from the livewell.
As backup for our live bait should we run out and not be able to net more, we had a couple of soft-plastic lures. A swim-bait closely resembled a mullet and a glow-colored DOA Baitbuster was our pogy substitute. These lures are basically ½- to ¾-ounce jigs with soft-plastic bodies that resemble the baitfish we hoped to imitate. The artificial lures were rigged on 7-foot medium/fast-action spinning rods with 5000-series spinning reels filled with 20-pound Spectra braid. The leader was 5 feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon followed by a 2-foot piece of 60-pound fluorocarbon. Rigged in this manner, the soft-plastic lures could be cast long distances.
Good numbers of tarpon are off the beaches in east/central Florida from late-May through October, as they are along Florida’s Gulf of Mexico shores. As long as water temperatures remain 75 degrees or more, they will stay in the area and search for food. An unusual wrinkle to the Atlantic-side fishing, however: If a cold-water upwelling occurs, the tarpon fishery on the beach shuts down and they move to find warmer water. Along Volusia County beaches, for instance, it’s common for hundreds of tarpon to move through Ponce Inlet into the backwaters where water temps remain at 80 to 85 degrees. Tarpon fishing will be hot for a week or so inshore until the upwelling subsides and then the tarpon return beachside to their preferred habitat.
When asked what his favorite month was to fish off the beach for tarpon, Lemmon didn’t have a preference.
“In early-summer we often get days with a light west wind and the surface will be glassy off the beach. It is easy to find a school of a hundred or more tarpon lounging on the surface with their fins exposed waiting for the next pod of baitfish to move northward up the coast. In late-summer, shrimp boats drag their nets in the area and big schools of tarpon gather behind them feeding on the bycatch they dump overboard. Again, it’s easy to find the shrimp boats, and in turn, the tarpon. In early fall, we have a strong run of mullet down the east coast. Winds will typically be higher than in summer months and you have to pick your days if you’re fishing from a small boat, but tarpon will definitely be feeding on passing pods of baitfish.”
I next asked him how he picked which days he would go offshore in his flats boat to fish for tarpon.
“I prefer seas in the 1- to 2-foot range for an 18-foot flats boat like mine. I will sometimes do two to threes, if the winds are light. I don’t go out in anything more than that. It’s fishable to about the 4-foot range for larger boats, but after that it’s a no go even for them.” He continued, “If we get a few days of extremely high seas, such as those caused by a tropical storm, it will push the baitfish in close to the beach and the tarpon will follow in big numbers. Fishing can be epic as soon as it gets down into the 2- to 4-foot range and boats can safely get out to find them.”
And how do go about finding them? A lot of coastline stretches north and south of the Inlet that needs to be searched.
“The key thing to remember is you have to have something that will hold tarpon in an area so you can have a chance to fish for them. In east/central Florida, it will either be shrimp boats or bait pods. Tarpon move up and down the coast in the 30- to 70-foot range searching for food. They can range for many miles and finding them is like finding a needle in a haystack. If bait pods are in close to the beach, the tarpon will be following them. Look for birds diving or sitting on the water and you’ll know baitfish are nearby. If shrimp boats are congregated a little further out dumping their bycatch, you’ll see birds in the air diving to pick up floating baitfish. Tarpon also take advantage of the easy meal and will be feeding on the drifting bycatch, too. Regardless, you need one or the other. If not, you can scour for hours and never find anything.”
“And what about getting through the Inlet?” I asked. I was pretty sure he couldn’t safely get his flats boat offshore except under the best of conditions.
“You must check the tide tables to find out in which direction water will be flowing when you want to go through the inlet. I typically go out when the tide turns and just starts to flow back in. When that happens the inlet will have a minor swell but it will be very easy to run in a small boat.” He went on to add, “Equally important, I always make sure I return no later than halfway through the outgoing tide. Ponce Inlet gets too rough for small boats to come back in on the last half of the outgoing tide. It will stack up with 4- to 6-foot rollers that are close together and it is extremely dangerous to play around in that.”
My mullet, which had been swimming around with seeming indifference, was now starting to tug and pull erratically. It seemed in a hurry to get somewhere other than where it was. And then the line tightened and the rod tip was nearly pulled into the water. I cranked the handle of the spinning reel several turns and set the hook hard. I kept the rodtip raised so I would be able to lower it when the tarpon jumped… which it did several times in short order.
We landed this tarpon and two others before dashing back to the inlet so we could safely make our passage. We managed to jump half a dozen silver kings, all on live bait, over the course of the morning and estimated their weights to range from 40 to 75 pounds. Although anyone with a boat seaworthy enough to get out and back through an inlet can fish the bait pods along the beach and behind the shrimp boats for tarpon, we saw only one other boat doing so.
Before you decide to join us, however, a few words of caution are in order. Check the tide charts before you leave and don’t try running through an inlet in a small boat except when it is safe to do so. It goes without saying that you need to have the necessary life jackets and safety gear. You’ll need some way to signal if you need help because you will not likely have left a trip plan with anyone. You don’t know whether you’ll be going north or south along the beach or out to the shrimp boats after clearing the inlet… and if you don’t know where you are going to be fishing, nobody else does, either. So make sure your signal flares are up to date. You’ll also want to take along a cell phone because reception will likely be good as close as you will be to the beach. But just in case, take a radio, too.
After we cleared Ponce Inlet, we saw birds working hard to our south. As we moved toward them, we were close enough to see cars and people moving along the beach. We knew, however, that tarpon were clearly the “king of the beach.”