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Any Tackle, Any Season: Tarpon Fishing at Islamorada

We reveal the tactics for catching tarpons big and small, on live bait or fly.

Any Tackle, Any Season: Tarpon Fishing at Islamorada
What everyone is hoping for in May in the Florida Keys. Actually, if this year is like recent years, they’ll be talking about the great bite that occurred as early as March.

It was a scene I would’ve passed by. The tide was far too low for any self-respecting bonefish or redfish to forage on the flats. Seagrass was exposed in a wide perimeter around the little island in Florida Bay. It looked like dead water.

I spotted a few seagulls the guide, Mark Gilman, pointed out, but honestly, I didn’t think much of them. Way up near the shoreline, they appeared to be picking tidbits of edibles out of the drying grass. I’ve never much trusted gulls, let alone cormorants, which were also working the area. A black-necked stilt caught my curiosity, but this bird, too, is seldom a fish sign.

Gilman was talking about tarpon, but this didn’t look like tarpon to me. At best, I figured, we’d catch a small barracuda.

Tarpon at the boat
Captain Mark Gilman leaders an “oceanside” tarpon caught on a live pilchard.

Michael Cassidy false cast some line on a 9-weight flyrod with a tan floating shrimp fly. Gilman silently pushed his 18-foot Hell’s Bay skiff through a barely discernible channel which snaked through tide-depleted flats.

I began to hear the unmistakable sounds of fish busting bait. Yep, there were fish here. And there was more water than what met the eye. What at first glance appeared to be dry land was in fact huge mats of uprooted manatee grass. I could see the characteristic round, bright green stems. Probable source: A week of strong west winds churning waves across Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico grassbeds.

“When this grass blows in like this, as it dies-off, the oxygen levels fall and the minnows and shrimp in there become distressed,” Gilman noted. “It’s like a hatch. The tarpon feed heavily on the bait in this situation.”

For the first hour after sunrise, we were treated to a spectacle as 5- to 15-pound tarpon popped and slashed at bait all around the boat. They were concentrated at the mouth of a little creek or cut, the entrances to which were totally obscured and unrecognizable from the open water.

“Strip the fly slowly so it makes a little wake right at the surface,” Gilman advised. “Remember to strip strike—don’t raise the rodtip!” Cassidy, a Central Florida angler who’d spent the previous week trout fishing in Connecticut, restrained his instinctive rodtip-set. Hand-tightening his line to drive the hook point at just the right instant, he brought two fish to the boat. They were acrobatic little tarpon that put on a great show on the 9-weight. He jumped a few others. I did too, as we traded off on the rod.

After we released Michael’s second fish, I stared intently at the edges of the floating grass and snapped a few photos of the minnows concentrated there. Later, with help from Carly Jones at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, I identified sheepshead minnows and killifish of a couple species. The little fish had the same barring as the shrimp fly.

The morning was a great reminder that there’s always something you can learn about tarpon in the Florida Keys.

Another detail I picked up from Gilman: Tarpon love pilchards…almost as much as guides love pilchards.

anglers with tarpon
Cassidy and guide Mark Gilman admire a sub-40-inch tarpon before release. Larger fish are kept in the water for dehooking, per FWC rules.

Like many Keys guides, Gilman is equipped to handle all kinds of fishing aspirations. Fly-only? He’ll do it. He knows where to put fly fishermen to cast at 100-pounders, assuming the fish are in town. He also knows where to go for those feisty, year-round resident 10-pounders. But when he has clients coming down who may do some bait fishing, Gilman stocks live baits ahead of time. Pilchards are a solid choice. He pens them in a round cage stationed in clean tide water. He feeds them ground fish food. When it’s go-time, it’s simply a matter of scooping baits into the livewell on his boat.

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“Pilchards are available here all year,” he said. “In July and August, it’s a bit harder to get bait, as the pilchards are typically out on the reefs then. And in December and January, the tarpon are mostly eating shrimp, so that’s one time when we don’t use pilchards.”

Gilman castnets pilchards, but he does it strategically.

“If you have the patience to sabiki, more power to you. I prefer to net them, but I try to net fewer than 30 at a time—otherwise they get damaged in the net. The less time the better, too—after I make my last throw with the net, I move the baits to the pen quickly.”

Another tip: When scooping baits for the day’s fishing, don’t pull the pen high out of the water. “If the fish are piled up and drying, even for a few seconds, you’ll see significant mortality the next day,” he warned.

Cassidy and I were fishing late June, near the end of the tarpon migration. Conditions weren’t quite right for sight fishing the big girls on fly. Gilman took us to one of his oceanside bait fishing spots.

Tarpon fishing
Michael Cassidy puts a juvenile tarpon in the air in a mangrove creek. The fish next ran under the log and the boat, but with some work was landed.

The general strategy: Get in the tarpon’s lane of travel and present a bait. The fish will do the rest! Bridge channels are a popular place to fish tarpon in the Keys, but Gilman had a different plan for this tide.

Had there not been enough sunlight to see seagrass and white holes, I might’ve assumed we were tarpon fishing in the open ocean. We were not. We were on a very specific point in Gilman’s hard-earned inventory of tarpon spots.

He showed me the general area on a chart and explained the dynamics. First, he pointed to an extensive area of shallow water alongside a landmass that terminated in a significant Gulf-to-Atlantic channel.

“As the tide falls, fish moving by here are nudged out of the shallows,” he said, gesturing at the chart. “They keep moving.”

Then he pointed to the channel where we were setting up. As the tarpon reach the channel, they find it rich in forage provided by the falling tide. They’re primed to eat, making for good fishing.

The captain Spot-Locked his skiff and deployed two nose-hooked pilchards.

fishing under a bridge
Gone are the days of putting a float on an anchor rope to jettison after a bridge tarpon bite. GPS-locking trolling motor offers maneuverability to get the bite and get after the fish.

His rods were rigged with 40-pound-test braided line tied to a 5-foot piece of 50-pound monofilament shock leader, in turn tied to a trace of 50-pound fluorocarbon. Hooks were Eagle Claw Trokar Lancet 5/0 offset circles. A foam popping cork may be affixed near the top of the leader to provide a visual reference, helping you see where the bait is after you’ve drifted it back with the tide.

Once the baits are in place, it’s a waiting game. When the strike comes, Gilman says, “Get tight and reel down, no hookset needed—just tension needed.”

Cassidy and I both caught respectable fish.

Gilman fishes the same setup in backcountry channels. Here again, he positioned the boat in places where I may not have expected to fish for big tarpon. They looked to me like spots suitable for mangrove snapper, but sure enough: a few big rollers transmitted their whereabouts. Cassidy hooked a solid hundred-pounder and fought it to a boatside release.

“March through August there are always some fish in the channels,” Gilman noted. “The over 90-pound fish come through with the migration, but some end up calling these channels home—there’s so much food in the channels.”

Tarpon bait
Live pilchard is a great tarpon bait. Even small ones like this are readily taken by hundred-pounders.

Before Cassidy hooked up, we were watching a few fly fishermen working nearby. Gilman presumed they were dredging for tarpon, casting a sinking line across current and stripping it through likely areas.

“Some guys have that drill down,” said Gilman. “For me, it’s the one time I like to use a larger fly—something dark in the morning—red and black, orange and black. We use a very slow, sweeping retrieve after a long cast. You want a big fly that swims on its own.”

I was curious about fly fishing. I recalled a memorable fish on my first trip to Islamorada almost 30 years ago. That fish wolfed a red-brown-grizzly Apte tarpon fly. It was a fly of my own tie on a 5/0 hook—a huge hook by today’s standards.

Gilman said that worm patterns have become pretty standard. “On the falling tide, just about everyone is throwing worm patterns,” he said.

“Fish in the backcountry are quicker to eat the fly than oceanside fish,” he added. “They’re more forgiving. We’ll fish a rabbit strip fly with a yellow tail, or orange or olive shades. If you can find color in the water, that’s the biggest factor in your advantage. You can find crystal-clear water back there too—and the fish won’t be super aggressive—but early morning you’ll get a good percentage of bites.”

Tarpon fishing flies
Quartet of Islamorada tarpon flies from Capt. Mark Gilman’s box: Palolo worm fly; backcountry olive rabbit pattern; chartreuse-and-white Tarpon Toad; black Tarpon Snake.

I asked about flyfishing leaders, whether the IGFA standard 16-inch class tippet (no greater than 20-pound-test) to 12-inch shock tippet, commonly 50- to 80-pound, is still widespread. “Some people are old school and stick to that,” he replied. “Some just want the bite, and they’ll use super light right down to 30- or 40-pound to get the bite, but back it up with heavier tippet. They aren’t worried about world records.”

In general, Gilman explained, “The big push of fish is trending earlier. Ten years ago, I would’ve told you June, but it’s been leaning more into April and May, and some years even further into March—though we get higher winds then. That time of year favors anglers willing to give four or five days to get the right weather. But we’ll have people who aren’t even here to tarpon fish—they’re here for snook and redfish. We’ll get that slick calm day in March, and it’s game on!”

Fall and winter are mostly resident fish.

“We get little bit of a mullet run in October and November, and that makes it a good two-way time of year,” Gilman said. “We’ll fish a couple days for tarpon, then snook and redfish in the backcountry. My Octobers are booked by early summer—I’ve channeled clients into that time frame, as it’s a sought-after time.”

Down in Islamorada there’s tides, there’s weather. There’s seasonal baits and trending fly patterns. There’s the evolution of skiffs, tackle and the ebb and flow of guides and tournament-winning teams. And of course, as would be expected about anywhere in coastal Florida these days, there’s sharks. Gilman has plenty of stories, but one stands out.

“I had a client hook a tarpon, and while he’s fighting the fish, I felt the back of the boat sort of bump into something,” the guide recalled. “I looked down and it was a 15-foot hammerhead shark. I could see its huge dorsal fin right there, with two tags in it—could’ve touched it with my hand. I think the shark knew something was in distress, but he hadn’t locked on to it yet—I think he was more interested in the prop, as I was bumping the engine in and out of gear. And then it was like someone flipped a switch and the shark went from zero to 100 mph to that tarpon. We broke the tarpon off before he could get it.”


  • This article was featured in the May issue of Florida Sportsman magazine. Click to subscribe.



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