If you’ve ever seen a clip of someone catching tarpon in Florida, you likely already understand why so many people get excited about this particular game fish. Unlike more common catches like trout, salmon, or steelhead, tarpon is exclusively a sport fish, and fishermen are only interested in testing their skills and strategy rather than selling or consuming the tarpon.
This Atlantic fish species doesn’t remain in Florida year-round, which likely contributes to its appeal as a prize among sports fishermen in the region. Tarpon swim closer to the coast around Florida mainly during the months in late spring through early winter. Outside of those seasons, this migratory species
So, if you want to have success fishing for tarpon in Florida, you’ll need to know when and where to find them. Before we discuss the best settings for tarpon fishing, we’ll discuss the best kinds of baits, lures, and techniques to use to make sure that you hook and land your catch.
Before Planning a Fishing Trip, Know Florida’s Rules About Tarpon Fishing
While the massive, jumping tarpon fish can present an exciting challenge for avid fishermen, they’re not trophies that you’re going to hold on to, at least not if you’re catching them in the state of Florida.
In Florida, all tarpon fishing has to be catch-and-release unless specifically within a sanctioned harvest period or IGFA record competition. Additionally, there are several other regulations that you should know about before you gather supplies for your big tarpon fishing adventure:
- Tarpon fishing can only be down with hook-and-line gear.
- All tarpon fishing requires a tag, which costs $50, and there are different tags for different seasons
- Even during harvests, you can only keep one tarpon per person with a legal tag.
- If you want to photograph, measure, or take a non-lethal sample from a tarpon, you are allowed to temporarily hold onto your catch
- However, tarpon over 40 inches in length have to be recorded and measured in the water.
- You cannot use natural bait with multiple-point hooks to catch a tarpon or any breakaway gear.
- No matter how many people are in your boat, you can only cast a maximum of three fishing lines at one time in Boca Grande Pass between April and June.
The majority of these regulations are focused on protecting the health and numbers of tarpon in Florida waters. In particular, the limitations on the equipment you can use for tarpon fishing aims to avoid “snagging,” which is when someone tries “to catch tarpon that have not been attracted or enticed to strike an angler’s gear.”
Something else to keep in mind when going tarpon fishing is that Florida’s rules still apply even if you take your boat out of Florida’s water and into federal territory. Over the years, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has tightened up the language and stipulations surrounding catching this species.
So, make sure that you know the rules before you head out on the water to go after your next big catch.
Choose Between Live Bait and Artificial Lures Based on Your Gear and Location
For tarpon fishing, your overall goal when choosing your bait or lures to cast on a line is to use a combination of equipment that will catch a tarpon’s eye. Movements that match that of tarpon’s natural prey, aquatic life like smaller fish and shrimp, will work best.
When to Use Artificial Lures for Tarpon Fishing
You can also use artificial lures if you already have a potential catch within sight and want to bring it closer to you. Tarpon fishing with artificial lures tends to work best when done on flats, areas where the coastal bottom is relatively shallow and even. If done in less clear water, artificial lures can tend to make you use a potential catch.
The bulk of your tarpon fishing should be done with live bait, which has the advantage of attracting tarpon’s attention with both movements of their natural prey and a scent trail that they can follow. Then, if you’re fishing in a flat, you can break out your artificial lures and cast them on a light line.
The key thing to remember when using artificial lures to attract tarpon is that you want to draw in your line steadily and slowly. If you make sure to choose the right lures, such as colored plastic worms, trolling lures made for large game, and/or gator spoons, you can make sure to hook and land a tarpon successfully.
Cast artificial lures when the tarpon is already fairly close to your vessel, and make sure to maintain a steady pace when pulling in the line. If you move too quickly, artificial lures can easily lose appeal for your target tarpon, and you’ll have to start the process over again.
Also, make sure to compare any artificial lures that you purchase against the Fish and Wildlife Conservation rules. There are strict prohibitions against using lures that sit below the hook when suspended, as this can potentially damage the mouth of the tarpon you catch.
How to Use Live Bait When Tarpon Fishing
As we mentioned before, most of your tarpon fishing should rely on using live bait, such as small fish, shrimp, declawed crab, pinfish, or mullet. You’ll need to hook each of these types of bait differently, as shrimp are best hooked just behind the “horn” on their heads, which fish bait should be hooked either towards the tail or dorsal fin.
Hooking each of these types of bait properly will keep them alive longer in the water, which will improve their chances of attracting tarpon’s attention. Also, you don’t want to use any weight or floats on your line with live bait, since the weighting is illegal with tarpon fishing, and using floats defeats the purpose of using live bait.
Floats will make the movement of your live bait look unnatural in the water, which will decrease your chances of hooking tarpon. Apart from your live bait, you can also add to the scent trail that will lead tarpon to your vessel by adding chum to the water. However, make sure that anything you add to the water follows any regulations for the area where you’re fishing.
You’ll need to vary the size of the hook that you use, with larger shrimp suited to size 4 hooks while common fish bait will need anywhere from a size 6 hook to a size 10 hook. You may need to cast your line multiple times before you have any tarpon biting, so be patient and make sure to always retrieve in your line steadily so that you avoid losing any tarpon that may be following your bait.
Also, if you don’t want to use both natural bait and artificial lures when you have the chance to hook a tarpon while on flats, you can replace the artificial lures we mentioned previously with dead fish bait instead. Once again, you’ll need to cast the dead bait close to tarpon in relatively clear water and pull in the line slowly so that you don’t lose them.
Be Strategic When Choosing Colors for Tarpon Fly Fishing
If you do decide that you want to fish for tarpon using a fly-fishing rod and artificial flies, you need to be strategic about the flies that you choose. Make sure to vary the color based on where you’ll be tarpon fishing, as there needs to be enough contrast between the coastal bottom and the artificial fly.
You can also improve the chances of tarpon seeing and following your artificial fly by choosing ones with flies that are a similar length to the prey of the tarpon you’re trying to hook. Larger tarpon will most likely go after larger fish, so you’ll want to use flies that contrast with the coastal bottom, mimic their prey in that area, and are up to 9 inches in length for the largest tarpon.
How to Successfully Hook and Land a Tarpon
When tarpon fishing, it’s not uncommon to have a series of unsuccessful catches, even after hooking a tarpon. Because of the shape of their mouths and the need to take care to avoid using damaging hooks, securely hooking and retrieving your catch can take multiple attempts after hooking a tarpon.
The fact that large tarpon can jump as high as 10 feet above the water and leap as far as 20 feet is what makes them so exciting to try to catch. But, the combination of their bony mouths, the conservation regulations, and their jumping ability can make landing a tarpon quite a tricky feat to pull off, even after you successfully hooked several in a single trip.
You may have to sharpen your hooks before each tarpon fishing trip, as this can improve how securely you hook a tarpon and improve your chances of actually landing one. Making sure that your hook is secure as possible in the tarpon’s mouth is the best way to ensure you land your catch.
When angling or fly fishing for tarpon, patience is key because it can become very easy to get over-excited about a large potential catch and prematurely setting the hook in the tarpon’s mouth.
How to Know When to Set the Hook for Tarpon Fishing
If you’re using natural bait when tarpon fishing, it’s important not to try to set the hook as soon as you feel the initial bite. Instead, bring in the slack line slightly and hold your position. You need to pay careful attention to the weight on the line. As soon as you feel the tarpon’s weight, quickly and smoothly draw back your fishing line twice.
As you practice tarpon fishing, you’ll gain a feel for the exact timing of when you should strike the line and set the hook, and often, it’s a good idea to wait a split second between feeling the tarpon’s weight on the line and striking. The exact timing will differ depending on the type of bait or lure you’re using, as well as the size of the tarpon and the size of your hook.
Generally speaking, the smaller the bait or lure you’re using, the more conservative you need to be about waiting to strike the line after you feel the weight. When fly fishing for tarpon, the artificial fly should be as deep within the tarpon’s mouth before you attempt to set the hook.
No matter how perfect your technique is, be prepared for quite a few of your hooked tarpon to get away in the end. Tarpon’s ability to jump makes them hard to keep on the hook, so as soon as you’ve hooked the fish, tip the end of your fishing forward so that there’s enough slack in the line to prevent the hook from being ripped out of the tarpon’s mouth.
Once the tarpon stops jumping and rolling from over-exerting itself, you can start to reel it in, but make sure to carefully retrieve it from the water by hand and not by pulling from the line. The hook can do a lot of damage to the tarpon that way, which you want to avoid since, ultimately, you’ll be releasing it back to the water.
The Best Locations for Tarpon Fishing in Florida Change Seasonally
Because tarpon are migratory, the places where you are more likely to have success catching them depends on the season, even when you are only considering their location within Florida waters. As we go through where you should head for the best tarpon fishing, we’ll review your options grouped by season rather than location.
To find the best fishing during the:
- Winter and spring: head to the Atlantic Coast of Florida, specifically in Biscayne Bay, Government Cut, and Port Everglades, especially during the first half of the year.
- Late spring and early summer (mid-March to mid-July): try your luck tarpon fishing near the Florida Keys, particularly near Islamorada Key, Long Key, Tom’s Harbor, and the Channel and Seven Mile Bridges.
- You can also try the Everglades National Park between March and July for the best tarpon fishing, although you can certainly catch some in that area year-round.
- From May to June, the West Coast of Florida, specifically near Homosassa Bay and the Crystal River, is an excellent area to practice flat fishing for tarpon.
- Late Summer: plan a trip to the Lower Keys, especially between May and late July near Bahia Honda Bridge and Marquesas Keys. As an exception to the general area, Key West Harbor sees abundant tarpon between January and March as well.