Fishing for tarpon is like pursuing a dinosaur. These monsters have roamed the ocean since prehistoric times and can live up to 80 years. In fish terms, that's ancient. Although tarpon have no commercial value and can only be fished catch-and-release, they remain one of the most sought-after sport fish species in the world. To fully appreciate the awe-inspiring charisma of the tarpon, their intense strength and circus-freak acrobatics must be experienced firsthand. If you're curious about wrestling with the Silver King, read on for a crash-course on tarpon fishing gear, baits, and techniques.
Tarpon are highly migratory. To catch one, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Throughout their long lives, tarpon travel many thousands of miles across their range which extends from the Atlantic Coast of Brazil to Virginia and beyond. Some of the greatest concentrations of tarpon, however, are found in the Gulf of Mexico.
Every year starting in April or May, tarpon leave their warm water winter homes near Mexico and Central America and head north. After a long journey, they move into bays and passes from Texas to Florida where they feast on local forage—blue crabs are a favorite—in preparation for their annual spawning event. While Tarpon spawn offshore, the time period before they head to sea is when anglers should make their move. If you time it right and come prepared, tarpon can be caught in many inshore waters throughout the Gulf Coast.
Although tarpon are capable of reaching over 250 pounds, super heavy tackle isn't needed. Go ahead and leave the Tuna Sticks and boat-winch reels at home.
A spinning reel in the 5000 to 7000 size paired with a medium-heavy rod is a great all-purpose outfit for tarpon fishing. The reel should be fully sealed to guard against corrosive saltwater and have a strong, smooth drag to quickly tame your quarry. 50-pound test braided line is the standard for tarpon, and you'll want to have plenty on the spool—250 to 300 yards.
At the business end of your line, 60- to 80-pound test fluorocarbon is the leader material of choice. Tarpon don't have teeth, but their bony jaws are rough like sandpaper—the added abrasion resistance of fluorocarbon will reduce the risk of getting cut off. For unshakable hookups, circle hooks in sizes 6/0 to 10/0 are what you need. Circle hooks tend to stay seated in the corner of a tarpon's mouth better than standard "J" hooks. Plus, with a circle hook, you're less likely to gut-hook a tarpon, which is important since they must be released unharmed.
Tarpon are stout fish. Their scales are like armor and their mouths are hard and sharp. If you don't want to get cut up when handling the fish, bring a good pair of gloves and don't forget to wear them.
Locales where tarpon are found tend to be more tropical than temperate. That means long days under the blazing sun and humidity with a capital "H." The Huk Icon Long Sleeve shirt is one of the best ways to stay protected from the sun and stay cool while fishing for tarpon. It's made of Poly knit material that wicks moisture away from the skin and is antimicrobial so you don't end up smelling like the bait bucket.
A gaiter is an essential piece of gear that will protect your head, neck, and face from the sun and wind when you're ripping across the water after your catch. And since you're going after tarpon, you might as well grab the tarpon-print Huk KScott gaiter. That way your fellow anglers—and the fish—know you mean business.
From their larval state to fully mature adults, tarpon are opportunistic feeders. Whatever's around is what's on their menu.
Tarpon do most of their feeding on baitfish—pilchards, pinfish, grunts, mutton minnows, threadfin herring—the list goes on. Any of these baitfish species will catch tarpon under the right conditions. The key is to use what the tarpon are naturally eating.
When tarpon move into inshore waters along the Gulf Coast, however, they temporarily pass on baitfish in favor of a more abundant fare: blue crabs. The bottom line is, if you want to catch tarpon inshore, don't leave the marina without plenty of live blue crabs.
If your goal is to simply catch a tarpon, live bait is the way to go. But if you want more of a challenge, artificial lures can be a very rewarding way to catch tarpon. Topwater plugs like the Bomber Badonk-A-Donk are great to fish on days when tarpon are clearly rolling on the surface. They come in a huge range of colors to match the local baitfish and can be fished with a variety of cast-and-retrieve techniques.
When tarpon are feeding subsurface either on the bottom or somewhere in the mid-water column, a soft plastic swimbait rigged on a jighead can draw strikes. A lure like the Wild Eyed Swim Shad by Storm Lures is a great choice. Swimbaits are very versatile and can be fished free-line, under a cork, or bounced off the bottom.
Most tarpon fishing is accomplished man-to-fish. No complicated trolling spreads or kite setups needed. Keep things simple and you'll be rewarded. Whether you're rigging up live blue crabs, live baitfish, or soft plastics on a jighead, the free-line rig is by far the best rig for tarpon. Simply tie a 5- to 8-foot length of 60- to 80-pound fluorocarbon to your main line using a strong barrel swivel, then tie a circle hook to the leader using a non-slip mono loop knot. The loop knot allows the bait to move more freely in the current. Thread on your bait and you're ready to go.
If you're fishing with live blue crabs, start by pulling off the crab's pincers so it doesn't bury itself in the grass or sand. Then, pierce the hook point through the crab's shell from the bottom up.
The techniques you employ to catch tarpon depend on where the fish are, the day's weather, and water conditions.
On clear days with good visibility, sight fishing for tarpon is some of the most fun you'll ever have on the water. Cruise around until you spot fish rolling. Standing high up on a poling platform with a quality pair of polarized sunglasses is essential. When you find a pod, ease the boat into position down-current of the fish. Cast your bait or lure beyond the pod and slowly work your lure through the fish. Hang on, and be ready for the strike.
When tarpon are feeding subsurface or are concentrated in deep passes, drifting is the ticket. You'll need a high-quality sonar fish finder to locate tarpon. You'll also need to be ready to adapt your rigs to the depth you find the fish.
Once you find a fish-holding area, it's time to prepare for the drift. Carefully position the boat up-current of the fish so it will carry you through the middle of the pod. Throughout the drift, your boat should be facing into the current, as you'll be moving backward. Depending on how deep the fish are holding and how fast the current is moving, you may need to add weight to your free-line rig. In moderate to strong currents, the rig can be fished weightless. But if you need to get the bait down quick, an egg weight can be added to the main line above the swivel before tying on the leader, creating a fish-finder rig.
With your boat in position and your rigs ready, the drift can commence. Kill the motor and allow the current to carry the boat. Cast your lines out and be ready for a strike. If all goes well, your bait will float right into the mouth of a hungry tarpon.
If you want in on a little tarpon fishing secret it's this: fish the hill tides. In inshore waters in the Gulf, full moon and new moon phases create extra strong tides called "hill tides." These large surges of water flush huge quantities of bait from estuaries, bayous, and marshes into the passes and channels that connect to the open ocean. Tarpon show up in full force to capitalize on the abundance of food.
If your timing is good and you can make it out on a hill tide, bring plenty of live blue crabs, your rods, reels, and tackle—and put the tips for catching tarpon we've shared with you today to good use. Happy fishing anglers.