Well, it’s tarpon season. Excuse me if I don’t sound amused, but I’m not. I don’t get excited about tarpon until after they leave the Pass. In the fall, they want to eat. Eating is just about all they want to do. This time of year they are breeding, so eating isn’t their focus. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never stopped in the middle for a sandwich.
Tarpon can be strange eaters. One second they will eat anything you throw in front of them and the next they want one particular thing (usually what you don’t have). They’re frustrating at best. I personally believe whoever first labeled muskies the fish of 10,000 casts never fished for tarpon.
On top of that some tarpon bait can be expensive and hard to find. Right now the popular bait is going to be crabs. We use swimming crabs for tarpon bait, and there are three kinds: Pass crabs (iridescent swimming crabs), red-claw crabs (blotched crabs) and juvenile blue crabs.
None are cheap if purchased, and that’s if you can find any at local bait shops. They go quick. Pass crabs and red-claw crabs you can catch on your own. Keep a long-handled dip net on your boat and you may find them swimming around the passes. Blue crabs are expensive because most are caught by someone wading around in the middle of the night — not my cup of tea.
The good news is you can keep blue crabs alive for a long time with minimal care. Buy them in the middle of the week for your weekend trip. You can keep them alive with minimal water or even just a wet towel in a cooler or shallow tote. Just keep them cool.
I didn’t tell you this, but about a quart of water in your refrigerator’s crisper and a wet towel over the crabs can keep them alive for up to a week. This is a good tip for single guys (or guys who want to be single). Remember, you’re keeping them alive for several days, so you need to feed them. I like clams or some sardine chunks. They probably don’t have claws, so softer food is easier for them to munch on.
Big greenbacks and threadfins are great tarpon bait too. They’ll hardly cost you anything because you can castnet or sabiki them. If you plan to throw a castnet on them, you’ll need a large, high-quality and heavy net. These guys hang out in deeper water most of the time, so you need a fast sinking net or they just swim out from underneath it. I usually use a 10-foot net with 3/8-inch mesh and 1.8 pounds of lead per foot.
You can try to drive up on a school and throw, but that can be dangerous. You need to trust the guy driving the boat or you’re going for a swim with 40 pounds of net attached to you.
Instead, I prefer to get ahead of the school and let them swim toward the boat. Try to get them to approach from the side at the front of the boat. Then, as they’re just about to get to the side of the boat, stomp on the deck of the boat and throw the net off the other side of the boat. This will make them swim down so when you throw the net, they are already near the bottom and can’t escape the sinking net.
Small mullet are also a popular bait. If you’re good with a castnet, catching some shouldn’t be a problem. I don’t keep them alive; I put them in a cooler on ice. You can try frozen, but they don’t work anywhere near as well as fresh. Trust me, the tarpon know the difference.
The one downside to the mullet is the sharks they may also attract. That’s not too big of a problem now, but it will be when the tarpon come up into the harbor in the fall. It can also be an issue in the Peace River in the early spring. We see lots of bull sharks in the river.
The oddball fish that show up in your castnet also make great bait. You might be surprised how well those sugar trout, sand brim and butterfish can work on tarpon when they’re just being flat-out stupid.
Shrimp are an overlooked tarpon bait, but they can be fantastic — especially around the bridges at night. Last year, just about every tarpon we hooked at the U.S. 41 bridges was caught on shrimp. I’ve never had that happen in the years I’ve fished that 41 bridge at night, and I’ve spent more than a few hours there over the last 15 years. They don’t need to be huge shrimp either. We were doing just fine on select-sized shrimp last year.
These are just a few of the live and dead bait choices for tarpon fishing. When the fish seem to have lockjaw, don’t be afraid to throw something completely off the wall. These are fish that can travel a long way and encounter lots of different foods. Just because it doesn’t seem to catch any other fish doesn’t mean a tarpon won’t eat it, so it’s worth a try.
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.