Most people don’t think of March as tarpon time in Southwest Florida. But if you are patient and persistent, chasing silver in early spring can very easily be done.
Now, don’t expect the fish to be here in great numbers — most of the migratory fish are still well south of us, so what we’re seeing right now are mostly resident fish. However, a lot of big ones stick around for winter, so March tarpon are often large. The average fish is 80 to 120 pounds, with a scattering of 30- to 60-pound fish tossed in.
The upper Peace River is where a lot of our large resident fish go during the cool months. They sit in the deep holes and don’t do a whole lot, just waiting for warm weather to return. Now that it’s here, they’re ready to be tarpon again, and job one is to find some food.
The best places to look are in the deeper bends of the river, from the Nav-A-Gator restaurant up to the 761 bridge. A couple of consistent spots are around the power lines, near Riverside RV Resort, around the water treatment plant, Liverpool and just before the conflux with Shell Creek.
The best way to fish is to anchor and soak baits. Anchor on the edge of the channel to avoid most of the boat traffic, and don’t anchor on a blind corner. You may need to chase a hooked fish quickly, so your anchor line should be tied to a buoy, ready to toss overboard when you hook up.
You don’t see river tarpon rolling much because they don’t need to. Rolling is mostly a way for them to grab a bit of oxygen from the atmosphere, and right now the water is still cool and well-oxygenated. Besides, with all the gar in the river, it is easy to confuse the two. But they are there — really.
The bait of choice in the river is hardhead catfish tails. If the catfish is really small (say, 10 inches or less), you can use it whole, but with bigger catfish you only want the back half. Catching them is usually easy with chunks of squid or frozen shrimp on the bottom. Naturally, catfish are always around except when you need them. Sailcats — the ones with extra-long fin spines — don’t work nearly as well.
Catfish is best, but mullet, ladyfish and pinfish work too. If you must use other cutbaits, use big chunks to reduce your gar bycatch. These toothy fish are fun in their own right but very annoying when you’re trying to hook a tarpon.
I usually use three medium-heavy rods when anchored. Each is rigged with 4 to 6 feet of 60- or 80-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 7/0 Owner Mutu Light circle hook. The first bait goes about 60 feet out, somewhere near the edge of the channel dropoff. I’ll tie a balloon about 4 to 6 feet above the bait to keep it suspended in the water column.
The second bait is cast to a different point along the channel dropoff, but this one gets weighted so it stays on the bottom — early-season tarpon can be very lazy scavengers. The third bait is free-lined about 30 to 40 feet behind the boat, depending on the current.
If you’re a night owl, the U.S. 41 bridge, El Jobean and the Cape Coral Causeway are all holding river fish. Fish the shadow lines with large live or dead baits, letting them drift toward the bridge. The fish here will vary in size from 10 to 130 pounds. You’ll have more flexibility if you use a trolling motor, but anchoring will work also.
For some light-tackle fun, the PGI canals, Edgewater Lake and Spring Lake are seeing a lot of smaller tarpon in the 10- to 40-pound range. These “teenagers” also overwintered here, but in the backcountry rather than the rivers. They’ll probably leave in fall with the migratory fish. Small lures are really the only way to catch them. DOA TerrorEyz and 2-inch Storm swimbaits are the two best choices, but if those aren’t eagerly accepted be ready to experiment with everything in your tackle box.
We’re still several weeks away from the traditional tarpon season, but if you just can’t wait, there are fish out there to be caught. Maybe the best thing about early tarpon is that you can catch one without buckets of sweat pouring out of you. What could be better?
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor, and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.