It's the most exciting fishing Florida has to offer. Maybe it's the most exciting fishing anywhere.
Staring down a 150-pound, six-foot long tarpon just a cast away in clear water is one of the most heart-pounding moments in angling. It has caused the best of us to step on the flyline or toss a monumental bird's nest with a baitcaster.
Should you be lucky enough to get the bait or lure in front of the fish and get bit, the result is stunning, to say the least. The first jump can take the fish 10 feet in the air and 20 feet across the surface, gills rattling, silver scales larger than silver dollars flashing. Seconds later it will be 100 yards away and you might be staring at your rapidly emptying spool.
The shallow-water action begins in early May most years and extends well into July. At that point, usually on the full or new moon, most of the fish disappear for a few days, heading far offshore to spawn. When they return, most of them head into the murky back bays, including the upper end of Tampa Bay and upper Charlotte Harbor. They're still catchable, but no longer in the clear water where sight-fishing is such a thrill.
Finding the fish along the beaches is usually a dawn patrol. In our area, it's common to have calm winds from first light until about 9 a.m. Calm seas make it easy to spot tarpon rolling at a considerable distance and position the boat in their path.
The fish usually travel parallel to the beach, anywhere from 100 yards off to several miles out. The trick is to get in front of them, very quietly, and then let them come into casting range. Motoring after them will only result in the fish spooking – and angry words from other anglers hoping to fish the same school.
To depths of about 8 feet, long push poles are the best bet for a silent approach. In deeper water, a pair of 24-volt electric trolling motors does the job on most boats. The trick with the electrics is to keep them running at a steady, low speed. Blipping them on and off at full power is another tarpon-spooker.
Captain Justin Moore of Anna Maria has devised a method of getting lots of hookups by slow-trolling live threadfins far behind his boat. He gets in front of the fish, then lets them catch up to the baits. Since baits and fish are going in the same direction, the presentation is extended and his clients have lots of hookups.
Anglers who want a tarpon on the flyrod have a much greater challenge. It usually requires a cast of 80 feet or more to put the fly on the fish without them seeing the boat. For those not used to swinging a 12-weight rod, making such a cast with fish bearing down on them is no easy feat. It's common to make dozens of presentations and never get bit, but persistence and lots of opportunities will eventually result in a hookup.
The easy way to get a hookup is to catch some "pass crabs" as they float in the weedlines of major passes, hook them up on heavy saltwater spinning gear and 50- to 80-pound braid, and pitch the baits in front of the fish as they swim into range. Spinning gear avoids backlashes, and the no-stretch lines help to tame the giant fish in reasonable time.
All tarpon are released these days, a good thing since the fish may live for 35 years. The fish you let go today will be there next year and the year after, even bigger and more ready for a tussle.
For details on tarpon fishing, visit the FWC website www.myfwc.com.