Tarpon fishing the U.S. 41 bridges over the mouth of the Peace River at night can be a blast. It’s easy, it’s usually peaceful, and you’re never surrounded by other boats. It shouldn’t take a lot of money because the tackle can be very simple. It doesn’t have to take a ton of gas if you trailer your boat. You also get a little entertainment from the bars on the shoreline. And on top of all of that, you can actually catch some fish.
Tackle, as I said is simple. Take a tarpon rod. I like using spinning reels because you will have to do some casting. I prefer 65-pound braided main line and 80-pound leader. Both sky and water are dark, so you don’t have to have fluorocarbon leader — mono will work fine. And whatever you prefer for hooks. Now, don’t go overboard on your hooks as far as size goes. These could be big tarpon, they could be small tarpon. Generally, 5/0 to 8/0 hooks will work.
I also bring a stout snook rod with me, because you can find other fish at the bridge at night: Cobia, sailcats, snook, black drum and even tripletail. Plus it can be used if all of the tarpon are smaller fish (in the 50-pound range).
Bait can be the interesting one. Once upon a time, we threw big Bomber lipped plugs at the bridge tarpon. But a foot-long lure with three big treble hooks on it is dangerous for the tarpon — and you, when you’re trying to land them. We saw the error of our ways and tried throwing them with just a rear circle hook, but they never really did work as well. I have gone more towards live bait.
Big threadies, whitebait or pinfish under a bobber work well. The past couple of years the tarpon have changed their bridge diet a little on us. Last year a shrimp under a bobber worked better than anything. We’d put that shrimp on a 6/0 circle hook and the tarpon would suck it down so fast it wasn’t funny.
It’s not so much the bait as it is how you present it. We’ll get into that later.
If you trailer your boat, as I do, you can put your boat in at the Laishley ramp. You’ll use less than a cup of fuel by the time you’re fishing. But you do have to position the boat properly.
Everyone knows we have two U.S. 41 bridges, one northbound (the Barron Collier Bridge) and one southbound (the Gilchrist Bridge). Which bridge you fish and where will depend on the tide and you want a good tide. If the tide is coming in, you want to fish the west side of the Gilchrist Bridge. If the tide is going out, you want to fish the east side of the Barron Collier Bridge. Pretend like the area between the bridges doesn’t even exist. Treat it as one bridge.
You’ll notice a distinct, visible light line on the outside of either bridge from the streetlights. That is your strike zone. This is where these fish feed. Baitfish learn at a young age that fast changes to their environment eat them. And when they come from the dark water to that light line, they have a tendency to spaz out. When they spaz out, they create a sick, lame or injured vibration and the tarpon (and snook, cobia and tripletail) are targeting that vibration.
I like to anchor up so that light line is just at the edge of my casting distance. Now we are fishing for tarpon around a ton of structure, and you can bet your butt they know where every piling is. So I have a short anchor line with a crab trap buoy on the end. That way I can just throw it over and get rid of that anchor quickly, allowing me to chase a fish if I have to. A hooked tarpon will usually go back under the bridge — they never take off toward open water. Most of the smaller tarpon can be fought on the anchor, but there’s always that big one swimming around.
You’re going to cast your bait towards the light line. I usually use the big yellow foam bobbers. Drift that bobber back until it disappears in the shadow then reel it back just until it appears again in the light line. Stop. Leave it there. That’s where you want to be with live bait. If I’m using dead bait, I may give it another crank of the handle. Then, it’s time to stop and hang tight.
You’re playing the waiting game now.
There are a few gotchas when you fish the bridge. You’re going to get anchored up and ready and the tarpon are going to start going nuts five pilings down. Fight the urge to move. All that will happen is you’ll waste time moving and getting set up. As soon as you start fishing, the tarpon will start going nuts at the spot you just left.
Sometimes the tarpon will start rolling and feeding on the inside light line of the bridge. Let them be — don’t fish them. There is no easy way to get to those fish. The tide is wrong or you’re going to drift your bait through the bridge to them, and that isn’t smart either.
I know a lot of people are afraid of running their boats at night. The nice thing about the U.S. 41 bridges is that they’re easily accessible by almost everyone. The streetlights provide plenty of light to move around the boat and even tie lines. Just take it easy getting there. The fish don’t really get active until 10 p.m. when the traffic over the bridge slows down.
Capt. Cayle Wills owns and operates Bad Fish Charters on Charlotte Harbor. Contact him at 941-916-4538 or Capt.Cayle@ReelBadFish.com. You can also visit him online at ReelBadFish.com or Facebook.com/BadFishCharters.