river tarpon

WaterLine file photo

A river tarpon grabs a gulp of air in the middle of a battle with an angler. If you want to catch one of these fish but don’t want the crowds, we have a plan.

It’s getting to be time for silver kings. The air is warm and the humidity is increasing. The tarpon butterflies (to be specific, Ascia monuste, the great southern white) are winging their way over the Harbor and through the mangroves. The golden trumpet trees (yellow Tabebuia) are in full bloom. All the signs point to the beginning of tarpon season — especially the fact that as of last weekend, there were already several hundred tarpon in Boca Grande Pass.

For a lot of Southwest Florida anglers, tarpon are blessing and curse in equal measure. They’re gamefish in every sense: Difficult to hook, breathtaking to see, challenging to land. That by itself can make you crazy, particularly when you know they’re all around you but they just won’t eat.

But toss in the hordes of other fishermen who want to catch them (and who are magnetically drawn to any boat that is hooked up), and the fact that the small crabs many anglers regard as necessary for tarpon bait cost between 3 and 5 bucks a pop, and you’ve got a recipe for serious consternation. If only there were a way to target tarpon without having to put up with the other crap that goes along with it.

Of course, you read the headline, so you already know I’m going to suggest a way to do just that. The best part about this method is the psychology of it: Most people reading this will think it’s interesting, but they won’t try it because they’re already invested in the tarpon fishing methods they’ve used or been shown. Only a small percentage will actually give this a shot, which means those who do will have the major advantage of not having to fish where everyone else is fishing. The fact that I have explained this will not change it, because people are weird.

OK, so here’s how it’s done. You’re going to want some good, heavy tarpon tackle. I like spinning gear, so I start with an 8-foot 20-40 or 20-50 stick. I’m not going to say it has to be a Reaper, but they sure are nice. To that I’ll affix a 6500 size spinning reel. You don’t need to buy the most expensive one, but don’t get a cheap one. Remember, these are gamefish, not catfish. They’re hell on tackle and will beat a cheap reel into a pile of parts in short order.

If you like mono, 25-pound is fine. I’m using 65-pound Invisa-Braid. Either way, 6 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon leader completes the rig. I’d rather use 80- or 100-pound, but tarpon have great eyesight and thicker leader means fewer strikes.

Now, on the end of your leader, you’re going to tie a swimbait. There are lots of choices here. You’re looking for something that offers a substantial silhouette but isn’t too big — roughly 4 to 5 inches is about right for this time of year. Some anglers like the Storm shad or will pair a jighead (3/4 ounce) with a favorite soft plastic.

I’m going to just grab a DOA Bait Buster. If you’ve never used this lure, the first time you see it you’re going to think I must have been kidding. It’s a ridiculous-looking thing, kind of like a kindergartner drew a whale. But I’m dead serious, and this is a dead serious lure. Local tackle shops carry the trolling model, and that’s the one you want. Color is partially preference and partially matching the hatch. I usually have an assortment: White, greenback, avocado and root beer. Sometimes oddball colors will also work.

Where are we going to fish? We got choices on that. There are still tarpon up the rivers, and they’re concentrated in the deeper bends. Pre-dawn or after dark, there are fish at the U.S. 41 and El Jobean bridges. Tarpon are hanging out on the east side outside the bar from Two Pines up to Burnt Store. There are fish in the deeper parts of Pine Island Sound, such as the cut just below Cabbage Key and Pelican Pass. If there aren’t too many boats, you can also fish the Hill area of Boca Grande Pass and along the beaches. Focus your efforts in areas about 6 to 15 feet deep.

I generally run with two lures out — one on either side of the boat. How far back? Stagger them. Put one at about 60 to 70 feet and the other at 100 to 120. Bait Busters work best when trolled slowly, so plan to run at about 2.5 to 4 knots. Feel free to vary your speed a bit; sometimes slow works when fast doesn’t and vice versa. If you think you need to go slower, slip a float onto the line about 30 inches above the lure. You want it to stay near the surface, and there’s a big chunk of lead in these baits.

As with most trolling, don’t set your drag to hate. It shouldn’t be so loose the knob is about to fall off, but looser is better than tighter. If you can strip line off the spool with modest effort (lets say 3 to 4 on a scale of 10), that’s about right.

As you troll, keep your eyes peeled for signs of fish. Many anglers will get lulled by the sameness of running along at loaf speed and forget that they’re fishing, but I’m constantly looking for diving birds, rolling fish, cobia swimming by — anything that says “cast at me.” This is the kind of fishing you want to do with good friends or family (since you’re going to have plenty of time to talk), but remember what the mission is.

When you get a strike, the fish will usually hook itself. Get the other line reeled in, then someone needs to grab the live rod while someone else gets the boat pointed toward the fish. The angler heads to the bow, the fish is followed as needed. Don’t use the boat as a crutch — don’t follow a tarpon all day. You can’t fight the fish with the boat; that’s what the rod is for.

This is a fun and productive way to pursue a silver king while avoiding a lot of the hassle that usually goes along with tarpon fishing. As a bonus, common bycatch includes big jacks and cobia. It’s definitely a technique worth adding to your bag of tricks.

As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.

As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.

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