Bow To The King

Bridging The Gap With Florida Keys Tarpon

Capt. Randy Towe May 17, 2013

The spring to summer transitional period brings new life to state waters, with mature tarpon exciting anglers along both coasts. While impressive feats will be accomplished along oceanside flats, passes and backcountry shallows statewide, some of the most exciting and consistent action takes place in the vicinity of the numerous bridges that connect the fertile Florida Keys. With perfect position along the tarpon’s massive migration route, ideal weather and numerous channels that confuse forage and alter currents, and it’s no surprise the Florida Keys offer what is arguably the best opportunity in the world to successfully catch and release trophy tarpon.

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Keep your rig simple and strong and you’ll emerge victorious. Photo: Pat Ford

While many anglers visit the Florida Keys in the hopes of taming massive tarpon on fly, bridge fishing is not the venue. Fooling tarpon along Florida Keys bridges is best accomplished with live bait, but your approach and presentation will be determined by the prevalent conditions. Tarpon fishing isn’t complicated and during the spring, early in the tarpon migration, live mullet are the go-to bait. As Florida Bay waters continue to warm, mullet thin out and crabs become the favorite. Additionally, never discount live pinfish.

Give plenty of room to boats fighting fish and always idle past guides actively fishing.

Some seasoned tarpon vets claim that tides are the most influential factor, but I’ve found that it’s more important to observe and adapt to the conditions in their entirety. Whether you are fishing Channel 2, Channel 5, Indian Key, Long Key, Bahia Honda, or the Seven Mile Bridge, along the bayside or oceanside, there are so many factors that play a role you can’t focus your efforts or gauge results solely on the tide.

When tarpon are in my crosshairs, I’ll scout around and search for conditions favoring what I’m attempting to do. If I want to drift and cover ground, I’ll look for an area where the wind is blowing against the tide— whether it’s incoming or outgoing. If I plan on anchoring I’ll look for signs of life in areas protected from the heaviest current. As a full-time guide I’m forced to find fish on all stages of the tide and I’ve learned that flooding or ebbing doesn’t mean very much if you learn to recognize favorable conditions.

One thing you can do to increase your catch ratio is scale down your leader. In years past we fished 80 or 100 lb. fluorocarbon, but I’ve recently scaled it down to 50 lb. and noticed a dramatic increase in the number of strikes we experience. With circle-hooks, almost every fish is hooked perfectly in the corner of the mouth where the leader, for the most part, remains out of harms way. And while you certainly don’t want to go too light, at the end of the day the more strikes you get the more fish you will successfully release.

When it comes to rigging it is paramount your connections are perfect. I start with a Bimini twist and attach my leader with a tiny SPRO swivel. If you aren’t confident in your knot tying skills remember to keep it simple and strong. Anything less than fortified terminal gear will fail under the pressure of a leaping giant. VMC hooks are my favorite and you must remember to select hook size in relation to bait size, not the fish you intend to catch. For live pinfish rig with a 6/0, while live mullet should be impaled on a 7/0. When fishing crabs hook selection will vary even more. Half dollar sized crabs fish well on a 5/0, but really big crabs need an 8/0. While some stray away from fishing jumbo crabs, sometimes the tarpon are keyed in on them. I believe the moon phase has a lot to do with this. Whatever the case, the point is that you shouldn’t get stuck fishing the same bait. Change it up and keep a few different offerings in the livewell. Tarpon are scavengers and will eat just about anything. Sometimes a split tail mullet fished on the bottom with a 4 oz. egg sinker is all that is necessary.

Spotting rolling fish is always a positive sign and when I see fish on the surface I stealthily work my way around them and either set up a drift to intercept their course of travel, or get up current far enough where I can anchor and drift baits back to them. If you choose the latter, it’s important you avoid fishing the hardest edges of the current so your baits don’t spin in the raging water.

When a tarpon takes to the air, which shouldn’t take too long, you’ll have to take great care to stay on top of your fish, so be prepared to throw an anchor ball. Experienced anglers know that Florida Keys tarpon don’t play nice. These fish are big and powerful and will do whatever they want, including weaving in and out of the bridge abutments in their best effort to escape the unfamiliar tether. If you get the fish in open water you can attempt to position your skiff in between the fish and the bridge, but it’s likely all attempts will be thwarted with ease. Tarpon are overpowering and sometimes all you can do is roll with the punches.

It’s important to note that many guides make a living tarpon fishing in the Keys and have been doing so for years. Not to say that anyone owns the water, even though some claim they do, but you should be courteous to anglers fishing high traffic bridges and channels. Give plenty of room to boats fighting fish and always idle past guides actively fishing. Everyone is looking for the same thing and thankfully there’s no shortage of tarpon in the Keys.

Off the Hook

When fishing on the anchor for tarpon, it is imperative you’re rigged and ready with a quick disconnect anchor ball. Big tarpon are fierce and fast, and you simply won’t have time to retrieve your anchor. The process is simple. Attach an 8 inch poly ball to the tag end of your anchor line (50 feet is plenty) just outside of the forward cleat. When a fish is hooked, untie the anchor line from the cleat and go chase your fish. After a successful release you can return to the ball to tie off again or retrieve your anchor.

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