topwater tilapia

WaterLine photo by Capt. Ralph Allen

A tilapia on a topwater popper? Not exactly what you might be expecting — but then again, fishing is like that sometimes.

Fish don’t always do what they’re supposed to do. I was reminded of this last week when I tossed a topwater popping plug near a stand of cattails. After three or four gurgling chugs, I was rewarded when a healthy bass absolutely blew it up. The loud, splashy take was followed by a dogged down-deep fight.

I finally got the angry fish boatside and lifted it to the surface to see it was a tilapia. And not even one of those large blue-gray tilapia — just a modestly sized standard tilapia. What?

Many anglers think tilapia are vegetarians that can’t be caught on artificials, but that’s not completely true. They[‘re pretty easy to catch on chunks of nightcrawler. There are lots of times that they do shun lures, but I have caught many of them on tiny Beetle Spins and on fly, and have taken a few on crankbaits.

Almost all the tilapia I’ve caught on lures have struck subsurface, though I have convinced a handful to take floating foam spiders. But I have never before had one viciously clobber a hard topwater plug like a largemouth.

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Sometime in the 1990s, I had a nice family from the Midwest aboard an offshore charter trip. As we chugged our way offshore, the mom asked me what I thought we’d catch that day. It was a late fall trip, and I’d planned to bottom fish on ledges in about 40 feet of water off Cayo Costa, so I told her that we’d be targeting grouper and snapper. Her face brightened and she said, “Oh, I’ve had red snapper before; I really like that.”

In today’s world, there are quite a few red snapper off the Southwest Florida coast, though they are rarely encountered in water as shallow as 40 feet. But in the 1990s, red snapper were almost unheard of in this area, even in much deeper water. I felt that I had to temper her expectations, so I gently let the nice lady down by explaining that we weren’t going to catch any red snapper on that tri,p but that she’d find that our mangrove snapper were every bit as good to eat.

Of course, you already know what happened. On our very first drop, that woman caught a red snapper, fishing with a shrimp on a ledge in 40 feet of water. Go figure. It was at least 10 years before I saw another red snapper.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Tarpon are hugely popular gamefish, largely because they are such exciting fighters. When hooked, they usually launch themselves skyward into head-shaking leaps, and sometimes they’ll repeat those leaps multiple times. Tarpon are also hard-running and hard-pulling fish that don’t tire out quickly, so landing a large tarpon is a really exciting challenge.

Many years ago, I was on an evening tarpon charter to Boca Grande Pass. We planned to fish through sunset and into the early hours of darkness. Not long after dark, we were making repetitive drifts through a stack of tarpon on the south ledge, fishing two deep lines baited with small blue crabs.

After a few drifts, one of the rods bounced and bowed over as a tarpon slurped the crab and came tight on the line. I pulled the boat forward to keep the line tight when the fish came up to jump, then had the other angler wind up to clear for the fight and turned on the cockpit floodlights.

All of this took 60 seconds at most. So I was shocked to see when the floodlights came on that the hooked-up angler had the leader swivel wound to the rod tip and the tarpon lying motionless on its side at the transom. It was not a huge tarpon, maybe a 50-pounder, but it was spent.

I gloved up and pulled the fish up with the leader to discover … nothing. Nothing unusual at all. The fish was hooked in the top lip, like most tarpon caught via that fishing method, and there were no shark bites or anything else visible which could explain a less-than-a-minute fight from a mighty silver king.

My angler looked at me like “That’s it?” I was dumbfounded, but managed to reply with something like, “Good job whipping him so fast; he didn’t have a chance against you.” I’m smooth like that sometimes.

Let’s go fishing!

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

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