Many of you have no doubt felt the disappointment of walking into the bait shop to buy tarpon crabs only to discover that there are none available. Even if you can find crabs to buy, they’re gonna be spendy: Prices are running $4 to $6 per crab.
What’s going on? We need rain. The start of the rainy season is what drives the juvenile blue crabs out of the mangroves and tiny creeks to the open waters where they can be caught.
The crabs that are sporadically available right now are iridescent swimming crabs (aka pass crabs) and blotched crabs (aka red-claw crabs). These species are not nearly as tough as blue crabs, and keeping them alive is much harder — both in the tackle shop and in your bait well.
So until we start seeing regular rains, not just these weird midnight downpours, crabs are going to be a challenge. Fortunately, there are multiple methods you can use for catching tarpon with natural bait that don’t require any crabs at all.
I’ve been preaching this gospel for many years, but I think the congregation has potatoes in their ears. Maybe I need to say it louder: TARPON LOVE SHRIMP!!
Shrimp are without a doubt one of the main foods tarpon eat in the Charlotte Harbor area. I would guess the average tarpon eats five to 10 times as many shrimp as crabs. Why? Because there are more shrimp available. You don’t grow to 150 pounds by being picky and only eating things you come across sometimes. Tarpon eat what’s abundant, and there are lots of shrimp here.
When you’re fishing a shrimp in deep water (that is to say, in the Pass), you can rig it the same way you would a crab: On a grouper-style weighted rig, or with a pinch-on weight and letting it drift down. When we’re targeting a school of fish in shallower water, simply casting it with nothing but a hook is a good technique. If you need extra casting weight, a popping cork will provide it (but you don’t need to do any popping).
You don’t need giant shrimp for tarpon fishing. I like one that’s big enough for a tarpon hook, but even a medium shrimp is sufficient. Actually, we have more success with mid-size shrimp that with the biggest jumbos.
Tarpon also eat a lot of fish. Thread herring are high on the list because there are a lot of them around when the tarpon are here. However, tarpon aren’t as selective as some fishermen think. While you’re netting or sabiki-ing bait, you’ll probably catch some other species, such as butterfish, cigar minnows and skipjacks. They’re all excellent; even pinfish are good.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, these can be fished the same way as crabs or shrimp. You can try nose-hooking them or putting the hook just behind the anal fin, which will cause them to swim a little deeper.
This is the oldest old-school method for tarpon fishing, and it still works today. Bait choices include mullet, ladyfish, threadfins and catfish tails, cut or whole. Some folks think this works only in the rivers, but it’s equally useful in the Harbor and off the beaches — ask the shark fishermen who accidentally hook into tarpon all the time. Tarpon are more like catfish than most anglers realize.
Dead baits are most effective when fresh, but I always carry frozen just in case. Most of the time, we fish them on the bottom, pegged in place with enough weight to keep them in one spot. You can also try suspending a dead bait under a float. Sure, that’s not a very natural presentation, but the tarpon don’t seem to care much.
Now, you’ll hook some sharks this way, and you’ll lose almost all of them because they’ll cut through your leaders like a hot knife through American cheese. If you want to boost your chances of catching a shark, try adding an 18-inch cable leader. Believe it or not, tarpon will still hit a bait with a wire leader — as long as it’s sitting on the bottom.
Of course, there are also many different artificial baits that can be used to catch tarpon. Some are more successful than others, and a couple are at the very top of the heap. But that’s a story for another day.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.