Fishing for Juvenile Tarpon

Secrets for catching small tarpon in Florida backwaters.

Find a dark, stagnant pool or stream tucked way back in a mangrove swamp and there’s a good chance you’ll spot little silver fish rolling at the surface. Odds are they are tarpon, very small ones, only 1 to 3 feet long, and they are gulping air—a survival tactic that enables these fish to survive in habitats that repel most others.

Creeks, canals, ditches, bayous—even the occasional landlocked pond can hold baby tarpon. Typically, you’ll find these fish frolicking in the arteries that link to larger saltwater bodies into which they’ll eventually depart. But while they’re tiny, tarpon enjoy the quiet, food-laden realm where limited access, dense cover and low oxygen shield them from predators of fin and feather.

“Juvenile tarpon really don’t need their water to have much oxygen in it—they can get just about all of their oxygen by gulping it at the surface, because of their modified swim bladder,” said Aaron Adams, a fisheries/environmental scientist with Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. “They can live back in sticky, mosquito-infested places where other larger fish that might eat them can’t survive. Think of a place where you probably wouldn’t want to be in a mangrove swamp and that’s probably where juvenile tarpon are going to be.”

Tighter is Better

Now ask 10 anglers for the best little tarpon hole and 10 answers you will get. Fact is, these backwater nurseries lie scattered throughout the Florida Peninusula—mostly in the lower half. Best bet is to just go looking. Start with your local charts and pick an area of dense mangroves with obvious runouts. Because mangrove basins grow in uneven form, those tidal drains often open into deeper lagoons favored by small tarpon.

This is the realm of the narrow, ultra-shallow drafting vessel. Specialized skiffs like the Pelican Ambush can squeak their way through the gauntlet of mangrove roots and uneven tidal furrows, but kayaks and canoes excel here. Some areas offer walk-up access for those willing to trudge through the mud and muck, bend and twist through shoreline vegetation and swat away the winged and biting guardians of this realm.

Sometimes wading is the best way, or towing/dragging the kayak or canoe on lower water. Just watch the day’s tide schedule because that creek or ditch you traversed on foot when the banks were bare may be chest-deep—or more—on a full tide. Those with low mangrove canopies often squeeze in tightly on high tides, so note the water lines on mangroves and make sure you’ll have sufficient head room and space when paddling or wading out.

Tarpon release for a fly fisherman who poked far up a mangrove creek, making roll casts with a streamer.

Even with sufficient space, keep your profile streamlined to prevent snagging hooks or breaking rod tips in these tight quarters. Your best bet is to carry or load rods facing backward and secure hooks or lures on your rod’s hook keeper just above the reel.

Baits and Tactics

In their first year, juvenile tarpon are a voracious and indiscriminate lot, but keep it real. They may be keen on eating whatever they can catch, but these little guys can’t choke down those sinking plugs or jumbo plastic shrimp you might sling toward their parents. Small jigs of 1/16- to 1/8-ounce with paddle
or curl tails, little swimbaits such as the DOA TerrorEyz, and light shrimp imitators commonly attract attention.

In Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor, Capt. Rick Grassett often engages baby tarpon on the fly rod. He prefers a fast-sinking Orvis Depth Charge fly line (300 or 350 grain) which gets down quickly in deeper canals and basin, but he’ll go with an intermediate sink tip line for shallower spots. Grassett said he fares best with scaled down versions of beach tarpon flies, like Tarpon Bunnies or Deceivers in black or white on a 1/0 Owner AKI hooks. Grassett likes flies with rabbit or marabou, as he can strip them slowly into deeper strike zones and still maintain plenty of action.

Small tarpon are spectacular fighters but also fragile. Best to keep them in the water for de-hooking and photos.

Richard Sullivan manages the Cockroach Bay Preserve in South Tampa Bay and spends a lot of his off time fishing the area water for its mixed bag potential. Sullivan said that the obvious tarpon is seldom the willing one. Anglers instinctively fire a bait toward the vision of little tarpon surfacing to gulp air, but that can become a lesson in frustration.

Sullivan said, “I seem to catch them better when they’re not rolling. I catch them a lot while I’m mangrove snapper fishing. I catch them on shrimp, cut bait; I even caught one on a fiddler crab. They’ll eat anything at that age.”

Whatever you throw at your little silver targets, remember that even a small tarpon mouth is still a tarpon mouth and that is one hard surface, so set the hook with convincing force. Tight mangrove habitats can challenge this goal by limiting your space, but scaling down to shorter rods will help. Much of the action will occur at close range, so you won’t miss the casting distance of a long rod anyway.

Juvenile tarpon will test your patience, but the show is worth the wait. They won’t yank the rod from your hands, or make you reach for the back brace—as do adult tarpon—but the rapid fire aerial show is just a blast.

I recall a Lemon Bay trip when Capt. Morris Campbell and I peeked into a small creek and found what looked like a pot of boiling macaroni. Back after silver back broke the surface as a pack of baby tarpon did their thing within easy casting distance. Of course, “easy casting distance” offers no guaranteed hookups, as a buffet of jigs and small jerkbaits went completely ignored for nearly an hour until someone flipped the switch and we put half a dozen in the air—two of which we met at boatside.

“It’s all about finding the fish and working them until you get them to bite or give them up,” Grassett said. “I will work them for a long time, sometimes hours, before catching them or giving them up and moving on. Once hooked, juveniles are more acrobatic so they tend to jump off more, but can be landed in a matter of minutes as opposed to sometimes an hour or more for large tarpon.”

Juvenile Tarpon Habitat

Tarpon depend on their nursery environment. Coastal development has taken its toll on these vital backwaters. Adams lists the primary threats to juvenile tarpon nurseries as habitat loss (former wetlands
and swamps swapped for concrete and steel), altered freshwater inflows (former tidal creeks now partially or fully obstructed) and contaminant runoff.

In one case in the effort to help reverse this trend, Bonefish Tarpon Trust launched a juvenile tarpon
habitat restoration project with immediate and long-term objectives. The group partnered with the Lemon Bay Conservancy, which purchased an 80-acre former golf course property in Placida (north of Charlotte Harbor) for the purpose of reconnecting its creeks and waterways to Lemon Bay’s open waters.Seine net sampling began in September 2012, providing a measurement baseline for the restoration which began late in 2013.

“This project is looking at abundance in size and growth and survival of juvenile tarpon before restoration occurs and then after restoration occurs,” Adams said.

The actual restoration phase will reconnect the site’s creek system that once linked a series of wetland ponds. After that, sampled tarpon of at least 8 inches will receive surgically-implanted computer chips (similar to pet ID chips) with unique codes. BTT will install an underwater antenna at the mouth of the site’s main artery and record each tarpon as it departs the nursery habitat. A handheld reader will also detect the chips to identify previously sampled fish recaptured within the project site.

Monthly post-restoration monitoring will include fin clip DNA samples, which will be shared with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. FWRI has been logging DNA data for its Tarpon Genetic
Recapture program, which studies tarpon movement by cross-referencing DNA samples from documented catches with those in its database.

“You can go to a place and see hundreds or thousands of juvenile tarpon, and that’s great, but unless their habitat is good enough that they can actually survive and grow and then leave and become
part of the fishery, it’s not necessarily a good habitat. It’s critical that you don’t just count fish, but you determine that they’re able to survive and leave.”

Adams said BTT has looked at other potential restoration sites in Charlotte Harbor and elsewhere throughout Florida. He encouraged anglers to report juvenile tarpon sites of potential restoration need through the BTT website ( Volunteer opportunities can also be found here. FS

Remarkable Transformations

Alien like leptocephalus stage of a juvenile tarpon.

Kids often closely resemble their parents, but hold a hatchling tarpon next to its parent and you might think you have two different species. In fact, tarpon larvae (leptocephali) look more like the ancient eels to which ancestral tarpon are actually related. The most striking difference, though, is the mouth—specifically what’s in there. Two reasons tarpon anglers grip their catch by the lower jaw for boatside resuscitation— the bony ridge makes a solid handle, and there are no teeth. Not so with young tarpon.

When tarpon spawn offshore, mainly between May and August, the larvae hatch as transparent, ribbon like creatures sporting a mouthful of fang-like teeth. This dental equipment helps them catch tiny zooplankton meals as they drift shoreward for about 30 to 60 days. Once they reach the shallow backwaters, the inch-long baby tarpon lose their teeth and actually shrink in size, before morphing into tiny versions of the fish anglers recognize.

Growth soon resumes and juvenile tarpon reach a foot in their first year. By that time, they’re big enough to grab those flies, jigs, hard baits back in those secluded, hard-to-reach creeks.

Tarpon Regulations

Gear limited to hook-and-line only.

No snagging or attempting to snag tarpon, defined as catching or attempting to catch tarpon that have not been attracted or enticed to strike an angler’s gear.

No use of a multiple hook in conjunction with live or dead natural bait to harvest or attempt to harvest

You are allowed to temporarily possess a tarpon for photography, measurement of length and girth and scientific sampling, with the stipulation that tarpon more than 40 inches remain in water.

No harvest of tarpon, with the exception of the harvest or possession of a single tarpon when in pursuit of an IGFA record and in conjunction with a tarpon tag ($50). Tarpon tags limited to one per person,
per year (except for charterboat captains).

Florida tarpon regs extend into adjacent federal waters.

Special Regs for Boca Grande Pass:

Fishing with gear that has a weight attached to a hook, fly or lure in such a way that the weight hangs lower than the hook when the line or leader is suspended vertically from the rod is prohibited. This applies to fishing for all species year-round within Boca Grande Pass. If this gear is on board a fishing vessel while inside the boundaries of the Pass, it cannot be attached to any rod, line or leader and must be stowed.

During April, May and June, no more than 3 rods may be actively fished aboard a boat while in Boca Grande Pass. Also, no use of “breakaway” terminal tackle during these months.

First Published Florida Sportsman April 2014