May 24, 2012
You can play bumper boats in the passes, or head off in search of your own fish.
Young angler meets an old fish on Florida's central Gulf Coast.
We broke Venice Inlet a little later than usual, but it was early in the season and the masses, apparently, were still sleeping. I looked north along Casey Key and saw no boats. “North it is,” I said, but we wouldn't get far.
The sun was just starting to glimmer through the Australian pines on the beach when something in the foreground grabbed my attention. Tarpon roll in different ways, two categories really. There are the surface-erupting, tail-smacking rolls of fish wanting to get the heck out of their current location. Then there are the barely moving, leisurely rolls of relaxed tarpon. The fish that were showing themselves in front of us were circling and showing their entire backs for three, sometimes five seconds at a time. Tayler and Eric cast threadfins to each side of the meandering school. We also had live crabs just in case. Pass crabs or calico crabs wouldn't be prevalent until the upcoming strong tides associated with the full moon, but I'd scooped up a couple while snook fishing the previous night's outgoing tide.
The tarpon, still happily circling about, paid no attention to the panic-stricken threadfins. “Let's see if they are hungry for some candy,” I remarked, as my crab flew into the glare. A full 20 seconds passed, and then a thump. It was a familiar feeling but it was the first time I had experienced it since a full winter had passed. The tarpon leaped with a violent headshake and I helplessly watched my line disappear off the spool. Another jump and the tarpon proved victorious as the hook flew free.
That was all I needed; a fix, a craving satisfied. I was done for the day. Not so for my younger brother, Tayler, and our friend Eric Templeton. Eric is a guide on the Mosquito Lagoon. I was in debt to him for some amazing redfishing days on those east coast flats. It would be his turn next.
Usually when tarpon fishing along the beaches of Southwest Florida, patience is going to be your biggest virtue. Instead of moving around a lot, I like to pick a piece of water, put the trolling motor down and wait. Everyone has spots that they like, whether it's an area where they had luck in the past or an area with a good sandbar, a grass bed or point. Getting away from the pack pays off for me. Get out early and find those unmolested fish that are not yet on the move. Take into consideration the number of boats staggered along the beach in the thick of the season. As tarpon move north and south every boat in their path targets them. When the fish reach you, don't be surprised when your perfectly cast bait gets passed up without a glance.
It's grueling work fighting a tarpon in the hot sun, but it's a heck of a fun time.
Tayler, Eric and I were lucky to have the fish to ourselves. There wasn't another boat in sight. More tarpon appeared right off the bow, and Eric was ready this time with a pass crab landing in position before I could even acknowledge the sight of fish. Eric's fish wouldn't succeed in throwing the hook. The second run left Eric helpless as the fish took a sharp turn around a crabtrap buoy. With Eric unable to put pressure on the fish he patiently waited as we approached the buoy and cleared the line. Before I knew it I had a handful of tarpon lip as I removed the hook and released her.
Tayler wasted no time in hooking our third tarpon. The biggest fish we had seen all morning rocketed into the patented back flop, instantly snapping the 60-pound leader. We all breathed a sigh of relief and had a quick laugh.
The way I see it, if a big tarpon lands on taut line or isn't hooked just right, the fish is going to break you off regardless. For spinning rods, 30-pound braid with a 60-pound fluorocarbon leader allows for longer casts and more action. For sight fishing along the beaches a 7½- to 8-foot medium-heavy class rod will also help you cast farther; however, a stouter rod and heavier line is needed when fishing around bridges or structure. Reel sizes vary by manufacturer but you want a reel that can hold at least 200 yards of line and has a maximum drag of at least 20 pounds. Double your main line with a Bimini twist or a spider hitch and then attach about 6 feet of leader by tying an Albright special or a double-uni knot. A barrel swivel with a uni knot on each end also works, but you'll have to be careful not to reel the swivel through the eyes of your rod when you have that tarpon boatside. Also, the swivel and leader may be harder to cast.
Keep your hook size relative to the rest of your tackle and the drag pressure you are applying. A 6/0 is a good place to start and then go up or down from there according to the bait you're using. I like to use a circle hook with an up-eye, which helps when snelling the hook, my preferred connection.
Having one or more electric trolling motors is key. You'll constantly need to adjust your position to intercept moving tarpon, and it's best to do that as quietly as possible. While moving around, practice proper etiquette. Be respectful to boats around you and give them plenty of space. Never position yourself between a school of tarpon and another boat.
There are plenty of other methods for targeting tarpon on Florida's west coast. Try fishing bridges and passes during strong tidal flows, especially around the full and new moons of May and June. This year, the best tides will be during the full moon on May 27 and the new moon on June 12. Look for staging areas where tarpon can hang out and feast on drifting pass crabs and other forage. We have had some crazy bites in places that you would least expect. If it seems logical that tarpon could be feeding in an area, they probably are.
Big summer tarpon test your tackle, as the snapped circle hook above attests.
Gulf Coast Beach Tarpon Notebook
Prime season: End of May through June, timed with the crab migration. The full moon at the end of May, and the new moon June, are ideal. Later in the season, you're more likely to encounter single fish, but they're often hungry. These are big, spawning-class tarpon, anywhere from 40 to 150 pounds, with larger fish possible.
Conditions: Calm and sunny is best. Optimal water temp is difficult to predict; some years they show sooner, others later. Early-arriving tarpon may lie low, not feeding until the sun warms the water.
Threadfin herring: Catch these silvery, active baits with sabiki rigs early in the morning, before you begin looking for tarpon. Pods of herring often school up offshore of passes, and you'll frequently find them along the beach while you're actively seeking tarpon. It's always good to have a sabiki ready to drop to add to the bait supply. Hook a threadfin through the nose with a circle hook.
Crabs: Hook them through the edge of the carapace, bottom up. Take time to “screw” the hook into shell to avoid breaking. Sharp hook very important. Go to passes on a strong outgoing tide, and stock up on crabs with a long-handled dipnet. For long-term storage, keep your supply of crabs in the water inside a crab pen with no opening (or a pinfish pen bent closed), and feeding them once in a while; this seems to toughen them up. Live crabs are available at tackle shops in season, but they get expensive. The shop may run out of the larger ones early, leaving nothing but dime-size crabs impractical for casting.
Float rig: When fishing passes and bridges, put a slotted popping cork 4 to 5 feet above hook to keep the bait near surface. Can put the float rig out back and let it sit while casting another rod. If the current is ripping, don't need the cork.
Afternoon/evening bite: Can sometimes be as good or better than the morning. Most fishermen have gone in by then. The afternoon seabreeze can roughen things up, but many days it calms down right before dark.
First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, June, 2010.
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