Tarpon Fishing in Florida: an angler’s guide

Tarpon fishing is probably one of the most hands-on fun activities and experiences to try out when you go fishing in Florida. If you are new to fishing or looking for another great fishing adventure, you should know that the Sunshine State of Florida has one of the largest tarpon populations. Besides having numerous tarpons, their sizes are equally enormous.

The Tarpon

The tarpon, also known as the silver king, is a species well known for its acrobatics and leaps. They can jump up to ten feet from the water surface while wangling their gills like a furious silver missile. 

Distributed throughout the tropical and subtropical coastal waters on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, tarpon live in estuaries and near-coastal waters off river mouths and beaches, and in channels, passes and bays. The fish prefers water regions with temperatures ranging between 74 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit. This explains why Florida is a Tarpon destination; its mild weather serves the species perfectly. 

How To Successfully Fish for Tarpon

Now that you understand that FL is home to this magnificent predator, we take a closer look at the best ways to lure and catch the silver king. If you’ve never gone tarpon fishing before, you might want to learn the best tips & tricks from local guides and fishing charters in Florida. They’ll show you the best lures & bait, hot spots and most important: how to hook a tarpon and reel it in with success.

Tarpon fishing in Florida

Tarpon fishing in Florida

Use a Live and Natural Bait

Live bait gives you the best chances of hooking the silver king. Position yourself up-current and let the bait drift towards your target. Tarpon have a very hard mouth, so you’ll need to use sharp hooks. A lot of fish aren’t landed because they’re not hooked well.

Shrimps are considered the best live baits. Hook a large shrimp under the horn of its head. Alternatively, you can decide to thread and freeline it. Do not use floats because they will stop the shrimp from swimming naturally. Chumming using small cut-up pieces of the bait will also help. Recommended hook sizes are 2/0 to 4/0.

You can also use crabs as your natural and live baits as an alternative to shrimps. For the perfect bait, be sure to remove the claws and hook the crabs bottom-up. Cast the bait towards your tarpon and let it sink slowly in front of the fish. 

Fish like mullet, pinfish, and pilchards can also work wonders as live baits. Hook the bait fish by the front of its dorsal fin or its anal fin to make sure that it stays alive for longer durations. If you happen to be anchored, you can hook the bait fish behind the head or on the top lip. With a baitfish, you want to use a 6/0 to 10/0 hook, depending on the size of the fish. The float needs to be 6 to 8 feet above the bait. 

Large cut-up pieces of mullet or chunks of ladyfish are great baits. Just make sure to adjust the floats accordingly to keep the bait away from the seaweeds. With this approach, you want cast the bait in front of a single tarpon, but not too close. If you cast too close or in a pod of tarpon, you might spook them.

Use Artificial Lures 

If you prefer to fish with artificials, you can use more or less the same strategy as live bait fishing. Artificial lures work great on flats. You will also want to use a lighter fishing line and cast the bait close enough to the tarpon so it can see the lure.

Plugs and spinning lures must be retrieved slowly. Let the lure sink and intermittently pull the rod tip while reeling in the slack.

The most effective artificial lures include mirrolure 65M or 77 (in the colors of 21 or 18), 3 ounces of Gator spoons, Rapala Magnum in natural colors for trolling, and green/red/black plastic worms. 

If you are fishing in rivers or canals linked to saltwater, use about ⅛ ounces of round-headed Crappie Jigs and small Rapala Rebels. When using jigs or any other artificial lure, the lure should never be weighted to allow it to hang freely below the hook and the leader or line should be held vertically. 

How to catch Tarpon Fly Fishing

The most challenging technique to fish for tarpon is fly fishing. Catching tarpon fly fishing isn’t easy at all, it requires technique, experience, skill and strength.

When choosing your tackle, you should know that the color of your fly will be determined by the color of the bottom. You want a good contrast between your streamer and the bottom of the seafloor. The flies need to be three to five inches long, with a 2/0 hook for juveniles and 5/0 for bigger tarpons.

Yellow, red, and orange patterns are the most effective when used over sandy bottoms. Blue, light-green, and grey patterns are best over dark grass. If you spot tarpon feeding on mullet, a seven to nine-inch fly with dark stripes is the most appropriate.

When you spot a tarpon, try to cast the streamer in front of it. The, retrieve your fly slowly in 5-10-inch segments, but be fast and twitch more if the tarpon starts following to provoke a hit. 

If you are fly fishing in rivers and canals, use a five to seven wt rod, and a 10 lb tippet with a 20 lb 12” shock. Couple that with a 1 lb 2” streamer in yellow or white. In dirty water, use either a Marabou streamer, Dahlberg diver, Muddler flies, or all-black streamers. 

You should avoid trying fly fishing for tarpons around bridges because you can lose your catch to the obstacles. 

How To Successfully Hook a Tarpon

Anglers often measure the success of a fishing day by the number of tarpons they jumped and not how many fish they released. As previously pointed out, tarpon are tough to catch. The fish’s bony mouth makes it difficult to hook the fish properly. Very often you’ll get jumps and long runs, but making one to the boat isn’t that easy.

First thing you need when you go tarpon fishing is sharp hooks. Before you start fishing, sharpen the hook additionally (even if they’re new).

Another prevalent problem when it comes to hooking a tarpon is the explosion-like strike. The tarpon attack the lure or the bait so agressively that most inexperienced anglers instinctly strike too soon.

When using a natural bait and you get a strike, take in the slackline and wait until you can feel the fish’s weight before striking hard twice. If you want, you can also wait a few more seconds before setting your hook. Waiting ensures that the bait is fully in the tarpon’s mouth.

When using hard artificial lures, it is best to strike immediately after you feel the tarpon’s weight on the end of your fishing line. Most fly anglers tend to strike as soon as they see the tarpon going for the fly, which is too soon. You should only strike after feeling the fish’s weight. 

If the silver king takes the fly, wait a few seconds to let the fly go deep into its mouth before striking. If the tarpon goes for the fly while swimming towards your direction, you must set the hook a couple of times in quick succession.

Remember that tarpon fishing in Florida isn’t easy and quite some fish with shake off the hook in the first seconds of the fight.

How To Successfully Land A Tarpon

After successfully hooking your tarpon, you should expect lots of heavy jumps, gill-rattling, and somersaults. When the fish is about to leap, lower the rod tip and push it towards the tarpon to give your line some slack.

You will know when the fish gets tired when it rolls on its side. At this point use a lip gaff and press it right through the fish’s lower lip. There should be someone holding the fish while you remove the hook. 

You should be extra careful with the tarpon since despite its huge size, it’s equally gentle, and lifting it using the lip gaff can injure them. You should also avoid removing them from the water, but instead, remove the hook without getting the fish into your vessel.

After the impressive fight, like other predators, the fish needs some reviving. Hold the fish in the water, moving it back and forth so it gets sufficient oxigen in the gills.

Since most anglers release their catch, you might want to flatten the barb of your hook or use barbless hooks. Removing the hook from the bony month of the tarpon will be much easier and less traumatic. But you’ll loose more fish too, which is actually part of the game.

The Best Tarpon Fishing Spots in Florida 

Florida is a great tarpon fishing destination, with numerous hotspots to choose from. Below are some of the best places for tarpon fishing in Florida. 

Upper Keys: The Channel bridges, Seven Mile Bridge, Tom’s Harbor, and Long Key are all ideal spots. You can also find tarpon at the Buchanan Bank and Jack Bank near Marathon.

Lower Keys: The best sites are Bahia Honda Bridge and Key West Harbor. The Marquesas Keys are also ideal because they are inhabited, the tarpon population here has much less pressure.

Boca Grande: Boca Grande is arguably the most widely-known tarpon habitat globally. The flats at Crystal River and Homosassa Bay are full of big tarpons during the months of May and June. 

The Everglades National Park: Together with the Ten Thousand Islands, the Everglades National Park is home to a large population of tarpons. The Rabbit key and Sandy Key basins along the Lake Ingraham canals and the river mouths of Harney and Lostman’s rivers are all brimming with tarpons. 

Miami and the Atlantic Coast: Though there are tarpons along the entire Atlantic coast in Florida, the inlets and ports of Biscayne Bay are considered the best for tarpon fishing. Port Evergaldes and Government Cuts are also popular for tarpon fishing between January and June. 

Tampa Bay: This is one of the best inshore tarpon fishing destinations in Florida. You will find plenty of the silver king species around the bay’s mouth near Egmont Channel and around John’s Pass andFort De Soto. More on fishing in Tampa.

Tarpon Fishing Season in Florida

As a rule of thumb, summer and spring are the best times to go tarpon fishing in FL. The peak season often varies depending on the region, but even when you cannot make it during these periods, you will find tarpon all year round.

In the Middle and Upper Keys, the silver kings are always present, but to catch the peak, you should consider visiting from mid-March through to mid-July. During spring, tarpons are mostly on the Florida Bay, but they are known to move to the Atlantic side as the year progresses. 

If you are considering going tarpon fishing in the Lower Keys, the best time to go down there is from May to the end of July. And when you are in the mood for tarpon fishing during winter, Key West Harbor is your spot from January through March. 

While there are tarpons around the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades National Park, the peak season lasts from March through July. The best catch is when targeting the receding tide. 

The West Coast of Florida stretching from the Everglades to the Panhandle is also quite popular for tarpon action between May and June. Apalachicola Bay is also a great spot to visit during summer. The Atlantic Coast, particularly the south of Biscayne Bay boasts incredible Tarpon fishing between January and June. 

FL Tarpon Fishing Regulation: Catch & Release only

Now that you have all the information there is about Tarpon fishing, it is time that we explore how to do it without breaking state laws. Before commencing your adventure with tarpon fishing in the Sunshine state, it is important that you familiarize yourself with FL fishing regulations. 

In Florida, tarpons are considered catch-and-release only. Keeping the fish is only allowed when one is pursuing an IGFA world record. To do so, you must purchase first a tarpon tag. The cost of buying a tarpon tag is about $50 and each individual is limited to a single tag every year. 

In addition to these regulations, tarpon fishing gear is only limited to a hook and fishing line. Now that you are conversant with the rules and regulations, you are ready to head out and have some fun.

Final Kicker 

For every angler, catching a monster tarpon is always at the top of the bucket list – how could it not be! Tarpons are considered inshore heavyweight champions that only the bravest can challenge. Sweat, tears, good gear, patience and skills will be needed to release a silver beast. 

With the step-by-step guide that we have outlined above, you have all the information you need for a successful tarpon fishing experience in Florida. 

Are you ready to test your angling skills? Gear up for your tarpon fishing adventure in the Sunshine State of FL.