Have you caught a tarpon yet this year? If not, there’s still some time left before the big ones boogie. If you have, then you know you want to catch another (or maybe another dozen).
Realistically, we have about a month before I expect to see tarpon winding down in Charlotte Harbor. They start to leave when the cold fronts start rolling in. Some will stick around until our first nights in the 40s (and even later some years), but the bite will be significantly slower by the end of September. If you want to get on them, now is the time to do it.
Tarpon are acting very differently than they were back in the spring and early summer. During that time frame, they were congregating in Boca Grande Pass as part of their annual spawning ritual. But the spawn is long over, and while there’s still a chance of finding tarpon in the Pass (sometimes lots of tarpon), it’s a better bet to head up into the Harbor.
Normally I’d expect to also see some fish moving along the beaches this time of year, but the patchy red tide has made that pretty inconsistent. If that clears up, the nearshore Gulf might be worth a shot, but be sure your info is current. It only takes a whiff of red tide to chase tarpon toward cleaner waters.
So where are you going to look? These fish might be in 3 feet of water on the edge of the west wall bar or out in the 20-foot holes. Food availability determines exactly where they’ll choose to be. In the shallowest water they can be hard to approach, so most anglers will be fishing in areas at least 6 feet deep.
While tarpon earlier in the year can be finicky about eating since they’re so focused on reproduction, now they have eating on their minds. The migration is coming, so these fish are intent on building up fat reserves as they prep for a long trip to points south (anywhere between Chokoloskee and Brazil; any African fish that spawned here left right afterward).
The quickest way to put on pounds is to hang out at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Fortunately for the tarpon, that’s exactly what the Harbor is serving up. Big schools of tiny baitfish are abundant out there, and ladyfish have started schooling up to take advantage of that feast. Tarpon eat both, but it’s really hard to get a 2-inch baitfish onto a suitably stout tarpon hook — which is why ladyfish will be the bait of choice.
Tarpon will eat live or dead baits, but there are also other predators enjoying the bounty. Small bull sharks are quick to pick up dead baits but less willing to chase down live ones, so many experienced fishermen will choose live for that reason alone.
Live ladyfish are easy to rig: Just put the hook through the snout, starting inside the mouth and going out through the bony skull. Don’t go through the lower jaw. Pinning the ladyfish’s mouth shut will result in a prematurely dead bait. A 5/0 to 8/0 circle hook is about right. Add a float about 3 to 5 feet above the bait so you can keep tabs on where it is.
Lures can also work during this feast season. Since ladyfish are what they’re mostly eating, a big Z-Man or Hogy soft plastic is an excellent choice for casting, slow-trolling or drifting under a float. DOA Bait Busters and Storm WildEye shad are doing well too. Make sure the lure you choose has a stout hook.
The best times to find feeding tarpon are at first light or late in the afternoon after the storms are over. Thundershowers will be getting less frequent in the coming weeks, but late afternoon and into the evening will still be good even if it hasn’t rained. Late in the day is definitely my preference, since most other fishermen have already gone home.
Heavy tackle is still a requirement. I use spinning gear. A quality 6500 series reel with a strong drag and a beefy rod rated for something like 30- to 50-pound line is about right. For line, 65-pound braid or 30-pound mono will do it. A 60- or 80-pound test fluorocarbon leader will resist their sandpapery jaws.
Even with gear like this, you may still be in for a serious fight. There have been some very big fish around lately, with three that I know of in the 200-pound range this past week. Most have been in the 60- to 120-pound range. These aren’t the little teenagers — they’re real tarpon.
When you hook a tarpon, fight him like you mean it. Don’t rest — when you rest, the fish rests too. Your job is to get that fish whipped as quickly as possible and release it healthy. You won’t have sharks trying to eat your tarpon this time of year, but you can still kill it with exhaustion.
Keep the pressure on. When the fish tries to go right, pull him to the left. When he tries to surface for a gulp of air, pull hard to interrupt that. No matter what he does, keep up a steady opposite pressure. The goal is to get it to the boat within about 15 minutes, then take another 5 or 10 (or however long it takes) to resuscitate it. The longer the fight goes on, the more likely the fish will have problems afterward.
Late summer into early fall is usually the best tarpon bite of the whole year. It won’t be long before they’re gone and we’re catching sheepshead, dreaming of the days when we can see silver kings flying again. But if you don’t make the memories, you won’t have them to dream about — so get out there before it’s too late.
Robert Lugiewicz is the longtime manager of Fishin’ Frank’s (4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Charlotte Harbor) and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Contact him at 941-625-3888.