Fishing for tarpon is like pursuing a dinosaur. These monsters have roamed the ocean since prehistoric times and can live up to 80 years. In fish terms, that’s ancient. Although tarpon have no commercial value and can only be fished catch-and-release, they remain one of the most sought-after sport fish species in the world. To fully appreciate the awe-inspiring charisma of the tarpon, their intense strength and circus-freak acrobatics must be experienced firsthand. If you’re curious about wrestling with the Silver King, read on for a crash-course on tarpon fishing gear, baits, and techniques.
Tarpon are highly migratory. To catch one, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Throughout their long lives, tarpon travel many thousands of miles across their range which extends from the Atlantic Coast of Brazil to Virginia and beyond. Some of the greatest concentrations of tarpon, however, are found in the Gulf of Mexico.
Every year starting in April or May, tarpon leave their warm water winter homes near Mexico and Central America and head north. After a long journey, they move into bays and passes from Texas to Florida where they feast on local forage—blue crabs are a favorite—in preparation for their annual spawning event. While Tarpon spawn offshore, the time period before they head to sea is when anglers should make their move. If you time it right and come prepared, tarpon can be caught in many inshore waters throughout the Gulf Coast.
ROD, REEL, AND LINE
A spinning reel in the 5000 to 7000 size paired with a medium-heavy rod is a great all-purpose outfit for tarpon fishing. The reel should be fully sealed to guard against corrosive saltwater and have a strong, smooth drag to quickly tame your quarry. 50-pound test braided line is the standard for tarpon, and you’ll want to have plenty on the spool—250 to 300 yards.
TERMINAL TACKLE FOR TARPON
At the business end of your line, 60- to 80-pound test fluorocarbon is the leader material of choice. Tarpon don’t have teeth, but their bony jaws are rough like sandpaper—the added abrasion resistance of fluorocarbon will reduce the risk of getting cut off. For unshakable hookups, circle hooks in sizes 6/0 to 10/0 are what you need. Circle hooks tend to stay seated in the corner of a tarpon’s mouth better than standard “J” hooks. Plus, with a circle hook, you’re less likely to gut-hook a tarpon, which is important since they must be released unharmed.
TARPON FISHING APPAREL
Locales where tarpon are found tend to be more tropical than temperate. That means long days under the blazing sun and humidity with a capital “H.” The HOOK 360° Pro Series Performance shirt is one of the best ways to stay protected from the sun and stay cool while fishing for tarpon. It’s made of Poly knit material that wicks moisture away from the skin and is antimicrobial so you don’t end up smelling like the bait bucket.
A HOOK 360° Bandana is an essential piece of gear that will protect your head, neck, and face from the sun and wind when you’re ripping across the water after your catch. And since you’re going after tarpon, you might as well grab the tarpon-print shiny scales bandana. That way your fellow anglers—and the fish—know you mean business.
Tarpon do most of their feeding on baitfish—pilchards, pinfish, grunts, mutton minnows, threadfin herring—the list goes on. Any of these baitfish species will catch tarpon under the right conditions. The key is to use what the tarpon are naturally eating.
When tarpon move into inshore waters along the Gulf Coast, however, they temporarily pass on baitfish in favor of a more abundant fare: blue crabs. The bottom line is, if you want to catch tarpon inshore, don’t leave the marina without plenty of live blue crabs.