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Tarpon Fishing Basics

Practical, modern angling tips for the grandest challenge of all: Silver kings in shallow water.

Capt. Pepe Gonzalez brings a Key West tarpon up for a photo op.

You've seen the pictures. Giant fish hanging in the air as bright and shapely as a quarter-moon. Well-dressed angler standing at the bow, six hundred dollars worth of graphite bent nearly to the breaking point.

At home or the office, you study the image until you can almost feel sweat and salt water drip from the pages. You imagine you are there.

More than anything, you want one of those fish. You've caught enough snook or redfish to justify the sticker on the back of your sport ute. Maybe even tugged on a few tarpon in deep water at a bridge or pass.

But there's just something about watching that mythical, metallic beast explode over a crystal-clear flat, something awesome that makes you tingle deep in your rib cage. You don't care if you're casting a fly or a live pinfish. You have to catch your tarpon. So here are your tarpon fishing basics.

Some veterans say shallow-water tarpon fishing is harder than ever. Too many boats on the water these days, too many jetskis, too many anglers. Forget the Florida Keys, go to Belize, some say.

On the other hand, fishing techniques and tackle have undergone tremendous refinements over the years. So have Florida tarpon anglers, who continue to find new avenues in their home state, from Pine Island Sound to St. George Sound. Even heavily traveled fisheries on the Keys oceanside, Biscayne Bay, Florida Bay and the flats of Homosassa are slowly revealing their secrets to anglers willing to study the “new” travel routes and feeding patterns of migratory fish. In other words, if you feel you're ready for the challenge, you can catch tarpon on the flats.

What follows is an outline of what could be considered the “new” basics, spins on traditional tactics for modern tarpon fisheries.

Presentation: Quick and Accurate

Start by losing your fascination with distance casting—especially you fly fishermen. For most anglers, medium-range casts, 50 to 60 feet or so, are more accurate and land more softly. When the heat is on, you'll nearly always be better served by making a quick, well-directed medium-range cast than by opening your bail and letting it rip or trying to shoot the entire fly line. Practice accordingly.

Keep in mind that one of the biggest problems novice casters encounter is calculating the angle and distance needed to intercept moving fish. Wind direction and velocity, current and drift all factor into the equation. If your boat is moving toward the fish, closing the gap, you may have little time to cast. Moreover, because there will be less drag on the line, your lure or fly will tend to sink faster. You'll have to start the retrieve immediately, and strip or reel fast to stay within the strike zone. On the other hand, if your boat is being pushed away from the fish, you'll probably need to wait until they get a bit closer to make your cast. Then you may have to delay the retrieve, barely twitching your rod or fly line to impart action; that way your offering will enter the strike zone and stay there long enough for the fish to focus on it.

Because tarpon are so well equipped for nightly ambush sessions (hence their large eyes and cavernous, high-angled mouths), they just won't expend much energy chasing a morsel during daylight hours. This is especially true during the spring-summer migration, when their minds are on traveling and spawning. Feeding then becomes an afterthought—that is unless your lure or fly lands conveniently in the path of a fish.

Timing is everything. You want the opportunity to retrieve your offering into the right position or even attempt a second cast if the fish alters its course or your initial cast doesn't land where you want it to. You may have heard that elephants eat peanuts and are afraid of mice. Likewise, tarpon will feed on small crustaceans and baitfish, but they can sense there's something wrong when a tiny creature rushes toward them menacingly. Even the largest of silver kings will turn tail when your offering runs at them instead of away from them, like scared prey would. That's what angle is all about.

Inexperienced casters are often surprised by the deceptive speed of tarpon, which cruise much faster than smaller flats dwellers. That usually causes anglers to delay the start of their cast and, in the case of fly rodders, it can also translate into a few too many false casts. Whether using a plug, a jig or a fly, the results of a late cast are invariably the same: Either the fish detect motion and spook, you overshoot the fish, or there isn't enough time for your offering to sink to the desired depth. It can be infuriating watching a school of tarpon swim right under your undetected lure or fly.

So always be ready to cast when you are searching for tarpon. Keep your finger on the line with the bail of your spinner open, or your reel in freespool with your thumb on the spool if you are plug casting. And if you are a flyfisher, learn to deliver your fly with just two false casts—and sometimes, just one—and figure out how long it takes your fly to sink so you know how far ahead of the fish it should land.

For tarpon on the flats, being quick on the draw is an absolute requirement.

Staking Out: Where and How

A chart and some grasp of tarpon behavior can help you locate fishing spots, but you are still going to need time on the water to figure out exactly if, when and how the fish travel in the area you intend to explore. Keep a journal, and record the locations, tides and weather conditions during your good days and your bad ones.

Charts for various regions can be purchased at local tackle shops, or you can order one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1-800-638-8972.

On Biscayne Bay, my home waters, tarpon begin trickling out of their winter havens in inlets and cuts sometime in late April. When the water temperature reaches the 75-degree mark, it is time to keep your eyes and ears open for the first schools of fish moving south across the flats. While it is true that not all the fish follow the same path, most tend to travel along the outskirts of the bay's oceanside flats. Tarpon like to follow edges; look on a chart for pronounced drops, say one where the bottom drops from a 4- or 5-foot flat to a depth of 8 or 10 feet, and you'll have a decent chance to locate some tarpon.

A Biscayne Bay chart (NOAA charts 11462, 11464 and 11465) will reveal a number of likely intercept points from Cape Florida on south. Tarpon tend to follow a straighter path once they get down past the so-called finger channels in the bay, where you'll see a well-defined line running along the outer edge of the flats. The fish often change course as the tide rises and falls; spots that are hot during low tide may be cold as ice when the water rises, as the fish are able to take shortcuts across shallower areas. But that's something you can only figure out through exploration. One of the few constants you'll find is that the fish move slowly during periods of slack water.

Staking out your boat at points and bends along these tarpon highways is a great way to get initiated, and even top anglers and guides do it with some frequency. Curtis Point, a spot on the outside of Old Rhodes Key, got its nickname because famous Capt. Bill Curtis has become a fixture there for over three decades, often staking out early in the morning during tarpon season. But there are other excellent stakeout spots near Soldier Key, the Raggeds, Elliott Key and Caesars Creek. A couple of points farther south off north Key Largo have paid off for me when I needed to get away from weekend boat traffic.

As long as you can properly position your boat with respect to the wind and current, and still give yourself a clear shot at incoming fish, you are golden. Where the bottom is too hard for your pushpole to penetrate, you can use your anchor; either way, you'll want a release clip to free your boat if you hook a tarpon and need to give chase. A brightly colored buoy is also a must if you want to find your anchor when you return after fighting the fish.

Poling: Silent Propulsion

You can't expect to be a successful tarpon angler by staking out every time. You are also going to need to pole the flats to search for fish when staking out is not a viable option. That means you'll need a partner who can handle himself both at the helm and on the poling platform. Poling for tarpon is unlike poling for any other species. For starters, the fish are in deeper water, usually 4 to 10 feet, so you'll often end up poling in 6 or 8 feet of water. And they move much faster, so you'll sometimes need to really lean on the pole with some muscle.

Complementing human power with that of electric trolling motors will help you intercept fish and catch up to schools that may have passed you by before you could get the right angle for a cast. The electrics will also come in handy when crossing a deep channel that separates two flats.

Ultimately, though, nothing is as quiet as your pushpole, so poling should be your main source of propulsion when you are looking for targets for your lures or flies.

Perhaps the toughest thing for a poler will be turning the boat properly to give a fly caster clearance and the best position with respect to the direction of the wind. Fly hopefuls will probably have better success with a fellow fly rodder willing to share equal time at the platform and the casting deck.

Fighting Technique

Plenty has been said about the tarpon's great jumping ability, and about the need to “bow the rod” to avoid broken lines or tippets when a hooked fish takes to the air. But much like the phrase “supply and demand” from your high school economics class, that's about all most beginners remember about tarpon fishing a couple of weeks after watching a video or reading an article on the subject. So, before moving on to fighting tactics, let's talk about the hookset.

First, your hooks need to be very sharp. Even the sharpest hooks out of the box will need a touch-up with a file to form the triangular edges that will help them penetrate that rock-hard jaw. You'll still need to strike forcefully to set the hook, but there is always a limit; experts know just how much sudden pressure their rod and line can stand before parting. Don't strike too soon when your lure or fly disappears inside the mouth of a tarpon. Keep your cool and keep reeling or stripping line until you actually feel fish; then strike.

While there are several theories about the way one ought to set the hook on a tarpon, I've found that three or four quick jabs with the rod butt works better than a single hard strike—or “high-striking” with the rodtip, which gets you by with many smaller species. No matter which you opt for, you should always strike tarpon by swinging the rod sideways, parallel to the surface of the water. That way, should you happen to miss, the lure or fly will travel forward, but remain in the water where an aggressive tarpon may take another whack at it.

If the fly rod is your weapon of choice, be sure to pull on the rod sideways with one hand and yank on the fly line with the other. If you've never done it, you may think you won't have time to clutch the fly line in your stripping hand long enough to hit a tarpon three or four times. With practice, you'll develop the necessary timing.

After you've driven the hook home, you should think about nothing other than clearing your fly line. At that point your eyes should be focused on the line coiled on the casting deck near your feet. Your rod should be held up high, with the butt tight against your forearm. And the arm with your line hand should be extended down and away from the reel, with your fingers open barely enough to let the fly line slide through under pressure to prevent tangles. When you come to the last coil, be sure to escort the departing fly line with your hand all the way to the reel before you finally go on the offensive, and then redirect your focus on the fish.

Flyreel drags should be set at only a quarter of the tippet's test. With fast-running fish like tarpon, the drag created by the thick fly line cutting through the water can easily double the amount of actual drag pressure. You are better off applying extra pressure on demand by palming the spool. Horsing a fish is a sure way to lose him, but applying too little pressure on a tarpon means a long fight, often more exhausting to the angler, and more opportunities for Mr. Murphy to let his law play a villain role in the struggle.

Sometimes a hooked fish will rejoin its schoolmates after the initial acrobatics. Lots of big wagging tails, fins and sharp gill plates around your tight line or tippet is not exactly a safe proposition. Do everything you can to turn or slow your tarpon so it can no longer keep up with the rest of the school. The trick to winning a fight with a tarpon is to apply constant, even pressure. It is crucial to make the fish work for every yard it swims, so try to fight from a dead boat as much as possible. Only use the motor when the fish makes a long run and you need to gain a lot of line and get on top of the fish in a hurry. As long as a tarpon is taking line or towing the boat, it is expending valuable energy. But don't let him rest; keep changing angles by applying side pressure with the rod to keep the fish from settling and getting comfortable.

Try to gain line anytime the fish stops running. Long tugs of war where neither you nor the fish are gaining line favor the tarpon, since it is getting a chance to recuperate while you are probably straining. You'll put more hurt on a fish with the thick part of the rod near the grips; leaning back and bending the tip actually does little other than tire you out. You'll be able to apply the most direct pressure when the fish is less than 100 yards away, so you should really put on the heat then. But don't make the mistake of tightening the drag; a sudden surge could easily put an anticlimactic end to a lengthy battle that, seconds earlier, you appeared to be winning.

Finishing the Fight

Pump the fish in with short, quick lateral strokes, palming the spool of your reel whenever you feel you can apply a little extra pressure. As the fish begins to tire and gets closer to the boat, dip the rodtip in the water from time to time. That's known as the “down and dirty,” and it is extremely effective because it forces the fish to exert its muscles to deal with the low angle pull, something tarpon are not really prepared for. You'll be surprised at how you can often flip huge tarpon in the water with this tactic, and you'll often notice bubbles coming from the fish's mouth when that happens. That means air is leaving its air bladder, so the fish is pretty whipped. It's time to start getting the lip gaff ready.

Maneuvering the fish to boatside is no easy task. You'll need to reel in part of the leader so you can lead the fish with your rodtip until your buddy can grab the shock leader or tippet, and gets into position to lip the tarpon. You should back off on the drag at this point. It's been a long, arduous battle, and your line or tippet has probably weakened; plus, there will be no line stretch or rod cushion of any sort once you are in a close-quarters situation, and even a halfhearted surge from the fish could prove fatal.

You may need to repeat this procedure two or three times before you finally get hold of the fish, but this is not the time to get overanxious. Take your time and give yourself the chance to finish what you started.

While some anglers and guides now opt for just gripping the fish's lower lip with gloved hands, lip-gaffing has for decades been the traditional method used to hold a tarpon while it is being unhooked and revived for its release. Because a lip gaff only makes a small incision in the membrane inside the fish's lower jaw, lip gaffing is considered pretty safe for the fish. The right way to lip gaff a tarpon is from the inside out; you stick the gaff inside the mouth of the fish, and then pull out and down with the point so that the gaff penetrates the membrane behind the lower lip. If a fish shuts its mouth, you can often pry its jaws open with the curved part of the gaff hook without doing any damage. A wrist leash is very helpful on a lip gaff, as it will prevent you from losing the gaff overboard or to a thrashing fish. Make sure, however, that said leash won't tighten around your wrist. You must be able to shed it easily in case of an emergency.

When you're comfortable that the fish is under control, remove the hook if you can. If the fish is fully whipped, you'll probably need to revive it by moving it back and forth through the water. This is a good time to snap a picture; bringing a big tarpon into the boat is considered bad form—risky for you, even riskier for the fish. Always get water rushing through the fish's gills as soon as possible. That may require that you tow the tarpon slowly under power; use your electrics if you have them—that way you won't disturb other fish and fishermen in the area.

You'll know a fish is recovering when its tail begins to sweep from side to side in normal swimming fashion. Seeing the fish regain the use of its dorsal and pectoral fins to stabilize itself in the water is also a very good sign. But be sure the fish is in good shape before you slip the lip gaff out of its mouth. If possible, select a shallow spot to release the fish; if it goes belly up, you can right it and revive a little more.

For many anglers, the thrill of releasing a healthy tarpon to fight again ranks right up there with that first spectacular jump.

First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, Print Edition.

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