April 26, 2021
Every year around mid-April through July, tarpon migrate up the coasts of Florida. As they do so they form large schools in and around the deepwater passes and inlets in preparation for their spawn. Boca Grande, the mouth of Charlotte Harbor in Southwest Florida, is perhaps the best-known “pass” fishery, but there are others, notably Egmont Key (Tampa Bay) and West Pass (Apalachicola Bay). The channels under many of the Florida Keys bridges are pass fisheries, of sorts, too, as are many of the deep port entries on the Atlantic coast: Palm Beach, Fernandina and others.
As the tarpon gather en masse, so do the boats fishing for them. For novice and seasoned anglers alike, fishing in close quarters can be stressful and even intimidating. It's always a good idea to hire a professional guide when fishing a new area or technique for the first time. However, with a little patience, the tips I'm going to share should help put you ahead of the learning curve if you decide to try it on your own. In addition, what you're about to read is applicable to any fishery that attracts lots of anglers in a confined area.
As a second-generation Boca Grande fisherman with over 20 years of experience, I will touch on some of my own fishery's when, where and how, but I'm going to start with what's most important to me: The Golden Rule for the Silver King! It's no different than the Golden Rule your parents taught you: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
When fishing in tight quarters, I'm acutely aware of how my actions will affect those around me and vice versa. The last thing I want is to negatively affect someone's chances of catching their tarpon. The captain of the boat should only be navigating while letting his/her anglers participate in the fishing. As the captain, you should pay attention to your boat's direction of travel as well as that of those around you.
Pay special attention to the boats that are hooked up, as they have the right of way. If their fish is heading towards you, reel in your lines and move out of their way. Once they clear your boat, you can either re-deploy your baits or exit the drift and head back to the front and start again. If you happen to tangle lines with them, work with the other boat to untangle as quickly as possible. If it's not possible to untangle, then cutting your line is the polite thing to do.
If you are lucky enough to hook up, have your anglers reel up the remaining lines and start the pursuit of your fish. Initially, try to fight the tarpon at roughly a 30-degree angle. This puts you almost directly on top of your fish, but not quite. It also eliminates excess line in the water, reducing the chances of tangling lines with another boat and allows others to see where your fish is. Once your tarpon settles down, make every possible effort to break it out and away from the pack of boats. To do this, I increase the drag from the strike position and use the boat to change the angle of pull. By doing so you are allowing the rest of the fleet to continue their drifts through the strike zone without having to reel up and move for you. Sometimes this is not possible and the tarpon goes wherever they want, but you should still try.
Courteous and safe boating practices always take priority!
As for fishing tactics, during the Boca Grande season, I exclusively fish live bait for tarpon in the pass. I fish many baits including squirrel fish, pinfish, shrimp, mojarra, threadfin herring, scaled sardines and others. My favorite bait is small blue and pass crabs, two or three fingers from point to point across the shell. They can be purchased from bait shops or scooped off the surface as they get swept out to open water on the stronger tides associated with new and full moons. I look for good weedlines and slowly idle the boat while looking for crabs on or just below the surface. Once spotted, just scoop them up with a long-handled dip net. Prior to placing them in the livewell, I carefully hold them by the flipper and gently squeeze each claw at the elbow joint with pliers. They will naturally release the claw with no injury sustained. This makes them easier to grab out of the livewell and they cannot fight and kill each other in the pen. Additionally, they will drift better because they cannot grab the leader.
My standard hook size is a 6/0 J hook, but I will use a 5/0 or 4/0 with smaller crabs. If preferred, a circle hook works as well. My go-to rod-and reel is a 7'6” 20-50lb Eupro conventional rod with a Daiwa Saltist LD50 2-speed reel and clear 50-pound monofilament. A 2-speed reel is not necessary, however I use these in other applications as well. My rigging is simple and very much like grouper fishing. I start by sliding a 6-ounce egg sinker on the monofilament and attach it to a small swivel of at least 100 pounds in strength. Attached to the other end of the swivel is a 6- to 8-foot length of 80-pound fluorocarbon leader with the hook and bait. (Rigs for other pass fisheries will vary, and sometimes, during strong outgoing tides, you'll find fish feeding on top, where little or no weight might be needed.)
Once you're rigged, fishing in the pass is basically a big, orderly rotation of boats cycling through the prime fishing waters. Before you join the procession, idle around the outside and observe the general pattern of the fleet. When you feel confident enough to join in, idle uptide, never raising your RPMs higher than necessary to safely maneuver. Make sure you start your drift at the beginning of the pack and never cut in behind a boat, a.k.a. short drifting.
Also, do not anchor in Boca Grande Pass. It is incredibly dangerous on the strongest tides and downright inconsiderate to the main fleet that is drifting.
When you start your drift, place the boat in neutral and have your anglers drop their baits. When they feel bottom, instruct them to engage the reel and crank the handle 1-2 turns bringing the bait just off bottom. The captain should then adjust the boat's drift to match the speed and direction of the lines, keeping the lines as vertical as possible. While drifting, I pay attention to the surrounding boats and my sonar. The sonar helps me spot the schools of tarpon below.
More importantly, I can see the changes in bottom contour and advise my clients to adjust their bait's depth accordingly. On the strongest tides, the tarpon hunker down in the holes. It is imperative to keep your bait close enough to the bottom to entice a strike without snagging bottom. If you do snag bottom, idle uptide gaining as much line as possible and attempt to pull it free. If unsuccessful, wrap your line around the reel frame a couple times and continue uptide; the line should break at the swivel, leaving as little line in the water as possible.
To the novice angler, snagged bottom can feel like a tarpon. If you are unsure, the bottom will feel like a slow, steady pull instead of sporadic runs, changes of direction and head shakes. Another tip is to get directly above your line and pick a landmark, put the boat in neutral, drift away from it, drive back to it and check your landmark. If your landmark has not changed then you're snagged on bottom.
When you finish your drift, exit to the outside of the fleet and idle uptide to begin the next drift. Pay attention to the sonar as well as where other boats are hooking up so you can adjust your next drift.
When drifting live bait in the pass, I prefer outgoing tides that fall 2 or 3 days before and after a new or full moon. These moons typically produce negative low tides and have quality crab flushes which in turn produces a good tarpon bite. If possible, I schedule my trips around the peak flow of these tides.
We also fish for tarpon along the beaches north and south of Boca Grande, anywhere from the first sandbar up to a mile or more offshore. Stealth is a major factor here, and again the Golden Rule should apply. While idling and watching for tarpon rolling, stay far away from other boats that are fishing. Once you establish the tarpon's direction of travel, set up—quietly—a few hundred yards ahead to present your baits (small blue crab under a cork is one good choice). If the school passes you without biting, let them get well away before cranking your outboard. Do not chase the school! If there is another boat already set up downrange from you, don't spoil their chance. Idle to reposition your boat downrange for another shot after they've made theirs, but do so only well outside their lane. “Do unto others...”
I hope these tips will help you in your quest for the silver king. There are many great places in Florida to fish for tarpon. The Boca Grande area is rich in history and offers something for everyone in the family. For info on charters, visit my website, www.Captain-Bobby.com.
Tarpon Handling Guidelines & Regulations
Some guidelines, from MyFWC.com, to ensure tarpon remains the strong and viable fishery it is today:
- Tarpon over 40 inches MUST remain in the water unless a tag is used.
- Tarpon tags may only be used to harvest potential IGFA record-sized tarpon. Taxidermy mounts can be made with length and girth measurements and a photograph.
- Don't tow a tarpon unless it is necessary to revive it. If you must tow, go as slow as possible while still moving water over the gills.
- Keep head and gills in the water.
- Do not target tarpon from bridges or piers. Releasing tarpon from bridges or piers requires specialized lifting gear or cutting the line, which leaves long amounts of line trailing behind the fish.
- Use single hooks rather than treble hooks. Non-offset circle hooks, preferably.
- Use tackle heavy enough to land the tarpon quickly, minimizing exhaustion, and helping the fish avoid predators after release.
A few tips on fighting tarpon, from Capt. Bobby Woodard, Boca Grande guide:
- Applying max pressure and changing the angle of pull will tire and disorient the tarpon, shortening the fight time. Using heavy tackle and good technique, we average a ten-minute fight time.
- If you see a shark closing in, back off the drag and let the tarpon swim freely. If that doesn't work, break the line and give the tarpon a chance.
- If we need to hold a large fish (in the water, always) for a photo, rather than tiring it to the point where I can grab the lip with hands, I'll slip a small release gaff through the bottom lip. Or: Simply grab the leader and break it off at the hook.
Special Boca Grande Regulations From MyFWC.com
Fishing with gear that has a weight attached to a hook, artificial 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 when fishing for any species year-round within Boca Grande Pass (boundaries shown below). 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. Natural bait is not considered to be a weight. If the jig fishes in an illegal manner it is prohibited. Any jig that allows the attached weight to slip down the shank so that it hangs lower than the hook while the line or leader is suspended vertically from the rod is prohibited, and must be stowed so it is not readily accessible.
During the months of April, May and June, no more than three fishing lines may be deployed from a vessel at any one time.
During the months of April, May and June, no person shall use, fish with, or place in the water any breakaway gear. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine April 2020