Tarpon are magnificent game fish that owe much of their fame to their incredible size and equally enthralling acrobatic abilities. However, it’s not only monster megalops that create frustration among enthusiastic anglers. There’s something magical about juvenile tarpon, too. Even for their small stature they have the uncanny ability to wreak havoc on tackle and destroy marriages.
Aaron Adams holds a doctorate in marine biology and is the Director of Operations for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. He suspects that thousands of tarpon congregate in southwest Florida during the late spring. “We don’t know yet where they winter-over, but we do know that they spawn in the Gulf of Mexico up to 200-miles offshore during full and new moon phases. Afterwards, a number of fish show up along southwest Florida’s barrier islands and the nearby Florida Keys. We don’t know where the rest go, which is one of the main things Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is trying to determine.
Micro ‘poons often reside in deep backcountry lairs that are very difficult to access. Because of this, kayak fishing is a great way to target these baby bruisers.
There hasn’t been much research on tarpon in the past because they don’t have any food value. Tarpon migration, like so much else involving these majestic game fish, is still pretty much a mystery,” continued Adams.
What isn’t a mystery is their subsequent life cycle, and thus begins an epic journey in search for one of saltwater angling’s greatest adversaries—one that culminates with the triumph of victory or the agony of defeat.
Once they’ve hatched, tarpon larvae are hardly larger than a dime and live—as best they can—in the open water of the Gulf for 15 to 26 days. Less than one-percent of hatchlings live long enough to make it to the safety of interior rivers, creeks, lagoons, and residential canals where they seek shelter and mature. They especially enjoy brackish backwaters because when oxygen levels are depleted, tarpon have the unique ability to intake oxygen by rolling and breathing air. So, it makes sense that anglers targeting juvenile tarpon should investigate inshore venues that are heavily influenced by extreme spring tides and seasonal rains. Micro ‘poons often reside in deep backcountry lairs that are very difficult to access. Because of this, kayak fishing is a great way to target these baby bruisers. The combination of maneuverability and stealth afforded by a kayak make it the perfect platform for chasing juvenile tarpon in tight quarters. It can be a challenging endeavor, but highly worthwhile if you’re up for an adventure. Online forums, local bait and tackle shops, and computer programs that provide hi-resolution aerial imagery can all help pinpoint estuaries and habitats that are worthy of exploration. However, there’s no substitute for scouting new territory on your own.
Tarpon grow very rapidly during their first five years and often reach 14-inches by their first birthday. A two-year-old tarpon may be 30-inches and weigh 20-pounds. Always keep in mind that these juvenile fish are just as skittish and sensitive as their larger siblings, which is why a push-pole is often the best way to approach laid-up tarpon residing deep in the backcountry. It’s a real benefit if the wind or current can help push your boat into prime position. If you spot rolling fish, it’s best to maneuver your craft so that you’ll be positioned adjacent to the fish’s path of travel.
Even when specifically targeting smaller fish in the 10 to 20-pound class, don’t make the mistake of using rods, reels, and terminal tackle that aren’t adequate for the job. Since it’s not uncommon for a 30 or 50-pound tarpon to cruise by the playground, make sure your equipped with a medium to heavy-action spinning outfit spooled with fresh 20lb. test. Crabs are the ultimate live offering, followed by pinfish and shrimp. When it comes to artificial offerings it’s hard to beat a white bucktail, but a wide variety of soft plastics and stick baits will also get the job done. Once you’ve jumped a few juvenile tarpon on spinning tackle try your luck on fly with a 9-weight. When it comes to fly selection, think furry in black/purple for tannic-colored water. It will also serve you well to have some Bunny Leech flies in black/red and brown/red. Sometimes all white flies will be just what the tarpon ordered. If you find they are being finicky, keep changing offerings. There are few game fish as picky about what and when they eat and there’s really no telling what the tarpon will be keen on during any given day.
Ultimately, presentation is critical to your overall success on the water. It’s all about reaction time and leading the fish. And while you won’t be locked into an hour-long battle, don’t discount delinquent ‘poons for incredible light tackle action.