In the sportfishing world, few species attract the kind of attention that the Tarpon enjoys. It is easily one of the most exciting fish to catch, thus earning it the nickname, “The Silver King”. The fact that they are generally not eaten has prevented over-fishing, as has the fact that they are finicky biters and ferocious fighters.
Tarpon generally average 30 to 90 pounds, but a female can grow as large as 300 pounds and can reach over 8 ft long. The females can live for over 50 years, while the smaller males average 30 years. They are very slow growers and do not reach sexual maturity until 7 up to 13 years of age. Spawning usually occurs in late spring to early summer.
Tarpon inhabit warmer waters; primarily the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, and the West Indies. Though tarpon are regularly caught by anglers at Cape Hatteras and as far north as Nova Scotia, and their range extends all the way down to southern Brazil.
They have been on the planet some 100 million years, yet so little is understood about them. Scientific studies do indicate that schools of tarpon have routinely migrated through the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back for over 70 years. However, they have not been found to breed in the Pacific Ocean.
Tarpon are special because they are one of the few fish in the world that have a swim bladder that acts as a lung so they can breathe raw air, as well as through their gills. This gas structure can be used for buoyancy, as an accessory respiratory organ, or both. This is one reason it is thought that they can battle for so long, because of the amount of oxygen they are able to take in throughout the fight. It gives them short extra bursts of energy that add to the explosiveness of their jumps.
These fish are obligate air breathers, and if they are not allowed to access the surface, they will die. For fishermen this is an advantage because tarpon will periodically roll on the surface to grab a breath of air, making them easier to target. That and the fact that they can often be found in shallower inshore waters make them ideal for recreational fishing.
Adult tarpon are strictly carnivorous and feed on midwater prey; they swallow their food whole and hunt nocturnally. They feed regularly on pilchards, mullet, pinfish, shrimp and crabs, all of which are excellent to use as live bait.
Shrimp - Hook a large shrimp under its horn on the head or thread it and freeline it. Avoid using floats because they make it difficult for the shrimp to swim naturally. Chumming with small, cut-up pieces helps. Your hook size should be 2/0–4/0, and you should be using circle hooks.
Crabs - Remove their claws and hook them bottom-up. Cast towards your target fish and let the bait slowly sink in front of it. 2/0-4/0 hooks should suffice.
Pilchards, Mullet, Pinfish - Hook in the bait fish behind the anal fin or in front of the dorsal fin to ensure they stay alive for as long as possible. If you’re anchored, hook the bait fish on the top lip and behind the head. Use a 6/0–10/0 hook depending on fish size with a large float 6–8 foot above the bait. All tarpon will take dead baits as well, such as a mullet head or half mullet, fished on bottom.
Tarpon bites can be surprisingly subtle, given the size of the fish. This is particularly true when casting to milling fish. Often the slightest tick or bump is all that will be felt. It is actually a lot like largemouth bass taking a plastic worm. Anglers should resist the urge to set the hook when a tarpon takes the bait.
When you feel the bite, take in the slack line, wait until you feel the weight, and strike hard two times. It might also be a good idea to wait an additional couple of seconds before setting the hook. Waiting will make sure the bait is solidly in the Tarpon’s mouth. Inexperienced tarpon anglers will tend to set the hook too early.
Let the circle hook turn and lodge in the corner of the tarpon’s jaw, and hang on for the one of the most exciting fights you’ll have anywhere on the water. Expect acrobatic jumps and sharp turns as these giants battle your line, and extended runs just when you think the fish may have had enough.
You may likely hear your guide tell you to ‘bow to the king’ when a tarpon jumps. It’s critical to give the leaping fish extra line to allow for a higher jump, and resist the tendency to pull back and try to horse the fish in toward the boat or shore.
Rigging for tarpon is relatively simple. Start with a 3-foot Bimini twist tied to 5 feet of 80-pound leader with a Bristol knot, and with a short piece of 90-pound fluorocarbon between the mono and the circle hook. Of course, you can use all mono or all fluorocarbon, but some fishermen attest that you can get more bites with fluorocarbon.
Many anglers use spinning tackle when tarpon fishing. There are several reasons for this. Surprisingly, tarpon often feed on smaller baits such as live shrimp and crabs. These do not weigh very much and spinning tackle allows anglers to get the bait out a reasonable distance. Longer rods in the 7 foot to 8 foot range with a fast action work best.
If you’re using hard lures, strike as soon as you feel the fish’s weight at the end of your line. They will tend to bite artificial lures more readily the more turbidity there is in the water.
Tarpon are often jigged with hard baits in Florida's Boca Grande Pass, which is considered one of the best tarpon destinations in the world. Be ready for crowds of boats, though, as the narrow pass attracts scores of them every day, especially in the spring.No matter what type of technique you utilize, catching a silver king is an experience you’ll treasure as an angler, and likely seek out again and again. Tight lines!!! -WR