river tarpon

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A tarpon up the river, where the water is dark and the silver kings are golden.

There’s no doubt that winter fishing can be tough. We are dealing with constant changes due to the cold fronts that roll in and out, seemingly every week. There are days you can’t even get your boat off the lift because the tides are so low. Then on top of that, we’re dealing with our winter winds that make the Harbor rough and blow out even more water. And the icing on the cake is that winter is usually small fish season, with trout and sheepshead being the focus of most people’s attention.

But what if you get tired of the small fish and would like to target something with a little more fight?

Heading up the Peace River for tarpon should be right up your alley. Now, these aren’t going to be 200-pound tarpon. Most are going to be 15- to 50-pound juveniles. But they’re going to fight better than the trout you’ve been catching, I can promise you that.

These tarpon are growing up and waiting to reach sexually maturity in our rivers and canals. In winter, they gather in the deep holes of the rivers, sometimes by the hundreds. Some mornings you’ll see dozens of them rolling and feeding on the surface. The darker water of the river will heat up faster in the sun and the deeper holes will hold that heat better. Plus those deep holes will normally hold better food choices, such as crabs and catfish.

This is going to be early morning fishing. You want to be out there and ready at the crack of dawn. You’ll notice that once that sun comes over the trees, the tarpon start to roll less and almost shut down completely. But winter also brings us a gift: Morning fog. If you can safely get up the river in the fog, there’s a very good chance of those tarpon eating until that fog clears. That’s an extra couple hours.

Now just don’t think because these are juvenile tarpon cooped up in a small area that they’re going to be easy to catch. They’re going to be just as frustrating as their larger counterparts. You’re still going to need to bring the kitchen sink to catch them. Bring shrimp too — not for the tarpon, but to go fishing for redfish and snook when the tarpon take you to your patience limit.

Tackle-wise, most of your snook and redfish rods will do fine. I’ve been using 7.5-foot rods and 4000 series spinning reels. Most have 15-pound braid for main line and 30-pound monofilament leader. You want something with good quality and strength, but keep in mind you’re going to be casting artificials a lot so you don’t want to go overboard.

Yes, I said artificial. I’ve been throwing swimbaits at these tarpon because that’s what is working the best. “Matching the hatch” is important with these little guys. That being said, what are they eating? As I said earlier, these deeper holes have a tendency to hold crabs and catfish.

Catfish are the food of choice, it seems. You’ll notice the lack of crab traps up the river. Normally we’d fish for small hardheads and sailcats, cut their heads off and throw the tails at the tarpon. But there is a different species of catfish that is plentiful upriver: The plecostomus catfish, an exotic often sold as an aquarium algae-eater and now common in most local fresh waters.

Plecos really don’t like salt water, but our high river levels have flushed a ton of these guys down the river. The tarpon are taking advantage of this. Plecos have a pretty unique color pattern, so you want to keep your lure colors close to that. Brown and root beer with a gold flake is working well. It just so happens that DOA makes Bait Busters in a few colors that match pretty close.

The real challenge is finding what depth and speed will trigger them to eat. Even though they are rolling and feeding on the surface, I usually start on the bottom. That’s where the plecos live. So let that swimbait sink and retrieve it slow just off the bottom. If that’s not producing, slow it down even more. If none of that seems to work, I’ll retrieve it just below the surface. Change up the depth and speed until you find the pattern that works.

It’s going to be at least a few more weeks before we start seeing any migratory tarpon showing up, and maybe longer if we get some late-season fronts. If you’ve got a tarpon itch that needs scratching, get yourself upriver and make it happen now.

Capt. Cayle Wills owns and operates Bad Fish Charters on Charlotte Harbor. You can contact him at 941-916-4538 or Capt.Cayle@ReelBadFish.com. You can also visit him online at ReelBadFish.com or Facebook.com/BadFishCharters.

Capt. Cayle Wills owns and operates Bad Fish Charters on Charlotte Harbor. You can contact him at 941-916-4538 or Capt.Cayle@ReelBadFish.com. You can also visit him online at ReelBadFish.com or Facebook.com/BadFishCharters.

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