For a lot of people, tarpon season means late spring and early summer, when the big adults migrate to this area for a series of massive spawning events. It’s true there are a lot of tarpon around then, and there are a lot of fish caught at that time. But that’s not the only time there are a lot of tarpon to catch.
Right now, Charlotte Harbor is playing host to thousands of tarpon, and they’re here to feed. Some of these tarpon are migratory and will be heading south to the Caribbean and Keys once the cold fronts get serious. Others are resident fish that will be overwintering here in the rivers and canals. Many of these fish have been here all summer. Some have migrated back from Tampa Bay and points north.
If you didn’t know about this, you’re not the only one. Actually, it happens pretty much every fall, but few people talk about it. The weather this time of year — hot and potentially thunderstormy — plays a big role in the fact that the fall tarpon run doesn’t get the same kind of publicity as the spring season. For those in the know, this can be a great thing. With so few anglers after them, you can have these fish to yourself (or at least have a lot fewer fishermen to share them with).
However, this is a limited-time offer. While our waters are ideal tarpon habitat for much of the year, the one thing they really cannot stand is cold. If we have a mild winter, the tarpon may stick around for quite some time — I’ve seen them here in good numbers through late December. Usually, though, the cold fronts push the bait south by the first or second week of November, and the migratory tarpon will follow. Around the same time, our resident tarpon will move up into their winter haunts and more or less disappear.
Fishing for these tarpon is fairly simple. There are several options that work well. You can anchor up and wait for the fish to come to you, you can drift with live or dead baits, or you can slow-troll with a trolling motor. Finding the fish is also fairly simple, because diving terns and gulls often give away tarpon that are attacking bait pods. You should also keep your eyes peeled for rolling or free-jumping tarpon, which are a bit harder to spot than the birds (but also harder for the other anglers to spot, if you value your privacy).
Tackle is basic tarpon equipment: Heavy spinning gear or medium-heavy conventional tackle. These are mostly bigger tarpon in the 80- to 120-pound range, so don’t go into a gunfight with a knife. If you go with spinning gear, a dual-drag reel isn’t a requirement but will make life a whole lot easier. Your reel should be able to hold a minimum of 200 yards (300 is better) of 50-pound braid or 30-pound monofilament. You’ll want a good, beefy rod. I prefer a 7- or 7.5-foot rod rated for something like 15 to 40 pounds. A soft tip is good for lobbing those big baits, but be sure there’s enough backbone for taking on a silver king.
A 4- to 5-foot leader of 60- or 80-pound mono or fluorocarbon will do. I tie on a 5/0 to 7/0 Owner or Gamakatsu circle hook. You can use a J-hook if you want, but the circle makes actually getting a hookset much easier — all you need is pressure. With a J-hook, you have to set the hook, and that’s when a lot of fish are lost.
Tarpon will eat most smaller fish, but they can be very picky when they get keyed in on a particular type or size of bait. Whole ladyfish are generally the preferred bait — tarpon love them, they’re usually plentiful and they’re too big to fit easily into a catfish’s mouth. Other choices include threadfin, hardhead catfish, small (but legal size) Spanish mackerel, mullet and cut baits of all stripes. They’ll also whack a DOA Bait Buster and sometimes other artificial lures (big topwater lure, anyone?) if you’re inclined to feed them fakes.
Did I mention the catfish? Yeah, there are a lot of catfish out there too. That’s the main reason big baits are preferred. Smaller baits are just fine for tarpon, but usually Mr. Whiskers gets to them first. Be sure to have a hands-free dehooking tool aboard. And don’t get mad at the catfish that grab your baits. You’re the one putting catfish food in the water, so it’s your fault.
If you choose to use circle hooks, a rod holder is the best hook-setter for tarpon, period. But don’t just drop your rod in there and assume all is good. Be sure it’s locked into the gimbal, and be sure your drag isn’t too tight — otherwise, bye-bye fishing rod.
The autumn feed allows tarpon to either build up an energy reserve for migration or pack away enough calories to survive winter here. Overwintering tarpon hide out in the deep river holes and in deeper canals. But they don’t act like they do in summer. They become all but invisible, and all but uncatchable. They don’t roll or crash bait. In fact, they don’t really seem to feed at all. They seem to be almost in a semi-hibernation state of suspended animation, just waiting for warmer weather.
As the migratory fish start moving south, they often offer local anglers a final shot as they feed on threadfins just off the beaches. They’ll follow the baitfish wherever they go, and sometimes when the bait is balled up tightly they’ll crash them like enormous jacks. It’s a heck of a sign-off, and a great way for tarpon anglers to have one last hurrah before the long winter — far from a bad thing.
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.