While the Florida Keys certainly can’t be discounted, spring through summer large-scaled giants can be found prowling area flats, beaches, bays and backwaters along the entire west coast of the state. While theories have been hypothesized, tarpon migration, seasonal dispersion and spawning patterns are still relatively unknown, although resident ‘poon can be encountered along the Gulf year-round. One thing we know for sure is that as you read this serious tarpon hunters are looking to tame the mighty silver king. While those who persevered big battles during peak season back in May and June are on their couches nursing battle wounds, big tarpon are still in town and anyone looking to pick a fight can easily find a brawl. Check out the following hot spots, but don’t hesitate to branch out and investigate area waters in the vicinity of these proven grounds. There’s incredible tarpon fishing near you no matter where you reside.
Along the Forgotten Coast, tarpon season takes off as schools of menhaden infiltrate area beaches. From Cape San Blas to St. George Island, it shouldn’t be difficult to locate these powerful adversaries. The only predicament is whether or not you want to battle cooperative fish in the 75- to 100-pound range or knockout battlers upwards of 200 pounds. Prevalent weather conditions will dictate your time spent on the water, and don’t let tarpon fever cloud your judgment—afternoon thunderstorms are no joke. If you’re interested in sight fishing open water you are in luck as there’s no shortage of action to be had. Cruising the crystal clear sandbars off area beaches will put you in prime position with massive schools of tarpon. Remember that presentation and boat position in relation to the moving mass is critical. While searching the beaches should be your number one priority, you can also try your luck near West Pass. Situated between St. Vincent Island and Little St. George Island, this natural inlet has deep holes that hold schooling tarpon. Tidal changes early and late in the day offer the best action, with swim baits and live offerings fished deep enticing strikes. When the bite is on the tarpon fishing this far north can be as good as it gets.
Although their timing and location is a bit different every year, one thing you can count on is that world-record tarpon will swim through Homosassa’s crystal clear waters this summer. The action typically peaks by June, although tarpon can be encountered throughout the entire summer season. After the full moon in July most tarpon anglers leave town even though big fish can still be found. A quaint fishing village, Homosassa is home to several IGFA tarpon world records and the key to catching a trophy tarpon is to get out early and beat the heat. Gear for this hefty specimen needs to be stout. And while light tackle anglers can certainly score big, this is one of the ultimate venues for fly casters. High quality 12-weight outfits loaded with 16- or 20-pound class leaders and 80-pound tippets are required. Monic clear fly lines are the choice amongst top guides, with fish specific tapers making accurate casts with long leaders and large flies much easier. Dark flies seem to work best for early mornings, with lighter colors better suited when the sun is high in the sky. No matter how experienced you are, you can’t expect to win every battle. Possessed tarpon will certainly deflate your ego and have you searching for weaker game fish. The name of the game here is to traverse flats with push-pole or trolling motor power. We shouldn’t have to tell you that presentation is crucial. For fly anglers the first thing a tarpon should see is your fly, not your leader or arms flailing through the air. If you’re not confident in your casting abilities be sure to practice the two-step before the big dance.
3. Tampa Bay
The broad expanse of Tampa Bay has numerous venues for summer tarpon. And while we know these fish certainly stage near channels, river mouths, deep flats, oyster bars, grass edges and around points and docks, some of the best opportunities are afforded near area bridges. During the strongest tides, drifting a live crab, pinfish or threadfin by the shadow lines of bridge pilings is an excellent way to get connected. While live baits work wonders, tossing surface plugs is another great technique. Although nearby Boca Grande Pass is well known for its incredible tarpon action, not to mention mind-boggling crowds, the mouth of Tampa Bay at Egmont Key also offers productive pass action. Don’t think you’ll get it all to yourself, but summer hill tides at Egmont offer action rivaling any location in the state. Because other anglers will be present it’s crucial you use courtesy and common sense. If you’d rather fish in solitude, start your mornings along area beaches as you search for cruising pods of rolling fish.
4. Charlotte Harbor
While prevalent weather patterns have the ultimate say, tarpon fishing during July and August can be downright exhilarating. Big fish over 100 pounds will be in a transitional phase and can be found anywhere from the open harbor out to area beaches. For the best opportunities, target inside flats in 5 to 15 feet of water. Best fished when the wind is calm, a slight chop can help soothe spooky fish, although they can be more difficult to locate. The fish seem to cooperate best on mornings with an incoming tide as they roam lush grass flats. Threadfin will be prevalent and make for excellent bait, but you may have to cull and select 6-inch choice baits. Stay upwind of the fish to remain undetected. Fly fishing is another alternative with purple bunny sliders enticing fish when worked slow and deep. Fishing these schools of tarpon can be frustrating because while they will be visible at times, they may not always be cooperative.
The Everglades is an essential tarpon nursery, but don’t think you’ll only encounter juvenile fish when scouring these stained waters. Early morning hours will be highlighted by slow-rolling tarpon along coves, shorelines, oyster bars, and around points that alter current flow. Tarpon can often be found laid up along depressions that parallel spoil islands, and in the maze known as ENP understanding tidal flow is crucial. An outgoing tide will have tarpon waiting in ambush for baitfish and crustaceans to be washed out with the tide. Tarpon have large eyes, which offers them excellent vision. Because of this your presentation needs to be flawless. The first hour of light is the most ideal, with rolling tarpon eager to delight. Even with stained water and low-light conditions big tarpon are relatively easy to spot. Success comes with an acquired level of experience and patience, and those who have the stamina will come out on top.
When, Where & Why?
While it is known that tarpon spawn from spring through summer, the exact timing and location is still somewhat of a mystery. Observations and limited research suggests tarpon travel over 100 miles offshore for spawning, with satellite tagging data revealing these impressive predators diving to depths of 400 feet days prior to full and new moons. This coincides with what local captains experience on the water—tarpon migrating offshore prior to full and new moons, and moving back to coastal waters once they’ve wrapped up their spawning duties. The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (tarbone.org) is leading the way in tarpon research, understanding that there is much work to do to ensure this great game fish’s long-term sustainability.