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Best Baits & Rigs for Tarpon

Tarpon are one of the most sought-after species in the world, use one of these baits to catch a new personal best.

Best Baits & Rigs for Tarpon

It's prime time for tarpon, here's everything you need to know to target them.

Tarpon are one of the most sought-after species in the fishing world. Despite being a strictly catch-and-release fishery, a tarpons unparalleled strength, stamina, size, acrobatics and fighting ability makes this fish an ideal bucket list addition for anglers.

Tarpon are widely distributed throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean as well as from Virgina to Brazil in the western Atlantic and African coasts to the east. While the Florida Keys and Southwest Florida are well-known tarpon hot spots, massive tarpon can be caught nearly anywhere in the Sunshine State. These fiesty flyers can usually be found near mangrove-surrounded islands, bays, estuaries, bridges, nearshore reefs and occasionally brackish rivers and freshwater lakes.

fisherman holds up deformed brackish water tarpon
Tarpon have a high salinity tolerance, allowing them to venture into freshwater habitats. Nate Suarez caught this interesting specimen while fishing a live shiner in a brackish water pond outside of Tampa Bay.

As waters warm in spring and move into the summer months anglers will have their best chance at jumping a trophy tarpon, especially leading up to their annual spawn in late spring or early summer. During this time, they will be heavily feeding in shallow coastal waters to prepare for their journey nearly 100 miles offshore for their spawn. The mouths of bays, rivers and passes where bait will be funneled by structure or land are key focus points, particularly after new and full moons where heavier than average outgoing tides will force crabs, shrimp and bait fish through these ambush points.

two people hold tarpon in water with boat and sunset in background
Areas like Boca Grande Pass, where this stud tarpon was wrangled on a pass crab, are well-known locations for tarpon. A word of caution, during bait flushes these concentrated points are packed with anglers and sharks that have the same target in mind.

For many, it’s a dream to catch a huge “silver king,” but any size tarpon provides for a great fishing experience. There are a variety of baits and rigs that provide anglers a good foundation for hooking and catching these beasts. Let’s dive into some of the different methods you can use to catch one of these magnificent creatures, and hopefully, your personal best.

Gear & Set Up for Tarpon

hand holds circle hook
When it comes to tarpon, scale up, but keep it simple. Strong leader, circle hook for live or dead bait and potentially a weight. Their eyesight is sharp so conditions will determine what you can get away with.

Having the appropriate rod and reel is a necessity for hooking and successfully landing these gamefish. A go-to setup would consist of a medium-heavy to extra-heavy rod with a spinning or baitcasting reel outfitted with 250 to 300 yards of 50-pound test. A 60- to 80-pound test fluorocarbon leader is recommended to reduce the risk of a cutoff from a tarpons sandpaper-like jaw. Some anglers like Capt. Bouncer Smith swear by wire leader rather than fluorocarbon. “Wire leader is a staple in my tarpon fishing,” says Smith. “With dead baits on the bottom and with live mullet, I use a couple of feet of No. 8 (93-pound-test) single-strand wire. Tarpon have no teeth, but when they clamp down hard on a mono leader, their mouths are rough enough to keep the leader from sliding. And when that happens, they feel the pressure, jump and throw the hook before it’s set. Wire slides through their jaws and lets the circle hook set the way it should.” Bouncer also states that he fishes in cloudy water so the likelihood of a sharp-eyed tarpon spotting his wire are slim. So, while fluorocarbon is generally the universal choice, in muddy backwaters or areas with low visibility, wire can increase your chances of successfully hooking your target.

Types of Bait for Tarpon

Some common bait presentations for tarpon include live bait or cut bait rigs but a variety of artificial baits will also get their attention. Choosing the best bait for you will depend on what’s available to you, your skill level and the results you are looking for.

Live Bait

Live bait is a common go-to for a reason, it gets results. The movement and ground a live baitfish can cover is unmatched in the number of hookups you can expect, but requires the patience and tools to find, catch and keep the fish alive and healthy like a cast net, bait well or aerator. So, while you can go buy bait from the bait shop, you’ll still need to keep them lively for the most effective results.




When tarpon fishing, free-lining your live bait is usually the way to go. To make a live bait rig for free-lining, circle hooks attached with a uni-knot are an ideal combo for the most secure and safe hookup. Depending on the size of your bait selection, your hook size can range from 6/0 to 9/0. Without being weighed down, your bait can swim freely making this is one of the best rigging options because of its natural presentation. You can modify your hook placement or add an egg sinker (fish-finder rig) to combat heavier currents. But remember, the more weight you add, the less natural your bait will look. 

Cut Bait

kid holds tarpon in water
Krieger used cut bait to secure his first tarpon in Islamorada Florida (from a kayak!)

Maybe live bait isn’t an option for you, or you want a more relaxed fishing experience, using fresh cut bait might be more your style. Here the bait does most of the work for you and you get to reap all the rewards. Downside is prepping your cut bait is messy, but that’s why it works so well. The oils and nasty bits are what the fish can hone in on. With cut bait you are limited to finding fish on the bottom, so if they aren’t feeding there, you might need to switch up your tactics. It’s usually worth sending out a bait to soak on the bottom while testing live bait or artificials in the rest of the water column to see where the fish are feeding.

Recommended


For cut bait rigs, the setup is the same, but you’ll want to attach a sinker to your rig to keep that bait on the bottom. A ½ to 1oz egg sinker tied on a fish-finder (best in current or deep water) or knocker rig (best near structure or for precision casting) will do the trick. Keep in mind, tarpon have huge eyes and excellent vision, so use just enough of a weight so that the current doesn't drag your bait. Using an oversized sinker can make a wary fish drop your bait before committing. After casting, close your spool, let your bait sink then reel the line tight. Pop your rod in a holder, kick back and let your bait bring the fish to you.

Artificial Bait & Lures

This is where we separate the men from the boys, with artificials you can’t rely on your bait to do the work for you. Generally, artificial baits are not ideal for beginners who are looking for lots of hookups. But if fresh bait isn’t an option or you are looking for a challenge, artificials are reliable and can be reused for years. For these, you’ll want to switch to a loop knot to attach your selection to your leader. This knot allows your artificial to swing freely, making it more noticeable and attractive to the fish.

Now that we have an idea of what gear, rigs and bait types are best for tarpon fishing, let’s look at some bait options that are sure to provide a high chance of successfully intriguing a tarpon.

Best Baits and Rigs for Tarpon

1) Live Mullet

tarpon jumps out of the water tossing mullet in air
Tarpon are prime targets during the spring and fall mullet run in Florida.

In Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades area, live finger mullet is the go-to live bait. Locals say if they are biting, cast a live mullet and you are sure to get a bite.

You can find mullet running along the shorelines of islands, beaches, jetties, near mangrove shallows, and within rivers and canals. They will typically be in schools near the surface, where they will be easy to spot, especially when they are being chased by gamefish, as they will fly out of the water to avoid being gulped down. Small, baited feather hooks or castnetting are the most common ways of catching these critters.

A medium-sized freelined mullet, around 4 to 8 inches, on a 5/0 circle hook will do the trick but don’t be afraid to throw a big one out. Tarpon have massive mouths and aren’t afraid of a large bait. For every two inches added to the size of your bait, go up a hook size. A 10-inch mullet warrants a 6/0, a 12-inch needs a 7/0 and so forth.

top lip hooked mullet for bait
Hooked through the top lip is a great free-swimming presentation, making your bait look as natural as possible.

You can try a few different hook methods for mullet to see what works best that day. Through the top lip or nose is a great free-swimming presentation when the bait will be facing into the current. This placement is also going to keep your bait alive the longest and has the most realistic movement. Hooking in front of the dorsal fin will force your bait to swim more frantically. These distress ­vibrations can entice strikes, but this placement appears unnatural when reeling the fish back in as you’ll be pulling at the fish upwards. Tail hooking, just below the back side of the dorsal fin, can be beneficial when you want your bait to swim down and away from you. This is great when you are anchored, casting towards the beach from your vessel or you want your bait to swim to structure rather than casting to it and potentially spooking your target.

2) Butterflied Mullet

We covered live mullet but what about dead mullet? A butterflied mullet is a fantastic option for tarpon and your offering will do all the work for you. Chop off the tail and carve up along the bone on both sides like you’re filleting the fish back to front and make sure to not slice along the gills and shoulders, this is where the meat will stay connected. Remove the backbone and guts and your bait is ready. A knocker rig and circle hook through the lips will have your bait ready to go. This presentation releases all the oil and smell from your bait into the water, allowing a tarpon to sniff out and slurp up your bait. Chunked bait, listed below under “ladyfish”, works similarly but you might find more bycatch showing interest in a smaller offering.

3) Pilchards

Top to bottom Threadfin herring scaled sardine and Spanish sardine
Sardines can be hard to distinguish from similar bait species. Can you spot the differences? Top to bottom: Threadfin herring (greenie), scaled sardine (whitebait) and Spanish sardine

Scaled sardines, commonly referred to as pilchards or whitebait, are another great choice for tarpon fishing. Pilchards can be found near bridge pillings, channel markers, grassflats, off the beaches and within the mangrove lines. Start your search around shallow grassflats with good water flow that are adjacent to passes or channels. You can start chumming to encourage the pilchards to come over to feed and throw a ten-foot diameter, 3/8 mesh cast net when enough have arrived. They can also be found offshore as well near structure like bouys, wrecks and reefs, providing many areas to find them.

Nose or upper lip hooking is recommended for drifting or fishing in current. A pilchard hooked near the anal fin is a great rigging choice when fishing from a stationary platform, like a pier, jetty, bridge, beach or shoreline. If you want your whitebait to dive and swim away, opt for a breast hook.

4) Crabs

crab in dip net
If you’re fishing in Bahia Honda, Seven Mile Bridge, the Lower Keys or Boca Grande, a crab bait should be your go-to.

Blue crabs and pass crabs are wonderful bait choices for tarpon, particularly during the spring and summer months in West Central and Southwest Florida where the “crab chew” takes place during the hill tides of May, June and July. Not only are crabs considered irresistible snacks for tarpon on the feed in these areas, but they also allow for an exciting fishing experience as they tend to float on the surface, making for some explosive eats.

girl holds tarpon out of water next to boat
Courtney Jane Kempf, Fort Myers, said her crab was inhaled immediately after casting to a school of tarpon in Bokeelia. Dad casts another one out, double-header on!

A lot of crabs are sold at bait stores as they can be a little harder to find if the flush isn't in full swing. You may have luck finding them near piers, jetties, docks, within branches on mangroves, on shallow flats and occasionally even floating along the water surface in inlets or near beaches. Silver-dollar to half-dollar size is best. You can dip net up to 5 per person per day. Blue crabs can also be caught in crab traps (see myfwc.com for rules and regulations) or on baited lines. While it may be difficult to find a large supply or costly to buy a lot at the bait shop, they are one of the top baits for tarpon in the Gulf, especially from the Lower Keys up to West Central Florida.

close up of blue crab with claws removed
Make sure to pinch off (don't pull!) the crab's pincers with pliers to prevent the crab from burying itself in the sand.

When fishing with live crabs, choose one about 3" wide and make sure to remove the crab's pincers so it doesn't bury itself when it lands. Then, pierce the hook point through the back corner, near the "pointy" side of the crab's shell (careful to not crack the shell) from the bottom up with your circle hook. Proper hook placement is critical for fishing with crabs, as you want it to appear as if it is scuttling sideways on the drift. A small float can also be added a few feet from the crab to keep the bait in the strike zone.

5) Pinfish

huge pinfish that measures 11 inches on florida sportsman measuring lawstick
Pinfish have a distinct striped coloration that sets them apart from other baitfish. We couldn't pass up sharing this behemoth of a pin that was measured with a Florida Sportsman measuring stick! Source: Reddit

Pinfish are another promising for tarpon bait. While they may not be as popular of a choice, they are plentiful and tarpon are known to eat them. This species can be found around structure, seawalls, seagrass and sand holes and can be procured with a cast net, baited pinfish traps, shrimp-tipped No. 4 sabiki rigs or bought at a bait shop.

kid holds up tarpon and screams in excitement
Matthew Goforth after completing not one, but two Tampa Bay Grand Slams. Live pinfish and a prefrontal bite sealed the deal.

To keep your bait lively and natural, don’t use any weight and place your hook near the front of the fish. Nostril, head or eye hooking is best when fishing around bait schools and through inlets and passes for the most realistic presentation and to prevent drowning. Mouth hooking is a good option when fishing near structure to control the bait better or in strong current to keep them swimming straight.

6) Threadfin

gloved hand holding nostril rigged threadfin for bait
Threadfin (pictured), pilchards and mullet are good baits to throw along the beach for tarpon cruising in the surf.

Threadfin, also known as greenbacks or greenies, are good baits for tarpon as well. Similar to pilchards, they can be differentiated by the long trailer behind the dorsal fin, their vibrant green backs and a little black dot closer towards the head.

While the bigger ones are found towards deeper waters offshore, you can find them just about anywhere, especially near shores and mangroves close to islands. For cast netting these baits, we recommend a ¼ inch stretched mesh for shallow flats, 3/8 around deep bridges and ½ inch for larger baits, deeper coastal waters and stronger current. The wider the mesh, the faster the net sinks.

Jake Delaney holds large tarpon in green lit water
Jake Delaney, Naples, got in on some nighttime fishing in September, using a 5-inch live threadfin he caught one of many tarpon that were doing circles in the dock lights.

Dollar bill-sized threadfins are tempting offerings for tarpon. Hook them through the cartilage between the eyes and nostrils for fishing in current. In calm water, hide the hook beneath your bait by running it through the soft pocket right behind the pectoral fin joints. Threadfin also make for good cut bait when the water you are fishing is murky as they are very oily and will be sure to attract potential targets.

7) Ladyfish

Owen Leahy smiles and holds up first ladyfish
Owen Leahy catches his first ladyfish near Treasure Island, Florida, a perfect size to tie on for a big tarpon.

Ladyfish are like Bon Jovi, they’re wanted dead or alive. So as with most baits on this list, freelining is a favorite, but lady’s also make great dead baits. Fresh dead baits are best to keep catfish at bay, so catch your own whenever possible. If you find some in the 10- to 14-inch range, cut the tail cut off to let out some smell and toss it out with just enough weight to keep it on the bottom. Ladyfish are a notoriously oily species so the “aromatics” that will be released are sure to draw some attention. If you really want to step up your olfactory game, use chunked bait, cut down into two-inch sections vertically, sectioning them large enough to keep the catfish at bay. This approach will work best when visibility is low and they can rely on their noses to find their prey. Use a bounce rig, fish-finder or knocker rig for either of these and simply hook, chuck and wait. We recommend trying to fish one freelined live and one dead on the bottom, if possible and see what works best. Tarpon tend to navigate in cuts so test out the deepest areas first.

hyperrealistic artificial ladyfish and mullet baits from 13 Fishing
If you can't catch any fresh ladyfish of your own, one of these hyperrealistic artificial designs from 13 Fishing would definitely fool a tarpon. Ladyfish, left, mullet, right.

A good place to start your search for ladyfish is to keep an eye out for diving birds in the surf as well as piers, bays, passes and inlets with steady water flow. You can catch them easily by casting nearly any bait or lure that mimics a small silver fish into the school. Spoons, jerkbaits, Mirrodines, cut bait or shrimp will all catch their attention. The more erratic you can make your presentation, the better.

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