Tarpon are one of the most sought after gamefish on the planet. Their sheer size and power combined with high flying acrobatics, will test your angling skills and put your gear to the test.
Tarpon fishing can be a frustrating experience. They are incredibly smart and will only feed when the bait is presented correctly. It personally took me a long time to hook my first tarpon and even longer to actually bring one to the boat.
If you are considering chasing these aquatic dinosaurs, then this is the article for you! Below we discuss where to catch tarpon, the baits to use, and the best combo set up to help you land big fish.
Where can I catch tarpon?
Tarpon enjoy warm water and will be found year round in tropical climates where water temps are above 75 degrees. The most prominent place to target tarpon is the state of Florida. The Florida keys are home to one of the largest tarpon populations on earth as the everglades is an abundant safe haven of prime environment.
Although the Florida Keys is considered the mecca of tarpon fishing, other places offer some incredible tarpon fishing as well. In fact, some of the largest tarpon ever caught were in Homosassa, FL.
As spring gives way to summer, tarpon begin their migration up the east and west coast of Florida. This migration will bring fish as far north as the Carolinas and west to the Texas coast. Learning the migration patterns and paying close attention to water temperatures will help identify when an area will be productive to fish.
Tarpon will be present in these areas until the fall, breeding during the moon cycles, before heading south before the winter.
The majority of tarpon will be targeted along the beaches and within inlet systems connected to the Intracoastal waterway. Look for fish around bait pods or bridges. Since fish are migrating to the north and west, it is a good idea to look for shallow points along the ocean that moving fish may run into. This is a great way to target tarpon if you are a fly fisherman.
Tarpon are one of the few fish that can breathe air. This allows them to thrive in oxygen-deprived areas. A common sign that tarpon are in the area is by seeing them come to the surface to gulp air. This is referred to as “rolling” as they appear to be doing a rolling motion. Juvenile tarpon will often be found in back bays in tannic, dead water. Given that they can breathe air, this allows them to remain safe from predators who do not venture into these areas. When targeting smaller tarpon, look for areas that have minimal currents such as canals or mangrove bays.
What do Tarpon eat?
Tarpon can appear to be picky eaters, but they actually have a robust diet. The primary food source for adult tarpon is baitfish such as menhaden, mullet, or threadfin. In addition to bait fish, tarpon will eat crustaceans such as crabs and worms.
Tarpon can appear to be picky eaters, but they actually have a robust diet. The key is to make sure you are using live bait, as it is uncommon for tarpon to eat dead bait.
What tarpon will eat:
Due to their smaller size, juvenile tarpon will eat smaller baitfish, crabs, and even insects.
Will tarpon eat shrimp?
One of the most common questions I receive is will a tarpon eat shrimp.
Tarpon do in-fact eat shrimp. Tarpon that are sitting in strong tidal movements will be more receptive to eating shrimp than fish in shallower water. When using shrimp, it is ideal to use very large live shrimp and hook them in a way where they can flick naturally.
Free lining a large shrimp or fishing it under a floating cork is the most productive way to feed tarpon shrimp. You should always be observant of what tarpon are feeding on. If the fish appear to be feeding on baitfish, then it is unlikely they will touch your shrimp. On the other hand, if fish are eating crabs and shrimp that are flushing out with the tide, then shrimp will be good bait to use.
Are tarpon bottom feeders?
The anatomy of a tarpon makes it difficult for them to feed directly on the bottom. A tarpon’s mouth is angled upward and resembles the shape of a bucket when opened. This makes feeding upward the ideal angle for inhaling food.
Just because a tarpon prefers to feed in an upward motion, does not mean they always eat at the surface. Fish sitting deeper in the water column will eat baits lower in the column, it is just unlikely they will pick up a bait that is sitting directly on the bottom.
Over my many years of tarpon fishing, I have seen a tarpon pick up food directly off the bottom only once. One was a tarpon that sat at a marina and ate the scraps thrown in the water from local fishermen cleaning fish. Had this fish not been accustomed to eating these scraps, I don’t think it would have picked up food off the bottom.
How hard is it to catch tarpon?
The most difficult part of targeting tarpon is learning the nuances of how they feed. You may have hungry tarpon all around you and not get a single bite. A simple alteration to your technique could be the difference in getting them to eat. Once you are familiar with the ways tarpon eat, they become easier to hook. They are never easy to land.
Tarpon have incredible eyesight. They see bait in the water from a long ways away. They also see you. The first step to being successful is having a stealthy approach. Keep as much distance as you can.
Being that they have such good eyesight, it is paramount that your bait looks natural in the water. If one thing seems off, they will not touch it. If you are fishing a live bait, the bait must be able to swim freely as naturally as possible. Any bit of drag on the line, or a large hook that makes the bait sink unnaturally, will alert the tarpon that something is wrong with that bait.
The most important aspect of tarpon fishing is understanding angles. Tarpon are large fish that have difficulty in turning their body to the left or right. The ideal striking position for a tarpon is the ability to accelerate forward and eat a fleeing bait. A bait coming directly at the fish not only looks unnatural, but makes it difficult for them to eat the bait.This is referred to as a negative angle. Additionally a bait crossing a tarpon is also a negative angle as the fish is unlikely to be able to turn its body quick enough to eat the bait. This is especially true when fly fishing. Therefore, when possible position yourself to fish tarpon straight on.
Lastly, one of the biggest mistakes I see anglers make is moving the bait, lure, or fly too fast. A steady, slow retrieve or strip will illicit more bites. Never jerk or bounce the bait. Unlike fishing for species such as redfish, tarpon will not react to a jerky retrieving motion.
Are tarpon a good eating fish?
Tarpon are gamefish and have no edible value. The meat is oily and very bony. Additionally, the meat has a strong odor. The allure of tarpon fishing is the incredible fight and the difficulty of bringing one to hand.
Anglers should be aware that not only are tarpon not-edible, but they are a federally protected species. Tarpon greater than 40 inches in length cannot be taken out of the water. If you catch one under 40″ it should be held horizontally, as you would with any other fish, in a way that supports their belly weight.
Tags can be purchased if you desire to kill a tarpon for mounting purposes, however, this has become unnecessary. The fish is no longer required when purchasing taxidermy, as simply providing measurements and a picture will allow the taxidermist to use a premade mold. This has been done to protect fish species.
Protecting tarpon: things to consider
Tarpon are one of the oldest fish in the ocean. According to scientists, they have been roaming the waters for over 100 million years. Their intellect, speed, and power have allowed them to thrive for so many years. As more people fish and equipment becomes better, more tarpon are being caught than ever before.
Although tarpon are incredibly strong, they are extremely susceptible to mishandling and shark predation. Tarpon will often fight to the point of exhaustion which can cause them to die or be held out of the water for too long.
If you have ever touched a tarpon, you may have noticed that it feels very slimy. Tarpon have a protective film on their body that protects them from infections. Too much handling of a tarpon will remove this film and make them susceptible to disease.
How to handle a tarpon
Although a tarpon under 40” in length may be removed from the water, it is best to leave all tarpon in the water. Tarpon have a fragile frame that makes it difficult for them to support their weight when not in the water. Holding a tarpon vertically can cause severe organ damage, causing the fish to die.
When landing a tarpon, two hands should be used to grab the bottom jaw of the fish. Tarpon do not really have teeth, but their mouths are similar to 100 grit sandpaper. Therefore it is recommended to use gloves when grabbing their mouths.
Avoid lifting their heads out of the water as much as possible. Never pull them up the side of the gunnel as this causes stress to the fish and the side of the boat will put pressure on the fish’s organs.
When grabbing a tarpon, always hold the mouth only. Never grab a tarpon by its gills and avoid the gill plates as much as possible. Not only can the gill plate cut you, but a tarpon’s gills are extremely fragile and any damage to the gills will cause the fish to bleed out.
Catching a tarpon is a huge milestone and you should absolutely take a picture. Laying over the side of the boat holding the tarpon’s mouth is the best way to shoot photos. This avoids having to take the fish out of the water and allows you to keep their head in the water to reclaim oxygen.
Can you lip a tarpon?
In the early days of tarpon fishing, the use of a lip gaff to hold a tarpon was used. Now that we know more about the fish and low survival rate after catch, lip gaffs are no longer used.
A lip gaff leaves a hole in the fish’s mouth and leads the angler to try and hoist the fish out of the water. The majority of fish that are lip gaffed do not survive.
Tarpon should only be handled by holding their lower jaw with your hands.
Releasing a tarpon
After you have landed the fish and taken a photo it is time to release the fish. A tarpon should never be let go until it has been properly revived.
To revive a tarpon, place the boat in gear and swim the fish forward while holding its mouth. Use an up and down reviving motion, never side to side. If possible, allow the fish to keep its mouth closed. To not hold the fish’s mouth open while swimming it forward.
Once the fish is starting to show signs of life by wanting to pull away from you, it is safe to let the fish go.
How long should it take to reel in a tarpon?
The ideal fight time of tarpon is under 20 minutes regardless of size. Smaller fish will take far less time to land. After a certain point in the fight, the tarpon has built up so much lactic acid, that the fish will die. It is very important to minimize the fight time of the fish. Inability to do so is an indication of improper gear and technique.
So, how you fight the fish is equally important as how you handle it. The longer you fight a tarpon, the more likely it is to die. Having the right gear and fighting technique is imperative to not over-fighting the fish.
Proper gear is required
The key to landing a tarpon quickly is having adequate gear.
Using a larger rod and reel with more drage will allow you to put more pressure on the fish. Having adequate line strength will also allow you to pull harder on the fish. It is possible to land tarpon on smaller outfits, but the smaller amount of pressure applied will prolong the fight.
Using proper technique
When fighting a tarpon you should employ maximum pulling pressure at all times. When you feel the fish coming to the surface, be prepared to lower the rod to the water to give slack when the fish jumps.
The mindset you should have when fighting a tarpon is that you will land the fish in 20 minutes. The longer the fight, the more likely the fish’s sandpaper mouth will wear through the line anyway.
How big of a rod do I need for tarpon?
When targeting fish greater than 50lbs in size a 7’ heavy action rod will be sufficient. The rod should have enough back bone to apply adequate pressure, but also have the ability to make casts.
If the rod is too stiff, you will have difficulty casting the bait to the fish. If the rod is too small, you risk fighting the fish for too long and either breaking the fish off or killing it.
When fly fishing, the use of a 9 foot 10 wt or 11 wt rod is sufficient for landing a large tarpon.
What is the best rod for catching tarpon?
By far my favorite rod to use when targeting tarpon is the TFO 7 foot Inshore Spinning Angler Fishing Rod with Fuji Guides in Heavy Power. I personally use this rod when fishing for tarpon and provide them to clients on guided trips.
The TFO inshore series is an inexpensive rod for the quality you receive. The rod has plenty of power yet is very castable. I have landed many large tarpon using this rod and can attest to its durability.
When fly-fishing, the Hardy Zane Pro 11wt is hands down the best fly rod for tarpon. This rod is offered in both a 4 piece and 1 piece configuration. I would highly recommend the 1 piece. This rod is extremely fast, yet has plenty of feel. For a more in-depth review of this rod, check out Best 11 Weight Saltwater Fly Rod.
What size reel do I need to catch tarpon?
The most important factor when selecting a reel is line capacity. Most drag systems on reels today are adequate for landing large fish, but the amount of the line capacity will vary among the manufactures.
Tarpon tend to make very long runs and are very fast. Therefore quite a bit of line is necessary. Larger spools will also allow you to use a thicker diameter line. Using a heavier line will allow you to land the fish quicker as more force can be applied.
When selecting a reel, the amount of line pick up should also be evaluated. The more line retrieved with a single rotation of the handle will help you apply maximum pressure to the fish during the fight.
If you are a fly fisherman, a large arbor fly reel rated for 10-12wt line will be required. The reel should be able to hold 250 yds of 30lb backing.
What is the best reel for catching tarpon?
There are numerous great reels on the market today. From my experience of using a variety of different reels, I would highly recommend and personally use the Daiwa BG8000 BG Saltwater Spinning Reel.
This reel boasts a whopping 33lbs of drag and has amazing line pick up at almost 54” per crank. The reel is very smooth and uses a 6+1 bearing system. The best part about this reel is the cost. Priced at only $180, the quality of the reel is top notch at an affordable price tag. These reels can be used for not only tarpon, but bottom fishing for large offshore species.
When fly-fishing for tarpon, the Hardy Fortuna Z fly reel in size 10/11/12 is my favorite reel to use. This reel is extremely smooth and offers up to 30lb’s of drag stopping power. This is a lot of drag for a fly reel.
The Fortuna Z fly is reel is fully sealed, making it ideal for harsh saltwater environments. The retrieve handle is comfortable to hold and makes fighting large fish comfortable. Hardy is the top of the game when it comes to saltwater reels.
What size leader do I need for tarpon?
Leader is one of the most important factors when targeting tarpon. Choosing a leader size can be difficult for the following two reasons:
- Tarpon have incredible vision. If the leader is too big, they will see the line.
- Although tarpon do not have large teeth, they have abrasive mouths. This allows them to quickly wear through small diameter leaders.
Based on these two factors, selecting a leader size is a fine balance of having enough strength, yet remaining undetected.
When tarpon fishing it is a good idea to have 30-80LB leader material on hand. The use of fluorocarbon is preferred as it is less visible in the water. If the water is clear where you are fishing, you may need to use a 30-40lb leader size. If the water is tannic, you are more likely to be able to use larger diameters such as 60-80LB.
For fly anglers, fishing a class leader with a 40-60lb bite tippet will land you most fish.
If feeding fish are not reacting to your bait, try downsizing your leader material. For more information on tarpon leader formulas, be sure to check out What size leader for saltwater fishing?
What is the best hook for tarpon fishing?
A good hook set will usually determine if you land or lose the fish. The lower jaw of a tarpon is hard bone and therefore does not create a good sticking point when hooking tarpon.
The ideal hook set of a tarpon is in the upper lip. Not only is this the softest part of the mouth, but it will also help avoid the fish chafing through the line.
If the hook gets too deep into the tarpons mouth, the changes of it wearing through the leader material are very high.
The ideal hook for tarpon fishing with bait is a circle hook. Circle hooks have a better tendency to grab the upper lip because of the way a tarpon eats. When tarpon fishing I prefer to use the Mustad Demon Circle in Line Wide Gap Hook in size 7/0. I have found that hook grabs the upper lip more often than any other hook I have used.
If you are tying flies for tarpon, the best hook to use is the Gamakatsu 69411-100 Sl12S 1Xshort in size 1/0 or 2/0. This hook is extremely strong for its small size. The SL12S hook is the most used tarpon fly hook in production today due to its ability to grab into the upper lip of a tarpon.
You never forget catching your first tarpon. The fight of a tarpon is like none other, which is why many anglers become obsessed with chasing these silver giants.
With more and more entering the world of fishing, now is more important than ever to help protect these incredible species. Proper handling of tarpon helps ensure their survival and increases your chances of catching more of them.
Tarpon are a protected gamefish that offer no table fare value. It is always best to avoid removing any size tarpon from the water.
Having the right size gear will better your chances of landing large fish. Using a 7’ Heavy action rod with an 8000 series reel will allow you to put the maximum pressure on the fish and reduce the likelihood of the fishing dying from exhaustion.
Selecting a leader is a very important part of tarpon fishing. There is a balance of strength versus visibility of your line. To increase your bites, consider going down in size of the leader.
The best chance of landing a tarpon is having a hook set in the upper lip of the fish. Hooking the upper lip helps avoid the fish wearing through the leader. The use of a circle hook will increase your chances of a proper hook set.
Tarpon are abundant in tropical regions. From South Florida to the Texas and Carolina borders, tarpon will be present when the water temperatures are above 75 degrees.
If you have never caught a tarpon, I urge you to plan a trip to target these incredible creatures. Tarpon have been around for millions of years and hopefully they will continue to be so.