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Where to Fish for Tarpon

Update on where and when to go for silver king action in the Sunshine State.

All winter, tarpon were thick in Government cut(here) and other South Florida ports. Warming weather and spawning migrations put them on the prowl.

Where do you want to fish for tarpon this year? For Florida boat-owners and even many shore fishermen, the answer may be as simple as, how long do you want to wait for them to arrive?

The migratory nature of tarpon puts these fish within casting distance of literally every coastal pier and jetty along the Florida Atlantic and Gulf Coast. Many of them enter bays and backwaters. Some, mostly in the southern peninsula, reside in estuaries year-round.

In April, pods of spawning-size tarpon begin moving north along the coasts with bait schools and warming water. At the same time, there are also tarpon moving south—through the Florida Keys, where they’ll gorge on an unusual, matchstick-size critter, the palolo worm, which appears around the full and new moons of May. Meanwhile, some of the biggest fish of the bunch—those 150- to 180-pounders—are truckin’ on up to the Mississippi Delta, stopping along the way at quiet patches of seagrass and sand around the Florida Big Bend.

That’s tarpon going in all directions which means there’s a good chance you’ll see them soon.

Tarpon school up for company on these migrations. In some places, they’ll linger for many weeks in what is surely a pre-spawn ritual, a speed-dating exercise of sorts where it’s not a stretch to imagine fish becoming reacquainted after decades of cohabitation. That’s certainly the case in Boca Grande and Egmont passes, where in the coming weeks you’ll see tarpon by the hundreds, if not thousands. After the first full moon in June, those schools may begin pulling temporary disappearing acts. Adult fish spawn offshore in June and July; after that, they return to estuarine regions to feed heavily in late summer and early fall. Come winter, tarpon do what’s reasonable for a fish that can go where it pleases—they swim down to tropical waters of Florida Bay and South Florida, or way up into chocolate brown, mangrove-shrouded backwaters in the Everglades.

For anglers hoping to visit Florida to catch a tarpon, there are more concerns. Are you looking for a guide? Fly fishing or bait? Share the boat—and perhaps the fishing hole—with friends (lotta friends, some places), or fish in solitude? Do you want to stay in a beachfront hotel? Miami and the Florida Keys are internationally- recognized hotbeds of flats-fishing expertise. Around bridges and ocean channels, offshore-grade center consoles also get into the action, fishing baits such as live shrimp and mullet. Right there on South Beach; right there in Key West Harbor— there are boats catching tarpon while you’re out on the town.

Boca Grande—accessible from popular tourist locales such as Sanibel and Captiva islands—has a fleet of comfortable cabin cruisers whose captains are skilled at hooking big fish on live bait. Also, there are skiffs for more active anglers who’d like to try deep-jigging for tarpon. Homosassa, historically a big-fish mecca for fly fishing, has numerous skiff guides proficient in putting fly casters in the right spot. The prospect of hooking a tippet-class record, though somewhat diminished in recent years, is everpresent here, hanging over the minds of visiting fly fishermen like hot sunlight before a
summer thunderstorm.

But don’t stop your search at the headline fisheries. Today, every major (and even most minor) port town in Florida is apt to have a local guide or three who’s figured out the patterns of local tarpon fisheries.

And let's not forget the Everglades, where scenes like this will be common in April.

Cocoa Beach, for instance, is a laid back beach town an hour’s drive from Orlando. From May through August, livebait tarpon fishing is excellent along the beaches south of Port Canaveral. Anglers run the beach in 20- to 25-foot bayboats, watching for tarpon rolling or crashing bait.

All the way up by the Georgia state line, out of family-friendly resort towns like Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine, local guides know the tarpon get into thick pods of pogies all summer long.

Gulf Coast guides, fueled by the legacies of Boca Grande and Homosassa, are just as hot, if not hotter, on the tarpon bite. Many will be catching tarpon on live bait along the beaches of Naples, Fort Myers and Sarasota.

The entrance to Tampa Bay, including Egmont Pass and the nearby Sunshine Skyway, has become a famous tarpon hole over the years. But there’s excellent tarpon action far up into the bay, where fly fishermen hook big fish in calm water. Same goes for Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island sounds, sprawling backwaters that feed the tides of Boca Grande Pass. If you find a guide experienced in “back bay” tarpon action, and he has the pictures or reputation to back it up, you could have an amazing day fishing in quiet, shallow water, using spinning tackle or fly gear. Homosassa-style fly fishing has propagated to Dog Island, on the northern Gulf Coast a few hours south of Tallahassee. Up here, guides stake out over white sand flats and watch for big fish cruising slowly. Those same fish, it seems, eventually pick up and cruise west along the emerald-green waters of the Florida Panhandle, where kayak fishermen in Navarre, sportfishers in Destin, pier fishermen in Pensacola, are less and less surprised these days to see a cobia suddenly morph into a 100-plus-pound tarpon—or a school 50-fish strong. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman April 2013