A Guide to Fishing for Tarpon in Florida

Posted by Capt. Tony Fontana on May 18, 2017 in Fishing Tips

Tarpon are some of the most popular fish in Florida. This fish is known all throughout Florida, and it can jump as far as 10 feet from the water and rattles its gills, so it sounds like a rattlesnake. They can become very big. They’re also called Silver Sides, Sabalo, or Silver Kings. Even though they’re edible, they’re not eaten very often because they’re full of bones that are small and difficult to clean. They usually are found in water that is 74 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

This guide will tell you some information about how to catch Tarpon when you’re in Florida, where you can find them, and when you should go fishing for them. This will also tell you what bait to use, how you should hook tarpon and land the fish the right way.

Seasons & Locations

Middle and Upper Keys

There are a lot of Tarpon around Tom’s Harbor, Long Key, Seven Mile Bridge, and Channel Bridge. You can also find them on Jack Bank, Buchanan Bank and the flats. Even though they’re around this area around the year, the best time is to go is from the middle of March until the middle of July. During the spring, you’ll usually find them around Florida Bay, but then they’ll start going towards the Atlantic during the year.

Lower Keys

When you’re here, your best bet is Bahia Honda Bridge, Marquesas Keys and Key West Harbor. From May to July is when you want to fish here except for the harbor, which is full of the Tarpon feeding from January to March. The Marquesas Keys are uninhabited and aren’t connected by road. Key West is full of Tarpon and is a great place to fish if you’re able to access it. The bridge isn’t used now but it is surrounded by waters filled with Tarpon.

Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades

Rabbit Key, Sandy Key Basins, Lake Ingraham canals, Harney, and Lostman’s rivers’ mouths are great places for fishing for Tarpon. You can catch them all year round here, but the best time to catch them is from March through July.

West Coast (Everglade to Panhandle)

The best and most famous spot for Tarpon Fishing is Boca Grande. The best time for fishing is May to June, and that’s when people from throughout the world come and catch Tarpon. The flats that surround Crystal River and Homosassa Bay are packed full of huge Tarpon. Another good place to fish during June and summer is Apalachicola Bay.

Atlantic Coast, below Biscayne Bay

Even though they’re found throughout the Atlantic coast of Florida, inlets and ports that are below Biscayne Bay will provide the very best fishing. Port Everglades and Government Cut are great from January through June.

Bait

If you are using natural bait, you’re going to get the very best results when you’re fishing during ebb tide. Put yourself in the up-current and allow the bait drift to your fish. Use a Bimini Twist to double your line’s end at approximately 6’ and then attach approximately 8’ of 100-pound mono using a swivel. Use some sharp hooks, since a Tarpon’s mouth is hard, bony, and hard to penetrate. A lot of fisherman only land a Tarpon 1 out of 5 times.

Shrimp

When you are using shrimp for live bait, you want to hook one of your large shrimp beneath the horn on its head, or you can thread the shrimp and then free line it. Don’t use floats since they will make it hard for shrimp to naturally swim. Chumming using cut up and small pieces will help. Your hook size should be between 2/0 to 4/0. You should raise the rod while casting so that the shrimp will skip upon the surface. This is going to arouse the curiosity of the Tarpon. Keep on casting until you’re rewarded with a bite. You can also use crabs rather than shrimp. Remove the claws and put them on the hook with their bottom facing up. Cast towards the fish you’ve spotted and allow your bait to sink slowly in front of that fish.

Fish

Mullet, pinfish, and pilchards are all great. If you’re anchored, hook your fish on its top lip as well as behind its head. You should use a hook that’s 6/0 to 10/0 based on the size of your fish and a large float that’s 6’ to 8’ above your bait.

You can use dead or live fish when you’re fishing on the flats, along with big pieces of mullets. Make sure that you’re adjusting your float to ensure that the bait fish aren’t in the grass. You should be casting often, and near any sighted tarpon. If you’re spotting pods, you shouldn’t cast into it. Just cast close to it so that they see it but aren’t startled.

Artificial Lures

When you are using artificial lures, follow these guidelines that are mentioned above. Troll or work lures very slowly. These are some effective lures:

  • Black, green or red plastic worms (Texas rigged)
  • 3 oz of Gator Spoons
  • Natural colors Rapala Magnum for trolling

It’s best to use the artificial lures on flats. Use a lighter line and cast near enough to fish that you have sighed so that they’re able to see the lure. Plugs and spinning lures should be slowly retrieved. Let your lure sink and then intermittently pull your rod tit and reel in your slack.

When you are fishing in rivers and canals that are connected with salt waters, use Rebels, round-headed crappie about 1/8 ounces.

Be sure that if you’re fishing with artificial lures, that it’s not weighted so it’s hanging below your hook when your leader or line is held vertically. It’s prohibited to use weighted lures when Tarpon fishing and you could have to pay a big fine.

Fly Fishing

When you’re fly fishing, you should choose a fly color based on the type of bottom. Flies that are 3 to 5 inches long with 2 to 2/0 hooks are used for juveniles and for larger fish up to 5/0. Your streamer should be in good contrast with sea bottom. Yellow, red, and orange will be good over the sandy bottoms, with blue, light green, and light grey when fishing over the dark grass. When you spot Tarpon feeding upon mullet, 7 to 9” flies having dark stripes are best.

Slowly retrieve the fly in 6 to 12” segments. Speed it up and twitch more if you notice a fish start following to keep it interested.

When you’re fly fishing in rivers and canals, use a rod with a 5 to 7 weight, a 10 pound tippet with 20 pound 12” shock, a 1 pound 1” to 2” streamer in yellow or white, the Marabou streamer, Dahlberg Diver, muddler flies, and when you’re fishing in water that is dirty, use all-black streamers. Cast your fly over a fish that is rising.

How to Hook Tarpon

A lot of anglers will measure the success of a day by the number of Tarpon that they jumped rather than landed. That’s because the Tarpon’s really bony mouth will make it really hard to set hooks well. Don’t think that your hook is going to be sharp enough when you purchase them. You’ll have to sharpen them more yourself.

Another issue that you will have when you hook Tarpon is in the strike. Anglers who are inexperienced try setting their hook too early. When they are using natural bait, once they have gotten a bite, you should first take your slack line in. after you feel the weight you should strike hard two times. It’s also not a bad idea to wait another moment before you set your hook. This will make sure that the bait is actually in the fish’s mouth. When you’re using a hard lure, strike right when there is that heavy weight at your line’s end.

When fly fishing, a lot of fisherman will strike right when they see their fish eat the fly and this is a huge mistake. You should only set your hook when you’re feeling the weight of the fish. If the fly is taken by the Tarpon while they’re following it, you should stop stripping and wait a couple of moments. This will ensure the fly is deep in the mouth of the Tarpon’s mouth. Then you can strike. If the fly is taken while the fish is swimming in your direction, set your hook a few times quickly in a row.

Keep the tip of your rod close down toward the water, and the rod’s butt secured tightly against your stomach. Rotate your body quickly and make your rod go sideways so that your line will strip in hard. Don’t get discouraged if you lose your fish.

Landing a Tarpon

A lot of experienced anglers are surprised by Tarpon’s jumps. Once you have hooked your Tarpon solidly, you should expect lots of jumps high in the air, gill rattling, and somersaults. As the fish is getting ready to leap, lower the tip of your rod and then push it in the direction of your fish so that the line has some slack. Your reel’s drag is going to need some help, so situate your fingers so you’re pressing your line up against the rod and creating more resistance to you pulling the fish.

Once your Tarpon’s exhausted and it’s ready for landing, it’s going to roll over onto its side. Using your short lip gaff, push it through the Tarpon’s lower lip and the fish will need to be held while another person takes the hook from its mouth or clips the hook’s leader as close as possible.

Lifting a Tarpon by the lip gaff may severely injure it, so don’t try lifting it from the water. Since most Tarpon will be released, there are fisherman who flatten or remove the barb of the hook. This will make removal easier but you’re going to need a lot more fish. Following a fight, a lot of times the fish will need to be revived. Hold the Tarpon upright while it’s in the water and move it side to side to enhance the circulation of water through the gills.

This guide should help you the next time you decide to go out and catch tarpon.