Tarpon Fishing in the Florida Keys 101
Tarpon are warm-water fish normally found in the subtropical Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. During the warmer months, they have been known to swim as far as South Carolina. Tarpon prefer shallow water and like to roll on the surface and gulp air. They can also travel into brackish water that has little to no oxygen.
Tarpon are catch-and-release fish, so if you want to bring them home for the dinner table, you have to buy a tag. Florida sells 300 to 400 tarpon tags per year, and the limit is two per day.
You can find tarpon as far north as Nova Scotia, though they prefer the coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. These game fish are scavengers that feed on mullet, pinfish, ladyfish, crabs, grunts, scaled sardines, threadfin herring, and catfish.
Tarpon grow up to eight feet long and can weigh 280 pounds. They have thick bodies and wide mouths. Female tarpon are larger than males and can reach up to 350 pounds. The largest caught off Florida was 243 pounds, but the largest on record was caught off Africa and weighed 286 pounds.
To reel in a great catch, here’s everything you need to know about tarpon fishing.
Florida Keys Tarpon Fishing Guide
If you’re looking to catch large tarpon fish, Florida is your best bet! You’ll need to prepare for a tarpon fishing trip in Florida, including ensuring you have the right gear and an experienced captain. Tarpon fishing is challenging, and the last thing you want is gear failure. You also need the proper bait. Tarpon are fussy and prefer certain colors. Finally, tarpon have hard mouths, so be prepared to really hook them. You can’t let the hook set itself or hook tarpon like you would a trout.
Know Some of the Tricks
If you are sight casting, one of the tricks you can use to determine the size of the tarpon in the area is to watch the birds. If the birds are small, so too will be the tarpon and the bait you’ll need to catch them – like small pilchards or glass minnows. If the birds are larger, so are the tarpon, and they will most likely be going after finger mullet and other bait in that size range. Adjust your gear to match the size of the tarpon, and you’ll have better luck catching them.
Another trick is to use dead bait if the tarpon are not biting. One guide found he caught his largest tarpon using dead bait. He believes that tarpon use their sense of smell to find bait, so the dead bait works great, especially if you are fishing in murky water.
Preparing Your Gear
You will need a seven to eight-foot spinning rod with a 6,000 to 8,000 reel. You can also use a 10 to 12-weight fly rod with a matching reel that holds at least 250 yards of line. The line must be strong, like a 30-pound Dacron backing.
If using a fly line, add a 12-foot leader with a 60-pound bite tippet. The flies should be purple, black, tan, or chartreuse, as tarpon are fussy. You’ll have better luck with dark colors on overcast days or in the evening and light colors on sunny days. Live bait is better. Hooks should be from 1/0 to 3/0.
Using ultra-light gear stresses the fish, as it makes the fight longer. Always choose gear designed for fish that are over 100-plus pounds when going after tarpon.
You may have to learn some new knots. The knots you use in freshwater fishing aren’t going to hold while fighting big game fish. Finally, if you are fishing around bridges, piers, mangroves, and docks, use even heavier gear.
Choose Your Fishing Method
You can catch tarpon in Florida using three methods:
- Sight Casting. When fishing close to shore, sight casting is popular, as you can see the tarpon. The best bait to use when sight casting is crab, shrimp, mullet, pilchards, and pinfish. When you see a tarpon, cast your bait in front of it, ensuring it’s close enough for the tarpon to see. Be ultra quiet when tarpon fishing because they are easily spooked. Since tarpon have bony mouths, you’ll need a sharp circle hook, or you won’t have any luck setting it, and your catch will get away.
- Trolling. This method is not as common as sight casting, but it is fun! Choose an experienced tarpon fishing captain to take you out. The best way is to use live bait – two behind the boat. Using two different baits gets better results. Set the rods. If you must use artificial bait, you’ll have the best luck with spoons and topwater plugs. Once everything is set up, slowly troll the area and relax until you see the rod twitch. Make sure you spread the rods out so the lines don’t get tangled.
- Fly Fishing. If you really want a challenge, you can fly fish for tarpon. You’ll need a lot of patience and energy. You’ll need to be able to make quick casts, and a floating weight-forward fly line with 30 to 38 feet of head works well. Fly color is very important – if the bottom is sandy, you’ll need yellow, orange, and red patterns. If you are fishing over dark grass, green and blue colors are better.
When is the Best Time for Tarpon Fishing in the Florida Keys?
You can catch tarpon almost all year in Florida, but the best chances to hook them are from March through June and September through October. Tarpon season runs from February through November.
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