TARPON 101-Getting Started

One brief moment is all it takes to go from hero to zero. Exhilaration to major frustration. Fish on, to grabbing a bait. Calm atmosphere to total chaos. The only fishing in Tampa Bay that can cause this madness is fishing for tarpon, aka, the “silver king”.

This year is the first year for me chasing after the tarpon. Every summer, I always wondered why everyone was staked out at the Skyway Bridge or Egmont Key, sitting and waiting. The congregation of fisherman looking for tarpon cleared the flats up for me to fish, which was fine with me. My stance was always, “well I don’t have heavy gear”, or “I don’t know the tactics and etiquette”. The same excuses were used every year. Stories were always heard of anglers having “poon fever”, spending weeks pursuing these fish with every minute of spare time. The declaration of “once you get a poon you will be hooked” was quite frequently heard. Come on, what was all the fuss about? My routine was always prowling the mangroves in search of redfish or fishing the shipping channel for snapper and grouper. This year would be different.

In May, my brother in law was due to come down for his yearly vacation with my sister. Normally we would plan a couple of charters, mainly to minimize the pressure of putting him on fish in a limited period of time. The charters would more often than not be inshore redfish, snook and trout. Slam charters. This year he suggested a tarpon trip along with our normal inshore fishing.

At first, hesitation set in. Basically I told him to find a buddy or two to go, and that my money was tight. Six hundred dollars for what!? That’s a hefty price to pay for a days fishing. Eventually after friends of his cancelled out, it was inevitable for me to come along. Twist my arm huh? It didn’t hurt that all of our other charters were cancelled because of the weather, I did have a little money; a tarpon trip it was.

We were lucky enough to charter a trip with Jim Lemke, www.lighttackleadventures.com, on very short notice. Word was that he was pretty knowledgeable, and an accomplished tarpon fisherman. If nothing else I was confident he would put me and my brother on a few fish. A major weather system had just passed and the day of fishing was difficult. Two fish were hooked. My brothers was brought to the boat and mine, after a forty five minute battle, was lost to a pretty hefty shark, “the man in the grey suit” had won.

After combating a fish for that long, and honestly, becoming flat wore out with no picture to show for it, I was pretty discouraged. Looking at the positives, we started thinking that the story of my first tarpon brawl was pretty cool. After that, this summer my mission would be to catch as many tarpon as possible. Now having the fever that I swore wouldn’t affect me, the cure has yet to be found.

During the charter, numerous questions were asked, and quite a few things about fishing for these massive beasts were well received. The money spent on the charter was money well spent. Tarpon fishing is not a mystery anymore. There were no more excuses not to be out on the bay pursuing the silver king. So what was taken away from all the information received, and how can I help the greenhorn tarpon fisherman? Well, writing an article for the rookie is a good start. By no means am I any kind of authority, but this article can at least get you started in your quest for a good battle with the king.

The first thing on my mind was learning etiquette. Being out there with the experienced tarpon fisherman was intimidating to me. The last thing I wanted to do was ruin others fishing out on the water, all because of a lack of familiarity on my behalf. Basically, common courtesy and common sense always prevails. When fishing, watch what the majority of others are doing (there will always be a few out there not to watch…). If all the boats are pulling a drift, do the same and watch the pattern. Don’t anchor up in the way. Wait your turn, pull your drift and maneuver your boat back to the start of the drift the way others do. Keep the boat off plane and out of the drift vicinity as to not spook the fish, shutting down the bite. When fishing a bridge, again mimic what the other boats have done. One can easily see how the masses of boats out there are positioned and it’s pretty easy to catch on. When a fellow fisherman is hooked up, have the courtesy to try to get out of the way or at least reel in your lines. Basically, be observant.

Next, paying close attention to the gear and knots used was important to me. Surprisingly, the gear that was needed was quite simple.  For some reason I thought there was much more to reeling in a fish that big. A medium heavy to heavy rod with a six series reel is all that is needed. Take your pick of brand. Money is usually tight for me so finding a great barely used set up was all I could do. A custom seven foot heavy rod with an Okuma avenger sixty five series reel was my new toy. With the reel, the drag needs to be pretty smooth as the fish can strip the spool in a matter of seconds. If you go cheap, it’s comprehendible that a big poon could actually make a reel could make a reel fail from the drag washers burning up. Make sure the setup is sizeable. When using a smaller combo the fish will take much longer to land and the survival rate will become worse for our prized gamefish, either from the fight or an opportunistic shark. As far as line is concerned, a braid from fifty to sixty five pound test is a good start. Fluorocarbon leader is also a must. Talking to various fishermen, some use as low as forty pound test, some up to eighty. I prefer sixty. A break off is too likely with forty, and more hookups will be had with sixty rather than eighty pound test. I would rather hook up more and lose a fish here and there than less strikes and opportunities with eighty. Again, it’s all a matter of preference. With the hook, a 5/0 hook is as low as you want to go. Medium wire is suitable. My preference is a 6/0 or 7/0 medium strength circle hook. Tarpon have huge solid mouths and they are very strong fish. Use too light of a hook and a bend is inevitable, leading to possible stomping on the boat, cursing, or watery eyes. As far as knots go, for me they are still a work in progress. Numerous sites on the web can help; www.netknots.com is one found that has been very helpful. For the line to leader knot I have been experimenting with a bimini twist and a slim beauty combo, and to attach the leader to the hook an improved clinch knot has been my “go to” knot. Ask around, see what will work best for you and practice. It’s hard enough to hook up with a poon, having a knot fail is devastating. Lastly, an anchor ball or object to keep your anchor line afloat is a necessity. These tarpon will take a long time to land and will have you chasing them all over the water. The anchor has got to go at times.

What tides are best? The summer new and full moon tides are very high, and when outgoing, many refer to them as “hill tides”. These hill tides flush pass crabs out of the bay and tarpon will snatch them up in a heartbeat. These tides are ideal. This is the “prime time” for me to focus on. Being on the water as often as possible is preferred, but better results will be had on these fast moving outgoing tides. You will have a better chance at catching crabs and a tarpon. Not being too picky, any tide will be fished by me, I just want a shot at another fight. Being a student tarpon fisherman, I really couldn’t tell you what winds will be best and how to fish each tide properly in your area.  That’s something I’m still trying to figure out. The beach fisherman want an east wind to sight fish and keep the seas calm, but for any other conditions the fishing is trial and error on my boat. In different areas wind combined with tide movement can cause different conditions depending on where you’re fishing.

Let’s talk about bait. Bait is pretty easy. Of course, normally it has to be fairly big. A nice sized threadfin is a good start. A heavy net thrown around some markers or a sabiki rig can get you some threadfins easily. Big scaled sardines or pinfish can catch a silver king as well. All these are good baits, but if there are pass crabs around from a hill tide flush, net those up as quickly as possible. You want to match the hatch of the bait out there. A dip net is all that is needed to scoop up these crabs. Carefully bust off the claws so the crab doesn’t pinch the leader or your finger! Hook them through the side corner of the outer shell and your good to go. Some artificial enthusiasts use plugs and jigs, but being a novice, my plan has been to stick with live offerings.

So you have bait, tackle and are on the water. Where and when do you go? The shipping channels, bridges and beaches are all good spots depending on time of year and tidal movement. What has been determined by many is that these fish migrate north into  our area in May, hang around in June and then hit the deeper water to spawn after June’s full moon. Apparently, the fish seem to be strong in numbers during May and June in the Egmont area, beaches and passes, as well as the mouth of Tampa Bay. After the spawn, tarpon come back to the bay and seem to mill around in smaller packs, feeding on baitfish in preparation to migrate back south on the yearly journey. Hopefully they will stay around through September, but it’s obvious they have thinned out. Again, still learning, my preference has been sticking to the bay bridges and the channels, as that is where my adventure started, and the lack of experience on my end gives me a lack of confidence fishing for tarpon in other spot; that’s something to focus on next season. Another reason I stick to the bay is the fact that my boat can’t handle a rough trip in the open water. Eddies formed by bridge pilings are a great spot to try; they are a great for tarpon to ambush bait, as well as ledges of channels. Try numerous spots and anchor up. Look for rolling fish and try to be patient and quiet. A noisy boat motor will shut down fish in a hurry. Chasing the king down with a trolling motor can also prove to be very frustrating as the fish are constantly staying out of reach. Being patient and waiting for the fish to come along is very tough for me, but the reward is worth it. Throw your bait out uptide and drift it with the current as naturally as possible, with an open bail. When the line is peeling off your spool flip the bail and let the circle hook do the work. The fight is on. At times, it’s a good idea to throw out a bait and position the rod in the rod holder while drifting other baits, hopefully increasing your chances on getting a strike.  

If you are lucky enough to get a fish to eat, it’s time for the fight. The reel will start singing the sweet song you have been waiting to hear. Next, hold on and try to stay calm. Throw the anchor ball out and chase after the fish. Of course, it helps to have someone else driving the boat, and my rule of thumb is when when fishing deep water, always bring an accomplice. Safety first. Face the fish, keeping tension on the line at all times. When the poon jumps, and it usually will, crouch down. “Bowing to the king” as it’s called, is essential. This is done in order to keep tension off the line and leader, and the likelihood of the fish landing on the leader and breaking off is lesser. As best as possible, keep the fish from coming to the surface and grabbing some air. This seems to rejuvenate them and the fight is back on. Fighting a tarpon is hard work. The battle can last thirty minutes up to an hour or more. Be prepared for frustration; numerous battles are lost. It’s pretty common to lose a fish to a spit hook, broken leader, or in my case a shark. Recently, I was rewarded with a nice hundred pound class tarpon after a thirty minute battle. This was not easy. High winds, rain and schedule conflicts have made my fishing as of late tough. The tarpon are still out there at the moment, but not in huge numbers like in May and June. So far I have boated one and jumped seven. The seven jumped all spit the hook, so learning to adapt my tackle and techniques to better my results was the key. There is nothing like the thrill of hooking the fish, but the failure of a spit hook is very discouraging and frustrating. If you’re like me, failure will bring you back to redeem yourself, and give you nightmares of “the one that got away”.

I hope this has made tarpon fishing a little less complicated for you beginner fisherman out there. Not nearly have all the bases been covered, but this will be a good start. In my case, these fish seem to teach me something new every time they are hooked. Next year will be more productive, but I still have time to teach another one a thing or two this year!