Reel Time: Tarpon tactics

Tarpon season is one of the most anticipated times of the year for local anglers. While it’s possible to encounter tarpon occasionally most every month of the year, May through July is the time savvy anglers turn their attention to pursuing them along area beaches. Their arrival in numbers is generally dependent on water temperature and the length of days. The magic number is debatable, but when water temperatures reach into the 70s ardent anglers take notice. When that number reaches the high 70s to low 80s, they mobilize.

For most anglers this isn’t a numbers game, it’s the pursuit, the surroundings and the spectacular fight that keeps them pinned to the bow. Tackle should always match the size of the quarry and it’s particularly important when fishing for Tarpon. Most anglers opt for a 20- to 30-pound spin and/or 11-12 weight fly outfits. A heavy bite tippet is required because the tarpons rasp-like mouth. Fly anglers generally use 60- to 80-pound tippet while spin anglers choose 70 to 100-pound test. While it might seem like a difficult task to land a tarpon on the fly, or any tackle for that matter, anglers who know the limits of their gear can land a tarpon in a surprisingly short period of time. The key is to apply maximum pressure from the hookup and never let up. Too many anglers “baby” their fish in a misguided attempt to land them. The truth is that the longer the fight, the better chance you have of losing.

Reel Time: Tarpon tactics
Captain Justin Moore prepares to release a tarpon landed recently off Longboat Key by angler Brian Neslund of Lakeland. – Submitted | Drew Russell

A properly (IGFA approved) tied tarpon leader used by fly fishers is tied and tapered to accurately deliver the fly. The leader includes a class tippet (the weakest link) from 16-20 pounds that is doubled at both ends to soften the (shock) impact to the class tippet and bite tippet. Key to the whole equation is to have a very sharp hook as tarpon have extremely tough mouths. Conventional leaders vary from angler to angler, but a doubled standing line tied to a leader and then to the bite tippet with a blood knot or Albright Special is common.

Flies vary from the classic splayed feather Key’s style to more complex designs like the Toad, various baitfish imitations and Paolo worm flies. Some fly anglers are not concerned with landing a tarpon, preferring to just enjoy the hunt, the hookup and the jumps that usually follow the hook set. They use light bite tippets which allows the tarpon to work through the leader with their abrasive mouths. The key to landing tarpon on the fly is accuracy. The fly must be placed perfectly, moved in a precise direction relative to the fish and be at the tarpon’s depth, preferably right on their nose. Even when all these factors come together, there’s still about a 50% chance that the tarpon will reject the fly.

A key point is to be aware of your surroundings and courteous when tarpon fishing. Don’t try to run down a school of tarpon. If another boat is working a school, find another or hopscotch wide around for a shot. Tarpon fishing is all catch and release unless you’ve purchased a special tarpon tag. It is also illegal to take tarpon over 40 inches out of the water. Try tarpon fishing on your own or, better yet, hire one of the many excellent local guides. That will be money well spent.