Tarpon fishing is guaranteed excitement for seasoned anglers and to those who have never even been fishing before. Whether you’re a tarpon fishing guide, a regular who books tarpon charters, the angler on the beach, or in a kayak who paddles his heart out for just one cast, or beginner fisherman; there is nothing like the thrill of a tarpon exploding out of the water after the hook set. Tarpon fishing has all the thrill of hunting and stalking, along with the skill of fishing that makes the anticipation factor leave your body pumping with adrenaline.
Tampa bay tarpon fishing is one of the finest fisheries in the world. The tarpon in the bay area are second to none for size and sheer numbers. Most of the fish run from 50 to 200 pounds plus. Average tarpon are 70 to 140 pounds. Trophy tarpon in these parts are 150 to 200 plus pounds. There have been tarpon landed in the bay that hit the scales just under 250 pounds. Surely there is a larger one that would break the world record swimming out there. A good day on my tarpon charters we may hook up to 20 plus grown mature tarpon. An average day during peak tarpon season, May through July, we average 8 to 12. Even on the slow days we usually manage 3 or 4 tarpon hooked ups. Now tarpon are very hard fighters, even on 50 pound test tackle a fight on a large fish can go two hours. With high flying hard head shaking jumps and long power runs leave a lot of opportunity for them to get off. On a good day of tarpon fishing we may land half a dozen tarpon, on an average day expect 2 to 4 on my tarpon fishing charters. Even on a slow day we’ll probably land a least one. When it comes to tarpon it’s really not all about the landing, it’s more about the battles, and even the ones that get away are exciting. It’s those first 15 minutes when the tarpon make their most explosive jumps.
Imagine it’s May, the water is flat as glass and the sky is purple in the east as the sun rises. You’re sitting in the bow of a 24 foot custom tarpon tower boat designed and souped-up for nothing but slaying tarpon. At the helm is one of the gulf coasts most experienced tarpon fishing guides. As far as your guide is concerned he never goes home empty handed and tarpon fishing is his favorite thing to do, you’re feeling confident. The cool morning air brushes across your face as you watch the sun rise racing out across the bay on our way to catch tarpon bait. Daily fresh threadfin shad and green backs are a must for a successful day and your charter captain knows right where to get them. A half hour later the captain asks, “are you guys ready to rock” as he empties his final cast net full of perfect size tarpon bait into his live well. That’s code for we’re loaded with bait and we are going have one exciting day of tarpon fishing. Your captain climbs to the upper helm and jumps the boat up on plane, heading south along the clear white sand bottom beaches of Anna Maria Island. A tarpon Mecca known as one of the best places to site fish tarpon in the world. 15 minutes later the captain drops off plane and yells, “grab your rods”. You look around wondering what he has seen, the 6 horse power trolling motors are running full bore. Your captain is focused, it’s obvious he sees something and he knows where he is going. Five minutes later the rods are out the back of the boat, 3 corks floating 10 feet apart. Suddenly 20 giant tarpon all come to the surface at the same time just 20 yard beyond the corks and your captain has positioned you perfectly. He yells down that there are at least a hundred fish in the school, bunched up perfectly and any minute now guys. Now your heart starts beating faster, you grip the rod tighter with anticipation. The fish rise again now five yards away. The captain yells again, “Point your rods at the corks and get ready to strike”. This is the moment of truth. Again the captain starts to yell out, almost as if he is counting down, “Get ready, Get ready”! Suddenly the yellow cork fires under, it’s yours, instantly your brain registers and you set the hook as hard as you can. The captain yells for a second hook set and you do so.
The largest fish you have ever seen leaps 15 yards off the back of the boat, 8 ft into the air and it’s hooked to your line. The Giant tarpon cartwheels in the air end over end, two times in a row and then line starts peeling off the reel as your drag begins to sing. “Set the hook,” you hear the captain yell again. You turn to look over your shoulder just in time to see you best friends first tarpon leap out of the water. For a minute there you where in your own little world, it just registers that while you where battling your fish your friends were getting into position for theirs. The boat now has two giant tarpon hooked up. You look over at you friend, his face is beaming with excitement, as is yours. You realize at that moment that you’re living out a dream.
- TARPON CALENDAR -
Tarpon fishing is almost a year round endeavor here in Tamp Bay. Pretty much when the water sustains constant temperature we have tarpon to catch here in the Tampa Bay area. Of course certain times of the year we have better tarpon fishing. So let’s start from the first of the year.
JANUARY- Water is cold, tarpon fishing pretty much not happening except for a few bay tarpon in the rivers and a few medium size fish in the power plants.
FEBUARY- Is much like January depending on water temperature, sometimes toward the middle to the end of the month the resident full grown tarpon will make for some early season fishing around the bridges. They are very temperature sensitive at this time and only bite on the warmer days.
MARCH- Is really when our early season tarpon fishing kicks it once the water temperature sustains above 70 degrees. It can be a very good month with lots of multiple hook ups. A good day may produce as many as a dozen hookups. All the fish range from 50 to 200 plus pounds around the bays bridges, large structures and rock ledges. There is also some good tarpon fishing in the rivers for smaller fish from 20 to 60 pounds. This is a great time of year to tarpon fish the early morning and then hit the flats for snook and redfish.
Is a very good consistent month for resident fish, similar to March but probably
a little more consistent. The water has warmed up and the fish’s metabolism is
working faster so they need to eat more.
They feed more though out the day.
Toward the end of the month there are some fish
hitting the beaches and large bay passes from the southern migration, sometimes
in fishable numbers, but usually it’s a little early for those fish.
MAY- Really marks the start of the southern migration when thousands of Tarpon hit the beaches, passes, and flood into the waters throughout Tampa bay. It’s without a doubt the beginning of tarpon fever and what marks the start of peek season for sight fishing tarpon. Tarpon fishing is excellent on the beaches at this time with light boat traffic making for prime sight fishing on light tackle and fly fishing. An average day is 7 to 12 hooked with 2 to 3 landed, sometimes more. Tarpon fishing is also very good for the resident fish up in the bay and offers a lot of opportunities in many directions. Migrating Tarpon average 70 to 140 pounds. Trophies start at 150 pounds and go right up to 200 Plus.
JUNE- Is a great month, right in the middle of peek season. There are tarpon everywhere, more boat traffic but more fish so it balances itself out. Sight fishing is great on the beaches. There are more fish in the passes than the month before. The resident fish are biting good up in the bay as well. Pretty much the tarpon are everywhere.
JULY- Tarpon fishing is still good on the beach. Tarpon are thick in the passes. Sometimes they get in large spread-out schools that can run a mile long; all you have to do is get in the middle and drift. It’s really awesome and fish can be seen rolling in every direction. Sometimes you can’t even decide where to cast. You cast one direction and you see 5 roll the other direction. It’s very exciting and the schools are as large as May and June, not as balled up so that pinpoint casting is not as important as the months before.
AUGUST- Prime season has dwindled down but it is still good for tarpon fishing. A Tampa Bay tarpon charter can still produce a half dozen fish or so during the month of august. The migrating tarpon have slowed and thinned out at this point but there are still some fish left in the passes from the migration. The resident fish can be very good at this time. The water is hot so they have to eat more per day to stay healthy. There is also some sight fishing for resident tarpon in the back bays that go for live bait, fly or artificial.
SEPTEMBER- Tarpon fishing is much the same as august. The only difference is the last of the migration is gone in the passes; the resident tarpon is really where the best action is at this point. The nice thing about tarpon fishing after the peak season is very light tarpon fishing traffic. You get a lot of good opportunities and don’t have to worry about other boat traffic.
OCTOBER- Is a great month to be on the water, excellent weather and light boat traffic? Most of the tarpon fishing is done on the bays deep water structures at that point. Sometime the beach can be good with a scattering of tarpon heading south for warmer water. These are the same fish that we fish on the beaches in early summer. They are usually mixed in the large bait schools. Sometime tarpon can be very good on the beach at that time, but it’s very hit or miss. The resident tarpon are a better bet for consistent day to day action.
NOVEMBER- Tarpon fishing in November is much like October but usually winding down for the year around the end of the month. Tarpon are still worth chasing until the water dips below a sustained 70 degree temperature.
DECEMBER- It’s still possible to catch small tarpon in the rivers and back water canals. Occasionally someone may catch a mid size tarpon in one of the power plants as well, but all in all it’s best to find something else to fish for. December is a good time to plan your tarpon fishing charters for the next year though. A good tarpon guide books well in advance.
TARPON- The scientific name Megalops suits it well, also nicknamed the silver king, derived from the bright flash that reflects from its body as it jumps.
TARPON RECORDS- All tackle 286lbs, fly 202lbs and the Florida record is 243lbs. Though it has surely been broken many times by fisherman who has decided to release the fish unharmed, I know of people, I included, who have measured larger fish. I believe a few of the fish that my charters have landed probably would be close. As for the all tackle world record, without a doubt one lives in Tampa Bay or migrates through every year.
TARPON HISTORY- So what else do we know about these prehistoric fish that date back 100 million years? Well every year, especially the last few, scientists in Florida have been spending more time and money studying them. The Florida Marine Research Institute is currently doing a tracking and release study on individual tarpon to determine their survival rate after a long battle. There is still a lot to learn but here are some of the basics we do know, beyond the fact they are one of the most exciting fish in the world to catch. Tarpon inhabit warmer waters; primary the Gulf of Mexico Florida, and the West Indies. Their range extends in smaller numbers as far north as Cape Hatteras and as far south as southern Brazil. In a few rare cases they have even been found further north and south.
Female tarpon grow as large as 300 pounds and can reach over 8ft long. The females can live for over 50 years while the smaller males 30 years. The oldest tarpon in captivity lived in an aquarium in Chicago and died at 63 years of age. They are very slow growers and do not reach sexual maturity until 7 years of age and up to 13 years. Tarpon spawn from April through July. Most tarpon fishing is actually done quite close to shore; tarpon spawn offshore on the major moons when the tides are strongest. While other fish are moving into the shallows on major moons others are heading out to spawn. An average 100 pound tarpon is about 13 to 16 years old. One female can lay as many as 12million eggs. For all these reasons it is easy to see why it’s so important to carefully release each and every tarpon.
TARPON CHARACTERISTICS- Tarpon are toothless and they swallow their prey whole. That’s why I say as soon as you know the fish has hit tighten down on the line and set the hook. Their mouth is mostly hard, boney and rough like sandpaper. It takes a hard hook-set to drive the hook home. Florida tarpon primary feed on sardines, shrimp, crabs, mullet, pinfish, catfish, needlefish, and will also scavenge the bottom for smaller dead fish.
Tarpon are also special because they are one of the few fish in the world that have a swim bladder. It acts as a lung so they can breathe raw air. They can still breathe like most fish breath through their gills. This is one reason it is thought that they can battle for so long, because of the amount of oxygen they are able to take in throughout the fight. For fisherman this is an advantage because tarpon will periodically roll on the surface to grab a breath of air. The faster they are swimming usually the more they will surface making it easy for Florida tarpon Guides like my-self to locate them. I always tell my guys early in the morning on the first tarpon charter to look for something that looks like a porpoise surfacing without the long fin and more of a shine to them. Sometimes all you will see is one fish rise; sometimes it may be 20 or 30 all at one time rolling violently. Many times you will just see a small fraction of the fish roll that is actually in the school. The tarpons primary predator, especially as they get larger, is the shark. Hammerhead, Bull, and Tiger sharks have a particular sweet tooth for them. The good news is that tarpon are poor for human consumption. The only people that really eat them are a few natives in Panama and Africa, where they are actually considered a delicacy, and sold on a small local scale. Lucky for us fishermen tarpon are not sought after for food, this is the biggest reason they are so plentiful and in such fishable numbers.
TARPON ADVANTAGE- There has been many polls done and many proclaim tarpon the ultimate sport fish, it’s easy to see why. When it comes to pound for pound explosiveness, endurance, and jumping ability the only fish that can compete is a blue marlin. The big difference between the two is that someone can spend weeks and thousands of dollars to catch one marlin while trolling. I have seen kayakers hook 3 or 4 full grown tarpon in a single day. My boat has lost count of great days with over 25 hook ups. You also have to factor in the fact that tarpon fishing is more exciting, site casting to schooling tarpon, while marlin fishing requires hours of trolling.
Tarpon fishing is what I consider to be the pinnacle of most fishermen’s careers, then what’s next? Well you can always tarpon fish with a fly rod. Tarpon are a challenge no matter how you catch them. Whether it’s live bait at the bridge, drifting the passes with heavy tackle, or my favorite, sight fishing the beaches, they are a challenge. If you’re one of those people who are die-hard fly fishermen, a regular tarpon fisherman looking for a new challenge, or an outdoorsman looking for the ultimate outdoor feat to accomplish, tarpon on the fly is it.
Imagine its day break; the water is still dark and the sun is barely helping your underwater visibility. Not to worry though because there are few boats on the water and three large schools of 50 to 100 tarpon each are milling on the surface within view, just to the south of your location. The water is glassy with a slight ripple as you look offshore. All you can hear is the hum of the trolling motors as you close the distance on the first large school of tarpon. Your heart starts beating faster as the boat gets closer; now you can hear the tarpon as they roll across the surface, fins, tails and that giant half dollar size eye. Your 12 weight is loaded and ready. Your guide tied the Black Death fly the night before, it’s on the end of your rod and you have to make the perfect cast. With anticipation mounting at 30 yards away, the 100 tarpon are coming to you. All I can think now is the perfect cast and you’ll definitely have a hooked fish. “Cast 12 o’clock now,” the captain yells out. You hastily cast but, oh no, you stepped on the line, damn it, you’re short. “Calm down,” yells the captain, just think about the cast. You strip in quickly and cast again. Now you’re in the zone and the fly lands perfectly, tarpon are rolling all around it and you begin to strip in the fly and keep on striping. Nothing happened, what’s wrong, I can’t believe it you think. Now you’re determined. Another good decent cast again but nothing happens. It’s cool out, but yet your palms are sweating with excitement and anticipation. Man all you can think is bite it, bite it. Another good cast and the captain yells “let it sink.” You do so and again he yells, “Start striping a little faster.” Strip, Strip, Strip, thump and a large flash goes off six feet under the water, as if someone dropped an M-80 over the side. “Strike,” yells the captain and you bury the hook home, a 130 pound tarpon comes cart-wheeling out of the water. Mayhem, all hell breaks loose; you just hooked your first tarpon on the fly.
Now I could finish the story, go into detail about the tremendous hour plus battle, and it is exciting, but what I’m really trying to depict is the anticipation of the hunt. There’s nothing like it. Seeing those tarpon, stalking them down and then making the perfect cast with the fly rod. The anticipation of the bite and then finally that thump on the end of your line. The practice in the backyard, the airplane ride, the magazine articles you have read, the dreams while you sleep all finally come down to one moment, the thump in your line. That’s a real tarpon that just bit your fly and that’s a real battle you’re about to enjoy.
- About the Area -
Tampa Bay’s not only known for some of the worlds best tarpon fishing it is also home of many exciting cities, theme parks and sporting venues. So while you are in the area chasing tarpon, you or perhaps some of your family, may like to try something else in the area. Remember that I have located myself perfectly for being as close to the tarpon action as possible and it just so happens that we have a lot of other things to do within a short driving distance. I leave out of Anna Maria Island which is what I consider to be one of the coolest islands on the west coast of Florida, equaled only by Siesta Key, 40 minutes to the south. As far as beaches go there are no better. White sugar sand, some of the clearest water around, great beach front restaurants and few large condos on the beach give it a true island paradise feel that few areas on the west coast still enjoy. If you are staying on the island while on your tarpon trip I see little reason to leave the island, but here are some other places to go while you are in the area.
Sarasota is only 30 minutes away, it’s our closest airport, sometimes a little more expensive than Tampa international but much more convenient. Sarasota is home to Jungle Gardens, Ringling Museum, and spring training for the Reds. Just to its north and connecting Anna Maria are Long Boat Key, where Mote Marine Aquarium is located and where much of our states sport fish, including tarpon, are studied. North of there and the closest city to Anna Maria is Bradenton, home of the Pirates spring training facility.
St. Pete, Treasure island, Fort Desoto, Terra Verdi, Redington Beach, Largo area is to our north across the famous Skyway bridge, where some of our best resident tarpon fishing happens every year around giant pillars. St. Pete also has great beaches but is more commercialized. It is home to our Tampa Bay Lighting and our Tampa Bay Rays. The downtown is also making a great comeback and is a nice place to visit the Salvador Dolly Museum. Also the St. Pete/ Clearwater airport is there to the north of the city. Check the ticket prices when flying in to go tarpon fishing; it’s many times the cheapest and my favorite airport when flying the east coast.
Now past St. Pete and heading north, take 275 over the bay to downtown Tampa and right into our largest airport, Tampa International. It’s about an hour from Anna Maria Island. Tampa is our largest close city with all kinds of things to do. It has a large aquarium, really nice. The Tampa Bay Bucs play there. It’s also the spring training spot for the New York Yankees. Tampa is also home to our state fair, and Oh yes, we can’t forget Busch Gardens. I’m not a big amusement park fan, but I do like it.
From I-275 you keep going east until you pick up I-4 to the Plant City/ Lakeland area. Plant City is famous for the strawberry festival in February. Lakeland is the spring training city for the Tigers.
Past Lakeland and about two hours from Anna Maria Island you hit the Walt Disney/ Orlando area. Home to numerous amusement parks including, The Magic Kingdom, Ebcott, Universal Studios, MGM, & Sea World to name a few. It is also the host area for the Braves.
Now back tracking we can’t leave out the Clearwater area north of the St. Pete, west of Tampa. Clearwater is also known for its beaches, hence the word Clearwater. Clearwater is also the host city to the Phillies spring training. Some of its more popular towns nearby include Indian Rocks Beach, about an hour and fifteen min. from Anna Maria. Tarpon Springs is about one and a half hour from Anna Maria Island.
So as you can see there are lots to do within a short drive. Also if you are down visiting one of these areas it’s just a short drive to do some of the Best Tarpon fishing in the world!
Capt. Matt Ercoli - (800)521-2872