Given their impressive size and penchant for fighting vigorously once hooked, tarpons are some of the most popular gamefish in the world. But unlike a lot of other prized gamefish, tarpons aren’t that difficult to catch—even beginners can hook a few big ones. But that doesn’t mean you can just wander down to the beach, toss out a bit of bait and expect to have much success. To help get you started, here are some of the top tarpon fishing tips, rigs, and techniques.
Rod, Reel & Line
Tarpons are big fish that can reach up to 8 feet in length. It’s unlikely that you’ll catch such a giant on your first attempt, but even tarpons half this size put up an incredible fight.
You can use a spinning rod if you like, but many tarpon anglers prefer using baitcasting equipment instead. Just be sure that you select a rod in the 7-foot range with a medium to medium-heavy power rating, so that you’ll have enough backbone to muscle these fish away from line-snaring obstacles in the water.
It’s also important to select a reel that can accommodate a heavy line. Most tarpon anglers use monofilament or braided lines rated for 30 to 50 pounds, but some use line that’s even stronger. Monofilament lines provide a bit of stretch, which can be helpful when wrestling such powerful fish, but braided lines stand up to rocks and bridge pilings better.
The Best Baits for Tarpon
Live fish are the most popular and effective bait for tarpon fishing. As always, you’ll want to “match the hatch,” meaning that your bait should resemble the fish that the local tarpons are currently feeding on.
One of the easiest ways to do that is by catching your own bait with a cast net. This will ensure you are using some of the very same prey the tarpons are currently hunting. If catching your own bait sounds like too much work, just grab some 5- to 8-inch-long baitfish from the local tackle shop. Small crabs are also incredibly effective for catching tarpon, so consider picking up a few silver-dollar-sized crustaceans if you can.
Note that tarpon will usually accept dead baitfish as readily as they’ll take live minnows, so don’t hesitate to use any floaters in your bait bucket.
Rigging Your Bait
Unlike some other gamefish, which require you to tie on an elaborate rig of some type, you don’t need to do anything fancy to entice tarpons. Start by tying a 4/0 to 10/0 circle hook to a 6-foot-long leader. You’ll want to thread a small sinker or slip float on your main line, depending on whether you want to keep the bait high in the water column or near the bottom.
Then, you’ll want to thread your hook through the lips of a baitfish. Some anglers like to thread two baitfish on the hook, but a single baitfish will work nearly as well. Work the rig slowly back to the boat, pier or shoreline, and be ready to set the hook with authority. Tarpons have relatively hard mouths, so you’ll want to jerk back on the rod like you mean it.
Make sure that you don’t allow your drag to slip too easily. Because most people release tarpons they catch (they are edible, but few people consider them tasty), it is important that you don’t exhaust the fish before setting them free. So, while you want your drag to slip easily enough to prevent break-offs, be sure you keep it tight enough that you can reel in the fish in a reasonable amount of time.
Artificial Lures for Tarpons
You can also use artificial lures to catch tarpons if you prefer. Typically, the best lures to try are those that imitate baitfish. This includes things like spoons, large jigs, plugs and soft-bodied swimbaits, but don’t be afraid to try any lure you have confidence in. Topwater lures will even work when the fish are feeding aggressively. Silver and other metallic finishes are often the most productive options, but purple, black and blue-colored lures work better in some cases.
Productive Locations for Catching Tarpon
Tarpons inhabit a variety of different waters, ranging from the waters off of North Carolina through parts of the Caribbean and halfway down the South American coast. That said, they’re most commonly pursued in South Florida, where they’re especially numerous.
You can catch tarpon in a variety of locations, but large inlets and expansive flats (with nearby access to deep water) are two of the most productive habitats to work. You can also catch them near bridge pilings and piers. You can even catch relatively small tarpons in many freshwater rivers near the coast, as these air-gulping fish can live in freshwater as well as salt water.
Note that tarpons typically move around quite a bit to find water at their preferred range—around 79 degrees Fahrenheit. So, be sure to pay attention to the temperature readout on your sonar unit.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fish After Sunset
As long as it is legal to do so in your area, you may want to try fishing for tarpon after dark. Tarpons often feed very aggressively at night, especially during the warmer months of the calendar. It’s often a good idea to keep your bait close to the surface when doing so, as this will make it easier for the tarpons to see your offering. Similarly, full moons help make it easier for the fish to see your bait too.
As you can see, catching tarpons isn’t complicated. Just set yourself up with the right equipment, pick up some good bait and hit the water. With practice, patience and a little luck, you should be hooking tarpons in no time. Good luck, and we hope to see you down on the water.
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